There are a few songs synonymous with the incredible, and sadly, all too short-lived career of Janis Joplin and most of them were written by somebody else. 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’.
The singer empowered the track with an unstoppable force which its creator never could. Nowhere is this better seen than in this rare footage of Joplin performing the track at New York’s Generation Club in 1968. It’s a performance in which we see the very burning passion of Janis Joplin which would endear her so deeply into the hearts and minds of all those who saw her perform.
It’s hard to imagine anyone else singing ‘Piece of My Heart’ after you’ve heard the bold and unabashed performance of Janis Joplin live. The singer has made the song feel so akin to her character and attitude that it feels impossible to separate the two entities for any real purpose. But, the track was originally composed by Jerry Ragovoy and Bert Berns and originally recorded by Erma Franklin in 1967.
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. She was undoubtedly one of the most inspirational and strongest women in rock and roll at the time of her death following an accidental overdose in 1970.
The singer was placed, first as the leading lady of The Big Brother Holding Company and, later, in her own right as a solo artist, as the focal meeting point of subversive rock and roll rowdiness and sweet soulful sentiment. She handled the songs of the decade with aplomb, in fact, she chewed them up and spat them out as Billboard 100 entries. The chart saving a spot for each of Joplin’s covers of ‘Cry Baby’, ‘Piece of My Heart’, ‘Me and Bobby McGee’, ‘Down on Me’, ‘Ball ‘n’ Chain’, ‘Summertime’ and her original song ‘Mercedes Benz’, which was her final recording.
But for many, it is on this track, and in fact this performance, where the power and potency of Janis ‘Pearl’ Joplin fully came to fruition. That is because Pearl uses not only her instrument—her vocals are just as mesmerising live as they are on record—but also her movement, both facial expression and body language, to convey the power of the song’s sentiment.
Although the song is billed as a love song, it is far more attuned to what we would now call a ‘toxic relationship’ as our protagonist claims love while admitting that she is giving away pieces of herself to make her lover happy no matter how damaging it is to her. It is this ability to express these kinds of complex emotions that made Joplin one of the leading voices of her generation.
It is this embodiment of music, and soul, and power, and all the connecting tissue that surrounds matters of the heart, that allows us to see Joplin as, above all else, a human. Admittedly, a human able to create a masterful noise with her mouth, and a human capable of conveying the expression of sound, but a human nevertheless.
The video below shows this powerful Pearl performance in all its glory. It was filmed at New York’s Generation Club on April 7th, 1968 and released from the DVD Big Brother And The Holding Co. With Janis Joplin – Nine Hundred Nights produced by Pioneer Artists in 2001.
Watch as Janis Joplin delivers an impassioned performance of ‘Piece of My Heart’ live in New York, 1968.