Janis Joplin

TrackAlbum
Ball & ChainMonterey Pop
Piece of My HeartCheap Thrills
Turtle BluesCheap Thrills
SummertimeCheap Thrills
Kozmic BluesIn Concert
MaybeI Got Dem Ol' Kozmic Blues Again Mama!
Move OverPearl
Me & Bobby McGeePearl
Half MoonPearl
Cry BabyPearl

Janis Joplin photo 4

 

 

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Janis playlist

 

 

Contributor: Rob Millis

For me, the last twelve months have been about vinyl. Late in 2019, I treated myself to a mighty Thorens TD-124, before all stock ones are bought up by the trade and pimped up to unattainable prices. Then, late March 2020 brought lockdown: working from home with the facility to spin a platter or two in the background. With Jorma Kaukonen (and Jack Casady when able) streaming weekly free performances, my teenage love of San Francisco was rekindled; after working through the Airplane, Quicksilver and Dead LPs, roughly three months before what will be the 50th Anniversary of her death, I got to Janis – of course, via Cheap Thrills, a key Haight Ashbury document.

A long-overdue viewing followed of Laura Berg’s excellent 2016 film Janis: Little Girl Blue. If you haven’t seen it, do. Yes, it’s padded out; yes, fans will find stuff omitted that they feel are more crucial than bits left in. But it was underpinned by love, not sales-driven melodrama – and who ever agrees with storyline priorities when a tale you know is retold? Who, also, is fit to judge – certainly not the writer (years ago, in some cases) of many Bay Area Toppers, when the glaring omission of Janis is uncomfortably noted. Err, hello? Let’s correct that.

Mr Kaukonen wasn’t mentioned earlier idly (nor Jack, but hold that thought). A key early recording of Janis is The Typewriter Tape. The coffee bar folk scene was an early haunt for Janis after she left Port Arthur, Texas for the Bay Area. Her Odetta-inspired interpretations were a fine match for fellow scenester Jorma’s bluesy fingerpicking; the pair taped a session in the Kaukonens’ Santa Clara residence, the tape nicknamed as Jorma’s (late) first wife can be heard typing in the background. These songs are well-known now, but as they aren’t from Janis’ main legacy, I haven’t included these in the ten. You’ll find the whole 22 minutes here.

To cut the 1964-66 story short: Janis had hitch-hiked to California with her friend Chet Helms; after falling into methadone use, Janis returned home in 1965 to clean up. Helms founded Family Dog promotions and started handling local band Big Brother and the Holding Company. BB&HC decided that their vocals weren’t up to it; Helms new exactly who to call and brought Janis back in 1966: the combination clicked and became a presence in the formative San Francisco scene. Joplin came to the attention of Elektra’s Paul Rothchild (blah blah The Doors) who foresaw a short life for psychedelia (he was right) and wanted to revert Janis to a rootsier turn and sign her solo; to avert her departure, BB&HC signed with Mainstream records and cut an eponymous LP in late 1966.

I haven’t drawn from it; like many Frisco debuts, it suffers from the problem that between recording and release, the band had gone up several lysergic gears and the album sounded old hat. The same is true of the polite folk-rock of Jefferson Airplane Takes Off and the largely ordinary bar-band R&B of The Grateful Dead. A big chunk of the blame can be levelled at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival.

While it’s well known that, like Hendrix, Janis was made by D. A. Pennebaker’s film of the event, it is less so that BB&HC manager Julius Karpen had refused to sign the film contracts; Joplin and the band gave the performance of their lives – with no rolling cameras and audio recorders switched off. Pennebaker, sensing his film would lack one of the soon-to-be-most-talked-about moments, sought the help of mighty Albert Grossman who, along with a distraught Janis and band (who’d woken up, smelled bullshit and realised what exposure Karpen had denied them) and sundry others, ganged up on Karpen who capitulated. A repeat slot was organised, Pennebaker caught it and that clip of Janis singing Big Mama Thornton’s gutsy blues Ball & Chain went into the movie, leaving audiences as open mouthed as Mama Cass Elliot, filmed sitting in one of the front rows.

