Get It While You Can
The new collection Songs of Janis Joplin: Blues Down Deep is merely the latest in a series of outrages foisted upon a gullible public by the House of Blues, a nightclub chain and music label that seems to think we were all born yesterday; but for sheer chutzpah, it may be its crowning achievement to date.
Joplin, in case you were stoned or born later, was the nonpareil hippie-chick singer. In her brief career, she scored several minor hits, including "Piece of My Heart." Having more talent for dying than living, she overdosed on heroin in a Hollywood hotel at age 27, and that's when her legend began--her biggest hit was the posthumously charting "Me and Bobby McGee."
The title is the most patently offensive thing about Songs of Janis Joplin. Of 13 tracks, she had a hand in writing five; only one of those, the annoyingly fluffy "Mercedes Benz," is associated with her today. HoB's idea seems to have been to get a bunch of soul, blues and folk artists--Etta James, Otis Clay, Syl Johnson, Koko Taylor, Taj Mahal--and have them interpret "Joplin's" songs. Amazingly, the HoB people do not seem to realize that the best of Joplin's songs were black blues and soul recordings to begin with: Erma Franklin's "Piece of My Heart," Garnet Mimms' "Cry Baby" and "My Baby," Howard Tate's "Get It While You Can" and Big Mama Thornton's "Ball and Chain." I know some people have at least a sentimental attachment to Joplin's performances, and I can understand that; when I first heard her at summer camp on a battery-powered tape player, I was taken by her renditions, too. But when I got a little older and stumbled onto Erma Franklin's version of "Piece of My Heart" and Garnet Mimms' sides, there was no going back to Joplin's fumbling rasp. Heard back to back with the originals, Joplin sounds like a drunk trying to fit a key in a locked door.
Merely reissuing the originals wouldn't serve the tragic myth of the lost little girl from Port Arthur, Texas, that has grown around Joplin, however. Her legend is burnished by six biographies and a Canadian fanzine (search vainly for a tome about Aretha Franklin, or Dusty Springfield, who really could sing soul but are apparently less interesting because they lived). I picked up Janis Joplin: Buried Alive, a memoir by Myra Friedman, her former publicist. It's a strangely tin-eared work filled with peculiar assertions, but reading it, you do learn at least one thing: If Friedman is to be trusted, Joplin was a dishonest, manipulative, insecure person who once suggested shooting up tape-head cleaning fluid; better to remember her for her music, if at all.
In February, Billboard reported that rocker Melissa Etheridge was negotiating to star in a Joplin film bio; the HoB project makes me dread the movie already. It's criminal that mounds of vinyl, paper, film stock and whatever CDs are made of are used to obscure great soul music. I was tempted to leave it at that: HoB issues another shitty collection, blacks are written out of American history again, what else is new, at least I've got my Solomon Burke albums to comfort me. There's even some poetic justice in the Joplin film's casting. It was Etheridge, at the 1995 Concert for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, who performed a screeching medley of Ronettes/Shangri-Las/Supremes hits.
But, reading the Billboard announcement, something else caught my eye. Lakeshore Entertainment, the company producing the Joplin film, reportedly agreed to pay $1.1 million for the rights to use "Piece of My Heart." The licensing fee, it says, "is believed to be one of the richest ever offered for the movie rights to a song. . . . Jerry Ragavoy and Bert Berns originally wrote the tune for Irma [sic] Franklin, who took it to the top of the R&B charts." I've been seeing Ragavoy's name here and there for years, but I didn't really think about him until I imagined someone opening the mail and finding a check for $550,000. So I pulled some CDs off my shelves and started checking songwriting and arranging credits.
Ragavoy not only co-wrote "Piece of My Heart" for Franklin, he also co-wrote Mimms' "Cry Baby" and "My Baby" and Tate's "Get It While You Can." For this alone you could make a good case that HoB has the wrong name on its album. Ragavoy also single-handedly penned "Time Is on My Side," perhaps the best-ever cut by soul diva Irma Thomas. This is more than just a portfolio of somewhat obscure songs. For one thing, I'd always taken these to be quintessentially black compositions, steeped in the church. And in almost every instance, the artists reached the pinnacle of their careers with a song Ragavoy had a part in writing, arranging, or both. I'd been thinking of Joplin as a needy pseudo-mama who passed off black music to hippies, who in turn had no capacity to inquire, and then I discovered another layer to this story. Beneath the not-so-secret black heart of American song, there was a white Jewish boy from Philadelphia, the son of a Hungarian optometrist, pulling levers.
Ragavoy was born in 1930 and grew up listening to classical music and playing the piano. His life changed after high school, when he got a job at an appliance store in a black West Philly neighborhood. In those days--this was 1948--appliance stores often sold 78 rpm records and record players, and salespeople played the latest product for customers. For the next five years, he listened to black gospel groups like the Soul Stirrers, the Swan Silvertones, and the Caravans; R&B greats Charles Brown and Amos Milburn; and gutbucket bluesman John Lee Hooker, who became his touchstone. He soaked it all up, he said, speaking from his home near Atlanta, Georgia, and "it came out as a natural part of my musical expression."
