‘Night’ cel­e­brates Jo­plin’s pedi­gree

Chicago Sun-Times - - ENTERTAINMENT - BY MIRIAM DINUN­ZIO Staff Reporter Email: md­i­n­un­zio@sun­times.com Twit­ter: @Miri­amDiNun­zio

There’s just no mis­tak­ing that voice. Just lis­ten to the open­ing strains of “Me and Bobby McGee,” or “An­other Piece of My Heart.” It’s all there, that ex­plo­sive mix of earthy blues, rock, soul and gospel. And when Ja­nis Jo­plin sang, the whole world took no­tice.

The Texas na­tive headed to San Fran­cisco in 1963 for the Haight-Ash­bury neigh­bor­hood and the hip­pie drug cul­ture that was its call­ing card. Though Jo­plin, a self­pro­claimed “mis­fit,” would even­tu­ally be­come syn­ony­mous with its Flower Power coun­ter­cul­ture, the in­tense San Fran­cisco scene quickly sent Jo­plin pack­ing. She re­turned to Texas and en­rolled in col­lege, but just three years later, she­was back in Cal­i­for­nia for good, record­ing with the high-pro­file band Big Brother and the Hold­ing Com­pany, and de­liv­er­ing her elec­tri­fy­ing break­out per­for­mance at the Monterey Pop Fes­ti­val in 1967. Four years and sev­eral iconic al­bums (her fi­nal one re­leased posthu­mously) and per­for­mances later, she would be dead at the age of 27.

Jo­plin’s mu­sic is be­ing cel­e­brated in “A Night With Ja­nis Jo­plin,” the Broad­way juke­box mu­si­cal/con­cert writ­ten and di­rected by Randy John­son, which chron­i­cles the singer’s life through her mu­sic mile­stones. The tour ar­rives at the Chicago Theatre on March 6.

Star­ring Mary Brid­get Davies (who re­ceived a Tony Award nom­i­na­tion for her turn on Broad­way), the mu­si­cal is not a Jo­plin biopic per se. Rather, the show ex- plores the tra­jec­tory of her ca­reer up to her death from a heroin over­dose.

“Peo­ple think she landed at 27 a big rock star,” Davies said. “Truth is she grew up in Texas, had all those very proper man­ners and re­spectabil­ity of this very straight­for­ward, Amer­i­can up­bring­ing. There was a con­stant strug­gle be­tween her be­com­ing this pi­o­neer in the coun­ter­cul­ture while all she wanted to do was please her par­ents and be a de­voted daugh­ter. The show is not chrono­log­i­cal through the years, but through the mu­sic we take you to all those leg­endary places and record­ings, like Madi­son Square Gar­den and Wood­stock and Monterey and ‘Pearl.’ ”

Davies is no stranger to Jo­plin’s mu­sic, as it per­me­ated her child­hood and later her ca­reer. A singer by trade, Davies has worked with var­i­ous rock bands in her na­tive Cleve­land and even toured with Big Brother and the Hold­ing Com­pany.

“Ja­nis’ mu­sic was part of my par­ents’ mu­sic when I was grow­ing up,” Davies said. “Lis­ten­ing to rock and blues since I was a teen re­ally helped me grav­i­tate to­ward mu­sic in gen­eral. And when I be­gan singing, peo­ple would point out that I sounded like Ja­nis, but it wasn’t any­thing I re­ally paid at­ten­tion to un­til I was play­ing this biker bar just out­side of Cleve­land when I was about 21 and some­one came up to me and said, ‘You could sing the hell out of a Jo­plin tune.’ So I went back into re­hearsal with my band and said I wanted to try some of her stuff, and so we did.

“And even though I had sung along to her al­bums around the house, I re­ally didn’t have the emo­tional el­e­ment of what she had done vo­cally— all that heartache you go through and pile on in your life as you get older,” Davies con­tin­ued. “Slowly I started to un­der­stand where she was com­ing from. Be- cause most of all, when this role came my way, I didn’t want to be some mock­ing­bird just mim­ick­ing the songs. I needed that emo­tion way down deep to con­nect to the mu­sic be­cause that’s the only way I would be able to con­nect to the au­di­ence. She was so much more than this tough, bawdy blues squawker singing in front of a psy­che­delic blues band.”

Davies said fans will get their fill of Jo­plin’s big­gest hits, ev­ery­thing from “Me and Bobby McGee” and “Piece of My Heart,” to “Cry Baby” and “Sum­mer­time,” and so many more. But the show also cel­e­brates Jo­plin’s big­gest mu­si­cal in­flu­ences: singers such as Aretha Franklin, Etta James, Odetta, Nina Si­mone and Bessie Smith.

“There have been shows that take you through the demons and the drugs,” Davies said of other Jo­plin tributes, “but this one is all about the mu­sic pedi­gree, the women who shaped her mu­sic world.”

What would Davies say to Jo­plin, if the leg­end was still alive?

“I would just say thank you for all the sac­ri­fices she made to make it eas­ier for all of us who came af­ter,” Davies said. “If it wasn’t for peo­ple like Bessie Smith or Whit­ney [Hous­ton] or Ja­nis or Etta [James]— there were so many walls bro­ken down by th­ese women who re­fused to sit idly by and wave a tam­bourine and be dis­missed in the mu­sic busi­ness, which was and to a great ex­tent still can be a man’s world. Their work, their sac­ri­fices gave us a foothold.”

Jo­plin was in­ducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1995. She posthu­mously re­ceived a life­time achieve­ment award from the Gram­mys in 2005.


Mary Brid­get Davies (cen­ter) stars as the ti­tle char­ac­ter in “A Night with Ja­nis Jo­plin.”

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