Janis Joplin’s Breakthrough Album: 10 Things You Didn’t Know About ‘Cheap Thrills’
Big Brother and the Holding Company were a band before the summer of 1967. They had gigs, fans and even a full-length record ready for release. But all that early history was eclipsed after they took the stage at the Monterey Pop Festival in June for a pair of performances that transformed Janis Joplin & Co. from San Francisco scenesters to cultural giants. Joplin herself would describe the weekend as “one of the highest points of my life.” The lonely and misunderstood young woman from Texas proudly wrapped herself in her newfound fame — a substitute for the love she was denied during her lonely and painful adolescence.
Monterey was a gold rush for the recording industry, and major labels flocked to stake out their claim. For Big Brother, their trajectory would become the quintessential overnight success gone awry. Within a year, the searing spotlight trained on Joplin would cause the band to come unglued. But during its brief big-league run, Big Brother assembled their first and only true artistic statement for a global audience. Issued on August 12th, 1968, Cheap Thrills is undeniably a masterpiece of the psychedelic age, a set of top-shelf electric soul. Yet it also reflects the commodification of the fading hippie dream. Presented as a document culled from wild, spontaneous San Francisco nights, it was actually crafted in a studio run by one of the largest record manufacturers on the planet. To say Cheap Thrills is inauthentic would be false, but there’s a premature melancholy to the production, as though it were a Gatsby-esque exercise in re-creating good times that had already passed. Joplin’s mournful version of Gershwin’s “Summertime” seems only to underscore the shift in mood from the Summer of Love to the Summer of Violence that greeted the album. A week after its release, police would beat up demonstrators at Chicago’s Democratic National Convention. A month later, Joplin and Big Brother parted ways for good.
Cheap Thrills is a showcase for the band at its best, stocked almost exclusively with its most beloved songs, including “Combination of the Two,” “Ball and Chain,” and “Piece of My Heart.” On the album’s 50th anniversary, here are 10 facts you might not know about its creation.
1. Joplin offered to sleep with Clive Davis to seal the deal on their CBS recording contract.
Clive Davis had just begun his tenure as the head of CBS Records when he fell hard and fast for Big Brother and the Holding Company following their performance at Monterey. He wanted to sign them immediately, and the fact that they were already committed to the independent Mainstream Records imprint was of little concern. After some legal wrangling, and the appointment of impresario Albert Grossman as the band’s manager, Davis sent Mainstream packing with a check for $200,000. It was an audacious move for the relatively green label chief — only a year earlier, fellow San Franciscans the Jefferson Airplane made headlines for scoring an RCA advance worth just $25,000.
For Joplin, a major-label contract was the culmination of a lifelong dream, and she wanted to show Davis her own unique brand of gratitude. In his 2013 memoir, Soundtrack of My Life, Davis recounts a surprising phone call from Grossman on behalf of the frontwoman. “She’s talked about meeting you,” the manager supposedly told him, “and she thinks it only fitting and proper that she ball you to cement the deal.” For all of his business acumen, Davis was at a loss. “I think it was a little too formal . . . just to sign a document to say we’d be working together, so she asked to sleep with me to make it more personal,” he reflected in a 2014 interview with The Guardian. “I took it as a big compliment, although I turned it down.” He ultimately agreed to a kiss.
2. Cheap Thrills was originally intended to be a live album.
Big Brother and the Holding Company’s self-titled studio debut, issued in August 1967 on Mainstream, was decidedly lackluster. Joplin herself even dubbed it “our shitty record” and it sold accordingly, peaking only at Number 60. For their first major-label appearance, it was felt that a live album would be a better showcase for Big Brother’s abilities. “They had a reputation for inspiring a level of excitement in their audience that was as much a part of their show as their performance,” John Simon, the album’s producer, said in 2015. “In order to capitalize on that excitement they were eager to record a live album.”
