50 Years Ago: Janis Joplin Releases Debut Solo LP, ‘I Got Dem Ol’ Kozmic Blues Again Mama!’
Anyone who heard Janis Joplin's knockout performance on Big Brother and the Holding Company's 1968 album Cheap Thrills knew she wouldn't be sticking around for long. Her voice, her charisma, just about everything about the Texas-bred singer, in fact, was too big for the sometimes plodding San Francisco blues rockers backing her.
Months after Cheap Thrills was released and reached No. 1, Joplin left Big Brother, with whom she made two albums. She just wanted to do her own thing and took the band's guitar player, Sam Andrew, along with her for her new group the Kozmic Blues Band, which was mostly comprised of studio vets.
From the start, Joplin preferred her music straighter and more natural than many of her contemporaries. She had little room for the psychedelic shadings that so many of her peers dosed their tunes with. She was a huge R&B fan, and in turn had already covered cuts by Big Mama Thornton ("Ball and Chain") and Emma Franklin (Aretha's sister) on "Piece of My Heart" with Big Brother, reinventing them in her own ballsy, bluesy, raspy style along the way.
But with her debut solo album, I Got Dem Ol' Kozmic Blues Again Mama!, on the horizon, Joplin used a classic '60s R&B template as her guidebook. Employing a horn section and a pop sound pretty much foreign to Big Brother, Joplin and producer Gabriel Mekler steered the sessions away from her old band's hippie collective and toward a more inclusive market.
But they still handpicked songs that fit Joplin's voice and aesthetic, like Jerry Ragovoy and Chip Taylor's "Try (Just a Little Bit Harder)," and "Maybe," a 1958 doo-wop classic by the Chantels that was later covered by the Three Degrees, who took it back into the Top 40 in 1970.
In fact, only two original songs were included on I Got Dem Ol' Kozmic Blues Again Mama!: "One Good Man," which Joplin penned herself, and "Kozmic Blues," which she co-wrote with producer Mekler. San Francisco songwriter Nick Gravenites, who later joined Big Brother as their singer, also wrote two songs for the album, including the concert showstopper "Work Me, Lord."
Listen to Janis Joplin's 'Kozmic Blues'
But no matter who wrote the songs, or even performed them originally, like almost everything else she wrapped her voice around, Joplin made most of them her own. If the results weren't as stunning as those found on Cheap Thrills, at least the band was tighter and more focused -- even if it wasn't by much. (That tightened focus came at the expense of a general looseness, which the album unfortunately lacks. Only Joplin sounds like she's totally in the moment.) But more importantly, they lifted Joplin into the spotlight where she always belonged. She was no longer just a singer in a band.
Behind the scenes, however, she was unraveling. Rumors began circulating that Joplin was blowing $200 a day to feed her heroin habit (Mekler stated in Buried Alive: The Biography of Janis Joplin that he moved her into his house during the recording sessions to keep her away from all those bad influences). On Aug. 16, 1969, Joplin was scheduled to perform at Woodstock. By the time she got onstage – due to various scheduling delays at the festival – she was a druggy mess. She hated her performance so much that she refused to allow it on the soundtrack or in the movie that were released shortly after the fest made headlines.
I Got Dem Ol' Kozmic Blues Again Mama! came out the following month and climbed to No. 5. "Kozmic Blues" was released as a single and just missed the Top 40. But no matter: Joplin had declared her independence on a record that replicated the R&B records she cherished. A year later she began work on her follow-up LP, but died during the making of the record, on Oct. 4, 1970, at the age of 27 of a heroin overdose. Pearl was released on Jan. 11, 1971, and shot to No. 1, sealing her rock 'n' roll legacy.