If you’ve never seen it – and this is why I’ve cited the movie as the Topper 10 source, not an audio recording – it is one of the iconic moments of both white R&B and San Francisco acid rock; Joplin giving it 110% and the BB&HC boys providing the trippy backdrop. James Gurley (RIP) chucking out ear-splitting fuzz-toned bursts; Sam Andrew (likewise RIP) laying down chords dripping in the tremolo effect from his Fender amp. Blues purists hate it. It’s fucking great. If the performance doesn’t get you, the closing shot of the tormented Texan girl (for years the butt of cruel jokes for her acne/looks and attacked for her outspoken liberal views) winning big, running offstage beaming into the waiting arms of a friend in the wings really should.

And so it was that this seminal moment was followed by a rather polite debut album limping out to stores and underwhelming. Julius Karpen was soon ousted. I’m not sure what good he ever did: predecessor Helms got the band onto Monterey, and Grossman throwing weight around (initially for Pennebaker) turned the fortunes of BB&HC. The icing on the cake: Columbia’s Clive Davis attended Monterey, scouting for talent. He signed BB&HC there and then.

Janis became a star but critics slated BB&HC. The surviving BB&HC members later surmised that neither Grossman nor Davis were ever interested in them, really, but they were happy to have Dylan’s powerful manager working, for a while at least, on their behalf – and to cut a record for Columbia. It would become Cheap Thrills.

Out on the town one afternoon, BB&HC’s Peter Albin dropped by the natty Panhandle-area apartment that Jack Casady and Marty Balin shared. Casady, ever a music fan as much as a performer, said “Listen to this, Janis would sing it great” and broke out his 45rpm single of Erma Franklin singing Piece Of My Heart. Albin borrowed it and the rest is history. (You can hear Jack recount the tale here at roughly 20mins 25secs.)

This song mopped up what little of the hip market Monterey Pop hadn’t already won over and Cheap Thrills went gold in days. Within the iconic Robert Crumb comic sleeve was a mix of studio and live material, complete with introduction from Bill Graham (“Four gentlemen and one great, great broad …”); with both Piece Of My Heart and Ball & Chain included, this was the ‘proper’ post-Monterey album. Opener, Combination Of The Two (which had similarly opened Monterey Pop during opening credits) snakes its way into original blues – like the evil, unruly twin of Born Under A Bad Sign – I Need A Man To Love. The beautiful arrangement of Gershwin’s Summertime – for many, Joplin’s finest recorded moment – followed, and Piece Of My Heart closed side one of the album. Wow.

The early BB&HC set had featured folk standard “The Cuckoo” (a.k.a. Coo-Coo) and it seems to be recycled as the backbone of Oh Sweet Mary that opens the second side of Cheap Thrills. Largely sung by Sam Andrew, that undeniable Californian twist of summery, half time interludes (“Breathing in the air …”) takes it up a gear, with Janis’ unique ‘lead backing vocals’ (if you will) making it. Producer John Simon – a Grossman ‘trustee’ also working with The Band – accompanied Janis on piano for Turtle Blues which showcased her old-timey side; the line “… take good care of Janis” haunts, with retrospect. A live romp through Ball & Chain closes the LP; a good version but Monterey will forever be ‘the one’ – you could play me umpteen objectively superior versions and I’d still not shift my view on what I consider the yardstick.

The Janis/BB&HC union weathered many attempts to thwart it, yet press continued to praise Janis and rubbish the band; it is perhaps true that their raw, acid-steeped R&B wasn’t a conventional or universally acceptable talent like Joplin herself. Internal conflict eventually arose: Joplin – as bowled over by Otis Redding at Monterey as most were by her – repeatedly tried to add horns to the band but the others weren’t keen. Janis finally quit; commitments were honoured, but the atmosphere was tense. Not least because founding guitarist, writer and co-vocalist Sam Andrew was going with her.

 

Kozmic Blues

Before 1968 was over, The Kozmic Blues Band was born: Joplin/Andrew with a new rhythm section, horns and organ (the latter sometimes from producer Gabriel ‘Steppenwolf’ Mekler). On paper, this was what Janis wanted; a soul band. In reality, though, it was thrown hurriedly together and Janis was not a proven band leader. Formative rehearsals overseen by Bloomfield/Gravenites notwithstanding, from the word go the new band had problems. They took their cod-Stax sound to Memphis (coals … Newcastle …) at Christmas and did not impress.

