“Being an intellectual creates a lot of questions and no answers. You can fill your life up with ideas and still go home lonely. All you really have that really matters are feelings. That’s what music is to me.” – Janis Joplin
Originally from Texas, Janis Joplin, who was born on this day in 1943, had a complex soul and often found herself struggling with personal issues. These struggles not only happened within but they were only further exacerbated by the injustices she witnessed and experienced on the outside. Joplin explored her outside world and, even more so, she searched high and deep within her soul to find peace. It’s safe to say that some semblance of peace came for her when she found herself on stage and commanded the attention of her audience and fellow bandmates.
Her style of singing was rustic, organic, raw and above all else, pure and genuine. It bordered on the verge of cracking into a million pieces, once again providing a little window into the insurmountable sorrow she must have undergone in her lifetime. Her voice grabbed the hearts of millions and shook them back into beating life. From her unorthodox vocal style that would damage her vocal cords to her hard-living, she was a burning star that didn’t have much time on this planet, either way.
In the early 1960s, Joplin moved to San Fransisco hoping to join the music scene. She would find kinship with the Big Brother and The Holding Company, who released their first two albums with Joplin. Out of the two records, Cheap Thrills would prove to be the better the most successful. Along with the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967 and then Cheap Thrills released in ‘68, Joplin garnered the kind of commercial attention she had been striving for and decided it was time to have a go at it with her own group under her creative vision. One major difference between Big Brother and The Holding Company and Kozmic Blues Band is that the former didn’t want to have a horn section. This musical change which brought more soul and room for Janis to move around within would prove very cathartic and productive for the singer who was coming into her own.
I Got Dem Ol’ Kozmic Blues Again Mama! Would yield some beautiful soulful numbers, albeit no real major single hits. It was not as successful as Big Brother’s more psychedelic Cheap Thrills, however, it would prove to be a good stepping stone to Janis Joplin’s last album and magnum opus, Pearl. Pearl would be released posthumously three months after Janis’ fatal overdose on heroin and alcohol. New listeners will get a whole new sense of her singing the blues when they truly take into account the real extent of her sadness.
In celebration of her birthday, we decided to take a look into her top ten best songs. It is important to note that she was definitely more of an interpreter and performer of songs rather than a songwriter. Having said that, her light truly shined brightest when she was on stage. Every time Jopling stepped out in front of a crowd it was either all or nothing. Holly George-Warren, the award-winning writer, editor, producer, writes: “What made Janis really different as a live performer is that she connected with her audiences by tapping into her deepest feelings. And there was this authenticity that came across. She wasn’t just standing up there singing — she was basically emptying out her guts through that amazing voice of hers, and touching her audience members like they had never been touched before.”
Janis Joplin’s 10 best songs:
10. ‘My Baby’ – Pearl
One of the slower numbers on her magnum opus Pearl, the song represents Joplin’s move to her gospel style of performance and song. It is very soulful as performed by Janis’ band at the time, Full Tilt Boogie Band. The song was written by Jerry Ragovoy and Mort Shuman. Ragovoy also wrote Joplin’s ‘Piece of my Heart’.
Some listeners would take the song very literally and started the rumour that it was about Joplin being pregnant. However, Joplin would refute the claims and say it was about her strong bond with her father, whom she loved very much.
9. ‘Turtle Blues’ – Cheap Thrills
This next one is off Big Brother and Holding Company’s second album and, funny enough, it is more in line with the kind of stuff Janis would do later on with her Pearl album. While most of the album is psychedelic, this particular number is fairly stripped back; no drums, just acoustic guitars and a honky-tonk piano. Joplin’s vocal performance on this one is unbelievably powerful. It seems to be absent of too much of her coarseness that seems to permeate through her material. Instead, her voice is focused, clear and more nasally rather than the scratchiness that usually erupts from the back of her voice.
‘Turtle Blues’ is an amalgamation of her key influences; Bessie Smith blues and her experience in gospel choirs – there is a certain confessional element to her raw delivery through the blues genre that is usually a man’s game, and typically sung from a man’s perspective. ‘Turtle Blues’ offers a nice new twist on the genre. Lyrically, it’s got the usual themes of drinking, loss, and heartbreak, with a new psychedelic edge.
8. ‘Down On Me’ – Big Brother and The Holding Company
While the debut eponymous album from Big Brother and The Holding Company is largely dull and was sort of ignored when it first came out, ‘Down On Me’ is worth mentioning as it could be an early sign that this band struck gold when they asked Janis Joplin to sing for them. It is interesting to listen to her vocals on this one: she sounds young, and she hasn’t quite indulged in the amount of Southern Comfort bottles that she will start to rack up quite significantly in the coming years; her voice isn’t as ‘hard’ or ‘gravelly’.