The first recording he produced, "My Girl Awaits Me" by the Castelles, in 1953, was his first hit. Ragavoy says it sold 100,000 copies. He moved on for a year to a gofer's job at Chancellor Records, a label that boasted Fabian and Frankie Avalon. Then he discovered the Majors, another vocal group, and while he claims he hated doo-wop, he wrote "A Wonderful Dream" for them under the pseudonym Norman Meade. He was saving his own name for works he planned to write for Broadway one day.
Norman Meade had a hot hand. "A Wonderful Dream" hit No. 23 on the pop charts in 1962. The disc sold three quarters of a million copies, Ragavoy said, netting him $100,000. By the time it came out, he'd already moved to New York. When the record charted, he quit his job plugging songs for a publishing company and has been on his own ever since. He had met another songwriter at Chancellor, Bert Berns, and the two began collaborating. In 1963, on a trip back to Philly, Ragavoy met Garnet Mimms, a former gospel singer. "Cry Baby," a song Ragavoy wrote with Berns, was the first side he cut with Mimms. It went to No. 3 pop and sold a million and a half copies, according to Ragavoy.
Some have argued that "Cry Baby" is the first true soul song, marking the place where the black church first bleeds over into pop music. With the female backing group Sweet Inspirations (featuring Dionne Warwick) welling behind Mimms on the chorus and his spoken interlude, it sounds like Sunday morning, all right. When I asked whether that was something Mimms contributed, Ragavoy lost his patience.
"Of course, it was very gospel-inspired," he said. "That's what I brought to it. Garnet's the singer; I was the arranger, and the arrangement's gospel."
One day shortly after "Cry Baby" hit, Ragavoy's phone rang. A friend of his, an arranger, was making a recording with jazz trombonist Kai Winding and wondered whether Ragavoy had any good songs lying around. He promised to take a look; and then, in an hour, he said, he wrote "Time Is on My Side." It didn't do anything for Winding, but when Irma Thomas recorded it later that year, her stirring version inched up the charts--until England's newest hitmakers bumped her off.
"The next thing I know, I get a call from a publisher in England," Ragavoy told Goldmine last year. "They said they wanted to cut it with a group called the Rolling Stones, who I'd never heard of. . . . Next thing I know, it's out and it's their first hit in this country. I was amazed 'cause they had sent me a copy four months before, and I listened to it and thought, 'What on Earth is this piece of shit?' That's exactly what I thought. 'Man, I'm glad I got my $1,500!' Took me a while to get used to the Stones. Took me a coupla years, actually."
After Ragavoy's success with Mimms and "Time," jobs followed with Howard Tate, a former member of one of Mimms' groups. The song Ragavoy wrote for Tate with Mort Shuman, "Get It While You Can," may be the greatest soul song you never heard--inexplicably, it never dented the charts when it was released in 1967. The same is true for "Stay With Me," a song Ragavoy co-wrote for Lorraine Ellison; it stalled at No. 64 on the pop chart the year before, much to Ellison's disappointment. All three songs have what I think of as Ragavoy's hallmarks: a grittiness grounded in gospel coupled with a dramatic, almost theatrically swollen crescendo. When I tentatively broached this, Ragavoy said, "Oh, that's my Puccini influence."
American soul, distilled from Italian opera.
"I know Puccini as well as I know John Lee Hooker," he continued. "I'm being somewhat facetious, but I was always personally attracted to dramatic music--Ravel, Rachmaninoff. I can listen to Rachmaninoff and I'm glued to the chair."
Ragavoy, collaborating with Berns, had more success with Aretha Franklin's sister Erma in 1967 when they cut "Piece of My Heart." Erma Franklin never shone quite that way again, as far as I can tell, but for two minutes and 40 seconds she's immersed in an exquisitely delicate yet powerful anthem. Her pauses alone are sublime, not to mention the way the uncredited back-up singers support her like a funky Greek chorus. When Janis Joplin took a run at the same song several months later, backed by Big Brother and the Holding Company, she came up with something that should make even Michael Bolton blush.
"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.
"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.
"Fair enough," I said. "But doesn't it bother you, just a little, that performances of three of your songs are being sold by the House of Blues as Songs of Janis Joplin?"
"No, not really," he said. "I never have and ever will pay attention to people in marketing. They are offensive in their own right; they don't have to say 'Songs of Janis Joplin' to be more offensive."
This is probably just another way of saying that capitalism may be the best available choice, but it's still an economic, not an aesthetic, system. Or, to put it yet another way, a chain of nightclubs and the economies of scale it implies is American and rational and dead wrong. Ragavoy says he enjoys his anonymity, but what else can he say? In the 343 pages of Friedman's book on Joplin, I cannot find so much as a mention of him. Ditto Erma Franklin and Howard Tate. The index lists "methadone" and "Methedrine," but no "Mimms, Garnet." If this is the best book on the singer, as some have said, what can we expect from Hollywood?
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