Posts Tagged ‘Janis Joplin’

‘Don’t You Turn Your Back On Love . . .’

Tuesday, April 8th, 2014

Long, long ago, as I was about to graduate from high school, my sister asked me to give her a list of things – records, books and so on – that I might want as graduation presents. I gave her a brief list, and on graduation night, I learned that the list had not been for her – she gave me an Alvarez classical guitar – but for the man she’d been dating for about a year and who, in another year or so, would become my brother-in-law.

From my list, he selected two records: Ram by Paul & Linda McCartney and Janis Joplin’s posthumous Pearl. My placing the latter album on the list was no doubt spurred by hearing Janis’ No. 1 hit, “Me & Bobby McGee,” rolling out of the radio many times earlier that year. And, I think, there was an awareness that Janis had been an important artist, and it was time to learn more about her.

I loved – and still love – Pearl. I loved Ram, too – and still like it – but I knew I would; I wasn’t certain I was going to even like Janis’ album when I put it on my list. But Janis and her band – Full Tilt Boogie – cooked at the right spots and they caressed at the right spots. And two of the tracks spoke to me: Bobby Womack’s “Trust Me” and “Get It While You Can” by Jerry Ragovoy and Mort Shuman.

As I listened to Pearl that summer, the two songs seemed to be two halves of a lesson about girls: Embrace love when it comes, but let it grow in its own time. (At seventeen, I needed all the lessons I could get, but I look back and can see that those lessons, in my life at least, could only successfully be applied after at least one failure to heed them, another reminder that we learn better through experience than we do through even very good lyrics.)

I’ve written about Womack at various times, and I included Joplin’s version of “Trust Me” in my Ultimate Jukebox a few years ago. Today, it’s time to take a listen to “Get It While You Can.” (In the autumn of 1971, the track was released as a single and went to No. 78.)

So why write today about something that happened over the course of the summer in 1971? Because until today, I’d never wondered about where the song “Get It While You Can” came from. It is, as I noted above, a Jerry Ragovoy-Mort Shuman composition, and these days, those names on a label would grab my immediate attention. (So, too, would the name of Bobby Womack.) But not so in 1971. I had much to learn.

That was underlined this morning when I was scanning the Billboard Hot 100 from April 8, 1967. As is usually the case, most of the records at the top of the list were familiar, and many in the lower regions were not. And then, at the bottom, bubbling under at No. 134, was a familiar title: “Get It While You Can” by one Howard Tate.

That sweet record, I learned from some digging, is the original version, arranged and produced by Ragovoy. But as good as it is, it did next to nothing on the Hot 100. After bubbling under for one week, the record was gone. (It was one of six records Tate placed in or near the Hot 100; he had six in the R&B Top 40, as well, but the two lists are not identical: “Get It While You Can” did not hit the R&B chart, while “Baby, I Love You” touched the R&B Top 40 but not the Hot 100 during the summer of 1967. Tate’s best performing record was his first in either chart: “Ain’t Nobody Home,” went to No. 63 on the Hot 100 and to No. 12 on the R&B chart in 1966.)

Would I have liked Tate’s version of “Get It While You Can” if I’d heard it in 1967? Probably not. I wasn’t listening much, and the record’s soul aesthetic was far different than the little bits of pop, rock and light R&B that I was hearing when I did pay attention. I do like it this morning, and there are a few other versions out there that I like a little (I hope to write about those sometime in the next week or so), but when I think of the song, it’s always going to be Janis’ version I hear.

One Part Bliss, Two Parts Agony

Wednesday, June 16th, 2010

What is it that qualifies a record for my Ultimate Jukebox?

Well, it’s not universal acclaim, for there are few records that would qualify under so stringent a rule. I’d hazard that a few Beatles records might. (The 1992 edition of the Rolling Stone Album Guide noted that “not liking the Beatles is as perverse as not liking the sun.”) I do have two records by the Beatles among the songs I’ll be featuring here, but they are, I guess, quirky picks and thus might not find unanimous support. And if Beatles records aren’t unanimous choices, I don’t know what records might be.

Obviously, the records highlighted here are songs that move me one way or another: Some of them make me want to dance (a sight not often granted to non-family members, which is good for the welfare of all). Some of them astound me musically. Some take me to other places and times, both good and ill, and some remind me that there were times when folks were making great music in many places before I was aware of it or even before I was born. And some of them tug on my emotions, bitter and sweet alike.

