Janis Joplin’s posthumous masterpiece
‘Pearl’ remains a revered recording as it marks its 50th anniversary
Fifty years ago, Janis Joplin was three months gone, but her status as an ageless popular music icon was just beginning with the release of “Pearl.” The album sounds bracing even a half-century later, the sound of an artist really finding her voice.
“Pearl” contained Joplin’s take on “Me and Bobby McGee,” an instantly revered recording that found Joplin singing Kris Kristofferson’s words with both coiled restraint and enormous feeling. The song ended up being Joplin’s only Top 40 hit under her own name; with Big Brother and the Holding Company, she hit No. 12 in 1968 with “Piece of My Heart.”
But “Me and Bobby McGee” reached No. 1 with Joplin’s name attached to it, a posthumous chart topper that continues to circulate ubiquitously a halfcentury later.
Because 1971 was a rich one for music, this year will be full of commentary about beloved albums turning 50. This week marks another big one by a Texas act: “ZZ Top’s First Album” was released 50 years ago. The year also saw the release of Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On,” the Rolling Stones’ “Sticky Fingers,” Sly and the Family Stone’s “There’s a Riot Goin’
On,” Joni Mitchell’s “Blue,” Led Zeppelin’s “IV,” Van Morrison’s “Tupelo Honey,” Funkadelic’s “Maggot Brain,” Carol King’s “Tapestry,” Black Sabbath’s “Master of Reality,” Pink Floyd’s “Meddle,” John Lennon’s “Imagine,” Leonard Cohen’s “Songs of Love and Hate,” the Who’s “Who’s Next,” Elton John’s “Madman Across the Water,” Harry Nilsson’s “Nilsson Schmilsson.” The year included outliers, cult favorites by bands that made better-known recordings: The Beach Boys’ “Surf ’s Up” and the Kinks’ “Muswell Hillbillies.”
But notably there was space to fill: For the first time in a long time, 1971 offered nothing new by the Beatles and Bob Dylan.
Into that space arrived “Pearl,” a lustrous gem of an album informed by years of struggle and also a feeling of empowerment. Joplin made her name in San Francisco in the ’60s, half a country away from her home in Port Arthur. In San Francisco’s scene she found her people, a more welcoming crowd than the one that made her feel like an outcast back home. But with “Pearl,” the psychedelic foundation was swapped out for something earthier.
Joplin’s biographer, Holly George-Warren called Texas “ground zero for her musical mission.” “Pearl” was the beginning of a reclamation of her roots.
In “Janis: Her Life and Music,” George-Warren charts Joplin’s path, from insecure singer with a beast of a voice to an artist who implemented her own vision for how that voice should be applied in song. It helped that the Full Tilt Boogie Band was a tight ensemble capable of helping execute Joplin’s vision for “Pearl” rather than an ensemble seeking a singer. Her voice is the star of this particular show, but the elements surrounding it are perfectly calibrated to work with Joplin’s dynamic instrument. The opening track, “Move Over,” opens crisply and simply with Clark Pierson’s drum quickly joined by John Till’s rigid chords and Joplin’s voice. By the time Ken Pearson joins on organ, the vehicle is speeding along.
By contrast, “Mercedes Benz,” another “Pearl” song that has
attained ample renown on its own, is just voice and Joplin slapping along in time. It remains a moving piece of music for its spartan presentation. The way Joplin stretches her vowels exudes pain and playfulness, a high-wire feat for a vocalist.
The blues gets mentioned often with Joplin and “Pearl,” and the blues can be felt
throughout the album. The blues were imprinted on her psyche as an outcast at Lamar State College in Beaumont, an aspiring artist who was obsessed with Bessie Smith and Houston native and blues great Sippie Wallace.
But the coil and release in her vocals on “Cry Baby” and the swooping disparity between the highs and lows on “A Woman
Left Lonely” are befitting a singer whose purse, months before she died, contained an Otis Redding cassette.
Dan Penn, co-author of “A Woman Left Lonely,” told me that he knew he had a great song when it was written. “But I had no idea a singer could do what she did with that song. She brought so much feeling to it.”
“Cry Baby” was a more traditional sounding R&B song when released in 1963 by Garnet Mimms and the Enchanters. The chorus remained the same, a high, soaring expression of anguish. Joplin opted to scuff up the verses more than Mimms. But by that point in her career, she was a more confident interpreter doing what artists do. She took seeming disparate scraps and stitched them into her own coat of many colors.
George-Warren mentioned a bootleg she had of Joplin singing at Threadgill’s in Austin in July 1970. She sang “Me and Bobby McGee” as well as another Kristofferson composition, “Sunday Morning Coming Down.”
“It’s hard not to imagine her doing ‘Help Me Make It Through the Night,’ ” George-Warren said. “I don’t know what the point is of speculation, but I could see her continuing to do that sort of thing. Her incredible connection with Kristofferson and his music, it’s just another thing that ties her back to Texas.”
At the end of that month, on July 28, Joplin recorded a demo of “Me and Bobby McGee.” Two months later, on Sept. 25, she recorded the version that would become iconic. Nine days after that, she died of a heroin overdose at the Landmark Motor Hotel in Los Angeles at age 27.
“She hadn’t gotten even halfway through evolving as a human being,” George-Warren said. “But I also don’t think of Janis as a victim. And that’s one thing I tried to make clear in the book. She was the captain of her own ship. She knew what she was doing, the risks she was taking. Going back to when she was 14 and reading ‘On the Road.’ That whole idea of the Beats and living life on the edge, it stuck with her. She didn’t get past that notion.”
The 10 songs that would appear on “Pearl” had all been recorded between Sept. 24 and Oct. 1 that year. Nearly a week after she died, the Full Tilt Boogie Band recorded an instrumental titled “Pearl.” The piece didn’t end up on the album bearing Joplin’s nickname, but it did show up in a 2005 reissue. Pearson’s organ is straight out of church and beautifully expressive, creating a beautiful duet partner with Richard Bell’s piano. The band captures the feeling of loss with a flicker of the resilience required to carry on.
And “Pearl,” the album, was celebrated upon arrival. Released in January 1971, the album quickly found its way to the top of Billboard’s album chart. It stayed there more than two months on its way to selling more than 5 million copies worldwide.
Joplin’s estate is celebrating its anniversary — and Joplin’s birthday on Jan. 19 — with some new projects. “Janis Joplin: Days & Summers” is a lavishly reproduced version of Joplin’s scrapbook kept between 1966 and 1968 that will become available in April. A graphic novel and a children’s book will be published this year. Also coming in April is a limited-edition “Pearl”colored vinyl version of Joplin’s greatest recording that continues to enchant years later.