Graham Reid | | 3 min read
Although she has been hailed as the first female superstar of the rock era, Joplin – who died in October ’70 at the age of 27 – left a very small recorded legacy.
In her lifetime there were the two when she was part of Big Brother and the Holding Company – their self-titled debut in ’67 and Cheap Thrills the following year – and I Get Dem Ol’ Kosmic Blues Again Mama in ’69 with the Kosmic Blues Band.
Her most acclaimed album Pearl was completed by its producer Paul Rothchild (who had done the Doors and Love’s Da Capo) and her touring Full Tilt Boogie Band after her death.
Joplin had however approved all the songs and Rothchild’s production was crisper than her previous recordings, and Joplin was in fine rock-blues form on songs like her own Move Over, Cry Baby by Jerry Ragovoy and Bert Berns (who had written Piece of My Heart which she made her signature), and Ragovoy and Mort Shuman’s soulful My Baby.
The album however is best known for her downtempo treatment of Kris Kristofferson and Fred Foster’s Me and Bobby McGee, and her throwaway a cappella Mercedes Benz (which she also wrote) which ends with her infectious laugh.
When she gets into Bobby Womack’s Trust Me – which he wrote for her – you can hear her tap into the bloodline of her predecessors like Bessie while also investing it with some of the spirit of Otis Redding.
And again in Get It While You Can (again written by Ragovoy and Shuman) which she modelled on Howard Tate’s ‘66 version.
In places Pearl, the nickname she gave herself and others adopted, hinted that while she was still a blues belter she might just move in other directions, reigning in some of her astonishing fire-power and aiming for more nuance.
When the album was reissued in 2005 as part of Sony’s Legacy series it contained some alternate versions, the demo of Me and Bobby McGee . . . and Dale Evans’ old cowboy ballad Happy Trails which she mixed with Happy Birthday for John Lennon.
Of more interest was the other disc which came with the original album, it was 13 live recordings made on the famous Festival Express train trip across Canada when Joplin and band joined the Grateful Dead, Buddy Guy, Delaney and Bonnie, the Band and others for a traveling show-cum-party on the rails.
That tour was the subject of a doco, and although it lost money it seemed to be one helluva good time of booze and drugs between the shows.
That Legacy edition of Pearl has just been reissued at a budget price and, especially on the live disc, you are reminded of just what a powerful, muscular and energetic performer Janis Joplin could be when she had a great band behind here and an audience in front.
It includes her autograph songs an eight minute-plus Ball and Chain, Piece of My Heart, Tell Mama, Try Just a Little Bit Harder) plus workouts on the Pearl songs Half Moon, Move Over, Cry Baby and Get It While You Can.
She also goes back to pick up the Gershwin’s Summertime (which she’d done in Big Brother days) in a throat searing version stripping it of any nuance and it leads into Rodgers and Hart’s Little Girl Blue – from a different show -- which she’d done on Kosmic Blues. She offers a strained, soulful version, the music troubled a little by John Till’s overbusy guitar part which runs in and around her all the way through.
When you hear Joplin roaring through the live songs you are reminded again that – Beth Hart notwithstanding – there seems to have been no one out there since her who has brought this much sex, soul, blues, holler, heart and commitment to a stage.