They rented a remote recording console and recorded two shows at Detroit’s Grande Theater beginning on March 1st, 1968. Unfortunately, they hit a series of snags. Off the bat, the ear-splitting volume of their live performances pushed the recording meters permanently into the red. What’s more, the audience response was effectively nonexistent. “They’d never heard a woman sound like that,” engineer Fred Catero said in Alice Echols’ Joplin bio Scars of Sweet Paradise. “Every time she’d finish a song, people were just, like, ‘Huh?’ There was no reaction.” Even more troubling for Simon, the band’s “avalanche of energy” couldn’t mask the “mistakes a-plenty” that he heard. The producer decided to move sessions to a formal recording facility, Columbia’s Studio B in New York, where bum notes, wrong chords or fluffed lyrics could be remedied with surgical precision. But retreating to the studio presented another problem, albeit one of the nonmusical variety. “Word had already spread and already a live recording of Big Brother and the Holding Company was enthusiastically expected,” Simon recalled. “I didn’t want their fans to be disappointed.” So instead, they endeavored to make a studio album that sounded live.
3. Some of the faux-audience background noises were recorded at Barney’s Beanery, where Joplin would have her last meal.
Re-creating the excitement of a swirling San Franciscan psychedelic odyssey in an airless and sterile Midtown Manhattan recording facility would pose a challenge. The fundamental methods of studio tracking ran counter to the way the band preferred to make music. “Everything’s fairly isolated,” bassist Peter Albin observed in Scars of Sweet Paradise. “You have headphones on. The vocalist is in a soundproof vocal chamber. The drummer is baffled like crazy. . . . It’s a very non-together way of recording.” In the hopes of improving the overall vibe, a stage was assembled in the live room, complete with lowered curtains, a spotlight and even the band’s PA system. To enhance the effect on record, Simon created tape loops of fake audience reactions, with studio secretaries, engineers and assorted members of the group’s entourage enlisted as the crowd. “We gave them tambourines and whistles and stuff,” Catero told Echols, “and said, ‘Can you stand out here and whenever you feel like reacting just whoop and holler, shake your tambourines and blow your whistles?’ ”
While the album credits claim that the “live material” was taped at Bill Graham’s legendary Fillmore Auditorium in San Francisco, the sole concert recording — a nine-minute version of “Ball and Chain” with a new guitar solo tracked in the studio — was made at Graham’s other local stronghold, the Winterland Ballroom. “John [Simon] was good — he came up with a real concept for the album that worked,” drummer Dave Getz says in Echols’ book. “It created a picture for people who hadn’t been to the San Francisco ballrooms.” Even the intimate “Turtle Blues” was treated with ambient noise recorded at Barney’s Beanery, a bar on Hollywood’s Santa Monica Boulevard that was one of Joplin’s favorite watering holes. She dined there on the night of October 3rd, 1970, just before heading back to the Landmark Hotel, where she would inject a fatal dose of heroin after midnight.
4. Erma Franklin didn’t recognize Joplin’s version of her song “Piece of My Heart.”
Three of the seven tracks on Cheap Thrills were covers that had been, in Peter Albin’s words, “Big Brotherized.” They include a revamp of “Summertime” and a minor-key reimagining of Big Mama Thornton’s “Ball and Chain” stretched out ad infinitum. But chief among these is “Piece of My Heart,” a tune that would become the band’s first — and only — Top 20 hit.
The song had been written by producer and Bang! Records founder Bert Berns and his collaborator Jerry Ragovoy. Berns initially passed it to Van Morrison, then signed to the Bang! roster, but Morrison declined. Instead the track was offered to Erma Franklin, Aretha’s elder sister, who had all but retired from music after issuing a string of unsuccessful singles earlier in the decade. By 1967, she was working as an administrator for IBM when Berns coaxed her back with his new composition. Originally arranged as an off-kilter calypso, “Piece of My Heart” was ultimately given a strident soul treatment that sent it to Number 62 on the Billboard charts. A full-length album was planned for Franklin, but Berns’ fatal heart attack on December 30th, 1967, threw the label into turmoil, and the follow-up never materialized.
