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Six definitive songs: The ultimate beginner’s guide to Janis Joplin

“I have to have the ‘umph.’ I’ve got to feel it, because if it’s not getting through to me, the audience sure as hell aren’t going to feel it either.” — Janis Joplin

To put it simply, there was nobody who did it quite like Janis Joplin. To call the diminutive singer a powerhouse is an affront to the skill and technique she employed without the need for extra exaltations. Joplin, firstly as part of the Big Brother and the Holding Company and then later with her band Kozmic Blues Band, became one of the foremost singers of her generation and was just as capable of bringing the house down as she was tearing the scene up. Through a short but potent career, Joplin did both with fearsome regularity.

As the calls for rock ‘n’ roll’s funeral seem evermore deafening, we are doing our bit to help educate our readers on some of the genre’s greatest ever artists and, perhaps most importantly, their foundational figures. While some of these acts are rightly known as icons, we’re a little concerned that they will remain just that—icons. For us, the real pleasure of such stars is the art they created so we are handing out a crash course in some of music’s finest, this time we’re bringing you the six definitive songs of Janis Joplin.

Usually, when we compile these lists we try to bring you a short education in the acclaimed artist we’re focusing on, bringing some of the lesser-known songs from their widespread careers. Sadly, in this edition of ‘Six Definitive Songs’, the timeframe we have to work from is tragically too short. Joplin’s time and career was sadly taken away from the public, not to mention her family and friends, way before her time as she became one of the rock stars to lose their life at the tender age of 27.

Having started her life in the conservative Texan town of Port Arthur, Joplin would become one of the poster children of the counter-culture movement. Moving to San Francisco in pursuit of a freer life, Joplin found solace in the blues music of the past and dedicated many of her earliest performances to the singers of bygone generations, championing covers over the pursuit of her own artistic expression, largely because she was so good at connecting with the content at hand. It was something Joplin possessed throughout her life and right up until her tragic death.

What Joplin left behind, however, in her short years, is some of the most fiercely powerful and potent music you’ll ever hear. Joplin wasn’t an acclaimed songwriter but she was perhaps the finest performer of her generation. We don’t mean vocalist, though she was immensely talented, we mean ‘performer’. Joplin could take a song, anyone’s song, and turn it into a ubiquitous anthemic moment of collective connection for all those who were lucky enough to witness it live. Thankfully, she could pull it off while working in the studio too.

Below, we’ve pulled together six songs which help to define the character and courageous career of the unfathomably talented musician, Janis Joplin.

Six definitive songs of Janis Joplin:

‘Down on Me’ (1967)

Big Brother and the Holding Company got their big break much like Jimi Hendrix did, after a seriously show-stopping performance at the acclaimed Monterey Pop Festival of 1967. The incendiary show would guarantee the band a debut LP and the group weren’t shy about putting their all into it.

The band’s reputation reached new heights after the performance and the band jumped on the opportunity to release their album. Though much of the record is somewhat forgettable, there are a few shining moments including this powerful track ‘Down on Me’ which is about all the proof you need of Joplin’s destiny as a vocal hero for future singers.

‘Summertime’ (1968)

In truth, it would probably be easier for us to tell you who hasn’t covered the George Gerswhin song ‘Summertime’. Taken from Porgy and Bess, the 1935 classic has been a stalwart of ever since its release, but was a particular favourite of the hippie generation with The Doors, Zombies and even Nick Drake taking on the song.

However, as with most covers when given to Janis Joplin, the singer quickly makes the track her own with a unique vocal take that flirts with the wretched and instead portrays the scathing burn of the summer’s sun. It’s a song which speaks highly of the intelligent and engaged singer behind the lyrics.

‘Piece of My Heart’ (1968)

The singer made her name by making other’s songs her own, adding her own expressions to traditional ballads and soul numbers, and none more so perhaps than her cover of ‘Piece of My Heart’. Originally recorded by Erma Franklin, Aretha’s sister, Joplin took the song to new heights with her cover which would be found on her album with Big Brother Cheap Thrills.

The singer empowered the track with an unstoppable force which its creator never could and made the usually troublesome band even feel slick and well-rounded. But really, all you need to know about this song can be heard in Joplin’s emphatic vocal delivery. The love song would go on to be covered by a host of artists including the iconic Tina Turner as part of the Ikettes, the legendary Dusty Springfield, Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler and a whole host of other wondrous vocalists. But yet, nobody, absolutely nobody, could wail on this song like the big lungs of little Janis Joplin.

‘Cry Baby’ (1971)

The difference between Janis Joplin and pretty much every other singer since was that, above all else, she saw herself as a vocal artist, a sonic performer, an actor of music. Joplin was not at the front of the stage for glory or the gold, she put herself under that spotlight so she could use her vocal brush strokes to paint a raw, emotive and impassioned picture of expression. Looking back, there’s truly no better canvas for Joplin than a song like ‘Cry Baby’.

‘Cry Baby’ hangs on Joplin’s delivery. It’s a performance which is perfectly encapsulated in the song’s first fledgeling moments — wild and wonderful she lets loose like no other singer could or would even dare to. It’s a powerhouse performance which typifies an artist who survived on the soul of music itself.

‘Me & Bobby McGee’ (1971)

Janis Joplin was known for being one of the most powerful singers the sixties had to offer. Able to pull soul from her lungs as nobody else could, Joplin’s weighty wail became her trademark—but that doesn’t mean she wasn’t able to bring a touching vulnerable delicacy to things when required. One perfect example of Joplin’s ability to move between the two states of emotion her cover of Kris Kristofferson’s ‘Me and Bobby McGee’.

Covering the song with her Kozmic Blues Band, Joplin is in her element, turning a laidback tune into something emboldened with emotion and expressive until the very last note. Though she’s never afraid to put some forceful wind behind her lyrics, and she’s a proverbial tsunami when she does, but it’s the softer moments that feel more poignant here.

‘Mercedes Benz’ (1971)

One of the only songs Joplin composed herself, ‘Mercedes Benz’ is noteworthy for another reason too. Just three days before her death, Joplin recorded vocals on the track and it has since become an iconic number that is even more breathtaking when you realise that is was the very last time she would step foot in a recording studio.

The song is based on a track called ‘C’mon, God, and buy me a Mercedes Benz’ by the legendary San Francisco beat poet Michael McClure. Joplin saw McClure perform was spellbound and, with her new-found inspiration, decided to transform it into her own song on August 8th, 1970 and performed it that evening after working on ideas on how to change it during the day. It was the perfect distillation of how Joplin worked, with passion, with a few beers and, most importantly of all, with friends.

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