Thursday, October 05, 2006

Take another little piece of my heart

As my good friend Sailor reminded me, yesterday was a sad day in American rock history:
Janis Lyn Joplin (January 19, 1943October 4, 1970) was an American blues-influenced rock singer and occasional songwriter with a highly distinctive voice. Joplin released four albums as the frontwoman for several bands from 1967 to a posthumous release in 1971.

As a member of the, (ahem) Woodstock Generation, I was lucky to see Janis & Big Brother and the Holding Company one time. I wrote about it when I took part in a blogger "Musical Meme" deal last year, under the section titled:

Top 5 Live Musical Experiences

1. The Beatles, August 28, 1965, Balboa Stadium, San Diego, CA

During these few years, everything was new. Kids today won't understand that. This was when rock was being defined, fine tuned, & refined. Every day brought sounds never heard before. Most of them started with these guys. Screaming girls, and an energy in a moment of history never to be seen again. Thrilling, yet somehow sad. Those were the days.

2. Buffalo Springfield, Spring, 1968, The Purple Haze, Riverside, CA

My band, The Shades Of Time, opened for them. What a thrill, hanging out backstage with guys we had seen on TV. Only drag was, my band didn't have a lot of original material yet, and we knew almost all of their first album. Needless to say, we played other stuff.

3. Vanilla Fudge, Spanky & Our Gang, opening for The Bee Gees, Spring 1968, Anaheim COnvention Center, Anaheim, CA

The BeeGees with an orchestra touring on their first album were pretty amazing, years before Saturday Night Fever. But the reason for going to this show was Vanilla Fudge. Histrionic, overwrought, too complex, yet knock you back in your seats stunning in their intensity. Most noted for their outrageous takes on Motown chestnuts (You Keep Me Hangin' On), they were truly original, and blew the roof off the joint.

4. Jimi Hendrix Experience, Spring 1969, Swing Auditorium, San Bernardino, CA

Every rock guitarist ever since owes his/her entire existance to this man.

5. Big Brother & The Holding Company, feat. Janis Joplin, Spring, 1968, Swing Auditorium, San Bernardino, CA

I'll never forget when she sang her first note. I looked at my friend (and bass player in my band), he looked at me, our jaws dropped, and stayed there. Transcendental music experience.

Honorable mention:

Chicago Transit Authority, Fall 1968, The White Room, Anaheim, CA

On their first pass through LA, they played The Shrine Friday night. My girlfriend saw them, heard them say that they were playing in OC Saturday night, and made me go. In a tiny room, on a stage 12 inches high, horns blasting, they created a sound totally new at the time. This was the Chicago of "25 or 6 to 4", not "Color My World." This was the Chicago of Terry Kath, and Peter Cetera before anyone told him he was a star. This was a bunch of guys living in a ratty house in Hollywood, playing their asses off, making new music.

The Doors, Spring 1968, Swing Auditorium, San Bernardino, CA

Hearing "Light My Fire" live was so much better than the record.

I also wrote about Janis in a slightly less reverent manner here:
Joplin, while surely at the peak of her powers, was also at the peak of drug addiction and self-destruction. It's hard to predict what she would have done, but I can picture her as an elder stateswoman of rock, an slightly older Aunt to Bonnie Raitt, Rickie Lee Jones, Joni Mitchell, and a contemporary of Mick Jagger: not doing anything new or different, but still doing what she did so well.
It's all conjecture, so take it for what it's worth. But for a short slice of time, she gave us much: an original voice, an original stage persona, and a hell of a lot of sweat and music. She opened some serious doors for female artists.

The wikipedia article talks about that, but as someone who was there during that time, I can add to that. At a time when female rockers were sweeter, or at the opposite end of the spectrum coldly intense, (Grace Slick), Janis was a throwback to an era that most of her audience was too young to understand.

During '67 - '68, I went to many concerts at the Shrine Exposition Hall here in L.A. Many fantastic shows. All English Nite: Jeff Beck, 10 Years After, Moody Blues, all for $2.50. One night, one of the opening acts was Big Mama Thornton, who many folks had never heard of.


She joined Sammy Green's "Hot Harlem Revue" and toured throughout the South in the 1940's. While touring Texas in 1948, Thornton left the Revue in favor of the state's growing club scene, which she immersed herself in. It was during this time that she was discovered by Don Robey, a black entrepreneur who owned several clubs and record stores in the Houston area. Impressed by her massive size (6 ft, 350+ lb),formidable multi-instrument abilities, and fiery stage presence, Robey signed her to his Peacock Records label, where he began the task of translating the forceful belter's energy onto record.

Her big hit came, not from Robey's capable pen, but from the young songwriting team of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. It was "Hound Dog," which she recorded in 1953 with the Johnny Otis band. Big Mama Thornton always claimed to have written the song herself (a claim which may actually hold some validity), and her ferocious rendition of it ( complete with Big Mama's growl and a nasty guitar line by Pete Lewis) held the #1 spot in the Billboard rhythm and blues charts for nine weeks. Unfortunately for Thornton, Elvis Presley's smoother and bowdlerized version was a major pop hit in 1956 and successfully eclipsed her biggest claim to fame.

Thornton continued to tour the "chitlin' circuit" as fans began to favor newer R&B sounds over blues. For some years, Big Mama suffered in obscurity like most of her fellow bluesmen. Her name gained wider prominence and her career enjoyed a significant resurgence as her song "Ball and Chain" was covered by Janis Joplin, making it a regular number in her repertoire. From that point onward, Thornton would remain a headliner at blues festivals, colleges, and clubs throughout the country and even in Europe. She began recording again, and released albums for the Arhoolie, Mercury, and Vanguard labels. Years of hard drinking and living began to take their toll, however, and by the late 1970s her health (and her trademark girth) had declined greatly. She nevertheless performed until her death in 1984 in Los Angeles, where she was found dead from natural causes in the boarding house room she had been living in. Johnny Otis conducted her funeral services, and she was laid to rest in Inglewood Park Cemetery.

So Janis schooled white kids about Big Mama, and Billie Holliday, and, well, the list is too long. I'm not sure she innovated, but she surely repected and tried to share the Blues, especially from a woman's perspective.

For that, she deserves reverence.