On the one hand you have one of the world's most instantly recognisable and iconic voices, a living legend who's been having his definitive way with a song for over forty years now (Lennon & McCartney's ‘With A Little Help From My Friends,' anyone?) And on the other you have a record producer (and accomplished musician) who has proved both his worth and his Midas touch via albums he's overseen for, among others, Rufus Wainwright, Emmylou Harris, Ryan Adams, Razorlight, Kings of Leon, and Ray LaMontagne. A clash of cultures? Anything but.
Bringing together Joe Cocker and Ethan Johns for the album Hymn For My Soul was clearly a stroke of near genius. It's been an enriching experience for both and the start of what looks like being a life-long friendship (not to mention the establishment of a mutual appreciation society). But it has also resulted in one of the most accomplished pieces of work in the singer's long and illustrious career, and one played by arguably the most stellar band to be assembled in a recording studio anywhere in the world in recent times. So which of the two men can out-superlative the other?
Probably Johns. Here is someone genuinely overwhelmed at having had the opportunity to bring to a fruition an album by someone his own father, the acclaimed producer Glyn Johns (The Eagles, The Rolling Stones, The Who and many more), who worked as engineer back in 1970 on Cocker's landmark Mad Dogs And Englishmen album. Cocker notes "Apparently, when he was on the phone to his dad and said ‘I'm going to be doing a project with Joe', the line went suddenly very quiet."
That's because it was always an ambition of Johns Senior to produce for Cocker, but for various reasons the opportunity never arose. So when Johns Junior had that chance for himself, it was something to be leapt at "Of course I'm going to say ‘Yes, I want to work with him.' It was a total no-brainer. Though I'd never actually met Joe when I was a child when dad was bringing home all these other famous musicians, I'd heard nothing but great things about him. I knew that as well as being a legendary singer, he was also a very good soul."
Cocker and Johns arranged an introductory meeting over coffee at a location traditionally favoured by far more hard-nosed Hollywood movers and shakers, the Polo Lounge of the Beverly Hills Hotel in Los Angeles. "As soon as Joe sat down and looked me in the eye, I knew here was someone I could communicate with on a very direct level," says Johns. "And I love that about him. There are no games, no bullshit."
For Cocker, the attraction was just as instantaneous. "One of the record company guys in London had said how much he'd like to hook me up with Ethan and subsequently I'd been sent the work he's done with Ryan Adams and Ray LaMontagne. In both cases what particularly impressed me was the clarity of sound he'd got with those guys. So in due course we met up, and straight away I got this really good feeling off him. He's a really positive-spirited guy who seemed genuinely excited about the prospect of our working together."And Cocker continues, "As is always the case when it's known I'm getting ready to make a record, we get inundated with ballads. But I didn't want just to repeat myself and frankly, was at a bit of a loss as to how to proceed. Then suddenly here's this younger guy saying, ‘What I'd like to do is take the old-fashioned approach of making a really cohesive album, not just a series of unrelated tracks. Let's have your voice right at the forefront. Oh, and let's do it live.' Great!"
The bond was further established when Cocker revealed that other producers with whom he'd talked about collaborating had found some of his song choices a little too dark. "Dylan's Ring Them Bells was the prime example," he reveals. "But Ethan countered, ‘If you listen to its lyrics properly, they're actually very optimistic.' Which they are, despite the way most people tend to interpret the song. That was typical of Ethan. He's got a really good way of looking at the world and this great spirit, one he maintained throughout the whole process. It turned out I was right to feel so positive about us working together."
It was decided that recording should take place at L.A.'s Sunset Sound Studios, where Cocker first worked back in 1969, on what was only his second LP (he has now reached the thirtysomething mark). "Then Ethan said, ‘Now, I'm a bit fussy about who I work with in terms of musicians, so if you don't mind ...,' and proceeded to reel off some of the names he was thinking of approaching. I was like, ‘Can we really get these people?' And the answer was yes, which is how the album comes to feature so many great players."
