There are few artists who can hold a torch to the vocal power of a small girl from Fort Worth, Texas, AKA Janis Joplin. The impassioned singer soon became the face of the counterculture movement with her refusal to conform to any pigeonhole she was put in. She delivered faultless performances almost as easily as she delivered generational moments of vocal splendour.
It’s part of what endeared her to the hearts and minds of countless music lovers — an unwavering sense of self and an innate fire that raged with a fearsome intensity. But aside from her unwavering attitude and her powerful lungs, Joplin was revered for bringing jazz back into the charts and into the collective consciousness. Rock and roll had always been artistically balanced by jazz, owing to the fact that many of its greatest stars had cut their teeth within the genre, but Joplin made it even more visceral and vital. There is absolutely no better demonstration of that fact than with her outrageously brilliant performance of ‘Summertime’ from 1969.
Originally composed by George Gershwin for the opera Porgy and Bess the track is largely regarded as Gershwin’s finest work and has seen countless artists cover the track. From iconic performers such as Billie Holiday and Sam Cooke to Ella Fitzgerald and, of course, to Janis Joplin and her band Big Brother and the Holding Company.
Only released as part of a live album, the track remained in the band’s live set up until Joplin left the group to pursue her solo career. In truth, much of the song’s success with the band resides in Joplin’s passionate and unique vocal delivery. Fire-breathing and utterly compelling, Joplin’s ability to traverse circumstance and genre to deliver a piece of artistry that only she could muster is what set her apart from the rest of the rock and roll set.
It is this delivery that is encapsulated in her performance of the song which you can find below. There’s surprisingly little information about the performance despite the huge viewing numbers but what we do know is that Joplin approaches it as she did everything else in her life—with unbridled vigour.
Joplin was once quoted as saying: “If I hold back, I’m no good. I’m no good. I’d rather be good sometimes, than holding back all the time.” It’s hard to see how anything was held back in this performance as she rips through the song, providing long crescendos and a positively passionate rendition.
The track may be rooted in black culture but perhaps the finest performance of George Gershwin’s ‘Summertime’ comes for a little white girl from Texas and her big lungs.