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10 Tracks to Remember Janis Joplin

Hear our selection of the American singer-songwriter’s best songs

Narendra Kusnur Oct 04, 2020

Janis Joplin. Photo: Elliot Landy/Wikimedia Commons

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Around a fortnight after legendary guitarist Jimi Hendrix was found dead, the rock world was in for another shock with the demise of Janis Joplin. She was considered one of the prime female rock vocalists of her time, along with Jefferson Airplane’s Grace Slick.

October 4th marks 50 years since Joplin’s death, attributed to heroin overdose. Though she was only 27, like Hendrix and Jim Morrison of the Doors, who died the following year, she had many memorable songs to her credit. She released four studio albums, including two with the group Big Brother And The Holding Company.

Joplin’s last album Pearl, released posthumously, was a commercial success. She was broadly categorized as rock, but her style infused elements of blues and soul. Here we choose 10 of her definitive songs.

1. “Me and Bobby McGee”

This song, written by country star Kris Kristofferson and Fred Foster, was recorded by Joplin a few days before her death. It was about two hitchhikers, the narrator and Bobby, who could have been of either gender. Joplin heard the original and loved it so much she wanted to record her own take. Unfortunately, Kristofferson heard it only the day after Joplin died.

2. “Mercedes Benz” 

This was recorded three days before Joplin died and was her last song. It was written by the singer with assistance from poet Michael McLure and folk singer Bob Neuwirth. The song was said to be a rejection of consumerism, as Joplin asked God to buy her a Mercedes Benz, a color TV and a ‘night on the town.’ It was produced by Paul A. Rothchild, who worked with the Doors.

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3. “Summertime”

One of the most covered songs ever, “Summertime” was a standard composed by George Gershwin with lyrics co-credited to DuBose Hayward and Ira Gershwin. Joplin gave it a totally different twist with her trademark scream, word repetition style and some outstanding arrangements. It was a regular feature at her live shows, though it also came under criticism from old school jazz lovers.

4. “Down On Me”

One of those freedom songs from the 1920s, this got a fresh lease of life when Joplin wrote fresh lyrics and added psychedelic rock arrangements. It was featured in her album Big Brother And The Holding Company. The last stanza “Believe in your brother, have faith in man, help each other, honey, if you can; because it looks like everybody in this whole round world, is down on me” became a singalong favorite.

5. “Piece of My Heart”

This was Joplin’s biggest hit when she was alive, eclipsed later by “Me And Bobby McGee” and “Mercedes Benz.” It was originally recorded by Emma Franklin, but Joplin and Big Brother gave it a psychedelic rock feel with brisk guitar solos. At shows, fans sang along to the lines “Take a little piece of my heart, baby.”

6. “Kozmic Blues”

The first song Joplin recorded after parting ways with Big Brother, it was co-written by producer Gerald Mekler. Featured in her album I Got Them Ole Kozmic Blues Again Mama!, the song was part of her setlist at the Woodstock festival in 1969. Joplin’s high-pitched wails set a benchmark for female rock vocalists.

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7. “Ball And Chain”

This was another of those examples where Joplin took a known song and gave it her own twist. “Ball And Chain” was recorded by blues great Big Mama Thornton, and Joplin’s version had all the characteristic screaming associated with her. This was played in many live recordings.

8. “To Love Somebody”

The song was originally performed by the Bee Gees and was recognized as a ballad. Joplin’s version had a lot of brass arrangements, and though it did not become as popular as the original, she was admired for her innovation and stylized vocals.

9. “Cry Baby”

When it came to powerful blues-rock vocals, Joplin was in her element on this song. The number was originally performed by Garnet Mimms and the Enchanters, and covered by Aretha Franklin and Otis Redding too. Joplin’s raw vocals gave it a different feel altogether, and many later singers used her style.

10. “Tell Mama”

Joplin performed this at the Festival Express in Toronto in 1970 as a tribute to her idol Etta James, who had adapted the Clarence Carter song “Tell Daddy.” It was used in bonus reissues later and has remained one of her most brilliant live renditions, with sizzling vocals all through.

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