‘Down On Me’ is a traditional freedom song from the 1920s. Janis and The Holding Company would make the song popular. The song would barely miss the top 40 charts, reaching number 42 overall.
7. ‘Try (Just a Little Bit Harder)’ – I Got Dem Ol’ Kozmic Blues Again Mama!
Another great song penned by producer and songwriter Jerry Ragovoy and Chip Taylor. The track kicks off her first solo album, surprising listeners then, with new sophisticated arrangements and a new horn section. The song has got a James Brown feel to it.
John Burks for The Rolling Stone would make the remark that while Joplin’s change in musical direction is commendable and impressive, the band outdoes Joplin’s voice a bit and recommends: “Reaching the point where you are able to shut out the band”.
6. ‘Mercedez Benz’ – Pearl
This one is off the beaten path a little bit and features an acapella song that showcases a different side to Janis. While it’s perhaps not something people would uniquely seek out to listen to as it may be a bit of a novelty thing, this is Joplin’s lighter side; she is having fun and the song possesses a certain atmosphere that really encapsulates the summer of love’s free-living attitude. She ironically says into the microphone before kicking into it, “I’d like to do a song of great social and political import.”
At the end of the song, she laughs and says, “That’s all!” and giggles her infectious laugh. There is a certain innocent charm to the song that really draws the listener in – and let’s face it, it’s timeless. Janis Joplin wrote it with poet Michael McClure and Bob Neuwirth.
5. ‘One Good Man’ – I Got Dem Ol’ Kozmic Blues Again Mama!
Janis Joplin seemed to have been on an endless search for one good man. Throughout a lot of her songs, she would often claim that it shouldn’t be too hard for one good man to just be good, one time, to one woman. Clearly, there was a lot of heartbreak in her music and evident in her impressionist style of singing. Of course, it is fitting when you’re singing this to the backdrop of blues, featuring lighting slide work by Mike Bloomfield.
The song also happens to be one of the few written by Joplin herself – makes sense. The whole album was produced by Gabriel Mekler, who also worked with Steppenwolf, Three Dog Night, and Etta James.
4. ‘Move Over’ – Pearl
Another one of the few songs that Joplin has written, it kicks Pearl off with one hell of a bang – she reminds the listener that she is, in fact, the queen of Rock n’ roll – and don’t you forget it. It’s got similar energy to the first Big Brother and The Holding Company albums with the same sophistication as her first solo effort with the Kozmic band.
The song was recorded the same day as ‘Me and Bobby McGee’. On the Dick Cavett show, Joplin performed the song and explained that the song is about when men tell a woman their relationship is over but won’t move on themselves – and in effect, holding the woman hostage. Joplin definitely kicks the proverbial ass of said men with this number.
3. ‘Me and Bobby McGee’ – Pearl
An instant classic; initially written by Kris Kristofferson, Janis Joplin ended up doing him a favour by including this song on Pearl, as the album would shoot up straight to number one and sell millions of copies. In an interview with Mojo, Kristofferson’s label boss suggested the song title as well as the story for the song: “You could make this thing about them travelling around, the hook is that he turns out to be a she.”
In a separate interview with Esquire, Kristofferson was asked how he came up with the line, “Freedom’s Just Another Word for Nothing Left to Lose,” He replied, “I was working the Gulf of Mexico on oil rigs, flying helicopters. I’d lost my family to my years of failing as a songwriter. All I had were bills, child support, and grief. And I was about to get fired for not letting 24 hours go between the throttle and the bottle. It looked like I’d trashed my act. But there was something liberating about it. By not having to live up to people’s expectations, I was somehow free.”
2. ‘Work Me, Lord’ – I Got Dem Ol’ Kozmic Blues Again Mama!
Written by Nick Gravenites, the song is absolutely exquisite and I would claim it is one of her best songs albeit one of the more unknown ones. Although the studio version of the song is cutting and captures the listener’s curiosity, it was documented that fans had expressed that this version did not come close to replicating the astoundingly powerful live version at Woodstock in 1969.
The song truly emphasises the gospel choir side of Janis Joplin. The chord changes are significant in that they elevate the song to heavenly heights. It does a good job at redeeming Joplin’s pain she had in this world.
1. ‘Piece of My Heart’ – Cheap Thrills
It is slightly funny that despite all this talk of Pearl being her best album, the top two songs on this list are not from that record. That’s because Pearl as an album, as one cohesive piece of work, really stands tall and true.
The same can be said for this instant classic, once again written by Jerry Ragovoy and Bert Berns, the song has stood the test of time as a singular entity, winning the hearts of those who love the slow love songs and of those who love to groove to a nice beat – the song contains both. Joplin’s vocal performance is everything you want from her – her gravel, her passion, her White woman black singer soul shines on forevermore.