The members of Big Brother and the Holding Company greatly admired “Piece of My Heart,” and came up with a psychedelicized version to fit their unique style. “We didn’t want to imitate Erma Franklin,” Albin later said. “Erma’s ‘Piece of My Heart’ had a delicacy and a sense of mystery that was just beyond us.” Big Brother’s rendition, with Joplin’s soulful wailing at the fore, would overshadow the original commercially, and become what many feel is the definitive version of the song. If having her song snatched bothered Franklin, she tried not to let it show in interviews. “To be honest, I never even recognized the song when I first heard Janis’ version on the car radio,” she told Blues & Soul in 1973. “Naturally, it would have been great to have gotten the exposure, airplay and sales that she got, but her version is so different from mine that I really don’t resent it too much.”
5. Clive Davis played Big Brother’s version of “Summertime” to Richard Rodgers. It didn’t go well.
Richard Rodgers dropped by Columbia’s New York headquarters one day in 1968 to have lunch with company bigwig Goddard Lieberson and discuss funding for his upcoming musical. As the Broadway icon waited, Davis reverently approached and introduced himself. Over the course of their brief conversation, Davis invited Rodgers into his office to hear an advance tape of Big Brother’s version of “Summertime.” He believed the older man would appreciate a fresh take on the Porgy and Bess chestnut.
Rodgers took a seat and Davis pressed play. “He listened without expression,” Davis writes in his memoir. “When the song ended, he didn’t say anything, which unnerved me.” Fearing that “Summertime” was a little too close to Rodgers’ theatrical wheelhouse for an unbiased response, he changed tactics altogether. “I decided to play ‘Piece of My Heart’ for him. Now, that was a mistake.” Within 90 seconds, the composer of Oklahoma!, The Sound of Music and The King and I asked him to turn the tape off. “He told me that not only did he not understand what he was hearing, but he could not understand why anyone would like it,” Davis continued. “As for Janis’ singing, it was impossible for him to imagine why anyone would think she was talented.” By this point Rodgers had worked himself into something approaching a tizzy, apparently telling Davis, “If this means I have to change my writing, or that the only way to write a Broadway musical is to write rock songs, then my career is over.” A flustered and quite embarrassed Davis quickly dropped the issue, accepting that Rodgers “simply couldn’t hear the new sounds.”
6. The album almost included a brief jam called “Harry,” and a version of the national anthem.
On some early printings of the Cheap Thrills cover, the words “HARRY KRISHNA! (D. GETZ)” are faintly visible underneath “ART: R. CRUMB” in the speech bubble emanating from a man wearing a turban. John Simon’s initial mix of the album was slated to include this brief track before label execs intervened, fearing that it was too ragged. A version of “Happy Birthday” was also reportedly elbowed by Columbia brass, but it was Simon who put the kibosh on another arrangement of an old standard. Guitarist Sam Andrews tried to sell the producer on a run-through of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” but the idea was quickly dismissed — much to his dismay. “A year or so later, Jimi Hendrix did an instrumental version,” he told author Ellis Amburn in Pearl: The Obsessions and Passions of Janis Joplin. “But how much more revolutionary would Janis’ singing of this song have been a year earlier?”
7. The original album cover featured the group naked in bed together.
“I slept with all of them,” Joplin once said of her Big Brother brethren. “They’re like my family — I’ve balled ’em all.” So, on paper, the initial cover concept depicting the bandmates tucked up together must have seemed like the perfect choice. But when they arrived at Columbia creative director Bob Cato’s New York set, they found an embarrassment to hippie crash pads: a Madison Avenue mélange of pinks, frills and swirling Peter Max prints. Joplin took one look and shrieked, “Let’s trash it, boys!” And trash it they did, tearing down the offending accouterments and replacing them with detritus from around the studio to get that true Haight-Ashbury edge. “Then we took off all our clothes, jumped in bed, and smiled for the camera,” Sam Andrews told Amburn. “It was a very merry morning.” In the photos taken that day, a carton of Marlboros, Joplin’s fifth of Southern Comfort, and a candle (apparently) for cooking heroin are all visible among the nude bodies. It was all too much for the label executives, who decided to scrap the idea. A cartoon by Zap Comix cult hero R. Crumb, originally destined for the back of the jacket, was used instead.
