I can’t tell you that I really enjoy listening to music from the sixties Bay Area scene. Sure, Haight-Ashbury has its place in the history of rock and roll and was an instrumental place of change and consciousness. Jefferson Airplane had its moments and I can enjoy a few of their songs. Grace Slick had a great vocal style that was all her own. I acknowledge that. The Grateful Dead, I was into them briefly, mostly because my roommates were, and it was a phase that I was going through. I listen to them now and I just think `man, that’s sloppy.’ The same can be said for the music behind Big Brother & the Holding Co. But at that time, just as in the early years of punk, it wasn’t about proficiency in the instruments; it was about a feeling and a vibe. Jesus, I’m starting to sound like a hippie.
That being said, no one embodied the spirit of that time and place like Janis Joplin. Before the glut of one-named artists such as Madonna, and during the time of other one-named artists such as Cher and Donovan, there were a few people who went by two names, but you really only needed the one. When you see the name Jimi spelled out in that particular way, one immediately thinks of Hendrix. The same is true for Janis Joplin. Why? Because on the strength of her voice and presence alone, she shook the world to its core.
Cheap Thrills could have been just another BB&tHC record, but after the band was introduced to Janis and she began to record with them, producing one record in 1967 where Janis sang two songs, it became `the true introduction of Janis Joplin to the world’. Just 24 when she sang with the group at the Monterey International Pop Festival, Janis went on to become an icon not just for women in rock, but for rock and roll in general. She could belt them out like nobody’s business, and wouldn’t take crap from anybody. In fact, she stood up to the record company in trying to name the album Dope, Sex, and Cheap Thrills. The record company wanted no part of it in the title, but finally relented to Joplin, adopting the last two words of the original. For many, hearing or seeing Janis Joplin for the first time was life changing, a look into a world of freedom, hedonism, and reckless abandon. Just ask my father-in-law. It was these ideas that led to Joplin’s death mere years later.
But what we have in this album and her two solo efforts, I Got Dem Ol’ Kozmic Blues Again Mama! and Pearl, is a legacy of a huge talent, like so many others, taken from us far too early. Her presence was so powerful that there has been a growing clamor, over the years, for more material. That clamor resulted in a two compilation albums, two live albums, and a box set. But it was Cheap Thrills that introduced some of Joplin’s great and most recognizable songs. She steals the spotlight from vocalist Sam Andrew on opener “Combination of the Two,” then goes on to take over the album. “I Need a Man to Love” is sung from the heart of Janis’ soul and you can feel it coming out of the speakers. George Gershwin’s “Summertime” is transformed into a whole new song by the group, one of the band’s finer musical moments to be fair.
“Piece of My Heart” will always be a signature Janis Joplin song. True, she didn’t write it, but a great vocalist makes a song their own. Sinatra knew it, Dean Martin knew it, and more recently, Jeff Buckley knew it. The album is a combination of live recordings from earlier in the year and the few studio tracks they laid down before Janis went solo. “Piece of My Heart” is one of those done in the studio and somehow outshines all of the live versions that were yet to come. Much has been written about the vocal chord shredding wail at 3:31 into the song. She was more than just the female version of Robert Plant, she was in many ways better, and this song was the one that made Joplin a rock and roll star in her own right, a year before the first Zeppelin album was even released.
She did write the amazing “Turtle Blues” however, which showcased the fact that she wasn’t just an amazing singer. “Ball & Chain” is the nine minute blues odyssey that many remember from the band’s live performances. Again, Joplin puts so much of herself and her emotions into her renditions of songs that you can’t help but be moved. Her first slow burn screech at 2:22 into the song is pure passion vocalized. The film version of the Monterey International Pop Festival by D.A. Pennebaker, who also directed the Bob Dylan film Don’t Look Back and David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust: The Motion Picture, captured the now legendary version of “Ball and Chain” that the group performed.
Janis would go on to record a solo album in 1969 which featured the hit “Try (Just a Little Bit Harder)”. Her second solo effort, the unfinished Pearl from 1971, was magnificent, featuring some of her best work to date. Unfortunately, Janis never got to finish the album because of her heroin overdose. Just like with so many other artists who never reached their full potential, we don’t know where Janis would have gone with her career, what heights she would have hit, and what directions she would have taken us, but we remain thankful for the gift of music she gave to us and listen to her wail the blues like nobody else could.
Similar Albums/ Albums Influenced:
Janis Joplin- Pearl
Led Zeppelin- Led Zeppelin II
Otis Redding- Complete & Unbelievable: The Otis Redding Dictionary of Soul