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Music

Five isolated vocals that prove Janis Joplin was a hero

@TomTaylorFO

Janis Joplin is as much of an icon of the 1960s summer of love era as the Michelin Man is of tires. Tousled locks, tie-dye garments and a freewheeling attitude were all part of her oeuvre, but the thing that made David Crosby crown her the queen of rock is a voice that forever threatened to take sputnik out of orbit and end the space race in an explosion of earthly peace.

Her three-octave range might not be overly remarkable but her strength across it was herculean. And with that voice, she extolled a message of blooming flower power with a few prickly thorns in the bunch.

In fact, one of her shows blossomed so riotously that the brave police officers present – fearing a knees-up en masse and the chaotic smiling hysteria that comes with it – did all they could to restore banal order. They clambered onto the stage and kindly asked the famed rock ‘n’ roll insouciant performer whether she would perhaps reverse her intent and try to assist them in subduing the happy crowd into a more manageable state of ennui. In short, her response was “fuck off”.

That’s Joplin for you! Her tragically short life may have been a complex one, but it is her daring ways, performative bravura, upbeat attitude and rafter rattling voice that sustain in the memory to this day. Below we have plucked the best of those rafter rattling cries that have been laid bare and presented them for your perusal.

By the end, you will have no choice but to agree that she is surely one of the greatest vocalists in popular music history. 

Five of the best Janis Joplin isolated vocals:

‘Mercedes Benz’

The astounding vocal take of ‘Mercedes Benz’ is rendered with a spiritual edge in retrospect when you consider that it was the final one that Joplin ever recorded only three days before she died. The track rattles with the same passionate vigour that Joplin leant all her vocal lines.

The backstory to this fateful vocal is also befittingly true to the life that Joplin lived. As Patti Smith recalls in her memoir, Just Kids, whereby one day Joplin and a group of friends were in a bar and she began chanting the line “Oh, Lord won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz” continually. The others present began banging their beers on the table to create a rhythm and Joplin and Bob Neuwirth hurriedly scribbled down some lyrics on a napkin. Joplin later introduced the song at her show that evening by joking, “I just wrote this at the bar on the corner. I’m going to do it Acapulco.”

‘Cry Baby’

Sometimes a vocal track needs the music; it waxes off it and sits as part of the ensemble. However, when everything else crumbles away, Joplin’s ‘Cry Baby’ still stands like a marble edifice, propped up on her voice’s inherent musicality.

Her vocal gear changes, her cracks and her crescendos all pulsate with vibrant electricity and the song skips along as though the band has been swallowed somewhere in her larynx. The end of the night rally cry of the song is a force to behold even in the imaginative empty ballroom of an isolated.

‘Piece of my Heart’

‘Piece of my Heart’ was first written by Jerry Ragovoy and Bert Berns before being released as a single by Erma Franklin in 1967. Since then, it has been recorded by everyone and their auntie. However, Joplin doesn’t just take ownership of it, she jumps behind the wheel and drives the thing down the freeway.

Joplin uses blues conventions in her rendition to give the track a timeless twist. It was here that the oft-made comparison of Joplin using her vocals like a ‘Sax Man’ in an old jazz band finally came to fruition, and she blows that horn with unapologetic bravado.

‘Move Over’

This rarity sees Joplin put on a live masterclass from 1970. Her gravelled tones rattle through a tale about a man who breaks up with you but then subsequently clings on. Joplin’s voice alone seems like a force that would shake shackles loose.

The composition was penned by Joplin who was well versed on the subject. of breakups and she recorded it in the studio on the same day as ‘Me and Bobby McGee’ and ‘Trust Me’, making it an amazingly good day at the office.

‘Me and Bobby McGee’

Fair cop, of course, this isn’t strictly an isolated vocal, but it’s highly uncommon to hear Joplin with just an acoustic and it proves incredibly revealing. With a hushed demo atmosphere in the room, Joplin’s voice is equally restrained but still, it comes out with a weightiness to it; it’s dense and full without ever blitzing away the lingering ether.

Read anything about Joplin’s interpretation of the song and it will say “she made it her own”. Well, this demo shows her slowly making it her own, and it would seem the reams of print were wrong: it was her’s all along. She harnesses so much power from it in an instant that even Kris Kristofferson would have to second guess that he wrote it.