Take another little piece of my heart now, baby

Did you know someone in middle school or high school who was relentlessly bullied, picked on, or humiliated by other students?  Of course you did.  It’s pretty much a universal thing and, sad to say, it’s been going on for many decades, and only recently is it being more seriously addressed by school authorities.

It happened in the late 1950s at Thomas Jefferson High School in Port Arthur, Texas.  Kids there taunted and tormented one particular girl they felt was an ugly freak, a shy outlier who had severe acne problems and weight fluctuations.  Try as she might, she never fully got over the persecution, and suffered self-esteem problems the rest of her life.  But she survived by befriending other outcasts, listening to blues records by Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey, Nina Simone and Odetta, and developing her own singing voice by mimicking theirs.  It was a strategy that worked well for her…for a while.

That girl was Janis Joplin.

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Fifty years ago this Sunday, Joplin died in Room 105 of the Hollywood Landmark Hotel (now the Highland Gardens), a short walk from the Hollywood Bowl where she had thrilled a sold-out crowd a year earlier.

She had been an intermittent heroin user, and the dose she injected that night was allegedly cut with something else, which killed her.  She was 27.

Her death was a punch to the solar plexus of rock music lovers everywhere, particularly because it came only 16 days after the passing of the wondrous but troubled Jimi Hendrix, who died in similar fashion in England.

Friends, family members, business managers, armchair therapists and countless others have written books and granted interviews in an attempt to analyze Joplin, a moody, hugely talented, self-destructive, fun-loving young woman whose star shone so brightly for only three years before being extinguished far too early.

images-302Joplin’s influence was enormous and far reaching.  Hundreds of female vocalists and blues musicians in the five decades since her death have lavishly praised her electrifying live performances and her surprisingly polished studio recordings.  Critics sometimes took exception to the way she  overworked her material to the extreme, but most adored her “devastatingly original voice,” her “overpowering and deeply vulnerable artistry” and her “Elvis Presley-like ability to captivate an audience.”

British singer Florence Welch of Florence + The Machine, who wasn’t born until 17 years after Joplin’s death, had this to say:  “She was so vulnerable, self-conscious and full of suffering.  She tore herself apart, yet on stage, she was totally different.  She was so unrestrained, so free, so raw.  It seems to me her suffering and the intensity of her performance went hand in hand.  There was always a sense of longing, of searching for something.  I think she really sums up the idea that soul is about putting your pain into something beautiful.”

Unknown-576Despite her small-town upbringing, Janis was a free spirit from an early age, rejecting Port Arthur’s narrow thinking regarding sex, segregation and a woman’s place in the world.  She attended college in Beaumont and in Austin, playing coffee house gigs as a solo acoustic act, honing her chops on folk and blues tunes.  At the first opportunity she left Texas for California, hitchhiking there with her friend Chet Helms, who later became manager of the San Francisco band Big Brother and The Holding Company.

Eventually, Joplin became that band’s lead singer, and by 1966, Bay Area people were buzzing about the gypsy-like girl who could belt out blues tunes with unparalleled passion and energy.  She dove head first into the

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no-rules milieu of the counterculture, experimenting with psychedelic drugs , wearing outré boutique clothes, and enjoying sexual relationships with men and women alike.  She considered herself “one of the boys,” sleeping with whomever she pleased and resisting the double standard that said men could do that but women could not.

Even before they had released their first LP, Joplin and Big Brother won a slot at the legendary Monterey International Pop Festival in June 1967, and her mindblowing performance there was so spectacular that it forever secured her place in the rock pantheon.  It also won her a recording contract with Columbia Records.  Despite all this attention (which she adored and craved), Joplin confided that she was plagued by self-doubt, always fearing she wasn’t really good enough.

Unknown-532Ah, but she most certainly was.  Joplin and Big Brother recorded a stellar set of blues and rock songs which comprised the compelling LP “Cheap Thrills,” the #1 album in the country for eight weeks in late 1968.  Joplin and producers chose to add manufactured audience sounds to make it appear to be live, but in fact only the final track, the explosive “Ball and Chain,” was recorded in concert.  The Top 20 single “Piece of My Heart,” “Combination of the Two,” a cover of the Gershwin classic “Summertime” and the Joplin original “Turtle Blues” combined to make a well-rounded blues album for the ages.

images-342Big Brother wasn’t the most precise band around, and Joplin grew weary of their sloppiness.  At the same time, the band grew resentful of her “star trip” eclipsing the band, and by year’s end, they went their separate ways.  Janis had become enamored with soul and R&B and rounded up musicians who shared that bent.  They became The Kosmic Blues Band, with prominent horns and a much funkier beat than Big Brother’s psychedelic blues.

