Janis Joplin is one of the rawest and most authentic blues rock vocalists to come out of the psychedelic counter culture scene of the West Coast in the late 1960s. She was born in Port Arthur, Texas, and as an aspiring singer moved to San Francisco to try out for a band in 1966 that her hometown friend Chet Helms managed. The band was Big Brother and the Holding Company who were part of the Haight Ashbury hippie counter culture that included bands like the Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane among others. When the band performed at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967 her performance mesmerized the audience and she became “the first lady of rock and roll.” She recorded two albums with Big Brother and the Holding Company and two solo albums before she tragically died of a heroin overdose on October 4, 1970 at the age of 27.
The following is list of Janis Joplin’s best songs.
10. “Mercedes Benz”
“Mercedes Benz” was on Janis Joplin’s final album Pearl that was released posthumously in January 1971. It was a song co-written by Joplin, Bob Neuwirth, and Michael McClure that is sung a cappella by Janis alone. The lyrics sound like the prayer of someone that was sick and tired of being poor and watching the favoritism that God was showing to others. One comment about the song claimed that it was an indictment against consumerism.
9. “Me and Bobby McGee”
“Me and Bobby McGee” is also from Pearl which was released three months after her accidental overdose on heroin and became her only single to chart at #1 in the US. It was written by her former boyfriend Kris Kristofferson and Fred Foster and was previously released by Roger Miller in 1969.
8. “Kozmic Blues”
A great cut from Joplin’s first solo album after she split with Big Brother was “I Got Dem Ol’ Kozmic Blues Again Mama!” The song was co-written by Joplin and she performed it at Woodstock a month before the album was released in September 1969. The only member of Big Brother that was in the new band was guitarist Sam Andrew who was a collaborator on multiple levels.
7. “Move Over”
“The Full Tilt Boogie Band” backed Janis Joplin on the Pearl album and “Move Over” was the kick off song on side one. It was one of the few songs she wrote by herself and she performed it passionately on the Dick Cavett Show shortly before she died.
6. “Down On Me”
“Down On Me” is from the debut album by Big Brother and the Holding Company released a few months after the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967 where Janis Joplin made her big time debut and blew the crowd’s mind.
5. “Cry Baby”
“Cry Baby” was recorded before Joplin’s death for the Pearl album and was released as a single with “Mercedes Benz” as the B side. It was a radio hit by Garnett Mims and the Enchanters in 1963 that Joplin would have been familiar with. Her interpretation of the song transforms it from the smooth R&B original to a stratospheric screaming version.
4. “I Need A Man To Love”
“I Need A Man To Love” was co-written by Joplin and guitarist Sam Andrew and appears on Cheap Thrills. As the album opens a crowd can be heard but this was an added effect to simulate a live recording. “Ball and Chain” was the only actual live recording on the album, Joplin admitted this in an interview when asked about it.
3. “Piece of My Heart”
“Piece of My Heart” was the radio hit from Cheap Thrills and was Joplin’s biggest hit until after her death when “Me and Bobby McGee” eclipsed it. The first recording of it was made by Aretha Franklin’s sister Erma in 1967 and was written by Jerry Ragovoy and Bert Berns. The tune itself was written as a soul/funk song expressing the joy of being in love so much that you accept and welcome the pain as much as the ecstasy.
Summertime is another killer cut from 1968’s Cheap Thrills and to tell you the truth, every single cut on the album is great. If there was only one album to buy to appreciate the power and sheer raw beauty of Janis Joplin’s amazing voice this would be the one. “Summertime” is a blues standard originally composed by George Gershwin for Porgy and Bess in 1934. The song has been recorded by everyone from Billie Holiday to Ella Fitzgerald.
1. “Ball and Chain”
“Ball and Chain” appeared on Cheap Thrills which is the second and last studio album that she recorded with Big Brother and the Holding Company and it’s the only live recording on the album. It was taken from a concert at the Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco and contains one of the best guitar solos of the 1960s accompanying Joplin’s stellar mezzo-soprano voice. It was a cover of a song written and performed by blues singer Big Mama Thornton.