1969 started with one scathing Rolling Stone review of Memphis and another after some similarly unimpressive Fillmore East shows just weeks later. A European tour saw them under-prepared and playing Russian roulette at every border crossing: the stress and accountability of solo status had predictable consequences; Janis was using heroin again and moreover risking carrying it with her.

I Got Dem Ol’ Kozmic Blues Again Mama! was recorded mid 1969 and released shortly after. As in the live reviews, the new band did not fix the old criticisms. Same shit, different day, in fact: Joplin herself continued to wow the press, yet many found her new band’s Stax-by-numbers band plodding, lacking excitement and stifling her. Rolling Stone magazine suggested that the best way to enjoy the album was to listen to it repeatedly until you knew the music well and could mentally tune out the band and just enjoy Janis. Rolling Stone never went a bundle on the Kozmic Blues Band …

While it is flawed, it isn’t so bad; to my mind, only the title track (I suggest a live 1970 version by the superior Full Tilt Boogie combo from the double live retrospective In Concert) and soul ballad Maybe are truly outstanding (we’ll take the studio version of that). That said, if I had more than ten songs to play with, I could very easily find a few more fair suggestions: the slide guitar-led One Good Man is a pleasant enough blues (oft-maligned guitarist Sam Andrew plays well here) and likewise Nick Gravenites’ Work Me Lord. The funky workout As Good As You’ve Been To This World could have worked but for Janis not coming in until halfway through the five-minute-plus duration, leaving the band vamping away on one chord – what is a perfectly good trick on stage seems to take forever on vinyl! The cover of the Bee Gees’ To Love Somebody – in theory, a great vehicle for Janis to stretch out over and ‘own’ – is over-slow, with horns distinctly on the James Last-meets-Blood, Sweat & Tears side. One review suggested that Little Girl Blue could have been quite good if it wasn’t for Andrew’s almost verbatim re-hash of his own Summertime guitar part; the reviewer has a point. For this author, the lack of the Eddie Floyd cover Raise Your Hand on the album was daft; it seems to have been la chanson du jour on any Kozmic-period TV shows and an in-concert favourite, with a brisk pace (both generally and vs Eddie Floyd’s original version) that captured the excitement of good soul music much more than the attempts on offer within I Got Dem Ol’ Kozmic Blues Again Mama!.

I’ll chance the wrath of Chicago fans and conclude that I Got Dem Ol’ Kozmic Blues Again Mama! came over better than other all-too-plentiful examples of the typical late 60s CBS ‘death by loud, soulless horn section’ album. The label put a lot of stock in this genre (Chicago and Blood Sweat & Tears would become good cash-cows mitigating the format) but to say CBS weren’t Stax musically is putting it mildly. To my ears I Got Dem Ol’ Kozmic Blues Again Mama! was certainly a lot more listenable than the cheerless parping and shouting of Blood, Sweat & Tears (post-Kooper, naturally) and vies only with the Electric Flag as brassy CBS acts with any semblance of soul.

Seemingly San Francisco – the first community to show Janis love and acceptance – felt that she had thrown it back in their faces by leaving BB&HC. Normally one to gush about any local rock music, Ralph Gleason of the SF Chronicle added to (also Bay Area) Rolling Stone’s denigration calling Kozmic Blues “a drag” and added that Joplin should go back to BB&HC “…if they’d have her”. Ironically, it would be Sam Andrew that followed this advice to the letter after he became a notable Summer 1969 casualty of sundry personnel changes within the Kozmic Blues soap opera. Andrew returned to BB&HC and they regrouped with former Electric Flag vocalist (and generally respected blues musician) Nick Gravenites. They cut two albums, post-Janis.

Woodstock came and went with Janis hiding in a toilet cubicle and having to be forcibly ejected from it and dragged to the stage by a tag-team of a visiting lover and her long-suffering road manager John Cooke. By the end of 1969, it was abundantly clear that Kozmic Blues wasn’t working. As the decade turned, Janis disbanded it and retained only bassist Brad Campbell and (Sam Andrew’s replacement) guitarist John Till. Till – a Canadian musician (and bandmate of Richard Manuel in pre-Ronnie Hawkins days) – called some old pals and Full Tilt Boogie was assembled. Gone were the unwieldy horns; this was a leaner, funkier band. Meanwhile, Janis was down in Rio cleaning up. For now.