It was at this time that I personally became aware of Joplin.  I was 14 and buying up as many hip rock albums (Zeppelin, Hendrix, Steppenwolf, Cream) as I could afford.   I admit I bought “Cheap Thrills” partly because I was captivated by R. Crumb’s fantastic comic book art on the cover, but when I took it home, I was so taken by the music, especially “Ball and Chain,” that I played it incessantly.

images-304I was first in line at the record store when she and her new group released “I Got Dem Ol’ Kozmic Blues Again, Mama!” in September 1969.  I was pleasantly surprised by the R&B punch of “Try,” “To Love Somebody” and “Maybe” with their dominant horns and keyboards, but she was still true to her blues on “One Good Man” and the riveting title track.  What a fine album!

Joplin had solidified her cachet by appearing at Woodstock that summer, even though she felt it was a sub-par performance and refused to allow it in the documentary film or its soundtrack.  She broadened her fame by making several memorable appearances on national TV on the quasi-hip “Dick Cavett Show,” having a blast chatting and giggling about everything from her regrettable high school days to her left-leaning political views.

As it turned out, Janis and the Kosmic Blues Band musicians never really gelled, so she left them as well.  She made it known that, despite her ability to pack arenas like Madison Square Garden, she actually preferred playing much smaller venues and clubs — another example of her inner conflict between self-loathing and a need for adulation.

images-300She took time off in 1970 to travel with a new paramour to Brazil, taking time to give herself a little distance from the drugs and the craziness of her rock star life.  When she returned a month later, though, her heroin use resumed.  She assembled a third group, The Full-Tilt Boogie Band, which featured organ but no horns.  They did a train tour of Canada and added some U.S. dates at the end, which met with mixed reviews.  Some praised the band’s tightness while others felt Joplin appeared exhausted and uninspired.

In an interview that summer, Janis confirmed what others have said about her conflict between the inner woman and the outer performer:  “I’m a victim of my own insides.  There was a time when I wanted to know everything.  It used to make me very unhappy, all that feeling.  I just didn’t know what to do with it.  But now I’ve learned to make that feeling work for me.  I’m full of emotion and I want a release, and if you’re on stage, and if it’s really working and you’ve got the audience with you, it’s so sublime.”

In August and September of that year, she and the band recorded several songs in Los Angeles with producer Paul Rothschild at the helm.  Vibrant tracks like “Move Over,” “Half Moon” and “Get It While You Can” showed a renewed vigor, while Joplin’s reading of Kris Kristofferson’s “Me and Bobby McGee” showed the full range of her unmatched vocal talent.

images-303The band laid down the instrumental tracks for “Buried Alive in the Blues,” and Joplin planned to record her vocals the following day, but it was not to be.  In tribute to Janis, the track was left as is, leaving listeners to imagine her vocal part on their own.

Just as with Hendrix, Jim Morrison and others who died young, her tragic death only served to raise never-resolved questions like, “I wonder what kind of music she would’ve been making in her 30s, 40s or 50s?”

Unknown-531The final songs were compiled onto her final LP, the posthumously released “Pearl,” which rocketed to #1 in early 1971, as did the single of “Bobby McGee.”

At age 20, Stevie Nicks was performing with Lindsay Buckingham in a Bay Area band called Fritz, often serving as a warmup act for legends like Joplin and Hendrix.  She recalled watching her from the wings during her performances.  “When Janis got up on that stage with her band, this woman became my new hero.  She was not what anyone would call a great beauty, but she became beautiful to me because she made such a powerful and deep emotional connection with the audience.  I didn’t care much for the feather boas and the bell-bottom pants, but she didn’t dress like anyone else, and she definitely didn’t sing like anyone else.

