Janis Joplin

A new music guest blog from Ruddy Adam!

The Incredibly Talented Janis Joplin Performing “Ball & Chain” and “Summertime”

Janis Joplin Singing “Ball & Chain” Live and Raw (1967)

Janis Joplin is another astonishing talent that is not recognized as such by most people because of the negative coverage the media did of her while she was alive. Her music was barred from thousands of radio stations during her lifetime — not because it was bad or vulgar, but because she was a Hippie. Add to that she died of a heroin overdose, which scarred her reputation forever. Nevertheless, she was an extraordinarily talented singer — one that, frankly, we’ve not seen the likes of before or after.

Janis had a beautiful natural voice, sang at a very high intone level (8), could hold a tone very well, could whisper and yell intone up and down the decibel scale, and used astoundingly innovating vibrato (larynx or voice manipulation), and had that rare ability (that so many musicians/singers try to do and usually fail) to make a song her own in a way that absolutely no one can duplicate.

You will hear her beautiful natural voice in the introduction to “Ball and Chain,” and you will also hear her singing four octaves. That is why you must stay through the song to the very last word, even if, for some reason, you don’t like the song, because on the very last word — chain — she shows her exceptional four-octave range by singing down the scale. Unbelievable!

Janis Joplin could have sung anything, any type of music — but she loved the blues. She believed the blues allowed her to express herself — however she wanted — moreso than any other type of music. That’s the way Janis thought, because she was one of those rare birds that we’ve so often studied over the years: a Right-brained Aggressive (RBA).

Like Elvis (another RBA), who often added lines and words to the lyric he was singing, Janis calmly and coolly adds this line to perfectly finish the lyric in “Ball & Chain”: “People tell me what love, what love is like: Well, it’s like a ball and chain.” No possible way to write it as Janis sings it. No way! You have to hear her sing it.

The guitar in this version of “Ball and Chain” is nothing short of startling, though there is a longer version. You should notice that at the beginning the guitar you hear is out-of-tone. This was a popular thing for really sharp guitarists to do at that time; they started out-of-tone and then tuned their strings as they played, to show what experts they were at their craft. It also gets your attention and puts a hook in you; even people who have no idea it’s an out-of-tone sound, that screech at the beginning gets their attention and makes them wonder what’s coming next or whether something is wrong.

Listen to Janis sing vibrato that would rip a many a singer’s vocal cords to pieces. Listen to her move as smoothly as Elvis up and down the decibel scale — all at a high intone level. It’s some feat to sing with this much passion, use so much vibrato, and still remain intone at such a high level.

Janis Joplin’s ability to sing one line smooth and the next raspy is spellbinding, especially when you realize no one else could do that to the degree that she could. Kim Carnes couldn’t do that. Stevie Nicks couldn’t do that. Louis Armstrong couldn’t do that. Esther Phillips couldn’t do that. Macy Gray couldn’t do that. Joe Cocker couldn’t do that. Van Morrison couldn’t do that. Bonnie Tyler couldn’t do that. Rod Stewart couldn’t do that. By far the most innovative voice in modern music, Tori Amos, couldn’t do that. As far as I know, only Elvis could do it — but not nearly to the degree that Janis could.

Take notice. You’ll hear her singing part of one line as smooth as melting ice cream rolling down your throat and the next part as raspy as rubbing your palm over a rusty iron railing. Then she even does part of one word smooth and finishes it raspy. Amazing!

Do not miss Janis singing and holding out “chain” at 5:12 to 5:20. Note the tone quality. Note the passion. Stunning! She comes right down the scale four octaves without the slightest flinch of a strain.

That’s Mama Cass Elliot with the shades on sitting there stunned and amazed — and giving Janis the “Wow! Wow!” when she finishes. I should say! The one thing that Cass Elliot was known for was spotting superb talent. That’s how she got in the group that became the “Mamas and the Papas.” When she met the musical team of John and Michelle Phillips, she recognized John for the musical genius that he certainly was and Michelle for having a perfect voice for the type of music he wanted to create. Cass had the contacts, and would not let up until they let her in the group.

Notice that Janis is sober in this performance. That would not last long.

