Monday, October 29, 2012

Recording "Summertime" - Janis Joplin (1968)

The creative process behind the music we listen to has always fascinated me. The interaction between the musical artists; who can hear in their heads the sound they are attempting to create; and the producers/engineers, who are attempting to understand the artists  creative concepts can sometimes be fraught with peril. Witness Phil Spector’s famous shooting of a pistol while working; for the last time; with John Lennon, over some difference of opinion in the studio.

So, I was delighted to run across a piece of video, on You Tube of course, of Janis Joplin with Big Brother and the Holding Company, recording “Summertime” for their upcoming album “Cheap Thrills”, which would be released in the late summer of 1968. This video was shot at CBS Recording Studios in New York City.         
The video; which was too large for the video player here, according to blogspot; runs a little over 10 minutes. In the video, Janis is clearly in control, while at the same time displaying a unique quality to compromise with both the band and the engineer/producer John Simon. The band felt that he did not understand their psychedelic sound. Manager Albert Grossman was in agreement with Mr. Simon, and pressured the band to change some of their arrangements on several songs. Their reaction to this is evident in the video, as they attempt to talk music with a technician and businessman.

As the video begins, the band is rehearsing, sounding like the best garage band on earth, as Janis enters the studio dancing. This would be their first album for Columbia, and the band is clearly excited. The album would not be released until late that summer/ early fall, and so the band worked on the record on their off days.  The “Lenny” who Janis refers to in her story about the “bust” in Vancouver is Henry McCullough, who would later play with “Wings” and Paul McCartney. Janis is clearly pissed about the whole incident, particularly the way in which “Lenny” was being used by his record company, as well as his band mates and manager. But, she is able to put all that aside in an instant to begin recording her iconic rendition of “Summertime” from Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess”.
The band is summoned into the control room to listen to the playback, and a very technical discussion begins between the band members and Mr. Simon, who is clearly not in touch with the vision the group has for the song. This is one of the most interesting parts of the video, as the band shifts, seamlessly, between the music and some gossip about a party the night before. It seems that James Gurley, the group’s guitarist, had put on quite a load the night before, and his band mates just can’t resist ribbing him about it.

The cover for the album was supposed to be a black and white photo of Janis, alone. This was the suggestion of Mr. Grossman. His working motto was always to conquer and divide the artists with whom he worked. But, Janis would have none of it, opting instead for the brilliant cover art of cartoonist Robert Crumb, who was a staple of the psychedelic scene in San Francisco, where the band was based. He had already done several posters advertising gigs for most of the bands in San Francisco at the time, including Big Brother’s shows at the Avalon Ballroom.
The album, which was to be recorded live; and actually states that on the inside cover; contained only 1 song, which was recorded at Winterland in San Francisco; “Ball and Chain”. And, even that version was altered, with James Gurley overdubbing a new intro.

Originally named “Sex, Dope and Cheap Thrills”, Columbia nixed the title, allowing the band to retain only the “Cheap Thrills” portion. It went on to 8 weeks at number one, though not in succession. The biggest hit on the album was “Piece of My Heart”, which went on to become a classic of the era. It’s still played daily on most “classic rock” stations. By October 15th the album had already surpassed $1 million dollars in sales. Shortly after that, the album sold over 1 million “units”, or copies.
I still have my original vinyl copy of the album. The cover is in excellent condition, and I have been thinking of framing it as a way to capture a bit of the past. Here is the link to the You Tube video which prompted me to write this short article;

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