Pearl was supposed to be the 60s rock icon’s triumph; instead, it became her epitaph
Pearl was supposed to be Janis Joplin’s triumph. Instead, it became her epitaph.
Work on the album wasn’t even completed when Joplin died, alone in her hotel room, of a heroin overdose in the early hours of October 4, 1970. She was 27 years old.
Her musicians, the Full Tilt Boogie Band, and producer Paul Rothchild, were devastated. Yet they persevered. On October 8, they all returned to the studio to finish the work they had started. Janis had completed most of her of vocals, and if they couldn’t be matched with a suitable backing track, the musicians recorded a new one. The album was completed in 10 days, and released in January 1971, quickly topping the charts. It had been a great technological accomplishment. But for the band and producer, it was a far greater emotional accomplishment.
Rothchild had wanted to sign Janis — and only Janis — in 1966, when she was still with San Francisco hippie band Big Brother & the Holding Company, planning to bring her to LA to join an R&B/soul group he was putting together. Though tempted, Janis ultimately turned him down. He’d later seen her in concert in 1969, after she’d left Big Brother, and been underwhelmed by her performance; she seemed burned out, and not at all the singer he had once been so taken with.
But in the summer of 1970, Janis’ road manager, John Cooke, persuaded Paul to check her out with her new band; things had improved, John assured him. After catching a show in San Diego in July, Paul agreed, and a follow up meeting with Janis sealed the deal. Paul came away impressed by her intelligence, and her desire to improve as a singer. Asked where she saw herself in the future, Janis told him, “I want to be the greatest blues singer in the world,” and Paul was excited about the opportunity to help her achieve this goal. The band began recording demos in LA the following week.
It was meant to be the start of a working relationship that would extend beyond one album. Janis was eager to expand her range, so she wouldn’t always be pigeonholed as the raspy-voiced blues shouter. Of course, there were still songs along those lines on Pearl. “A Woman Left Lonely” falls into what some perceived as typical Joplin; a woman-done-wrong lament. “Get It While You Can” is another song about the perils down the road; live life to the fullest while you’re able, for you never know what lies ahead.
But most of the album is more optimistic in tone. “Cry Baby” might sound like a lament, but Janis isn’t the victim; instead, she’s reaching out to comfort a man who’s had his heart broken by another. And she’s fully in command on the opening track, “Move Over,” demanding that her man make up his mind; is he going to be with her or not? The mid-tempo rock of “Half Moon” and the hearty blues of “My Baby” each express the contentment and satisfaction that comes from being with the one you love. On Bobby Womack’s “Trust Me,” she slows down the pace, telling her potential suitor she needs more time before she knows if she’s ready to make a commitment.
Janis had never before sounded so confident, so at home with her band, her producer, and herself. She’s far more in tune with her musicians on this outing, a rock solid five piece outfit of John Till (guitar), Brad Campbell (bass), Ken Pearson (organ), Richard Bell (piano), and Clark Pierson (drums). They’re better players than Big Brother, and more simpatico than her previous band (not actually dubbed the Kozmic Blues Band until after the group split), the keyboards in particular adding a great melodic counterpoint to Janis’ singing.
VIDEO: Janis Joplin “Mercedes Benz”
Had she not died, the jokey “Mercedes Benz” would likely not have appeared on the album. She’d written it the previous August while waiting to go onstage in Port Chester, New York, riffing on a line by writer Michael McClure (“Oh Lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz?”), and sang it that night, introducing it as “a song of great social significance.” Later, while recording Pearl, she broke into the song unexpectedly when the studio’s main tape deck had gone on the fritz. It was an impromptu performance that might have been lost, had a quarter-inch safety reel not been recording the sessions as a backup. It also turned out to be the last vocal Janis ever recorded, capped with a cackle of laughter at the end. In the wake of her death, what better way to illustrate her spirited good humor than by including it on Pearl?
Janis had been anxious to record Kris Kristofferson’s “Me and Bobby McGee” as soon as she’d heard it. She was far from the first to record it, but her version wiped all other contenders away; it’s Janis that comes to mind when you think of the song. She took what was originally a country song and reinvented it, starting out sounding like more of a folk singer; reflective, and a bit melancholy. Then the band picks up speed, and her voice becomes increasingly joyful, as she gives herself over to entirely to the glorious rush of the music. It was surely destined to become her signature song.
AUDIO: Janis Joplin “Me and Bobby McGee”
Janis had been expected in the studio on October 4 to record her vocal for “Buried Alive in the Blues.” In a poignant touch, it was decided to include the instrumental track as a tribute to her. It’s a strong, driving number; you can readily picture Janis dancing around the studio while listening to it, as she did on October 3, anticipating the final touches she’d be bringing to it the next day. Now it serves as a reminder of what might have been.
By all accounts, Janis was in great spirits during the recording of Pearl. She told John Cooke that Paul was the best producer she’d ever worked with. She was just as happy with her band, jokingly telling them, “If you guys leave me, I’ll kill ya!” Yet her happiness didn’t keep her from diving back into heroin midway through the sessions, bringing her extraordinary career to a sudden end. So for us, the listeners, Pearl marked the end of a dream. But for Janis, while making the record, the dream was just beginning.