“She put herself out there completely,” said Nicks, “and her voice was not only strong and soulful, it was painfully and beautifully real.  She sang in the great tradition of the rhythm & blues singers that were her heroes, but she brought her own dangerous, sexy rock & roll edge to every single song.  She really gave you a piece of her heart, and that inspired me to find my own voice and my own style.”

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God love ya, Janis.  Your legacy is in your performances on the records, and I’ll cue them up and dig ’em whenever I need a dose of “dem ol’ kosmic blues, mama!”

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Sing a song, play guitar, make it snappy

Periodically, I use this space to pay homage to artists I believe are worthy of focused attention — artists with an extraordinary, influential, consistently excellent body of work and/or a compelling story to tell. This week and next, I’ll be examining the careers of two multi-talented singer/songwriters whose musical arcs briefly overlapped in the ’60s and then went in different directions through the ’70s and ’80s and beyond. This week in Part One, we’ll take a look at the amazing Steve Winwood. Next week in Part Two, we’ll explore the interesting path taken by the great Dave Mason.

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Summer 1969. Over the previous six months, I had become a huge fan of Cream, the British blues power trio featuring guitarist Eric Clapton, drummer Ginger Baker and bassist/vocalist Jack Bruce. The group had already disbanded, but that didn’t stop me from immersing myself in their albums. As a budding guitarist myself, I idolized Clapton and was eager to find out what he was going to do next.

By August, the record stores were touting a new album by a new “supergroup” called Blind Faith, comprised of Clapton and Baker with a keyboardist/singer named Steve Winwood, and bassist Ric Grech. I bought the LP immediately and, while I was at first disappointed by the absence of firepower Cream had been known for, I was particularly taken by the vocals of this guy Winwood. Haunting and beautiful, soaring and bluesy, his voice was a revelation to me, as was the fact that he’d been in not one but two successful groups previously, even though he was then only 21.

I am sheepish to admit that, at that time, I knew almost nothing of Traffic, the band Winwood had put together in 1967. It took another couple of years before I truly became familiar with the group through their albums in the early ’70s, and longer still to appreciate the fine work from the first three Traffic albums, or his contributions to the Spencer Davis Group before that, while still just a teenager.

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Winwood, a product of Birmingham, England, had been something of a boy wonder, learning piano early and developing his voice as he absorbed many different types of music. “I was a chorister in the High Anglican Church,” he said in a 2017 interview with Classic Rock, a British music magazine. “That music got under my skin somehow. Then along came skiffle and early rock ‘n roll and Buddy Holly. And later on came Ray Charles, who had a big influence on me and introduced me to this crossover from bebop and jazz into rock and R&B. I was so engrossed with learning all these different types of music, and trying to play them all, and realizing that being on stage was just part of it. It didn’t occur to me that there was anything I should shy away from.”

Spencer Davis Group, with Winwood at far right

Nevertheless, both Winwood brothers joined up and became key cogs in the Spencer Davis Group. Clapton, in his 2007 autobiography, recalls hearing Winwood for the first time in 1963. “He was only 15,” he recalled. “If you closed your eyes, you’d swear it was Ray Charles up there. He was like a much older man in a boy’s skin.”

By 1965, the group was making a huge splash, first on the British charts with the #1 R&B-flavored singles “Keep On Running” and “Somebody Help Me,” and then in the US in 1966 with the Top Ten hits “Gimme Some Lovin'” and “I’m a Man,” both written by Winwood. His outstanding vocals and organ dominated the group’s sound, and gave him the confidence to think about branching out.

Interestingly, Cream was just forming at that time, and Clapton was keen on asking Winwood to join, but Baker and Bruce stood firm on wanting the trio format. “There was a lack of synchronization at the time,” said Winwood, “and I guess the offer to be a part of Cream never came through. I certainly would’ve taken the job.” The mind reels at the thought of how different Cream would’ve sounded with Winwood in the fold…

Traffic in 1967. Dave Mason and Winwood in front, Jim Capaldi and Chris Wood in back

The music that came out of those sessions turned a lot of heads. First came Winwood’s infectious single, “Paper Sun,” followed soon after by Mason’s trippy “Hole in My Shoe.” Both songs reached the Top Five in the UK. The debut LP, “Mr. Fantasy,” which peaked at #16, was dominated by songs written by Winwood (music) and Capaldi (lyrics), including “Heaven Is In Your Mind,” “No Face, No Name, No Number” and the anthemic “Dear Mr. Fantasy.” There was an alluring stew of soulful blues, strange psychedelia and blues rock. (In the US, the time apparently wasn’t right yet for Traffic; the album stalled at #88 and the singles went nowhere.)

