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Joe Cocker 'Sheffield Steel': Inside reggae-infused LP that recharged singer's career

For his eighth studio album, Cocker decamped to the Bahamas to record with Sly Dunbar, Robbie Shakespeare and the Compass Point All-Stars. The results revamped his career.

When you spend a little time with Joe Cocker’s biography it’s hard to believe there was any down time. While he left us early at the age of 70, he was incredibly prolific. After a quick start in music he took a year-long hiatus that didn’t seem to have a scheduled end. Not at least until he reconnected with keyboardist Chris Stainton who encouraged him to get back in the game. That began a legendary run that would include Woodstock, Mad Dogs & Englishmen and more. His next breather would be after his 1978 album Luxury You Can Afford on Asylum. It sold poorly and over the next four years he participated in a Woodstock reunion, laid down some tracks for a Crusaders record and not much more. 1982 would be the year that changed all of that and set his career back on track.

After his one-album stint at Asylum, Joe Cocker was without a record label. This lasted until 1981, when he signed to Island Records. Island head Chris Blackwell took him to the Compass Point studios in the Bahamas, where he recorded a single, then continued working on a full-length album. That album, Sheffield Steel, would become a big departure from the brass driven music he had been known for. 

Backed by the Compass Point All-Stars (Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare), Cocker delivered a reggae infused record that was laid back and felt more like a Robert Palmer spin that anything he had done to date. The record has a real tropical vibe. World class material from writers like Bob Dylan, Randy Newman and Jimmy Webb stand out. Even reggae great Jimmy Cliff’s “Many Rivers To Cross” makes an appearance. 

But the real show stoppers come from lesser known names. Soul singer (and former half of popular session singing duo Brian & Brenda) Brenda Russel offered up the song “So Good, So Right”, maybe the slickest song on the record. She herself had deep connections to Island Records going back to her support of Robert Palmer’s album Double Fun. Cocker takes what was already a very strong original and expands the sound giving the song much more dimension. The same can be said of Ira Ingber’s “Shocked” that delivers drama in the most measured and powerful way. 

Most songs here really benefit from the contributions made by percussionist Sticky Thompson. Songs are very loose, held together mostly by Sticky’s taps and Robbie’s bass line. The record is relaxed and very well balanced. It almost comes across as a photo album from the perfect beach vacation. When you consider where it resides in his discography — that depiction is fairly accurate.

When the album was completed Cocker would return to the states and be talked by producer Stewart Levine into joining Jennifer Warnes on “Up Where We Belong.” The song went on to win a bunch of awards, put him back on the map, and help hustle his contract from Island to Capitol where he would stay for seven years and cut five more albums, some of his biggest commercial successes. In the end, all Joe needed was that four-year breather and an invite to the beach to get back his mojo.