JANIS’ MUSICAL LADDER
‘Night’ celebrates Joplin’s pedigree
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.”