The sound is unmistakable; the looping piano and horns riff, the vocoder-laden vocal chorus and that welcome to the wild, wild West (“a state that’s untouchable like Elliot Ness”).
An international number one single and 1996 Grammy award nominee, the song is embedded into the consciousness of a generation.
That incredibly catchy piano-and-horns riff had been kicking around hip-hop for some time. Indeed, you can hear it on tracks by Ultramagnetic MCs (‘Funky’, ‘Blast from the past’) and EPMD (‘Knick knack patty whack’).
It has also been used a number of times since California Love; Sarah Connor's pop-soul track ‘He’s Unbelievable’ was underpinned by the riff and Moby sampled the piano on his own hit single ‘Honey’.
But where did the riff itself come from?
Sheffield’s Joe Cocker made it big in 1968 with his excellent cover of The Beatles hit ‘With a little help from my friends’ (which would later become the theme tune to TV show ‘The Wonder Years’).
The success propelled Cocker to US stardom with a huge stateside tour and a slot opening the Sunday of the infamous Woodstock festival in New York.
Born in 1944 at 38 Tasker Road, Crookes, John Robert Cocker (later nicknamed Joe) grew up listening to inspirations such as Lonnie Donegan and Ray Charles.
During the 1960s Cocker, using the name of Vance Arnold, formed a group called The Avengers and toured the pubs and clubs of Sheffield performing mostly cover versions. In 1963 the band supported The Rolling Stones at Sheffield City Hall.
Decca Records spotted potential and signed the singer as a solo act. Despite heavy promotion and having a young Jimmy Page, later of Led Zeppelin fame, on guitar, his cover version of The Beatles’ ‘I’ll cry instead’ didn’t sell as well as expected and his short contract with the record label was allowed to lapse.
Cocker dropped his stage name and resumed performing around the city with Joe Cocker’s Big Blues band and later The Grease Band.
Attracting the attention of Danny Cordell, the producer of Procal Harem and Moody Blues, the vocalist was offered another chance at a solo record. The single ‘Marjorine’ became a minor hit stateside and opened the door to the lucrative US, where the singer headed to tour with the likes of The Who and Gene Pitney.
Becoming depressed in the early 1970s, Cocker returned home to Sheffield and took two years off from his music career.
His friend from The Grease Band, Woodseats-based Chris Stainton, persuaded Cocker back to singing in 1972. The pair, with a new band, headed to Madison Square Garden in New York and performed to 20,000 people.
The new band toured throughout the US, Europe and America. Cocker and Stainton took the opportunity to pen some material for a new Joe Cocker album. It is on this album that the familiar strains of horns and bluesy piano first meet, little knowing that twenty years later that same loop would form the basis of hits for a new generation.
The source of the sample, ’Woman to Woman’, is a blues triumph. The tinkling piano and trumpet sections eventually reach a crescendo to match Cocker’s high pitched vocal and the repeating backing singers that perfectly compliment. During the verses Cocker reverts to form using his unmistakable gruff blues-rock voice.
Throughout the seventies Cocker continued recording and touring, though he faced challenges of drug abuse, alcoholism and debt. Infamously he was given 48 hours to leave Australia following arrests for possession of marajuana and assault.
Always keen to refer to his home-town roots, 1982’s ‘Sheffield Steel’ album was a pleasant reggae-inspired affair featuring a host of big names including Sly and Robbie, Jimmy Cliff and Robert Palmer.
Following up that album, producer Stewart Levine paired Cocker up with Jennifer Warnes to record a duet of ‘Up where we belong’. The song, which was featured as the soundtrack to the movie ‘An Officer and a Gentleman’, was an international hit, selling over 2 million copies in the US and winning a Grammy award for Best Pop Performance by a Duo or Group with vocal in 1983.
It further won the Golden Globe award for Best original Song and the Academy Award for Best Original Song as well as a BAFTA award for Best Original Song.
In the 1980s Cocker toured around the world, performed at President George Bush’s inauguration concert and, being one of the first rock artists to perform in the German Democratic Republic, even has a spot by the Rudolf-Harbig-Stadion named after him (the Cockerweise, or ‘Cocker Meadow’).
More recent times have seen the artist performing a little more sporadically. Cocker was joined by Phil Collins on drums and Brian May on guitar to perform ‘With a little help from my friends’ at the Queen’s golden jubilee ‘Party at the Palace’ in 2002 and toured North America, Europe and Australia to promote his albums ‘Hymn for my soul’ (2007) and ‘Hard knocks’ (2010).
Cocker was awarded an OBE in the Queen’s 2007 birthday honours list for his services to music, for which he celebrated with concerts at the Royal Albert Hall and Sheffield City Hall.
So, the sample used in numerous songs, including Tupac Shakur and Dr. Dre’s ‘California Love’, came from the writings and recordings of Sheffield’s Joe Cocker and Chris Stainton.
Crookes… knows how to party.
Interesting fact: For amusement radio DJ Mac Cocker, father of Pulp’s Jarvis Cocker, allowed listeners to his Australian radio show believe he was the brother of Joe Cocker. The false rumour that Jarvis and Joe are related persists to this day.
A version of this article was originally written for and published at Social Sheffield / We Love Sheffield magazine.