8. The label rejected the band’s preferred title: Sex, Dope and Cheap Thrills.
The original cover wasn’t the only thing that was too hot for the record company. Columbia also balked at the band’s initial choice at a title, Sex, Dope and Cheap Thrills. Borrowed from the infamous anti-drug propaganda film Reefer Madness, the phrase had taken on special significance for Andrews. “We looked on it as an antidote to being overly serious about our music and what the movement was doing,” he said to Amburn. “It was a way of saying, ‘Lighten up!’ — of being tongue-in-cheek about the whole thing.” In an era when both the Mamas and the Papas and the Rolling Stones were barred from showing a toilet seat on their album covers, the use of “sex“ and “dope” in a title was deemed over the line, and the phrase was shortened simply to Cheap Thrills.
9. The album sold 500,000 copies before it was even finished, resulting in a rush release and a marathon 36-hour mixing session.
Two weeks of sessions in New York that March resulted in only three completed songs, so Simon and the band decamped to Columbia’s Los Angeles studio in April to finish the album. Recording continued there for nearly a month, but work was still far from complete. Complicating matters was the fact that Simon’s perfectionist streak was seriously at odds with the band’s laid-back style. “Here’s this dude from Princeton with perfect pitch telling them that they’re playing their guitars out of tune, and telling her that she’s singing out of tune, and making them do a million takes,” fellow producer Elliot Mazer recalled to Echols. It was probably a relief to all concerned when Simon had to depart in June to honor his commitment to produce the Band’s second album. Now it was Mazer’s job to take Cheap Thrills across the finish line, and a sizable part of his duty was fending off antsy Columbia execs who wanted the project wrapped ASAP. Mazer was still in the midst of “trying to figure out how to put the second side together” when he got a phone call from Clive Davis informing him that the album, which didn’t technically exist yet, had already been certified gold for shipping 500,000 advance units. “That’s the last thing I’d ever want to say to a band trying to finish a record!” Mazer told Amburn.
As the pressure mounted, Joplin and Sam Andrews spent a marathon 36-hour session with engineers to mix the final record. “A day and a half with no sleep and very little to eat,” Andrews recalled. But the grueling sessions and long hours were worth it: “We felt like we had something. We thought there was a good chance it would be well received.”
10. Joplin announced she was leaving Big Brother and the Holding Company just weeks after the album was issued.
The seeds of Joplin’s departure from Big Brother were sown before the band ever set foot in the studio to record Cheap Thrills. Albert Grossman and the rest of the new management team made their intent clear with press kits in which the guys in the group were effectively phantoms. Concert billings suddenly became “Janis Joplin with Big Brother and the Holding Company,” and Grossman kept turning up the heat behind the band’s back. “The first thing Albert told her was to get rid of Big Brother,” says musician and Joplin associate Nick Gravenites in Pearl. “He came at her with a record deal and said, ‘I can get you a quarter of a million dollars, but it’s strictly for you. The deal doesn’t include Big Brother. Think it over.’ ”
Joplin also faced mounting pressure from outside the band’s circle as 1968 progressed. “Once we left warm and cozy San Francisco, the critics attacked Big Brother because we were very limited musically,” Getz admitted to Echols. “Ultimately, that’s what split up the band.” The Los Angeles Free Press insisted that Joplin was “too full of soul for the Holding Company partners,” and Rolling Stone called the band’s Boston gig “messy and a general musical disgrace.” Joplin herself tried to laugh it off, freely admitting that they were “lousy musicians” in interviews but proclaiming that they were like family. Yet even she knew that in order to progress toward the horn-based soul sounds favored by her heroes like Etta James and Otis Redding, she had to go her own way. In mid-September, weeks after the release of Cheap Thrills, Grossman issued a press release announcing her “amicable” split with Big Brother and the Holding Company. They played their last show together on December 1st, 1968, in San Francisco. “It was a very sad thing, man,” Joplin told Rolling Stone’s David Dalton in 1970. “I love those guys more than anybody else in the whole world, they know that. But if I had any serious idea of myself as a musician, I had to leave.”