“Cherish” by the Association is one of the latter. It’s also a record that I once acclaimed as the perfect single or as near as one can get to a perfect single or something like that. And I still think it’s that good. So did a lot of people: Written by Association member Terry Kirkman and produced by the legendary Curt Boettcher, the record spent three weeks at No. 1 during the early autumn of 1966.

And “Cherish” is one of those relatively rare pre-1969 pop/rock records that broke through to me at the time of its release, during the years before I became an active Top 40 listener. Romantic that I was even at the age of thirteen, I’d had crushes, but I recall thinking as I sorted out the record’s lyrics that “Cherish” was describing something several magnitudes greater, a kind of worshipful enchantment that I thought – admittedly vaguely; I was thirteen – must be one part bliss and two parts agony at the same time.

When I finally got my own futile chance to truly cherish someone a few years later, I learned I was right. Even so, or maybe because of the formative memory, “Cherish” remains atop my all-time list:

A Six-Pack from the Ultimate Jukebox, No. 21
“Yakety Yak” by the Coasters, Atco 6116 [1958]
“Cherish” by the Association, Valiant 747 [1966]
“Piece of My Heart” by Janis Joplin/Big Brother & The Holding Company, Columbia 44626 [1968]
“Going Up The Country” by Canned Heat, Liberty 56077 [1968]
“Spirit in the Sky” by Norman Greenbaum, Reprise 0885 [1970]
“Dreams” by the Cranberries from Everybody Else Is Doing It, So Why Can’t We? [1993]

“Yakety Yak” was one of the little playlets that writers Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller put together for the Coasters and other R&B groups during the mid- to late 1950s. The genius of the song is having the tale told almost entirely from the father’s perspective; as I hear it, “Yakety Yak” is the only thing the kid gets to say. And that’s trumped every time by Dad’s “Don’t talk back!” Add to that a stellar saxophone solo by the great King Curtis, and it’s no wonder that “Yakety Yak” was a No. 1 hit, reaching that spot for a week on the Top 100 chart of the time, and topping that era’s R&B chart for seven weeks.

“Piece of My Heart,” which is almost entirely linked to Janis Joplin these days, was originally recorded by Erma Franklin, Aretha’s sister. Franklin’s R&B/soul version of the song did fairly well, making it to the Top Ten of the R&B chart and to No. 62 on the pop chart. Then Joplin and her backing band of the time, Big Brother & The Holding Company, got hold of the song and drenched it in acid. By the time Joplin and her band were done, the song was hers, though I think one can hear echoes of Franklin’s performance in Joplin’s work. The record was released as a single and went to No. 12 during the autumn of 1968.

When those of us of a certain age hear the opening riff to Canned Heat’s “Going Up The Country,” most of us, I’d wager, see the opening sequence to the 1970 documentary Woodstock, which tells the tale of the legendary three-day music festival of the previous summer. The use of the blues ’n’ boogie band’s anthem for the film was a brilliant idea, benefitting both film and band. Now, Canned Heat was hardly unknown at the time, as “On The Road Again” had gone to No. 16 in the autumn of 1968 and “Going Up The Country” had reached No. 11 as 1968 turned into 1969, but I’m sure that the group became far more visible as a result. In another vein, I still have fun demonstrating to music-attuned visitors the opening riff on the quills from Henry Thomas’ 1928 recording of “Bull Doze Blues,” clearly the source of the opening flute riff of “Going Up The Country.”

When my mind wanders to the topic of my favorite one-hit wonders, Norman Greenbaum’s “Spirit In The Sky” usually floats to the top of the pool fairly quickly. I like too many one-hit wonders to be able to sort out an utter favorite, but Greenbaum’s fuzz-drenched single – which went to No. 3 in the spring of 1970 – would certainly be one of the finalists. I’ve seen it lumped in at times with other hit songs of its era that actively promoted religion (see “Put Your Hand In The Hand” by Ocean, as an example), but I don’t think “Spirit In The Sky” is quite as clear in its theology. Not that it matters when the guitar solo hits.

The shimmering and jangly “Dreams” remains an enigma to me. It’s not the lyrics, which tell a pretty straight-forward tale. Nor is it the music, per se. What still puzzles me is Dolores Riordan’s odd keening. Don’t get me wrong, I like it. But it’s such an odd sound – I like odd sounds, sometimes – that I sometimes wonder at the popularity of the Cranberries during the 1990s.  When I first heard the Cranberries sometime around 1993 – almost certainly on Minneapolis’ Cities 97 – I was intrigued but I figured I’d be part of a minority. If so, it was a substantial minority, as the Cranberries did quite well: The group’s debut, Everybody Else Is Doing It, So Why Can’t We?, was a Top 20 album and “Dreams” made it to No. 42 in the Billboard Hot 100. After that, the three succeeding albums went to No. 6, No. 4 and No. 13 before 2001’s Wake Up And Smell The Coffee reached only No. 46. That’s a pretty good run; I won’t say “Dreams” is the best the group did in that run, but it is the track I like the best.

