The Essential Janis JoplinThe Essential George Gershwin

Janis Joplin
The Essential Janis Joplin

(Columbia/Legacy/Sony)

George Gershwin
The Essential George Gershwin

(Legacy/Sony Classical)

First Appeared at The Music Box, February 2003, Volume 10, #2

Written by John Metzger

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On Sunday, January 19, Janis Joplin would have celebrated her 60th birthday. Her career was cut woefully short — she died of a heroin overdose in October 1970, just a few years after she began flexing her awesome vocal chords — but the music she left behind is as relevant today as the day it first was created. Joplin saw the release of only three albums during her lifetime — two with Big Brother & the Holding Company (the interesting, but unessential eponymous debut and the blockbuster must-have Cheap Thrills) and one solo outing (the underappreciated I Got Dem Ol’ Kozmic Blues Again Mama!). At the time of her death, she had been working on a fourth recording, which yielded her personal masterpiece Pearl.

Throughout the years, there have been countless compilations endlessly repackaging her material, but none have been quite as good as The Essential Janis Joplin. Over the course of two discs and thirty songs, this set boils down her four albums to the most important material — all but one track from Pearl is included — while adding in a few other worthy tidbits, two of which (versions of To Love Somebody and Kozmic Blues recorded at Woodstock) were previously unavailable.

As it progresses, The Essential Janis Joplin highlights a magnificent career, showing its rapid progression from the concise ’60s pop of Down on Me through the explosive psychedelic blues of Ball and Chain (taken here from the Monterey Pop Festival) to the gospel-soul of Little Girl Blue (perhaps the finest vocal Joplin ever recorded) and onward to the songwriter-oriented pop of Get It While You Can. In between are countless highlights: the early single Coo Coo, the major hits (Down on Me, Piece of My Heart, Try [Just a Little Bit Harder], Mercedes Benz, and Me and Bobby McGee), and other oft-forgotten gems (Maybe, Tell Mama, and Work Me, Lord) or recently unearthed nuggets (Misery’n and Raise Your Hand from Janis and Farewell Song from Live at Winterland ’68) nuggets. What would Joplin have done had she not passed away in 1970? The world will never know. All we’re left with is what she left behind. But one thing’s for certain — the rock world would never have been the same without her.

The connection between Janis Joplin and George Gershwin is simple: an absolutely stunning interpretation of Gershwin’s Summertime, which appeared on Big Brother & the Holding Company’s 1968 outing Cheap Thrills. The song’s four minutes mark what is, perhaps, Joplin’s second finest vocal performance — a blissful blast of breezy blues for the hottest of summer days. All the pain, anguish, and sorrow of a lifetime drift through the music as guitar and vocals collide with dramatic results. The version that appears on The Essential George Gershwin is equally powerful, delivered with an earthy swing by the estimable Billie Holiday. Outside a brief segment from Rhapsody in Blue — popularized by a now bankrupt airline — Summertime is the most familiar Gershwin piece to rock fans around the globe.

As The Essential George Gershwin demonstrates, however, these two songs merely scratch the surface of a career than began in 1919 (with the smash hit Swanee, sung by Al Jolson) before tragically concluding when the songwriter succumbed to a brain tumor in 1937. Many, in fact most, of the collections’ 42 tracks — such as the chipper I Got Rhythm (performed by Ethel Waters), the playful Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off and They Can’t Take That Away from Me (both performed by Fred Astaire), and the tender Someone to Watch Over Me (performed by Frank Sinatra) — are instantly recognizable, while others — such as the bubbly Liza (performed by Benny Goodman), the airy Of Thee I Sing (performed by The Hi-Lo’s), and the groovy Mine (performed by Dick Hyman and taken from Woody Allen’s film Manhattan) will undoubtedly be less familiar. Either way, this 42-track, two-disc collection drifts from jazz to blues to classical styles with such gracefully elegant ease that it’s positively astonishing. No wonder such a diverse array of artists — Aretha Franklin, Ella Fitzgerald, Tony Bennett, Rosemary Clooney, and Miles Davis all make appearances on this collection — have been drawn to Gershwin’s various works. It’s magic, pure and simple. Who knows what Gershwin would have accomplished had he not passed away prematurely just a few months shy of his 39th birthday. But one thing is for certain — he created some of the most enduring and inherently American music ever.

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The Essential Janis Joplinstarstarstarstarstar

The Essential George Gershwinstarstarstarstarstar

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The Essential Janis Joplin is available from Barnes & Noble.
To order, Click Here!

The Essential George Gershwin is available from Barnes & Noble.
To order, Click Here!

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Ratings

1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!

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Copyright © 2002 The Music Box