Among them are legendary drummers Jim Keltner (uniformly viewed as the best session drummer in the world, a man who played with John Lennon and Bob Dylan, and was a member of the Travelling Wilburys), and James Gadson (as well as producing classic albums for the soul star Bill Withers, he drummed on hit recordings by artists ranging from Gladys Knight to Justin Timberlake). Also present are Tom Petty's pianist Benmont Tench, former Jethro Tull keyboard player Dave Palmer, and bassist Bob Babbitt (famed for his work as a member of Motown Records' studio band The Funk Brothers in the ‘60s and ‘70s, and hence a player on more seminal recordings than can be listed here). And completing the all-star line-up was Hammond organist Mike Finnigan (who played with Jimi Hendrix on Electric Ladyland). Who in recent times has had a better band behind them?
But Cocker more than returned the compliment when it came to assembling the backing vocalists. "Not long ago, I was invited to sing at the great Billy Preston's funeral and of course the song I was asked to sing was You Are So Beautiful (written by Preston and a worldwide hit for Cocker in 1975). My pianist and I were the only white guys in the place, but there too were all these great girls like Merry Clayton (once one of Ray Charles's Raelettes, she sang on the Stones' Gimme Shelter), Julia Walters, and Tata Vega." Later, when asked if they would reassemble to sing on Hymn 4 My Soul, all three vocalists said ‘For sure!' and in doing so, (and also by recruiting veteran singer Jim Gilstrap plus Julia Walters's brother Oren Walters) contributed greatly to its soulful sound.
The personnel list thus finalised, so began what Johns admits was the most intense part of the whole pre-recording process - reaching agreement on a final set list. "What was phenomenal for me was the fact that Joe took time to make decisions about what should or shouldn't be included. Other artists take fixed positions almost immediately. But he, even when he wasn't initially warm to something, never dismissed it out of hand. He gave due consideration to every suggestion made."
The result was, from Johns' point of view, was "an incredibly rewarding and reciprocal working experience. Though I don't want to sound like I'm blowing my own trumpet, I can say hands down, this is one of the best records I've ever been involved with. The bottom line is that I was just glad and grateful to be in the same room as Joe, sandwiched between Bob Babbitt and James Gadson, playing my guitar and hearing him sing. But beyond that the finished result couldn't be more precious to me. I think it's a triumph for Joe."
"Despite having worked with so many great producers over the years, Joe was really ready to raise his game. His engagement with the project was total, going beyond 100 per cent. His energy, drive, and stamina are staggering. There were no guide vocals. He can and did sing at full throttle for twelve hours straight, six days a week. And the band responded brilliantly to Joe's lead. Because he was so very present, they were too, allowing themselves to be inspired and guided by his vocals. It's been such an exciting record to be a part of."
The final track listing is an eclectic one. Joe prefaces: "While not actually Unplugged, this is as near to a live album as damn it. There are no synthesisers, no gadgetry. We didn't use Pro Tools, and nailed every song in just a few takes." In terms of its provenance, the uniformly blues / gospel-ish material spans the decades. In addition to that classic Dylan track there are vintage songs by Stevie Wonder (You Haven't Done Nothin'), George Harrison (Beware Of Darkness), and Credence Clearwater Revival's John Fogerty (Long As I Can See The Light). The last track on the album is Cocker's version of The Beatle's ‘Come Together,' which was featured in the Oscar nominated movie, Across The Universe.
There are tracks associated with veteran soul legends too, notably Art Neville and The Meters (Love Is For Me), Solomon Burke (Don't Give Up On Me), and Percy Mayfield (Rivers Invitation). But there are also two selections from the recent past, namely those by New Orleans group The Subdudes (One Word (Peace)), and Andy Fairweather-Low (the title track, Hymn 4 My Soul). Sung, played, and produced to near-perfection, they represent the best work that Cocker has done in years.
"I'm very grateful to Ethan for taking me to a new space. This is the most musical record I've made in a very long time," says Cocker. And Johns grins: "I can hardly begin to tell you how good I think Hymn For My Soul is. Let's just say it's the most emotional and even spiritual project I've worked on in a long while. The best music is more than just entertainment. It connects with people on an altogether deeper level. This is just such music. I think it's gorgeous. Really gorgeous." Clearly, the only sensible option now is to listen to it for yourself...