‘I Don’t Need No Light In The Darkness’

Wednesday, February 24th, 2010

Sometimes new stuff comes at you when you don’t expect it. By the summer of 1989 – when I landed in Anoka, Minnesota, for an eight-month stay – I was digging into musical performers and styles new to me (though some of those performers and styles had been around for some time). The digging was for the most part spurred by the contents of two boxes of records I’d bought at a North Dakota flea market during the late winter of 1989, boxes whose contents had introduced me to Mother Earth and had encouraged me to dig into performers about whom little I knew but their names, like Quicksilver Messenger Service, Ian Lloyd, Thin Lizzy, Terri Garthwaite and more. After years of letting music come to me when it would, I began to actively seek out new sounds.

And in July of 1989, a ladyfriend and I went to a concert in St. Paul, a show featuring Ringo Starr with the first incarnation of his All-Starr Band. Beyond Ringo himself, familiar names studded the lineup: Dr. John, Billy Preston, Clarence Clemons, Joe Walsh, Levon Helm, Rick Danko, Nils Lofgren and drummer Jim Keltner. Of all of them, I probably knew Lofgren and his work the least. I knew he’d been in Grin and that he’d worked some with Neil Young. And I was aware that he’d filled the spot created when Steve Van Zandt left Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band in the mid-1980s. And in the interims, I knew, he’d done his own work. But I knew nothing about that work at all.

At mid-concert, as the musicians supporting Ringo were taking their solo numbers, Lofgren counted in a song that started with a shimmering figure above a descending bass. My date and I, standing on our chairs in the sixth row, looked at each other. “You know this one?” she whispered to me. I shook my head, but as I listened, I told myself that I was going to learn about that song starting very soon.

The first step was the song’s name, “Shine Silently,” which my ladyfriend and I learned the following morning as we read reviews of Ringo’s show in the Twin Cities newspapers. From there, finding the song took a little longer than I’d expected; I had to work for a living, and there was so much music out there and so much to do at home. But I continued to keep Lofgren’s name and music in mind as I wandered shops and flea markets. And in February 1990, I found in an Anoka shop a 1981 Lofgren anthology titled The Best, which included “Shine Silently.” A little more than a year later, in 1991, Ringo released an album pulled from his 1989 concert tour that included Lofgren’s live version of the song, and I grabbed that album the first day it was out. The song originally was on Lofgren’s 1979 album Nils in a slower – and lower-pitched – version than the one that showed up on The Best. Without knowing for sure, I’m thinking that the version on The Best was the single version released in 1979 as A&M 2182. I prefer that take and the one from the Ringo Starr tour to the one on Nils.

Here’s the concert version:

The song remains a favorite of mine, partially because I’m a sucker for a descending bass line but mainly for its gentle and loving tone. Here are the key lines:

Shine silently.
I don’t need no light in the darkness.
Shine silently.
No I won’t get lost while your love shines,
Shines on me, shines on me.

A Six-Pack from the Ultimate Jukebox, No. 5
“I’m Gonna Make You Mine” by Lou Christie, Buddha 116 [1969]
“Eli’s Coming” by Three Dog Night, ABC/Dunhill 4215 [1969]
“Trust Me” by Janis Joplin from Pearl [1971]
“Don’t Try To Lay No Boogie Woogie On The King Of Rock & Roll” by Long John Baldry from It Ain’t Easy [1971]
“Strawberry Letter 23” by the Brothers Johnson from Right On Time [1977]
“Shine Silently” by Nils Lofgren reissued on The Best [1979]

“I’m Gonna Make You Mine” was the last of five Lou Christie records to reach the Top 40, and it was separated from his last hit by more than three years, which is an eternity in the singles biz. In addition, the record was kind of clunky at moments, especially in the middle eight. But none of that mattered during the autumn of 1969, when the record went to No. 10, as “I’m Gonna Make You Mine” was the first record of that first Top 40 season that felt like it was about my life. There were no key lines, as the entire record spoke to me and, through me, to someone else. She wasn’t interested then, but five years later, for a too-brief time, she was mine.