“Ball And Chain,” by Janis Joplin live at the Monterey Pop Festival, 1967 (5:45)

Janis Joplin Singing “Summertime” Live and Raw (1969)

Everybody and I mean everybody has done “Summertime.” But nobody and I mean nobody does it like Janis Joplin. A couple of words will cover this performance: deep passion and masterful voice manipulation (vibrato).

By 1969, which is two years after “Ball and Chain” above, Joplin was a full-blown heroin addict. No one can last in that kind of shape. She was dead of an overdose only a few months after this performance of “Summertime.”

In this rendition of “Summertime,” you will hear her extraordinary voice abilities displayed in top form. You get everything you can get from a superbly talented, innovative voice: builds and climaxes; builds and anticlimaxes; classical pauses; held-out notes; high-quality intone singing; straight intone singing (a tiny bit!); masterful voice manipulation; word and whole line innovation; smooth and raspy line combinations.

One example of a line change (and there are many) where the original lyric reads, “Your daddy’s rich and your mama is good lookin’. Janis sings it this way, with just the slightest grin when she changes it: “Ah, yo daddy’s rich and yo ma-aah — the fish is mighty good-looking, baabbee.” Very cute. She makes an amazingly perfect transition to pull this one off.

Nobody can sing “baby,” “ba,ba,ba,ba,babeeee,” like Janis Joplin. Nobody can go from casual singing to frenetic screaming to let you know what she’s feeling like Janis — and remain at a high intone level. This is blues sung by a woman who felt what she was singing. And let me tell you for those of you around the world who’ve never heard “Summertime” before: It’s not a blues song. But it was after Janis sang it!

Very early in the song at 1:17 you get blessed with 4-octaves as she holds-out “high.” At 3:50 she shows her ability to hold a note with “morning.” Gracious!

Two of my favorite lines in Janis’ rendering are the last two, sung by perhaps 30 artists before her exactly the same way as they are written and with straight-tone singing. Not Janis, though. Not an RBA, no sir!

The last two original lines read: “There’s nothing can harm you. So hush little baby don’t you cry.” Which, as I said, every prior singer that I’ve heard sings those lines with straight-tone singing (no voice manipulation) and with the original words verbatim.

Janis sings it this way: “Honey — know nothing’s going to harm you — baa-bee. I said, nothing’s ever gonna let you down, baa-bee. Oh it just won’t do it. Hush! Baa-bee, baa-bee, baa-bee, baa-bee, baa-bee, baa-bee, baa-bee, baa-beeee! No, no, no, no, no, no, no — don’t you cry!” Quite innovative! Quite superb!

That superb guitar you hear is James Gulley, one of the all-time great strummers.

If you appreciate passion and innovation in music, Janis hooks you the instant she sings the first word in the song: “summertime.” From there out you get nothing but more of the same: passion and innovation.

A magnificent performance lauded by every living music critic and many musicians at the time. Enjoy!

“Summertime,” by Janis Joplin live, 1969 (4:40)

Note: I took one of Janis’ records to my music appreciation teacher, Miss Buck, in the late 1960s, years after I’d finished studying under her, though we were still very close friends, and she said after hearing it: “What passion! What a voice! My Lord, she sings from her toes up.”

As I’ve told everyone before, Miss Buck was not a fan of people or musicians or singers; she was a professional who greatly appreciated talent. It didn’t matter who they were or what type of music they sang; she taught us all to appreciate talent, no matter who or where it comes from.

She loved passionate performers and artists who had the ability to innovate and create new sounds. Naturally, she fell in love with Janis Joplin 30-seconds into that first record I took to her.

The last time I talked to her before she died in 1985, she said, Nobody has ever sung a note with more passion for what they’re doing, along with having the ear that gave them the ability to innovate and make songs their own, that could top Elvis Presley, Janis Joplin, or Van Morrison.

I was out of town when Janis died, but I did call Miss Buck, of course. Like many of us, all we could think of was, what a waste! Fellow students who went immediately to her house told me she cried when she heard of Janis’ death. She only cried over one other performer, and you know who that was. Another sad waste!

Janis Joplin performing

Janis Joplin performing

2 thoughts on “Janis Joplin

  1. What a shame to lose such a beautiful entertainer…..you started with Platters, Elvis, Tokens and many more doo woo groups….Janis took all of their styles to a new level. I truly miss that era of music and wish this talented lady could still be entertaining us

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