Monday, May 02, 2005

Erma Franklin - Piece of My Heart b/w Baby What You Want Me To Do

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Erma Franklin
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Earlier this year, during the Grammy Awards broadcast they did several “tributes”, ranging from 5 second “weren’t they wonderful” blurbs with brief shots of the artists (those that were still alive anyway…) in their seats, to full blown, “star studded” extravaganzas. These included a hideous and wholly unnecessary (unless you have a financial stake in the careers of Gretchen Wilson and Lynyrd Skynyrd…) “Southern Rock” rehash, polite nods to Lifetime Acheivement award winners Jerry Lee Lewis and Led Zeppelin, and the unholy conjunction of Melissa Etheridge and hot young star-of-the-moment Joss Stone paying “tribute” (I must apologize for the overuse of ironic/sarcastic quotation marks, but believe me, they’re completely deserved here…) to Janis Joplin. My perception of Janis Joplin has changed drastically over the years. When I was a kid, it was a given that she was one of the great rockers of all time. As I grew older, and was exposed to more music I began to realize that Janis Joplin’s legendary status was as much the result of her larger than life personality, early death and initially shocking sound as it was the quality of her music. Certainly Joplin had a dynamic stage presence, and her largely miserable personal life did a lot to make her one of the great tragic figures of her time and place (that and her position as the cornerstone of the Joplin/Hendrix/Morrison troika of “Oops I Died Before I Got Old”-ism). Unfortunately, I am of the opinion that her lasting legacy will not be as a musician, but as the archetype for hundreds of drunken, tattooed biker chick/bar band singers, all of whom think a bellyful of Southern Comfort is an adequate substitute for talent and taste. This was duly illustrated by the Joplin medley laid down by temporarily soulful Etheridge and barely soulful Stone at the Grammys. What tunes did they pick to illustrate the enduring wonderfulness of Janis Joplin? Two soul covers where the originals (no matter how poorly remembered by the viewing audience) outclass Joplin’s versions by a country mile: Erma Franklin’s ‘Piece of My Heart’ and Garnett Mimms and the Enchanters ‘Cry Baby’ (both written by the great Bert Berns and Jerry Ragavoy). Set aside for the moment that I can barely stand Etheridge’s leather-lunged, sub-Bob Seger rock, or have grown dizzy from the inauthentic stench of Joss Stone’s publicist fueled rise to “soul” stardom. The fact that Joplin’s best remembered tunes (if not her best records) are covers says something about her “greatness”. It’s like doing a tribute to Pat Boone and performing ‘Tutti Frutti’. At least if they did that Little Richard could be expected to jump up and start WHOOOOOOOOOO-ing all over the place and reminding people from whence the Tutti Frutti came. So, all this got me thinking, especially about Erma Franklin. Erma was the older sister of Aretha and Carolyn Franklin (that’s some talented family, huh?). She recorded a number of 45s (and an LP) for Epic, then laid down her best stuff for Shout, and then Brunswick Records. Her Shout 45 of ‘Piece of My Heart’ and ‘Baby What You Want Me To Do’ was one of the earliest purchases of my soul collecting days, mainly because I had a jones for original versions of tunes. I picked it up for the a-side, and ended up being blown away by the b-side (which is why I’m including both sides). Franklin’s version of ‘Piece of My Heart’ is, compared to Joplin’s take with Big Brother, the very spirit of subtlety. Franklin’s voice is all smooth, controlled power where Joplin’s was ragged, raw energy. The arrangement by Gary Sherman is heavy on the piano and drums and sports a very nice horn chart. When I first brought the 45 home, and saw that the flip was a version of Jimmy Reed’s oft covered but often somnolent ‘Baby What You Want Me To Do’ , I was underwhelmed. Fortunately my jones for original versions is equaled (perhaps exceeded) by my propensity to flip records over in search of hidden gold. This greed for grooves was rewarded handsomely with perhaps the funkiest Jimmy Reed cover ever laid down (interestingly enough the a-side of her first Shout 45 was a cover of Reed’s ‘Big Boss Man’). The bass and drums provide a solid backing for Franklin’s vocal gymnastics and groovy call-and-response exchanges with her backup singers. From the first day I heard this record it’s been a staple of funky mix tapes/CDs and the kind of disc I’m always trying to turn people on to. After her four Shout 45s in 1967 and 1968, Franklin went on to record several 45s and an LP for the Brunswick label. She passed away in 2002.

17 Comments:

Anonymous Big Black Afro said...

I have to admit, your comments about Janis Joplin made me a little..um...uncomfortable. Your points are well-taken, and I concede that you supported your sentiments in a clear and concise manner. However, I think to some degree your perception of her legacy is a bit too far on the analytical side. Try thinking about her from the right side of your brain, and you may see a whole different perspective. Janis was not "technically" the best singer to ever grace a stage. My grandmother was a music teacher, she despised Janis for all of her drunken debauchery and what she considered screaming, not singing. I think the raw energy and incredible passion possessed by Janis are responsible for her status in the pantheon of rock god(desses). Her strained vocals were the cry of many of us when we were lonely, tired, lost, and well......drunk. Just something to think about....peace and hair grease.