Not quite a year ago, my blogging colleague jb wrote at The Hits Just Keep On Comin’ about the television series Sports Night and the use of pop music by producer Aaron Sorkin to, as jb put it, “punctuate storylines.” One of those so used, in an episode that jb called the best in the series’ history, was Three Dog Night’s “Eli’s Coming,” a Laura Nyro song about a womanizer best avoided: “Eli’s coming, hide your heart, girl.” (Though I still wonder about the line “I went to Apollo by the bay.”) In his post, jb noted that one of the characters on Sports Center, even though he knows better now, still hears the song as he did the first time, as something more sinister: “There’s a strangeness about this day. Eli’s coming. . . . From the Three Dog Night song . . . Eli’s something bad. A darkness.” The character continues: “I know I’m getting the song wrong, but when I first heard it, that’s what I thought it meant. Things stay with you that way. . .” Indeed they do. For me the record – which went to No. 10 as 1969 turned into 1970 – was a slightly spooky, idiosyncratic piece of work and nothing more. Since I read jb’s post, however, the song sets me on edge more than it ever did. Thanks, jb. Still, it’s a great record. The key line? Right near the start, riding above that spooky organ for one more instant before the record takes off: “Eli’s a-comin’ and the cards say . . . a broken heart.”

It seems to me that the late Janis Joplin’s reputation rest in large part these days on her admittedly great facility as a blues shouter. She could wail, of course. Much of her work with Big Brother & The Holding Company – “Down On Me” and “Piece of My Heart” come to mind most quickly – was loud and insistent. (And good: One of those two records will show up here before this project is through.) Given the strength of those performances and her work on I Got Dem Ol’ Kosmic Blues Again Mama!, that image of Joplin as a wailer is understandable. Perhaps that’s why of all of Joplin’s work, I prefer Pearl, the posthumously released 1971 album. There are some workouts: “Cry Baby,” “Move Over” and “My Baby” come quickly to mind, and Joplin also takes the quiet start of “A Woman Left Lonely” to places not anticipated. But several times on Pearl, Joplin lets the song tell the story, seemingly holding back. The best of those tracks is her work on Bobby Womack’s “Trust Me.” That’s not to say Joplin’s interpretation doesn’t get intense. But it’s an intensity that seems to me, anyway, to have been very much under control. Key lines:

So if you love me like you tell me that you’re doing, dear,
You shouldn’t mind paying the price, any price, any price.
Love is supposed to be that special kind of thing,
Make anybody want to sacrifice.

I went over the history of the Long John Baldry track “Don’t Try To Lay No Boogie Woogie On The King Of Rock & Roll” in its various title permutations over the course of several posts a while back. (Those post are available here, here and here.) Of the various versions I know about, though – by Gator Creek, Crow, songwriter Jeff Thomas and Baldry – this one remains the favorite. Even with the shaggy dog story about Baldry playing his guitar in the street for pennies as prelude, the track from It Ain’t Easy still makes me wanna dance once pianist Ian Armitt starts accelerating. Key lines: “It ain’t a matter of pork ’n’ beans that’s gonna justify your soul/Just don’t try to lay no boogie woogie on the king of rock and roll!”

The Brothers Johnson’s “Strawberry Letter 23” slipped past me when it was on the charts in the late summer of 1977. I assume I heard it, as it got as high as No. 5 on the Billboard Top 40 chart (No. 1 on the R&B chart), but beyond a vague echo, the song spurs no memories for me. So why is it here in the Ultimate Jukebox? Because after the little filigree intro that was tacked on for the album, the song quickly finds an insistent groove that grabs one’s attention and anchors a great R&B record despite the sometimes surreal lyrics. The instrumental break by guitarist Lee Rittenour breaks into the groove, yes, but it delivers us back there as it fades, and we stroll along. As I noted here the other day, I sense an audio kinship between this record and the Isley Brothers’ long 1973 version of Seals & Crofts’ “Summer Breeze,” and that remains true, I think, as does the record’s lineage back to Shuggie Otis’ 1971 original recording of the song.  Key lines (I think):

A present from you:
Strawberry letter 22.
The music plays, I sit in for a few.

(Post revised slightly with new links December 22, 2012 and January 9, 2014.)

Taking A Few Days Off

Thursday, February 18th, 2010

The Texas Gal is taking a few days off, and I’m going to join her. I should be back here Monday or Tuesday with another six songs for the Ultimate Jukebox. In the meantime, enjoy this little nugget from a long-ago February. And then go read a book or something.

“Down On Me” by Big Brother And The Holding Company (with Janis Joplin)
Live in Detroit in February 1968
From Joplin in Concert [1972]