The Missing Music: Janis Joplin   Leave a comment

September 19, 2011

Part 2:  Janis Joplin • A Piece Of My Heart

This is the second of ten posts about ten important women in the recording industry, each of whom died long before their time. If you haven’t already read through the introduction to this series, please follow this link to the “introduction“, and then go on to any of the individual posts.

Janis Joplin (1943-1970)

In pop-music culture and beyond, Janis Joplin’s name is not some obscure footnote, or some miscellaneous media darling; she was not a young woman who died before anyone could appreciate her talent. To the contrary, she was a lioness among talented singers emerging from a changed music industry in the 1960s. To be sure, Janis Joplin was gone long before her time, yet many who knew her could not suggest that they were surprised at her untimely end. Whether she was self destructive or simply careless, is unimportant. Joplin epitomized the idea of a supernova, that star in the heavens that suddenly increases greatly in brightness and then disappears. The first 23 years of Joplin’s life was prologue. The last few years of her life, from 1967 to 1970, were her moments of brightness. And like a supernova, before anyone could reach for their sunglasses, she was gone.

There was this San Francisco Bay-area group known as Big Brother and The Holding Company.  As idiotic as it may sound, before I ever heard a note of music I liked the name of the band.  And then, of course, there was Janis Joplin, who joined Big Brother as a singer, and not necessarily to become the face of the band, but that is exactly what she became. Their and her coming out party was the 1967 Monterrey Pop festival. The band had a deal with jazz-oriented Mainstream Records, Bobby Shad’s label that had been around for just a few years. Although already signed, Big Brother’s first album had not yet been released. Columbia Records’ Clive Davis was at Monterrey and took an immediate liking to Joplin.

Davis’s 1975 memoir was titled Clive, inside the record business. Anyone who knows or has met Clive can confirm—and if they won’t I will—that it’s no accident that the title of his book has his name capitalized and everything else in lower case. Clive has always seen himself as larger than everyone else in the annals of the America music industry. That is not to take anything away from his amazing success or the artists he’s touched during the last 40-plus years. In addition to his own reputation, Clive Davis championed some of the most important artists during the second half of the twentieth century, and one of those artists was Joplin. Davis wrote about seeing her for the first time when he visited the Monterrey Pop Festival in 1967:

It was a warm afternoon. The groups were doing 30-minute sets and, about midway through, an unknown group from San Francisco called Big Brother and The Holding Company came on stage. Janis was not billed separately, but from the moment she took the microphone and unleashed the throaty, sensual wail that made her famous, she was in command.  She was electrifying.” [Clive Davis. Clive. inside the record business. New York. William Morrow & Co. 1975, 77.]

Davis goes on to talk in detail about how he personally took charge of editing one track from the first Columbia Records release, the Cheap Thrills album, to hedge his bet for a hit. According to Davis, Columbia’s original recording of “Piece of My Heart”, the Jerry Ragovoy/Bert Berns composition, was edited to achieve Davis’ commercial aspirations for Joplin. Those of us in radio on the receiving end of Cheap Thrills loved it from start to finish. Whatever Joplin and the band did in performance, and whatever Davis did to help it’s market potential are, in the end, seen in the success of the album. And Joplin continued to strut her stuff through the next couple of years, apparently forever insecure, and yet an amazing presence within the grooves of the records she released. Who else could have shifted gears, musically, and taken her little poem-song “Mercedes Benz”, and Kris Kristofferson’s “Me and Bobby McGee” and made them anthems?

But almost everything Joplin recorded was worth hearing. Notice I did not say everything was great, or all her tracks were hits, or I loved everything. Regardless of the individual (singles) or collective (album) success of Joplin’s body of work, the fact is that everything she recorded was worth a listen. She was that dynamic. And that’s not true of the majority of performers, then or now. But there are plenty of jewels on her “A” list: “Bye Bye Baby”, “Down on Me”, “Ball and Chain”, “Turtle Blues”, “Piece of My Heart”, “Try (Just A Little Bit Harder)”, “Kozmic Blues”, “Move Over”, “Cry Baby”, “Mercedes Benz”, and “Me and Bobby McGee”. Joplin’s death in 1970 was monumental. When one listens to all that she recorded during those short 2-3 years, we can at least feel fortunate that she got as much done as she did. As the title of her sister’s book reminds me, all most of us could do then, and the only thing left for all of us today is to Love Janis. She did, after all, capture a piece of our hearts. I know she got mine.

Next: Tammy Terrell

Previous: Patsy Cline

David Steffen

© David Steffen 2011

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