JANIS JOPLIN – ” Pearl ” The Covers

Posted: September 4, 2022 in MUSIC

The album “Pearl” saw Janis Joplin working with a strong set of songs, plus a tight band in The Full Tilt Boogie Band, and a simpatico producer in Paul Rothchild. She may not have known she was making a masterpiece, but there was no disguising how well the sessions were going. They came to the most abrupt end possible, however, on October 4th, 1970, when Joplin died of a heroin overdose at the age of just 27. A few months later, “Pearl” was released, and while her death couldn’t help but overshadow it, over the years that shadow has receded.

The album has a more polished feel than the albums she recorded with Big Brother and the Holding Company and the Kozmic Blues Band due to the expertise of producer Paul A. Rothchild and her new backing musicians. Rothchild was best-known as the recording studio producer of The Doors, and worked well with Joplin, calling her a producer’s dream. Together they were able to craft an album that showcased her extraordinary vocal talents. The album was more than just a final statement, it sealed Joplin’s place as the best female singer of blues and rock ‘n’ roll of her era, and in “Me and Bobby McGee” it contained her signature song, one that still feels good to hear on the radio.

“Pearl” has been mined for covers, not just by artists looking to salute Joplin, but by artists looking for good songs. As you’ll soon see, they found what they were looking for.

All nine tracks that she sings on were personally approved and arranged by Joplin. “Pearl” features the No1 hit “Me and Bobby McGee”, on which she played acoustic guitar, written by Kris Kristofferson and Fred Foster; “Trust Me”, by Bobby Womack, written for Joplin; Howard Tate’s “Get It While You Can”, showcasing her vocal range; and the original songs “Move Over” and “Mercedes Benz”, the latter co-written by Joplin, Bobby Neuwirth, and Michael McClure.

Who was the most successful British group in the ’70s? Based on sales of singles, it’s Slade. This may come as a surprise in America, where Slade never quite snagged that brass ring, but their big hooks and good-hearted sleaze won and kept them fans in the rest of the world. They did a cover of “Pearl‘s” opening track “Move Over” for the BBC; it got such a good reaction that they recorded another version for their “Slayed?” album. Here’s the BBC take, loud and clear and making you want to move.

“Cry Baby” is the first of two Garnet Mimms covers on “Pearl” Mimms, still alive as of this writing, was no doubt grateful for Joplin’s willingness to tear up her larynx on this one. 1978’s Natalie… Live! saw Natalie Cole further proving there was more to her than being the near-namesake of her father. She blasted out her own take of “Cry Baby” to an adoring crowd, and in doing so left no doubt as to whom the stage and the song belonged on that night.

There are those who saw Maggie Bell as the Scottish version of Janis Joplin. Interestingly, her cover of “A Woman Left Lonely” doesn’t see her trying to match or top Joplin’s “Pearl” take. Instead, she goes prettier, if still powerful. It works, too, as Bell lifts her heart and soul heavenward rather than squeezing it tight.

“Rufusized”, was the second album funk band Rufus & Chaka Khan released in 1974, saw the Chicago band kicking ass and taking names if not prisoners. Their work on “Half Moon” shows them traveling the length of the song like they were painted to it, taking curves and hills with no loss of speed and double the thrill that comes from hearing a band at the top of its game.

“Pearl‘s” lone instrumental wasn’t supposed to be so; Janis was scheduled to sing “Buried Alive in the Blues” the day after she was found dead. The song’s author, Nick Gravenites, was asked to deliver a vocal as a tribute, but he said no, so the backing track was left as is. But the song does have lyrics, and it has been covered with them; one of the better covers came via Paul Butterfield’s Better Days, with Geoff Muldaur picking up what Janis never got the chance to put down. He later sang the song with Joplin’s former band Big Brother and the Holding Company for their 1971 album “How Hard It Is“. 

The Yardbirds were winding down in 1968, with guitarist Jimmy Page setting out his Zeppelin table, but they still had viable music in them. One example was “My Baby.” They recorded this a couple years before Joplin did; theirs was one of a very few Garnet Mimms covers that could betray no Janis influence.

Spoilt for choices on the song “Me and Bobby McGee,” as you can imagine. Big names had recorded the Kris Kristofferson song both before Joplin (Gordon Lightfoot, Kenny Rogers) and after her (Olivia Newton-John, the Grateful Dead). But nobody could have made it their own the way Jerry Lee Lewis did. Barrelling over and through the song, the Killer crams his name into the lyrics as much as he can, his hands working the keyboard like it was a weaving loom. By the end, he’s worked up a thirst, but he never broke a sweat.

