Bursting out of the west from the California rock scene, singer Janis Joplin rose to fame after her legendary performance at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967. She was a force to be reckoned with, and she sang like no other before her. With a tough childhood under her belt and years of life spent on the road, she held nothing back with her music and her live performances. Her vocals were both uninhibited and perfectly controlled at the same time. And the blues-rock sound she produced with her band Big Brother and The Holding Company churned out hit after hit. After her debut at the Monterey Pop Festival, she solidified her legacy as one of rock’s most talented performers by gracing the stage at America’s biggest music events, like the 1969 Woodstock Festival.
Her album Pearl was her biggest release, including the smash Kris Kristofferson hit cover ‘Me and Bobby McGee.’ Unfortunately, Joplin passed just before the album’s release. Though her time as an international rock superstar was short-lived, her legacy and the one-of-a-kind music she left behind is timeless. Below, we unpack some of Janis Joplin’s best songs.
10. Call On Me
A Big Brother and The Holding Company original, the rock band would be the lineup that played alongside Janis Joplin for years after they formed in 1965. Hailing from California, the group became an integral part of the psychedelic rock movement out of the golden state, and their album that ‘Call On Me’ is featured on, Cheap Thrills, is still recognized as one of the subgenre’s best works. After Janis released Cheap Thrills along with Big Brother and The Holding Company, she parted ways with them to pursue other musical endeavors. Though they only played together for a few years, the body of work they produced was some of the best of their creative efforts, for both Janis and the band. ‘Call On Me’ is an easy groove and a love song at heart, with Joplin belting out her usual spirited vocal delivery.
9. Little Girl Blue
A soulful cover of the 1935 song by writers Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart, ‘Little Girl Blue’ was first used in the musical Jumbo. Decades after its release, the relatable lyrics and heartfelt melody made it popular among female artists of the ’60s and ’70s. Nina Simone and Nancy Wilson also covered the tune, but Joplin’s version appearing on her ’69 album, I Got Dem Ol’ Kozmic Blues Again Mama!, showcases her creative range as she delivers a tender yet commanding soul performance. Janis deeply related to the track, which focuses loosely on the lonely aspects of childhood. Joplin spent most of her early life playing the role of outcast in society, and this alienation not only inspired her art early on but carried her artistic transformation throughout the ’60s.
8. Kozmic Blues
Oscillating between a gentle ballad and a high-powered rock song, ‘Kozmic Blues’ was one of the few tunes Joplin wrote that made it on one of her albums. Appearing on her debut solo album after taking a leave of absence from the Big Brother and The Holding Company lineup, this minor-note driven confessional was born out of a dark place Janis found herself in. Many interviews go into the highly emotional, traumatized state she had to experience in order to write her own lyrics, which is why she often sought the help of co-writers and spent her recording time brilliantly interpreting classics. Appearing on I Got Dem Ol’ Kozmic Blues Again Mama!, the tune features a heartbroken Joplin singing about the ending of a relationship that’s left her both surprised and torn apart. Though she only wrote originals occasionally, this reflective, unbridled song showcases Joplin’s songwriting capabilities and offers a look into what she might’ve accomplished as a composer had she had the time to explore this side of her art as her career progressed.
7. Move Over
A funky number appearing on Joplin’s 1970 Pearl record, ‘Move Over’ is a fast-moving, swagger-filled tune that’s another elusive Janis original. With both originals ‘Kozmic Blues’ and ‘Move Over,’ she proved she had a penchant for writing about heartbreak and failed relationships. Like the more serious ‘Kozmic Blues,’ we find our bluesy soul singer belting out lyrics about a man who’s done her wrong, this time in a more upbeat, trendy fashion. Joplin performed the moody track with plenty of woman-scorned attitude to spare on the Dick Cavett Show in September 1970 mere weeks before her tragic October death. Released after her passing on her second solo-recorded album, Pearl, the project would go down in rock history as one of the genre’s greatest gems, reaching number one on the charts, and selling millions of copies.
