Few who have ever seen Janis Joplin perform on television or film (or those lucky enough to have seen her sing in person) will have a easy time forgetting her. She sang a mix bag of originals and old blues numbers, some of them like "Summer Time" by the Gershwin brothers, dating as far back as the 1920s.
But perhaps one of the songs she was most famous for was Big Mama Thornton's "Ball And Chain". I'm not sure if the footage I remember was from her performance at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1968 or another concert, but what I can be sure of was how simply incredible she was. Sometimes it was almost painful to watch Janis Joplin singing in that you felt like you were intruding on someone's personal grief.
As I remember, this concert was one of those occasions, and with each passing song it felt like she was revealing a little more of her soul to the audience. When she sang "Piece Of My Heart", it felt like she was pleading with someone, anyone, to love her enough to take care of her, no matter what else the song might mean. By the time she got to "Ball And Chain" the plea and cry for help and loving was so raw she could have been singing the phone book and you would have wept in empathy for her.
Janis never learned how to protect herself from her audience. So great was her need for affection and approval, she let them swallow her whole. Perhaps in a kinder world she would have some sort of chance of success without the accompanying viciousness, but here she didn't have a hope of surviving.
There are a lot of reasons why Big Mama Thornton would dedicate a performance of her own song "Ball And Chain" to Janis Joplin. I'd like to think it was in recognition of her struggle with her demons, and for gracing the world with her interpretations of Big Mama's songs.
Hearing Big Mama's dedicating a performance of "Ball And Chain" to Janis on the disc Big Mama Thornton put out as part of the Vanguard Visionaries series of discs on Vanguard records you can tell how much Thornton appreciated Janis' version of her song. Thornton, of course, was an amazing singer in her own right, just as fiery and passionate as Joplin. If ever there were, any one woman down through the years who could understand what Janis had experienced it was Big Mama.
A black woman singing the blues in clubs long before the days of rights for either women or black people, she would have probably been subjected to all sorts of indignities in order to even get up on stage. It would have been on the stage singing that she probably felt most alive and free. No matter what happened on the other side of the lights, she was in complete control of her life when she was singing.
Born Willie Mae Thronton in the late 1920s, like so many blues performers of her generation she came to music via the church. She was one of a Baptist minister's seven children in Montgomery Alabama, but had left home for good by the time she was fourteen. After singing and touring with a band for a while she decided to settle in Texas and take advantage of the club scene there to work permanently without having to go on the road.
It was in Texas that she was given the nickname "Big Mama" due to the fact she was over six feet tall and weighed over 200 pounds, but when you listen to her sing you could easily believe she was given the name because of the strength of her voice. Listen to her growl out her version of Lieber & Stoller's "Hound Dog" and compare it to the version Elvis sings.
Thornton's is rough with emotion and she's practically growling at the end, typical of the hard-nosed blues she preferred. Elvis on the other hand has had his version polished so it will be more palatable for mass consumption on the airwaves. Remember Elvis's image was carefully created for him by the Colonel as young and clean cut and the music had to fit.
Big Mama had no such restrictions placed on her and was free to do as she wished musically. Of the ten songs on the Vanguard Visionaries series disc featuring her she has written seven of the ten songs and offers her own arrangement of the traditional "Rock Me Baby." On every song you can here how she uses her voice to create atmosphere and evoke an emotional response from the listener.
You can hear in her voice the characteristics that have gone on to influence singers in future generations. Almost every female singer of popular music who performs rock and roll owes a debt of gratitude to Big Mama Thornton for being the bridge between them and singers like Bessie Smith from an earlier generation. She kept alive the awareness that a female singer doesn't have to sound "pretty" to be effective and they too can have power house voices that can blow the roof off a joint.
Being born in Texas, there is a really good chance that Janis Joplin had the opportunity to see Big Mama perform and heard some of her music while growing up. But even those who may never have heard her until they were adults owe Big Mama a debt of gratitude.
All you have to do is listen to Big Mama Thornton from the Vanguard Visionaries series and you'll see why. Big Mama was a singer, songwriter, and performer par excellence and without her, the sound of modern music would be far different from what it is today.