Over the years, there have been some dynamite covers of Beatles songs, and they started coming soon after the Fab Four released their versions. That certainly applied to “Something.” When Ray Charles and James Brown recorded the great love song, George Harrison was thrilled.
The same went for Stevie Wonder’s 1970 rendition of “We Can Work It Out.” Wonder’s cover stands above most versions of the Lennon-McCartney original. (Some would even argue it surpasses the Beatles’ own.) But Wonder wasn’t the only one leaving a unique mark on Fab Four tracks.
When Joe Cocker released “With a Little Help From My Friends” in 1968, it sounded miles from the Sgt. Pepper version Ringo Starr sang the previous year. To Paul McCartney, it was more than just a great cover. Paul called Cocker’s rendition “mind-blowing.”
Paul thought Cocker truly elevated ‘With a Little Help From My Friends’
When Paul and John Lennon collaborated on songs for Ringo, they did so with the drummer’s specific vocal range in mind. And of course the three superior vocalists in The Beatles had no plans to sing on these tracks. Nor were they typically ticketed for release as singles. (“Yellow Submarine is an exception.)
That left an opening for artists looking to tackle a song by the Fab Four. If you nailed your rendition, music fans were likely to take notice. Cocker did that and then some with his take on “With a Little Help From My Friends.”
With a soaring lead guitar line by Jimmy Page behind him, Cocker seemed to pour everything he had into the vocal. UK listeners certainly took notice. In October ’68, Cocker’s cover hit No. 1 on the British charts. To Paul McCartney, it represented a transformation of his original composition.
“I remember [Cocker] and Denny Cordell coming round to the studio in Saville Row and playing me what they’d recorded,” Paul said (via Billboard). “It was just mind-blowing … [he] totally turned the song into a soul anthem, and I was forever grateful for him for doing that.”
‘With a Little Help’ became a signature song of Cocker’s career
The story didn’t end with Cocker’s take on the Sgt. Pepper song topping the UK charts in ’68. At the Woodstock festival the following summer, he performed a stirring live version for the horde of music fans in attendance.
On the Billboard charts, Cocker’s version of “With a Little Help From My Friends” didn’t have the same impact. At its peak in December ’68, it only manage to reach No. 68. However, it became just as iconic to U.S. audiences as the theme song to The Wonder Years (the hit show that aired 1988-93).
In 2002, when an all-star roster of musicians celebrated Queen Elizabeth’s golden jubilee with the “Party at the Palace,” Paul got to see Cocker (along with Steve Winwood and Brian May) blow his mind in person with a rendition of “With a Little Help From My Friends.”
Later in the show, Cocker joined Paul (as well as Rod Stewart, Eric Clapton, and others) for spirited takes of “All You Need Is Love” and “Hey Jude.” When Cocker passed away in 2014, Paul felt it. “He was a lovely northern lad who I loved a lot and, like many people, I loved his singing,” Paul said.