Sunday, February 14, 2021

Janis

When we think of Lennon, it's with admiration; of Hendrix, reverence; with Morrison, it's conjecture and speculation. Like Cathy Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights, Morrison transcends death; the legend looms so much larger than his 27 years. For others we aren't so steadfastly obliged.

Janis Joplin shared Morrison's California ideology with far less pomp and grandeur, yet she created a legacy equal to that of any 20th-century blues vocalist. From Billy Holiday to Nina Simone, no one captured the gritty sentiment of the blues more effectively than Janis. Big Brother and the Holding Company’s Cheap Thrills (AM9) is a 60s' powerhouse raw-blues LP. The band, unfairly referred to at times as Janis Joplin and Some Other People, is the go-to album of blues-rock. From R. Crumb's seminal sleeve to Janis Joplin's vocals to the fuzzed-out psychedelia of the band, this is the ultimate acid-experience.  The "live" trappings, like those of Sgt. Pepper, are pretense (with the exception of "Ball and Chain," the only purely live experience), but the music has all the fire and spontaneity of a true live recording.  For a band that supposedly had no musical talent beyond their lead singer, they sure did make a beautiful racket. "Summertime" is one of the all-time great rock interpretations of a standard; "I Need a Man to Love" has all the soul and power that Aretha Franklin was bringing to a much different idiom around the same time; "Piece of My Heart" has been tamed through commercial exposure, yet it remains an authentically passionate performance and a high-water mark for 60s radio. Cheap Thrills is the perfect document of its time and place, but also, like Memphis in the '50s or London in '77, an enduring testament to the unleashed power of song.

The band was formed by Peter Albin, Sam Andrew, James Gurley and Chuck Jones in a Victorian mansion/boarding house owned by Peter's uncle at 1090 Page Street in Haight-Ashbury. That house became the site of Wednesday night jam sessions that were organized by Chet Helms who was the real "Big Brother," naming the band, bringing James Gurley into the fold. The band had what Sam Andrew called a "progressive-regressive hurricane blues style."


During the winter of '66, Chuck Jones left the band and was replaced by Dave Getz who played his first gig with the band on 12 March at the Matrix on Fillmore Street. Peter Albin was the main vocalist at this time, and although Sam Andrew helped out with the singing, both men knew that the band needed a singer who could match the group's instrumental energies. Chet Helms remembered a friend from his University of Texas days, Janis Joplin, and proposed that he bring her back to San Francisco, where she had tried to launch a singing career in 1963-1964. Janis came to town, sang a couple of tunes with the band at their Henry Street studio, and was enthusiastically welcomed into the group. 

Big Brother acquired a new manager at Monterey Pop, Albert Grossman, who brought them to Columbia Records where they made their second album, Cheap Thrills, which was No. 1 on the charts for eight weeks. The music on the album was energetic and driving, the perfect match for Joplin's voice. Guitar Player magazine called James Gurley the "Father of the Psychedelic Guitar." 


What sets this music apart from other bands of its time was the combination of terrific, brilliantly orchestrated and arranged instrumentals, Joplin's amazing, spectacularly expressive vocals channeling the agony ("I Need a Man To Love") and the ecstasy ("Summertime") of love and life in the bluesiest blues to come out of Texas (by way of San Francisco). The standout are of course, "Piece of My Heart" and the showstopping "Ball and Chain." A little more than a year following Woodstock, like Jimi a month before her, Janis would be gone.

Joplin was born in Port Arthur, Texas, an oil refinery town, in 1943.  As a teenager in the late 1950s, she had read about Jack Kerouac and the Beatniks, began to dress in her own style, and started listening to blues music with her few high school friends. Blues singers like Bessie Smith and Leadbelly were among her favorites. Janis soon made her way to California and ended up in San Francisco's music and hippie scene.  At Monterey Pop she captured national attention with her incredible performance of "Ball and Chain." From that point on, she became a national phenomenon.