To those who only heard him on albums or saw him on stage, Joe C. — who died Thursday night in his sleep — was the animated, foul-mouthed foil in Kid Rock's Twisted Brown Trucker band, a nimble rapper and spirited prankster who, though he just stood 3 feet, 9 inches, was as forceful a personality as pop music had to offer.
To his bandmates, however, there were far more dimensions to Joe C.'s character. "Spiritually, he was on a different plane, the way he touched everyone's life," says guitarist Kenny Olson, who shared hotel rooms with C. when the band was on tour and slept in the bunk above him on the tour bus.
"He was always there to say the right thing, help me make sense to myself when I was acting up on the road. Joe was real, said what was on his mind. He was a very, very smart person, very tuned-in. In my opinion, he was taller than the rest of us."
C. — born Joe Calleja — died at his parents' home in Taylor, Mich., following a lifelong battle with Celiac disease, a painful intestinal disorder that each day required him to take 65 pills and hook up to a dialysis machine. The degenerative disease was also responsible for stunting his growth and made it difficult for him to spend long stretches on the road with the band.
C. was found Friday morning by his mother. He had celebrated his 26th birthday Nov. 9.
In a statement, Kid Rock — reported to be extremely shaken by C.'s death — said, "Family and friends are everything; without them, all of the fame and fortune means nothing. We have lost part of our family. Joey gave us, and the world, his love. He brought a smile to everyone who has ever known or seen him.
"In a world full of confusion, Joey made all of us laugh. No matter what color, religion, race, or beliefs we have, he made us all smile. He gave us the gift of joy. Joey, thank you. We will never forget you. We love you."
C. began to raise eyebrows after he met Rock and joined Twisted Brown Trucker during the early '90s. With his diminutive stature and high-pitched voice, many who initially saw him thought it was Rock's son onstage, rapping about the size of his penis — one of the many things that established C. as "the essence of Rock's whacked-out carnival," according to SPIN.
The rapper's star rose along with Rock's. "I thought it was so unique, and so cool," says Joe Nieporte, an early booster of Rock's who booked shows for him at the now-defunct Ritz in Roseville, Mich., and at the State Theatre in downtown Detroit. "I told [Rock], 'That's going to be your trademark in the future.' It's like Batman and Robin; [C.] was the ultimate sidekick."
C. made his recording debut on Rock's multiplatinum 1998 effort, Devil Without a Cause, and also appeared on this year's The History of Rock album. He dressed up like Jimi Hendrix during the band's performance at the Woodstock '99 festival and portrayed Jerry Lee Lewis' child bride-cousin when Rock appeared on Saturday Night Live earlier this year.
The performer also did a guest spot on The Simpsons and recorded a song for the South Park: Bigger, Longer, & Uncut soundtrack. Rock planned to record a solo album with him and release it on his Top Dog record label.
For those who spent time with him, however, C. leaves memories that are more personal than musical.
"Joe loved kids," guitarist Olson remembers. "That little derby hat he always wore, he signed it for my daughter and gave it to her for her birthday once. I could write a book about my travels with Joe C."
One story Olson relates involves an airport encounter with a traveler who bumped into C. near a gate. The rapper hurled a profane epithet at the man, who Olson said looked at him "like I'm this parent who lets my kid talk this way. I'm like, 'You heard my kid.' It was pretty funny."
Nieporte, meanwhile, says that C. will be remembered as someone who "was always fun to be around. He was just always cracking jokes, having a good time. He always lit up a room when he was in it."
Funeral arrangements for C. were incomplete at press time but expected to be revealed shortly. He is survived by his parents and an older sister.