5/02/2005 09:32:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ah, how many bets I've won trying to convince the unknowing that Janis didn't write "Piece of My Heart"... Although Janis' versions of both songs mentioned are great, they are still pale in comparison compared to the originals (as most covers are, obviously) - especially "Piece of My Heart"

5/03/2005 01:18:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great site, btw... thanks for posting all the excellent info pertaining to each artist.

5/03/2005 01:19:00 AM  
Blogger LondonLee said...

Well said, I could never stand Joplin's caterwauling. It's the sort of noise white people think is "soul" music because it involves a lot of sweating and wailing (and I say this as a white person). This is how we ended up with grunting and screeching heavy rock singers.

5/03/2005 09:24:00 AM  
Anonymous Les Dale said...

Excellent site. Always a good read on top of the excellent music. Thanks.

I agree with your Joplin assesment. She did, however, give a line to the real thing. It's certainly possible that many rock fans of the late 60s owe an interest in real soul to the likes of Janis.

Incidentally, here in Britain, "Piece Of My Heart" was coupled with "Big Boss Man" as a 45 on Jay Boy Records.

5/03/2005 02:25:00 PM  
Blogger Larry Grogan said...

Thanks Les. I agree that folks like Joplin probably led curious souls like myself deeper into the music.
That's interesting about that Jayboy 45. They were one of those weird UK labels (like Action) that issued/reissued some very interesting US 45s. At least one of Jerry-O's 45s came out in the UK on Jayboy.

5/03/2005 03:08:00 PM  
Blogger Ruby Jones said...

I, too, was a little uncomfortable with the dismissal of Janis, although, if, after the Melissa and Joss debacle, she leaves a bad taste in your mouth, it's no wonder. No doubt Janis is turning in her grave after that.
I also think that it's important to recognize Janis contextutally - i.e., the fact that, caterwauling and all, she was certainly a departure from the girl singer of the time, both in her personality and in her music - especially in her choice of covers. That she would have covered "piece of my heart" or "cry baby" at all is remarkable.
Unfortunately, Janis inspired Melissa Etheridge and Joss Stone to think that what they do is, hence, soulful and remarkable, as well. It most certainly is not.

5/03/2005 03:32:00 PM  
Blogger Larry Grogan said...

Ruby
Joplin was certainly not without talent (which I think I said in my post). In addition, she - or someone close to her - had great taste in covers, hitting Erma Franklin, Garnett Mimms, Howard Tate and Etta James among others. That said, I think time will not judge her kindly. Her importance as an iconoclast (and then icon) is indisputable, but the assessment of her "influence" is destined to suffer by virtue of her being placed in an ever growing context. As the vista grows larger, her contributions will inevitably seem smaller, and those who got short shrift the first time around (i.e. Franklin, Mimms, Tate and James et al)will ascend to the place of honor initially denied them.

5/03/2005 04:09:00 PM  
Blogger Larry Grogan said...

PS - Ruby, I dig your blog and added you to the links section.
-Larry

5/03/2005 04:14:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

As far as I know, Larry, 3 Jerry O 45s came out on Jay Boy in the UK..."Karate Boogaloo"...big in Northern circles, of course...plus "Funky Boogaloo" & "Dance What Cha Wanna". The label is best known for breaking KC & the Sunshine Band in the UK before their US crossover success. They also picked up on other TK acts including George McCrae as well as some of the then lesser knowns that are now respected. The label was in the same group as President which featured pop acts like the Equals (Eddy Grant & co.) as well as licensed tracks from the US including Alvin Cash, Family Plann & others. I think that the UK arm of Seville records was also in that group with Ernie Maresca, Dooley Silverspoon, etc. all having UK releases.

5/04/2005 10:56:00 AM  
Blogger Larry Grogan said...

Thanks for all the JayBoy info! I had no idea they went on into the 70's.

5/04/2005 12:22:00 PM  
Anonymous Les Dale said...

Yes...all of the early TK hits are on Jay Boy in the UK up to about 1976/7.

There was probably something before this...but the first TK releases I remember in the UK were T-Connection's "Do What You Wanna Do" & Lonnie Smith's "Funk Reaction", both in 1977.

5/04/2005 01:35:00 PM  
Blogger Ruby Jones said...

Larry,
I hope you are rigth about all those you mentioned taking their rightful place - Erma Franklin in particular. I'm probably going to get strung up for this one, but personally I prefer her to Aretha!

5/09/2005 09:32:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"The fact that Joplin’s best remembered tunes (if not her best records) are covers says something about her “greatness”"

- ummmm - Elvis did covers.... He was great.

nuff said...

3/06/2006 02:44:00 PM  
Blogger Larry Grogan said...

Yeah...Elvis, the single most overrated performer in the history of popular music.

Nuff said (really...)

3/09/2006 08:59:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Picked up an R.J. Benninghoff "Beethoven" album in great shape for $1 at a thrift store and was pleased with what I heard. None of the "Walter Murphy-Fifit of Beethoven" stuff, this sounded like Spirit as produced by Mason Williams.

3/11/2006 07:52:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I AM TRYING DESPERATELY TO LOCATE ERMA FRANKLIN RECORDING OF "ONE MORE TIME" (USED TO OWN IT ON 45, CAN'T FIND). THINK IT WAS THE FLIP SIDE OF "PIECE OF MY HEART". NOT SURE. KNOW IT EXISTS, KNOW ALL THE LYRICS. ANYONE ELSE FAMILIAR?

5/03/2007 03:24:00 PM  

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