6. Mercedes Benz
Included on her tour de force album, Pearl, Joplin was inspired by beat poet Michael McClure while writing her a capella tune, ‘Mercedes Benz.’ She had just seen McClure live at a poetry reading, and shortly after she headed to a favorite local watering hole to write a tune modeled after his piece, ‘C’mon, God, and buy me a Mercedes Benz,’ along with her bandmates. They worked out the tune quickly, with Janis performing it mere hours later at a performance of her own. The stripped-down song is less than two minutes of relatable, poignant social commentary. The singer uses a repeated melody to showcase stanzas focused on man’s obsession with material gains, many times at the expense of his happiness. She was popular among those faithful to the counterculture movement, and ‘Mercedes Benz’ became one of the hippie trend’s last beloved songs.
Originally a 1930s jazz standard, Janis took a George Gershwin masterpiece and turned it into a contemporary blues-rock treasure with her sultry take on ‘Summertime.’ Evoking the idle, slow-moving summers of those in affluent circles of the antebellum South, Joplin takes the lyrics and updates them a bit, turning the story of the track into an anthemic celebration of good times that feel like they’re right out of the roaring ’20s. She performed the visionary cover at one of her most famous sets, her high-powered, expertly delivered Woodstock ’69 gig. Her backing band, Big Brother and the Holding Company, provide a moody, fluent backbeat and electric guitar accompaniment that helps drive home the essence of her rendition.
Another expert interpretation by Joplin, ‘Maybe’ was first released by female vocal group The Chantels in the ’50s. It’s an early rock and roll number that grooves easily. And Janis digs into each note with her voice by drawing out the melody, creating a pained performance you can feel through the speakers. Full of remorse and heartbreak, which Janis always had a knack for conveying, ‘Maybe’ features her half-screaming, half-singing for her lover to come back to her as she lists all the ways she could try to pull him back into her embrace. It was a top hit for The Chantels, and Joplin’s rendition was an incredible feat to witness when she performed it at her live shows.
3. Cry Baby
First released by soul group Garnet Mimms and the Enchanters in the early ’60s, Joplin’s powerful bluesy interpretation put ‘Cry Baby’ on the map. One of Joplin’s most vocally demanding tracks, she shows off her unique ability of both vocal control and unrelenting release from her opening half-screamed howl to her final notes in the song. A yearning, at times mournful, love song, the dynamic production of her producer Paul Rothchild and her own unfettered performance ensured the track would become a lasting part of her legacy. Included on her posthumous hit record Pearl, not only was it a regular inclusion in her live sets leading up to the recording of the album, but after Joplin’s untimely passing, many artists would go on to cover her interpretation of the Enchanters single in her honor.
2. Piece of My Heart
Big Brother and the Holding Company comes in strong again for Janis as her backing band with her hit song ‘Piece of My Heart.’ A crowning blues-rock classic, she experienced massive amounts of success with this track, and it became her biggest hit in the late ’60s, until the release of her Pearl album ushered in a string of smash hits. An R&B inspired number, the single focuses on a woman who’s so in love, she’ll sacrifice pieces of her heart just to be with her one and only. Though lyrics suggest the woman’s lover has the upperhand in the relationship, Janis’ performance turned the tune into a legit powerhouse, giving a strength to the song’s main character that hadn’t been there before. Decades later in the ’90s, Joplin’s legacy continued to endure and cross genres when country star Faith Hill sped up the track and delivered a twangy cover version that went all the way to number one on the charts.
1. Me and Bobby McGee
Arguably one of America’s most popular contemporary songs ever recorded, in the original ‘Bobby McGee’ written by country giant Kris Kristofferson, Bobby is actually a woman. The prompt came to Kristofferson by way of record producer Fred Foster, who gave him the idea to write about two lovers based on an intriguing secretary, “Bobbie McKee,” who worked with Foster. As Kristofferson wove together one of modern music’s most prized love stories, “Bobbie McKee” got changed to “Bobby McGee,” and the rest, as they say, is history. While Kris’s version was twangier and softer, when Janis got ahold of it she naturally set a match to it, enlivening it with her unrivaled fiery vocals and the prowess of her new backing band, the last band to record with her, Full Tilt Boogie Band. Though the single was released posthumously on her iconic album Pearl, it became a number one hit and solidified itself as Joplin’s signature anthem.