Get It While You Can

Jerry Ragavoy and the ghost of Janis Joplin

"To me, there's a very simplistic explanation," Ragavoy said. "Erma's record is performed by studio musicians who are just incredible, combined with the fact you have great background singers, great everything, period. There is not a wasted quarter note--it all means something. When you deal with these wonderful musicians in New York, or Nashville, that's a breed very few people are aware of; they're great executors of the material. As opposed to Big Brother, and most bands, period, [who are] lame musicians for the most part. . . . Half these records are made because they think it's a fucking party. Big Brother, you hear it, it's raw, it's sloppy, and even though it was a hit, it's really a shame--although [Joplin] sure sang the hell out of it.

"Janis was largely influenced by R&B, but my own personal opinion about that particular time in musical history is, there were a lot of white singers who loved R&B and tried to imitate it, and they made this terrible mistake of thinking if you sing loud and shout, that's soul. All you have to do is listen to Marvin Gaye, or Hooker, for that matter, and you know that's not true. Janis was not the only one--there were lots of singers, male and female, who felt they were obliged to scream until the veins popped out of their necks and that was R&B."

I wondered what Ragavoy would have done with Joplin if someone brought her to him in '67 instead of Erma Franklin.

"I might have turned her down," he said.
Ragavoy was a perfectionist, perhaps, but wasn't alone in seeing Joplin as something other or less than a recording artist. Here is record producer John Simon, as quoted by Myra Friedman, talking about Joplin and Big Brother:

"I always thought they were a great performance band, but I didn't think they made it as a recording band. I liked seeing them; I liked the excitement in the audience, but there was a time when what was music and what the public thought was music were very far apart, to my way of thinking. The drugs! That's how Janis Joplin could happen in the first place. Everyone's mind was fried! Look, they made a lot of people happy. That's important and it counts, and it shouldn't be held against them that they couldn't make music! They had a cult and a following, and as a San Francisco phenomenon, they were in their element and then . . . well . . . for some probably sociological reason, [Columbia Records head] Clive Davis forced them to make a record."

Ragavoy and Joplin met once. She was in New York, performing at Madison Square Garden shortly after her version of "Piece of My Heart" came out, when one of her producers called Ragavoy and said Joplin would love to meet him. He could have gone to see her backstage, but he invited her to his recording studio, The Hit Factory.

"She walked in and--I never really was one for beads and Nehru jackets, anything that was a uniform; I had on my Brooks Brothers navy blue blazer and gray pants and a pair of loafers. So Janis walks in and looks at me, and says, 'You're Jerry Ragavoy?' She couldn't believe it; I didn't fit the image."

Undaunted, Joplin decided to cut out the middleman and asked Ragavoy to write a song for what proved to be her last album, Pearl. She'd phone periodically to check on its progress, Ragavoy said. "One time she called and it was very noisy in the background," he told Goldmine. "I asked her what was going on.

"She said, 'Oh, we're havin' a party here to celebrate this new tattoo I got on my tit. Why don't you come over, honey?'

"I said, 'Well, Janis, I'm in New York and you're in California.'
"'That's okay,' she said, 'it'll be going on for three more days. Take your time, baby.'"

He did. The third time she called about the song, at the end of the summer of 1970, he'd finished it but hadn't had a chance to make a demo recording. At her insistence, he said, he sang a bit of it to her over the phone. She seemed pleased. Six weeks later, she was dead. The song--here's your spooky movie moment--was called "I'm Gonna Rock My Way to Heaven."

Ragavoy said he eventually overcame his resistance to Joplin's voice, because he realized she outgrew her shrieking before her death. He only discovered this, he said, when he was hired as musical director of a 1994 play titled Love, Janis. Based on letters Joplin wrote to her sister Laura, the play opened in Denver but never made it to Broadway. Still, Ragavoy makes money whenever Joplin's Greatest Hits sells and, while it hasn't been flying out of the stores lately, the money from her versions of his songs has dwarfed his royalties from the original recordings. Ragavoy wouldn't confirm or deny the reported $1.1 million payment for the film rights to "Piece of My Heart" because, he said, he signed a confidentiality agreement, but he said the music business has been kind to him.

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