While it’s only a footnote in a storied career that included one of Woodstock’s most memorable performances, many Twin Cities rock fans will remember Joe Cocker as the guy who opened Minnesota’s most legendary nightclub, First Avenue.
The raspy-voiced, soul-inspired British singer -- whose death at age 70 was confirmed today -- came to Minneapolis to play two sets in one night on April 3, 1970, the night First Avenue opened as the Depot (so named because the building was previously Minneapolis’ Greyhound bus station).
Cocker was something of a coup for the new venue at the time. The Minneapolis date came just a week after the “Woodstock” movie hit theaters featuring Cocker’s career-making, body-coiling version of the Beatles’ “A Little Help from My Friends” -- later spoofed by John Belushi and used as the theme song to “The Wonder Years.” He followed up Woodstock in 1970 with his Mad Dogs & Englishmen tour, a fabled/notorious outing that included around 30 musicians and, yes, actual dogs on stage.
“Everyone was buzzing; the air was filled," Minneapolis music scenester Marilyn Percansky remembered in a 2005 Star Tribune article about that opening gig. "It was like a circus. Kids and animals on stage."
“The place was so full that you literally couldn't see the floor," recalled photographer Mike Barich, who covered the Twin Cities rock scene in the `60s and `70s. "It was certainly the most exciting thing they ever had there. That night it seemed intimate, even though the place was packed."
A 1970 write-up in the Minneapolis Tribune, recently uncovered by City Pages, described the night this way: “Not since the truck drivers' strike of 1934 is it likely that there has been such excitement, such chaos, such congestion, such noise just off Hennepin Av. as there was Friday night.” It listed tickets as $4 for general-admission and $10 for a table and went on to refer to Cocker ‘singing like a black man’ and dancing ‘like a spastic.’”
Cocker return to the club one more time when it was called First Avenue in 1994, the same year he played the 25th anniversary Woodstock festival. However, he could not remember the 1970 gig nor the venue when Jon Bream interviewed him in 2009 before what would be his last Twin Cities area performance, at Mystic Lake Casino. He said, “"The Depot? I'll have to run it by Chris Stainton [his longtime keyboardist]. It doesn't ring a bell at all to me.”
First Avenue certainly remembers him, though. The club’s general manager Nate Kranz said Monday, “It’s been almost 45 years, and I still hear often from people who were there that night and remember it well. He holds a special place at this club, that’s for sure – almost right up there with Prince.”
Unlike all of Prince's lock-and-keyed video footage, we can actually see Cocker’s legendary performance at the club thanks to YouTube. This clip below of him singing the Box Tops’ “The Letter” – which would later be a hit for Cocker – features footage from the Depot that was filmed as part of a documentary on the tour. As the cameras span the crowd at the very end, you can see the same two-tier layout that the club still has today. Throughout, you can also prominently see Cocker’s MVP sidemen at the time, including Leon Russell on piano and Bobby Keys on sax, the latter of whom just died earlier this month.