Monday, October 4, 2010

Janis Joplin

Janis Joplin passed away 40 years ago today at the all too young age of 27. Her image as a hard drinking, heroin shooting blues singer has endured the 4 decades since her death. But there was so much more to this woman than the hype of drugs and booze. She really was a very talented singer who was in control of her career, and it's direction, right until the end.

With both movies and books depicting her as merely a stoned out blues singer,acting at the direction of others, it is often hard to keep sight of the vision and talent she possessed. Not many artists can take a song, which is already a hit by someone else, and make it their own. Janis Joplin did this several times.

From George Gershwins "Summertime", and The Chantels "Maybe",and even such standards as "Little Girl Blue" by Rodgers and Hart, time and again Ms. Joplin was able to transform established songs into new works that still resonate today. Take Kris Kristofferson's "Me and Bobby McGee" as an example. This was a country-folk song written and recorded by Mr. Kristofferson in 1969. It was one of his first big hits and made him a star. But when that record comes on the radio, even Mr. Kristofferson has to pause and listen. Here is the demo that Ms. Joplin recorded a few months before her death. She simply walked into the studio, announced that she was doing this song and ends it by saying it needs an ending.

The finished version is exactly the same length as this demo. The only change is the addition of the electric instruments and her improvised vocal ending. This lady had some serious talent and vision.

She did the same thing with the seemingly banal "To Love Somebody" by The Bee Gees, turning the 4 minute pop song into a lengthy blues number backed by a brass section. And who can ever forget her ballsy live version of Willie Mae (Big Mama) Thornton's "Ball and Chain" from the album "Cheap Thrills." Also on that album is a real gem written by Ms. Joplin, "Turtle Blues."

When it came to cover art, Ms. Joplin was as far reaching as you can imagine. Take this cover by Robert Crumb for the 1968 release "Cheap Thrills." You can literally spend 20 or 30 minutes digesting all the wacky and colorful things which are crammed in this 12" x 12" space. The covers of her subsequent albums were equally daring - the out of focus photo taken under the red and blue stage lights that adorns the cover of "I've Got 'Dem Old Kozmic Blues Again" album is a great example.

Working with Big Brother and the Holding Company really pushed her into the light, but that band was a bit confining for her. She wanted a band like James Brown had, complete with brass. With that thought in mind she formed The Full Tilt Boogie Band, which would be her last. They were the epitome of the Stax Record sound. When viewing live performances of her on YouTube you can see the transformation in her style of singing, often delivering spontaneous blues "raps" in the middle of her numbers. This was standard James Brown procedure, really preaching the blues to a more than receptive audience.

We will never know where Ms. Joplin's career might have taken us. What direction was she going in next? But her unique style of delivering the blues will always be with us to enjoy. Just hit YouTube sometime today and check out the live videos from TV shows like Tom Jones, Dick Cavett and all the rest. You will be amazed at the vitality and sense of humor that ultimately define her.

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