The last song Joplin recorded, “Mercedes Benz” saw her accompanied only by a click track. Taj Mahal begins his cover by discarding even that. Then he starts the second verse with a bluesy guitar. By the time the drums and tuba show up, the song’s been filled up–not just with more music, but with a feeling of both despair and untrammelled hope.

Janis Joplin’s “Mercedes Benz” was an accident. The song’s lyrics were written at a Port Chester, N.Y., bar in August 1970 during an impromptu poetry jam between Joplin and songwriter-friend Bob Neuwirth. The lyrics—a sardonic prayer for a sports car, a colour TV and a night on the town—were inspired by the first line of a song written by San Francisco beat poet Michael McClure.

About an hour after the song was completed in Port Chester, Joplin performed it a cappella on a whim when she took the stage at the town’s Capitol Theatre. “Mercedes Benz” was the last song Janis recorded. Three days later I found her body in her room at the Landmark Motor Hotel. She had overdosed on heroin that was way stronger than street heroin had any right to be. For the next few days, everyone was in shock. That Thursday, Paul Rothchild played for us everything he had on tape. It was almost an album. Paul and the band worked for another 10 days to create the best instrumental tracks to go with the existing vocals. Although she had sung “Mercedes Benz” a cappella, Paul knew we had to use it as is.

Bobby Womack, who wrote “Trust Me,” also plays acoustic guitar on the “Pearl” track. Neither he nor Janis introduced it to the world – Jackie DeShannon got there first, on 1968’s “Laurel Canyon“. (Womack’s own take wasn’t released until 1975.) Another version was recorded by Larrington Walker, easily the least-known name in this post; he was a British actor who’d immigrated from Kingston, Jamaica when he was ten years old. His biggest claim to fame was starring in Maxell’s famous “My Ears Are Alight” commercial. He also recorded a single, on which “Trust Me” was the B-side. Considering how well he’d reworked it, I wish he’d done more.

Pearl‘s” grand finale, “Get It While You Can” was a Howard Tate cover. Tate was a bandmate of Garnet Mimms, who introduced him to Jerry Ragovoy, the man who cowrote both of “Pearl‘s” Mimms songs as well as Tate’s. On Chris Cornell’s posthumous covers collection “No One Sings Like You Anymore”, the song opens the album rather than closing it, and it serves as a clarion call to his listeners. Cornell was nearly twice as old as Joplin when he died at 52, but like her, he was another talent gone far too soon.

In 1993 Columbia Records reissued the album on 24kt gold CD as part of their MasterSound series, this edition was remastered by Vic Anesini using the Super Bit Mapping process. In 1999 it was remastered again for the “Box Of Pearls” box set, this version was also mastered by Vic Anesini, it included four previously unreleased live recordings from the Festival Express Tour, recorded on July 4th, 1970, as bonus tracks; it was also released as a standalone release. A two-disc Legacy Edition was released on June 14th, 2005, with six bonus tracks including a birthday message to John Lennon of “Happy Trails,” and a reunion of the Full Tilt Boogie Band in an instrumental tribute to Joplin. The second disc included an expanded set from the Festival Express Tour, recorded between June 28th and July 4th, 1970. The album was again reissued again in 2012 as “The Pearl Sessions“. It contains the original album, six mono mixes, two live tracks and alternate takes of the songs that constituted the “Pearl” vinyl album when Columbia Records released it in 1971. Recordings of Joplin and Paul Rothchild talking between takes give the listener insight into their creative musical process.

I wonder if Janis knew she was recording a masterpiece at the time. I doubt it, but this her 4th & final album is not only her best but one of the best classic rock albums of all-time. here Janis has the perfect blend of blues, pop, folk & rock in the performance & choice of songs to complement her always extraordinary voice. the Full-Tilt Boogie Band play with tasteful restraint, not needing to overplay to prove their chops foreshadowing quality playing such as Tom Petty’s Heartbreakers.

The closing song “Get It While You Can” is a fitting epitaph given Janis’ untimely death. I mourn the loss of what could have been had Janis lived. she finally found her musical balance but unfortunately died before she could have created more. So grateful that she left us with a perfect album.

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