Janis Joplin: soul singer?
Janis’ death at age 27, just two weeks after the death of Jimi Hendrix, shocked music fans around the world. It also ensured her legendary status, and cemented her reputation as the stereotypical hippie songstress, perpetually high on various substances, her voice surrounded by screeching guitars—so some would believe. Listeners who take the time to delve into Janis’ small output (three albums) will find an artist with considerable range, as each album she released featured a completely different sound. After she’d left Big Brother and the Holding Company’s psychedelic rock sound, but before she moved on to the roots-rock style of her third & final album Pearl, Janis recorded a soul album: 1969’s I Got Dem Ol’ Kozmic Blues Again Mama!
The record’s striking cover image was markedly different than covers from other female artists in the 1960s: it announced, right up front, that this was a woman who did not care if she looked pretty. She was here to sing, to bare her soul, and to connect with her audience, whomever they might be. The vibrant color of her hair and the intensity born out on her face as she sang were revolutionary.
The album contained a couple of songs written by Janis, along with covers of blues and R&B songs. The artist who most inspired the sound of the album was not a woman, but soul singer Otis Redding. Janis’ cover of the Bee Gees’ “To Love Somebody”, a song written by the Gibb brothers for Redding (who died before he could record it), is a testament to his influence.
“Try (Just a Little Bit Harder)” put a rock spin on the soul sound, while “One Good Man” and “Work Me Lord” featured bluesy riffs peppered with Stax-style horns. The title track, “Kozmic Blues”, just missed the Top 40, becoming the album’s highest-charting song. Joplin’s voice is in top form throughout, and her amazing control is fully evidenced by her elegant cover of “Little Girl Blue”. But the album’s biggest success is “Maybe”, a cover of an already-soulful girl group classic from ten years before. In Janis’ skillful hands, the song becomes something so much more, and the listener is left to wistfully imagine what might have been.
Janis’ legacy has made her unforgettable, but it has also overshadowed some of her musical contributions. Kozmic Blues may not be the typical soul album, but it is a soul album nonetheless. Aside from the obvious signifiers (the distinctively Stax/Volt-influenced guitars and horns), the emotion poured into each song should guarantee its spot in the soul music canon.