Mason, spooked by the early immediate success in England, chose to leave, although he would return in time for sessions for the next LP, titled simply “Traffic.” The Capaldi/Winwood axis came up with great tracks like “Pearly Queen” and “40,000 Headmen,” and Mason brought well-crafted songs like “You Can All Join In” and perhaps his most famous tune, “Feelin’ Alright?” which ended up being covered by dozens of artists over the years, most notably Joe Cocker, whose definitive rendition reached the Top 40 in the US.

But Mason then split again — as his lyric states, “Seems I’ve got to have a change in scene…” — so Traffic soldiered on as a trio, expanding their touring to include their first visit to the US. Live recordings from those shows were used to augment several stray studio tracks like “Medicated Goo” and “Shanghai Noodle Factory” to produce a third Traffic LP, “Last Exit,” which sounded decidedly inferior to the first two.

At that point, Winwood concluded he needed a change as well and pulled the plug on Traffic — for now. He accepted Clapton’s overture to at last pool their talents to see what might come of it. They squirreled away in the same rural Berkshire cottage, jamming and trying out new song ideas. Baker heard about this and showed up too, and Winwood called his friend Ric Grech to join them on bass and violin, and Blind Faith was born.

Winwood, Ric Grech, Ginger Baker, Eric Clapton

The media hype surrounding the band doomed them from the get-go. “Blind Faith was pretty murky, really,” Winwood remembers. “That didn’t really work out quite as well as Eric and I had intended. I don’t think there was any one reason for that, but Eric didn’t want to carry on doing what he’d been doing with Cream. We were both looking for something else. The music that we started off doing was acoustic and jangly. It had a sort of folk element to it, which is not something that goes down too well in the arena rock environment. We had pressures from the business to start recording before we were ready, and we were suddenly playing big places. Neither of us were into that. We were starting to lose interest at different points and were drifting apart.”

The album reached #1 in the US and the UK, but after the tour, the group parted ways. But as we will see, the world hadn’t heard the last of the Winwood/Clapton collaboration.

Winwood thought the time was ripe for his first solo LP, and he began writing and recording songs for it. As sessions continued, though, he found himself missing input from Wood and Capaldi, particularly Wood’s flute and sax, so he invited them to participate. It became obvious that this was now going to become another Traffic album, and so it was: “John Barleycorn Must Die,” released in the summer of 1970, would become the highest charting Traffic LP in the US, peaking at #5. FM rock stations played it relentlessly, especially the jazzy instrumental “Glad,” the sax-driven rocker “Freedom Rider” and the more accessible “Empty Pages.”

Incredibly, Mason returned yet again (briefly) as part of a US tour, recordings from which comprised the so-so live album “Welcome to the Canteen.” Traffic’s lineup expanded at that point to include Grech on bass,

 

Traffic in 1971, from left: Wood, Grech, Gordon, Baah, Capaldi, Winwood

second drummer Jim Gordon (formerly with Derek and the Dominos) and Ghanaian percussionist Rebop Kwaku Baah, which accentuated their tendency toward unusual rhythms and longer jams.

Late in 1971 came what many people (including me) feel is Traffic’s finest moment, the captivating “Low Spark of High-Heeled Boys” LP. The mesmerizing, 12-minute title track is still a classic rock favorite, and “Many a Mile to Freedom” and “Hidden Treasure” show the group still in command of their original semi-trippy sound. Two other tracks — “Light Up or Leave Me Alone” and “Rock and Roll Stew” — offered Traffic doing straightforward rock, with Capaldi handling lead vocals.

Winwood had been suffering occasional bouts of peritonitis (inflammation of the abdomen), which affected his stage performances and his interest in music in general, so after two rather uneven albums (1973’s “Shoot Out at the Fantasy Factory” and 1974’s “When the Eagle Flies”) and another live LP, Traffic called it quits.