 

Janis Joplin photo 3

 

Full Tilt Boogie, the end and ‘Pearl’

Perhaps the most heart-breaking element of Joplin’s last year is quite how stunning the new band (and material) was. With Janis clean (trademark bottle of Southern Comfort aside), the start of Full Tilt was anything like that of Kozmic Blues. Janis became a semi-regular favourite on the Dick Cavett TV show (see clips below) and dazzled on the fantastic Festival Express movie – documenting an on-paper lethal combination of Janis, the Grateful Dead and The Band (plus others) playing a series of festivals across Canada, using a chartered train as a mobile hotel. Late night buffet car jams got messy (Janis, Garcia and Danko together …?) but Full Tilt Boogie really lived up to their name on Janis’ new song Move Over.

(Like Monterey Pop, the film Festival Express is well worth a look. Gratuitous debauchery aside, on a purely musical level it is very strong. 1970 was of course a good year for the Grateful Dead as they hit their ‘we write proper songs now’ stride; anybody used to The Last Waltz will stare open mouthed at The Band on peak-form and finally understand the fuss about Richard Manuel. Buddy Guy makes an appearance to satisfy the guitar fans (who also gain bonus points for “Fuck me! There’s a young Amos Garrett” with Ian and Sylvia Tyson). Full Tilt, however, are the hot act and took no prisoners.)

Move Over would become the opening cut of Pearl for which sessions commenced in September 1970 after a summer of touring. Paul Rothchild was finally getting his way: psychedelia was indeed shrivelled up and almost dead, and here he was producing a back-to-form album for Janis Joplin, and a damned good job he did – not least in encouraging Janis to use her voice more sparingly and potentially nurse a longer career from it. Rothchild wasn’t to know that this would be the end.

Three doses of songwriting team(s) ‘Ragavoy and Somebody Else’ grace Pearl, not least Cry Baby – a big, soul ballad that went places Kozmic Blues never reached. I’m going to get abuse for not picking Mercedes Benz here amid the Topper Ten – Janis’ brief, unaccompanied ‘field holler’ is indeed a joy, but her definitive take on Kris Kristofferson’s Me & Bobby McGee won; it would become her biggest hit, albeit posthumously. The nimble, staccato funk of Half Moon really showed that in Full Tilt, Janis had found her band: the hard-hitting but soulful flavour she’d so long wanted came with ease and a new degree of musicianship prevailed (guitar fans really should check out John Till, especially that juicy, descending measure in Move Over; very rarely do above average chops and ‘feel’ collide in the same place; for my money Till’s solo on that track is one of the notable exceptions). By the end of September 1970 Pearl was all but wrapped up.

Here it comes. Side one of Pearl concludes with an instrumental rendition of Buried Alive In The Blues, a song by Nick Gravenites. The absolutely jaw-dropping timing and energy of the band chipping in and out on various guitars and keyboards makes this a natural instrumental showcase for Full Tilt as an outfit, but sadly an entirely practical reason lies behind it lacking a vocal. During the afternoon of 4th October 1970, the band were putting the finishing touches to it, the last track, and Joplin was expected in the evening to come and put down the vocal and wrap the album sessions up. She never arrived: this was indeed the day that Janis would be discovered dead in her hotel room, after a no-show phone call from Rothchild to John Cooke.*

There are many opinions about Joplin’s last day alive and it seems that a combination of the classic miscalculation of a former addict believing they are clean enough to dabble ‘just once’ (and forget they’ve lost their tolerance) allied to sheer boredom of waiting to be needed in the studio was her downfall. Her stellar performances on Pearl support accounts that she was incredibly excited about how Full Tilt had shaped up on the road and getting her back-to-form album all but finished. It is also reckoned that Janis was engaged to be married and looking forward to slowing down a bit on the lifestyle front.

That Pearl is such a great record cements the death of Janis Joplin, 50 years on, as an ongoing tragedy: this wasn’t yet another disappointment in the catalogue of a fading star, it was a decisive solo triumph from an outstanding talent who’d just had a difficult previous year and didn’t live long enough to build on Pearl and establish a more extensive legacy of greatness.

