Joe Cocker: Sheffield Steel

May 22, 1982 – Joe Cocker: Sheffield Steel is released.
# Allmusic 3.5/5 stars
# Rolling Stone (see original review below)
Sheffield Steel is the eighth studio album by Joe Cocker, released on this date in May 1982. It was recorded with the Compass Point All Stars (Sly & Robbie, Wally Badarou and Barry Reynolds), the backing band responsible for Robert Palmer’s late ’70s/early ’80s albums (Palmer is featured on the album as well).
This is a deliberately low-key album by Joe Cocker’s standards, but in its slow, simmering way it’s nonetheless one of his best. Thanks to a small band anchored by Jamaica’s greatest rhythm section–Sly Dunbar on drums and Robbie Shakespeare on bass–the basic sound here is spooky and minimalist, with skittering synth and guitar parts that are unerringly simple, but not simplistic.
Cocker himself is in excellent voice. The choice of songs splits the difference between the familiar–Jimmy Cliff’s magnificent, often covered “Many Rivers to Cross,” and “Seven Days,” one of Bob Dylan’s best rockers–and the unjustly obscure, such as Bill Withers’ way sexy “Ruby Lee,” and Jimmy Webb’s lovely “Just Like Always.”
Under the resourceful tutelage of label kingpin Chris Blackwell, Joe Cocker has found a new Island home. Without question, Sheffield Steel (recorded in Jamaica) is the gravel-throated singer’s most consistently pleasing program of tunes in many years. He’s supported by Blackwell’s superlative house band, the Compass Point All-Stars (which includes the can’t-miss rhythm section of Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare); throughout, they find a solid groove and ride it with tasteful understatement.
Cocker, clearly at ease in these balmier surroundings, lets his voice roll along as naturally as a sailboat in a Jamaican breeze. This is not the jolting, brassy R&B of yesteryear; rather, this is rocking-chair rockin’ — Cocker and band let these songs get there when they get there, if you know what I mean. Sheffield Steel has plenty of fine moments: Cocker does Bob Dylan proud on the salty funk of “Seven Days” and covers a new Steve Winwood-Will Jennings composition, “Talking Back to the Night,” whose muted urgency is the closest this set comes to out-and-out rock. In Cocker’s hands, the reggae classic “Many Rivers to Cross” becomes movingly autobiographical. Not unexpectedly, Randy Newman (“Marie”) and Jimmy Webb (“Just like Always”) contribute the side-closers, two of the kind of romantic big ballads that Cocker takes to so well.
It’s great to hear the most eloquently ravaged voice in rock & roll have his sly, swaggering say again. Sheffield Steel is filled with teasing, skittering melodies, chugging Jamaican soul-funk rhythms and confident singing, proving that you can cook over a low fire and still have your groove turn out well done.
~ By Parke Puterbaugh (September 2, 1982)
“Look What You’ve Done” (Leo Nocentelli)
“Shocked” (Ira Ingber, Greg Sutton)
“Sweet Little Woman” (Andy Fraser)
“Seven Days” (Bob Dylan)
“Marie” (Randy Newman)
“Ruby Lee” (Bill Withers, Melvin Dunlap)
“Many Rivers to Cross” (Jimmy Cliff)
“So Good, So Right” (Brenda Russell)
“Talking Back to the Night” (Steve Winwood, Will Jennings)
“Just Like Always” (Jimmy Webb)
Bonus Tracks
“Sweet Little Woman” (Andy Fraser) [12″ mix]
“Look What You’ve Done” (Leo Nocentelli) [12″ mix]
“Right in the Middle (Of Falling in Love)” (Sam Dees)
“Inner City Blues” (Marvin Gaye, James Nyx, Jr.)

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