“In the mid-to-late Seventies,” he said, “I dropped out a little from the rock’n’roll world. I made a conscious effort to do a lot of sessions and work as a sideman, to try to learn how other people were putting music together. Then later on, of course, punk emerged. I found that tricky, because punk rock was almost a reaction against what I’d been doing. It was difficult for me to grasp that, so I suppose I sort of went underground a little.”

Winwood finally released his first solo album in late 1977, with help from a variety of session men, and reaction was decidedly mixed. It had its moments, like the mid-tempo “Vacant Chair” and “Time is Running Out” with its galloping rhythm, but it wasn’t the killer album everyone had been anticipating.

Instead, that album came in late 1981, when “Arc of a Diver” kickstarted his solo career big time. He teamed up with Texan songwriter Will Jennings to provide lyrics for a batch of great songs like “Second Hand Woman,” “Night Train” and the melodic title song. It was truly a one-man tour de force, with Winwood playing all the instruments himself. The leadoff track, “While You See a Chance,” peaked at #7 in the US, beginning his decade-long commercial success here, and the album reached #3. A retrospective review on AllMusic gushed, “Utterly unencumbered by the baggage of his long years in the music business, Winwood reinvented himself as a completely contemporary artist on this outstanding album.”

I never quite understood why the 1982 follow-up LP, “Talking Back to the Night,” didn’t equal its predecessor’s success, at least in the US, where it stalled at #28. Songs like “Big Girls Walk Away,” “Help Me Angel” and the amazing title song deserved more attention, as did “Valerie,” which did finally reach #9 five years after initial release when it was remixed and included on Winwood’s “Chronicles” collection.

A period of soul-searching and a divorce resulted in a move to New York, where he teamed up with some marquis players like Nile Rodgers, Joe Walsh, Chaka Khan and James Taylor and veteran producer Russ Titelman to make the outstanding, award-winning “Back in the High Life” album. Three hit singles — “The Finer Things,” “Back in the High Life Again” and the Grammy winner “Higher Love” — helped put the album at #3 in 1986. I loved this album for its crisp production and satisfying songs.

He concluded his commercial period in 1988 with his only #1 album, “Roll With It,” and another trio of Top Ten singles: “Roll With It” (strongly reminiscent of Junior Walker’s ’60s hit “Shotgun”), “Don’t You Know What the Night Can Do” and “Holding On.”

By this point, I was starting to tire of him because of overexposure, and apparently I wasn’t alone, for his sales and popularity (and, consequently, his recorded output) dropped off dramatically in the ’90s and beyond. I continued to buy his stuff — 1990’s “Refugees of the Heart,” 1997’s “Junction Seven” and 2003’s “About Time” — but rarely played them.

It was big news in some circles when Winwood announced a Traffic reunion in 1994, although it didn’t include Mason nor Grech or Baah, and Wood had passed away in 1983. So it was pretty much just Winwood and Capaldi who collaborated on the excellent “Far From Home” album, which reached the Top 30 in both the US and the UK. Some said it sounded like another Winwood solo album, and while it’s true that the majority of tracks wouldn’t have been out of place on “Roll With It,” at least two — “Here Comes a Man” and the superb “Far From Home” — recall the “Low Spark” era of Traffic.

Winwood asked Clapton in 2008 to play a solo on the track “Dirty City” from his final solo LP to date, “Nine Lives,” and it’s a beauty. Other songs also received airplay, like the beautiful “Fly” and “Secrets,” which helped send the album to #12 (although that kind of rating doesn’t have the same clout or meaning in the age of downstreaming).

That small project brought the two veterans together in a much larger way in 2009 for “Live From Madison Square Garden,” where Clapton and Winwood offered a dizzying set list of songs from Cream, Traffic, Blind Faith and both of their solo albums. That live album was so well received that the duo went on world tour for a year.

Today, at age 72, Winwood still performs periodically and had planned a tour with Steely Dan’s Donald Fagen (wow!) this year that was cancelled like every other tour because of the coronavirus. As a 2004 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee with Traffic, and ranked #33 on Rolling Stone’s 100 Greatest Singers of All Time, Winwood’s stature in the business is secure.

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