Joe Cocker, a British-born rock and soul singer who delivered one of the most electrifying performances at the 1969 Woodstock festival with his raspy version of the Beatles’ “With a Little Help From My Friends,” and who later had a pop hit with “You Are So Beautiful,” died Dec. 22 at his home in Crawford, Colo. He was 70.
His death was announced by his manager, Barrie Marshall. The cause was lung cancer.
Mr. Cocker grew up in the industrial north of England but was always drawn to the blues and soul music of the American South. He became a disciple of Ray Charles and developed a singing style that expressed a raw, barely contained sense of emotional urgency.
His impassioned interpretation of the Beatles’ “With a Little Help From My Friends” was one of the highlights at Woodstock, the music festival held in rural New York. He transformed a gentle, shuffle-rhythm tune by John Lennon and Paul McCartney into a multilayered, seven-minute rock anthem, enlivened by his rough-edged vocals and his flailing, contorted movements.
Mr. Cocker — an air guitarist before anyone thought of the term — explained that his movements were simply physical responses to the music around him. Other performers parodied his style, and in 1976 Mr. Cocker appeared on “Saturday Night Live” alongside John Belushi, who mimicked his jerky gestures and facial grimaces before falling on the floor.
Mr. Cocker seldom wrote songs, preferring to reshape other people’s tunes in his own style. Few singers could match his visceral intensity or the depth of his commitment to a song. Charles, his musical idol, once said the three best soul singers in the world were Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye and Mr. Cocker.
“He has transformed material like the Beatles cutesy-poo ‘With a Little Help From My Friends,’ and the schmaltzy ‘You Are So Beautiful’ into ragged, soulful numbers of his own creation,” critic Steven X. Rea wrote in High Fidelity magazine in 1982. “Few singers are as readily identifiable; fewer interpreters are as adept at making outside material sound like their own creation.”
During the 1970s, Mr. Cocker released several well-received albums and embarked on worldwide tours, but he was also known for his erratic behavior and heavy indulgence in drugs and alcohol. He gave embarrassing performances, said insulting things from the stage and sometimes forgot the lyrics to songs.
In 1972, he and several members of his entourage were arrested in Australia for possession of marijuana. The next day, after he was charged with assault after a brawl at a hotel, he was given 48 hours to leave the country.
“If I’d been stronger mentally, I could have turned away from temptation,” he told Britain’s Daily Mail newspaper in 2013. “Drugs were readily available, and I dived in head first. And once you get into that downward spiral, it’s hard to pull out of it.”
He revived his career with “You Are So Beautiful,” a plaintive ballad originally performed by one of its co-writers, Billy Preston. In 1982, Mr. Cocker scored his only Billboard No. 1 hit in the United States with “Up Where We Belong,” which he sang with Jennifer Warnes. They won a Grammy Award for best vocal duo and an Academy Award for best song after it was featured in the film “An Officer and a Gentleman.”
Mr. Cocker’s mid-career rebirth continued with his 1987 album “Unchain My Heart,” which included a powerhouse performance of the title song, first performed by Charles in 1961.
“I’ve never really thought that I’m that great a singer,” Mr. Cocker told the Denver Post in 2004. “I have such a limited range, but I kind of know how to wring some emotion out of some songs. Once in a while, I just get the ingredients right.”
John Robert Cocker was born May 20, 1944, in Sheffield, England. He began singing at 12 and formed a band as a teenager. He performed under the name Vance Arnold before making his first recording in 1964. (He was vague about how his first name changed from John to Joe.)
In 1966, he and keyboardist Chris Stainton formed the Grease Band and two years later recorded “With a Little Help From My Friends,” which featured Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin, on guitar. The song was a major hit in Britain and later became the theme of the ABC television series “The Wonder Years.”
In the early 1970s, Mr. Cocker toured with a changing lineup called Mad Dogs and Englishmen and worked with the American musician Leon Russell. After his career almost collapsed, Mr. Cocker climbed out of the ashes to perform at the 1989 inauguration of President George H.W. Bush, at the 70th birthday celebration for Nelson Mandela and for Queen Elizabeth’s golden jubilee in 2002.
Mr. Cocker released more than two dozen albums and continued his worldwide tours through 2013. Even as he grew gray and paunchy, his voice retained much of its youthful grittiness and strength.
He settled in a remote part of western Colorado in the early 1990s. He built a 17,000-square-foot mansion, raised cattle, launched philanthropic efforts and opened a restaurant in Crawford, a town of fewer than 400 people.
Survivors include his wife of 27 years, Pam Baker, of Crawford; a stepdaughter; a brother; and two grandchildren.
Mr. Cocker attempted to write music early in his career but gave up when he realized he couldn’t improve on the songs he admired by other writers and the early soul artists who continued to inspire him.
“There is something about that music,” he said in 2011. “At heart, connecting emotions to the audience is what I’m all about.”