Top 10 Janis Joplin Songs
Janis Joplin‘s rise and fall has been widely documented, from books to stage plays to a Hollywood biopic. But all you need to know about her tragic life — she died at the age of 27 of a heroin overdose — is right there in her voice, chronicled on just four albums during her lifetime: two with lumbering San Francisco blues-rockers Big Brother and the Holding Company and two as a solo artist.There’s pain, joy and a sense that everything could come crashing down at any minute within her familiar rasp. It pretty much sums up her life. Think of our list of the Top 10 Janis Joplin Songs as a primer.
Practically everyone from Miles Davis to Norah Jones has covered ‘Summertime,’ George Gershwin’s 1935 standard from ‘Porgy and Bess.’ It was a hippie-era favorite, with the Doors, Nick Drake and the Zombies all giving the song a spin. Joplin, singing the song on her second album with Big Brother and the Holding Company, undoubtedly was inspired by Billie Holiday’s classic version.
‘Ball and Chain’
Big Brother and the Holding Company, the San Francisco psychedelic blues-rockers who gave Joplin her big break, pretty much barreled through their songs with little subtlety or nuance. But Joplin sizzles on this song originally made famous by R&B singer Big Mama Thornton (Elvis got ‘Hound Dog’ from her). The nine-minute live version of ‘Ball and Chain’ from their second album, ‘Cheap Thrills,’ is a slow-cook highlight.
‘Try (Just a Little Bit Harder)’
Soon after Joplin became a star in Big Brother and the Holding Company, she split from the occasionally coarse group (see No. 9 on our list of the Top 10 Janis Joplin Songs). The opening song on her debut solo album didn’t sound all that different from what she was doing with Big Brother, but she was in control this time. And you can hear her new independence ooze through the song’s slinky groove.
Joplin didn’t write too many of the cuts on our list of the Top 10 Janis Joplin Songs; she was a better interpreter than songwriter. But this hurricane of a tune from her second (and posthumously released) solo album is all Joplin — one of only a handful of songs she penned by herself. ‘Move Over’ opens ‘Pearl’ with a positively assured bluesy sway.
‘Get It While You Can’
‘Pearl”s closing track sounds like a requiem for Joplin, who died three months before the album was released. ‘Get It While You Can’ was originally recorded by obscure soul singer Howard Tate a few years before, and it showcases Joplin’s knack for making relatively unknown songs sound like they were tailor-made for her.
‘Down on Me’
Thanks to Joplin’s showstopping performance at the Monterey Pop Festival during the summer of 1967, Big Brother and the Holding Company’s reputation shot way up. Their debut album was released a couple months after the fest. It’s mostly forgettable, filled with lousy cover songs and sloppy playing. The one keeper is ‘Down on Me,’ which reveals a hint of Joplin’s vocal force.
Joplin’s split from Big Brother and the Holding Company wasn’t as seamless as she and others had hoped. The album itself, while better played than either Big Brother LP, stalled at No. 5 (her last album with Big Brother, ‘Cheap Thrills,’ reached No. 1). And not all of the material was suited to Joplin’s raging voice. ‘Kozmic Blues’ is the album’s highlight, which kicks in for one of her most soulful choruses.
Joplin unearthed another relatively unknown soul song for one of ‘Pearl’s centerpieces. As usual, she and producer Paul Rothchild amped up everything about ‘Cry Baby’ – the bluesy arrangement, the instrumental thrust that charges into the choruses and, most of all, Joplin’s throat-shredding delivery, one of her very best.
‘Me and Bobby McGee’
Like so many other cuts on our list of the Top 10 Janis Joplin Songs, once Joplin got hold of Kris Kristofferson’s laid-back road tune, it was totally hers. In this case, it became her signature song, hitting No. 1 a few months after her death. The Full Tilt Boogie Band, which played on the ‘Pearl’ album, helped steer the song’s driving rhythm, full-steam ahead, to its rousing ending.
‘Piece of My Heart’
Erma Franklin, Aretha’s older sister, recorded the original version of ‘Piece of My Heart.’ She hit the R&B Top 10 with it in 1967. But once Joplin covered it, everyone forgot about Franklin. And for good reason: ‘Piece of My Heart’ made Joplin a star. Her performance is so great that she manages to make even the usually stifled Big Brother and the Holding Company sound good. A truly transcendental record for Joplin.