 

 

[* Watching Janis: Little Girl Blue you can’t help but feel for Cooke and then some; clearly a man of great integrity: the very man who’d quit because he couldn’t bear to watch her destroy herself, then only came back after Janis got clean again, was the one who found her overdosed.]

 

Janis on the Dick Cavett Show

 

 

 

 

 

Janis Joplin official website

Janis Joplin fan site (includes Discography)

Books on Janis

Janis Joplin Fans Facebook

Big Brother and the Holding Company official website

“Janis: Little Girl Blue” 2015 Documentary (YouTube)

Janis Joplin biography (AllMusic)

Rob Millis is a phoney; a hack. He’s not a writer, nor a professional musician and has a formal nine-to-five as the sales analyst/trainer in one of the ‘big three’ self-storage businesses in the UK. Somehow, he has found the time to have written for Shindig! magazine in addition to Toppermost. He has provided Hammond organ, Wurlitzer electric piano and vocals for such names as Dave Kelly, Micky Moody, John Fiddler and was honoured to play with Man at the memorial concert for his friend, the late Phil Ryan. Rob resides in the borough of Richmond-upon-Thames, where (as we all know) the blues was first invented..

TopperPost #908

10 Comments

  1. David Lewis
    Oct 4, 2020

    Another great list. For me, Janis is encapsulated in the film ‘Festival Express’ (see above) where she does a performance after The Band. As much as I love The Band she blows them out of the water with Cry Baby.
    She soared with a great band.

    • Rob M
      Oct 5, 2020

      Hello David! I quite agree that Janis blows EVERYBODY away in that movie; although Slippin’ & Slidin’ is arguably the best filmed performance of The Band. The real shame is that the Dead were caught in broad daylight doing a so-so afternoon show.

      • David Lewis
        Oct 7, 2020

        Slippin and slidin was great, which is what impressed me about Janis. There’s also the retrospectively heartbreaking scene with Rick Danko, Janis, Jerry Garcia and I think Bob Weir (but it might be Phil Lesh) doing Ain’t No More Cane. Rick, Jerry and Janis had all died, and at the film’s release would have been in their early sixties.

        • Rob M
          Oct 8, 2020

          One of the chaps on the film production crew says the same thing in the extras section of the DVD: how many of them have gone.

  2. Alex Lifson
    Oct 4, 2020

    This site is on a roll. Thank you Rob for putting this together. It’s as if you read my mind, in regards to the list. Exactly as I would have.

    • Rob M
      Oct 5, 2020

      Thank you! Good to know it isn’t just me; on one hand Janis is just one of many great talents that came out of Haight-Ashbury and I’m relatively comfortable speaking out about that stuff and suggesting where to go, but unlike the Dead and Jefferson Airplane, who were big names but you generally don’t see them in many UK record collections, Janis was and is a much more widely HEARD artist in the UK and I was convinced I’d pick the ‘wrong’ ten songs. No doubt “Wot no Mercedes-Benz” will surface on one hand, and maybe even another Haight specialist will surface and take me to task for not appreciating the first BB&HC album ‘properly’…
      Also, further to the above – I have to confess if it were 100% ‘me’, I’d have skipped Bobby McGhee and had A Woman Left Lonely! 😉

  3. Peter Viney
    Oct 5, 2020

    Great choices, though I’d prefer the Festival Express performances … I guess it doesn’t count as an album, never having been released as audio only. Still the DVD is essential. I will own up to (a) having Cheap Thrills framed on the wall for the artwork (b) not finding the backing band good enough for her. I’ll add to the others … on Festival Express she took no prisoners. Phenomenal.

    • Rob M
      Oct 5, 2020

      Peter, I’d like a decent whole gig from the Full Tilt band more than anything else….

  4. Colin Duncan
    Oct 5, 2020

    Thanks Rob the Organ. I used to play Cheap Thrills and Pearl regularly, but I didn’t know much about Janis so I have learnt much about Janis in the article, which is well written. I’m going to seek her music out again. Thank you again, Rob.

    • Rob M
      Oct 5, 2020

      My pleasure.

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