"Singing, it's like loving somebody. It's a supreme emotional and physical experience," Janis Joplin once said. It can be like that for the listener, too—as many fans discovered with the release of "Cheap Thrills," her breakthrough album with Big Brother and the Holding Company, which topped the Billboard 200 a half-century ago this week. Here, to mark that golden anniversary, are 20 of Pearl's most stirring songs.
"Piece of My Heart"
This is the highest-charting single released during her lifetime, reaching No. 10 on the R&B chart. Originally recorded by Aretha Franklin's older sister Erma, the song has been covered by the likes of Dusty Springfield, Bryan Ferry, Melissa Etheridge and Faith Hill. But only Janis Joplin's version is listed on Rolling Stone's 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.
"Little Girl Blue"
"Fragile" isn't a word often used to describe Janis, but this rendition of a 1935 Rodgers and Hart show tune is a stunning and tragic example of the vulnerable chanteuse she might have later become.
"Call On Me"
Janis was just 23 when she stood in front of a studio mic for the very first time and recorded this lovely doo-wop-style shuffle with Big Brother and the Holding Company. Yet she could have been 100, so fully formed was her mature and emotionally wrenching connection to the song. Even with her vocals down in the mix, Joplin is unmistakable.
"Down On Me"
"Where did she come from?" asked famed music producer Lou Adler after hearing Janis sing this one at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival. He wasn't the only one asking, as the virtually unknown Joplin matched and sometimes topped performances by the likes of Jimi Hendrix, the Grateful Dead and Otis Redding.
"Ball and Chain"
She first heard this scorcher sung by its author, blues legend Big Mama Thornton, at a bar in San Francisco. Check out Joplin's performance in the 1968 documentary "Monterey Pop." At the end, a stunned Cass Elliot of the Mamas and the Papas can be seen in the crowd mouthing one word: "Wow!"
This is a staid traditional tune sung by every '60s folk singer in every folk club there ever was. But Janis' version is "Coo Coo" after downing a pint of Southern Comfort. With a bad little Ennio Morricone-style guitar riff by Big Brother, it's clear that you don't ever want to try and clip the wings of this high-flying bird.
"I guess I'm just like a turtle / That's hiding underneath its hardened shell"
Most of Joplin's songs were written by others, but "Turtle Blues"—with its blues-momma vocals backed by a piano stomp—was penned by the singer herself. The song, said Joplin, "was about me trying to act tough, and nobody noticed that I wasn't."
"Raise Your Hand"
Janis performed this song at both Woodstock and as a duet with Tom Jones on his TV show "This Is Tom Jones" (during which she reduces him to Tom Thumb status). A gospel/rock roof raiser with horns provided by the Kozmic Blues Band, "Raise Your Hand" is a come-to-Jesus moment for even the most unconvinced listener.
An early-'60s soul hit by Garnett Mimms and the Enchanters, this song was later covered by Aretha Franklin and Otis Redding. Yet Joplin's blues/rock version stands out with a spoken advice-to-the-male-animal middle that culminates in exhilarating throat-shredding powerhouse shouts ("Come on! Come on! Come on! Come on! Cryyyyyy Baby!!!") with a very tight Full Tilt Boogie Band behind her.
"Bye, Bye Baby"
On the very first cut on her very first first album, Joplin draws on her Texas country/folk roots, proving early on that she could have given Tammy or Loretta or Dolly a run for their rhinestones had she the inclination.
"To Love Somebody"
"To Love Somebody" was originally written for Otis Redding by Barry and Robin Gibb, but the R&B legend was killed in a plane crash before he could record it. The pre-disco Bee Gees' own 1967 recording of the tune works as a ballad, but it took Joplin to give it soul.
Pearl a cappella. Just listen (and never mind that she preferred a Porsche).
"Combination of the Two"
It's not a great song, and Joplin shares vocals with Big Brother guitarist Sam Andrew, but when Janis breaks free and sings "That's right/we're gonna sock ya, knock ya/We're gonna sock it to ya now/Oh, alriiight!" you get the distinct feeling that she really means it.
Brimming with emotional power, Janis' rendition of the George Gershwin's 1934 Porgy and Bess classic communicates exquisite heartache and desperation. As biographer Alice Echols noted, "Summertime" is "filled with all the sadness, rage and incomprehension Joplin felt about life."
Joplin suffered from backing bands that couldn't quite keep up with her, and the Kozmic Blues Band, with its aspirations to the Stax-style Memphis Horns groove, was no exception. As Joplin's father once said, "The brass in her second group didn't suit her. Her voice was an orchestra in itself." But on "Maybe," everything clicks, with the soaring Joplin proving she could have rated as one of the greatest blue-eyed soul singers, too.
Joplin opens her last album, "Pearl," with what she called "a song about rock and roll." And, in fact, "Move Over" is the purest rock song Joplin ever recorded. There are no lumbering, extended guitar jams or horn invasions, just tightness from beginning to end. As early bluesman Tampa Red sang: "Listen here, folk, wanna sing a little song/Don't get mad, we don't mean no harm/It's tight like that." And so is Janis on "Move Over."
"A Woman Left Lonely"
Written by the great Muscle Shoals songwriters Dan Penn and Spooner Oldham, "A Woman Left Lonely," with its swirling organ and straight-from-the-broken-heart vocals, could well have served as Joplin's epitaph.
Another rare song written by Joplin herself. With its slow build and pulsating horns, this is the song you want to listen to while driving down a lonely highway at three o'clock in the morning, your life regrets stashed away in the glove compartment.
Joplin performed this song live on "The Dick Cavett Show" on August 3, 1970. Cavett, who had an obvious affection for Joplin, begins their after-song conversation with, "It's very nice to see you, my little songbird." Two months later, Joplin would be dead from a heroin overdose. Cavett recalled hearing a radio announcer begin with the words, "Rock star Janis Joplin …" and finishing the sentence in his head: "… is dead." Sadly, Cavett was right.
"Me and Bobby McGee"
Her only No. 1 hit, it has become the go-to tune for every Janis Joplin karaoke wanna-be in the universe. Written by Kris Kristofferson and recorded just days before her death, "Me and Bobby McGee" was a culmination of all that Joplin had been and a portent of what was about to come. Kristofferson, who had been her lover, heard Janis' version of the song for the first time just after she died. "Afterwards," he recalled, "I walked all over L.A., just in tears."
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