I can still recall when we lost Janis Joplin. It was 1970 and the NY Daily News headline screamed, “Janis Joplin is Dead.” And it surprised me that the headline was so outrageously big because until that point I don’t think I realized how famous she’d become. It was easy (and somewhat satisfying) to think that she “belonged” to our generation – the hippies, the underground, the hippie wannabes, the freaks.
And I think that ultimately she did belong to us since she was – by her own admission – somewhat of a misfit. (She came from a small town in Texas not too far from where another self-proclaimed misfit – Johnny Winter – grew up). The first song I recall hearing by her (and her band Big Brother and the Holding Company) was the Gershwin standard “Summertime.” (I’d never heard of Gershwin at the time).
Back in the ’60s, blues was arguably the predominant music of the (non-Top 40) day. I don’t believe there was any real argument that she was the pre-eminent blues singer of the time. In fact I’m struggling to think of who might even have rivaled her, whether male or female.
Off the top of my head, I’d say, B.B King, maybe Etta James. But they weren’t well known at that time and hadn’t yet crossed over to the white rock market. Why was Joplin so great? It’s a variety of things but for me, it’s one main thing – her passion. She felt every song deeply and conveyed that passion. That’s what great artists do.
Another example of her terrific chops is – I recently found out – my sister’s favorite Joplin number and one of her favorite songs of all time. It’s a great tune. Take a listen.
I never saw Joplin “live.” I was a little too young, and probably wasn’t into her enough at the time. So the only time I saw her was in TV clips of her performing and in the incredibly popular Woodstock movie. (She did a full set but the movie only showed a song called “Work Me Lord,” which Wikipedia says was written for her by journeyman blues singer-songwriter, Nick Gravenites.)
But by all accounts, she was a powerhouse performer and so I thought that if I could find a good “live” clip I should post it. Luckily there is a nice clip from the Dick Cavett show on YouTube. I thought that that would be appropriate because of all the talk show hosts of the time, Cavett was the most generous to performers. At this point, she is playing with the Full Tilt Boogie band which she finally believed to be “her” band. Their last performance was at Harvard Stadium in Cambridge, MA., just a few months prior to Joplin’s death.
Had she lived, Joplin today would be in her ’70’s. How would that sound? Fucking fantastic I’m sure.