Nowadays, major labels regularly and repeatedly reissue the same music, hoping to ring up additional sales of the same recordings. Often, they accomplish this by adding a few unreleased bonus tracks to each new package. The latest Janis Joplin two-CD set from Columbia, The Essential Janis Joplin, is a good example of this trend, with 21 of 30 tracks coming from Joplin’s four original albums and only two previously unissued songs . Before releasing this new compilation, Columbia already had no fewer than five Janis Joplin greatest hits packages on the market. Greatest Hits, the original Joplin best-of, was remastered in 1999. 18 Essential Songs, released in 1995, has almost twice as much music as Greatest Hits, but it does not include the hit single version of “Me and Bobby McGee”. The first Joplin box, Janis, spreads the best of her Columbia output and rarities over three discs. A second Janis box, the five-disc Box of Pearls, features every track from her four original albums plus rarities not on the first Janis box. The Essential Janis Joplin is presumably for listeners who want more than a single disc of Janis but not more than two.
All that being said, we now come to a much more important question: is the music any good? I say yes, resoundingly. Anyone familiar with Janis probably already agrees. If you have not heard her music before, I suggest that you at least purchase one of Joplin’s single-disc best-ofs, if not this two-disc set.
Stylistically, Joplin’s deeply moving art appears to come from three places. Two are understandable, if not predictable: the psychedelic rock she was exposed to after moving to San Francisco and the vintage blues so many young folks were fascinated by in the ‘60s. In contrast, the third influence, pure soul music, seems at first glance to be out of left field, though it increasingly informed Joplin’s music as her career progressed.
I can imagine Janis at Monterey Pop, surrounded by, and generating, a great deal of excitement. The Who smashed their guitars, Hendrix set his on fire, and Joplin made a name for herself with her tortured version of Big Mama Thornton’s “Ball and Chain”. Amidst all this, soul star Otis Redding simply tore the house down, affecting Janis deeply and leaving just about everyone in the audience with their mouths hanging open.
From then on, over the course of three years and these two CDs, Joplin evolved into the finest caucasian female soul vocalist this side of Dusty Springfield. She cut thoroughly convincing versions of many now familiar soul songs, a few of which became famous because she recorded them: “Piece of My Heart”, recorded before by Aretha Franklin’s sister Erma; “Raise Your Hand”, by Otis Redding’s Stax labelmate Eddie Floyd; “Tell Mama”, made famous by Etta James; “Cry Baby”, originally a hit for Garnett Mimms; and, of course, “Get It While You Can”, which Jerry Ragovoy and Mort Shuman wrote for Howard Tate. “Work Me, Lord”, by bluesman Nick Gravenites, “A Woman Left Lonely” by Dan Penn and Spooner Oldham, “My Baby” by Ragovoy and Shuman, “Trust Me” by Bobby Womack and even the Bee Gees’ “To Love Somebody” also qualify as soul songs, as do “Maybe” and the Sly Stone-influenced “Try (Just a Little Bit Harder).” In other words, nearly half of this two-CD retrospective is comprised of very soulful numbers.
Like Dylan, Janis did not have a conventionally beautiful voice. It was rough and grainy but, at the same time, real and expressive. As with any great soul singer or interpreter of the blues, it’s the feeling that matters. When Janis sings these songs, though they flow from the deep well of African-American culture, I believe her. Why? Because I can feel her pain. I once saw her respond to an interviewer’s question about her childhood and adolescence in Port Arthur, Texas. As she responded, the pain on her face and in her voice was so palpable I could almost reach out and touch it. This pain is what seems to drive her music, almost all of which expresses her desperate need to be loved and the unbearable anguish she felt when she was not.
Sadly, that pain also seems to have led her to kill herself with heroin at the tender age of 27. As suggested by the Rodgers and Hart song she sings here, Janis really was “Little Girl Blue”. Somehow, though she took her own life, knowing that she felt and honestly expressed her sorrow and longing gives me some kind of hope. At least we have her music to remember her by.
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