The Songs that Define Janis Joplin’s Career

Videos by American Songwriter

Videos by American Songwriter

Janis Joplin was born on January 19, 1943, in Port Arthur, Texas. Sadly, she died of a heroin overdose at the young age of 27, in Los Angeles, California in 1970.

In between those dates, though, she wowed the world with her banshee-like singing voice that was perfect for the burgeoning genre of rock and roll.

While Joplin could have had many more albums and hit singles in her catalog today, had she stuck around longer, there are still many songs that rose to the rarefied air of superstar hit single.

Here, we will explore the songs that define her career.

1. “What Good Can Drinkin’ Do”

The first song she recorded, this track was cut in December 1962 at the home of a fellow University of Texas student. She said she wrote it one night after “drinking herself into a stupor.” On it, her voice is loud and proud, like some electrified version of Billie Holiday.

2. “Trouble In Mind”

In 1964, Joplin cut a seven-song album of blues standards with future Jefferson Airplane guitarist Jorma Kaukonen. The collection was known as The Typewriter Tapes and one of those songs was “Trouble In Mind.”

3. “Piece of My Heart”

Joplin left Texas and traveled around the country, landing in California where she linked with a number of musicians and recorded more and more. In 1968, she cut the album, Cheap Thrills, which included a cover of “Piece of My Heart,” hitting No. 12 on the Billboard chart that year.

4. “Summertime”

Another song from Cheap Thrills to make waves was “Summertime,” another cover. The album made Joplin a star and one of the reasons for that was her screechy, scratchy version of the standard.

5. “Kozmic Blues”

Later in her short career, Joplin, after making a name for herself, went solo. She released the album, Kozmic Blues, in 1969, which included the titular single. It peaked at No. 41 on the Billboard charts.

6. “Tell Mama”

Prior to her death, Joplin was touring extensively, playing with bands like the Grateful Dead and Buddy Guy. One of the songs she performed was a cover of “Tell Mama,” which made audiences go crazy. And in between songs, she would talk about her love life, including flirting competitions with other women in her apartment building.

7. “Mercedes Benz”

Later in 1970, Joplin performed the original song “Mercedes Benz” at the sight of Bessie Smith’s then-new gravestone, which Joplin helped pay for. Previously, Smith had been buried at an unmarked site. It was at the new gravestone that she offered her first live performance of this original tune.

8. “Me and Bobby McGee”

After her passing, Joplin’s best-selling album of all time, the 1971 LP Pearl, was released, which featured the Kris Kristofferson-penned song “Me and Bobby McGee,” likely her biggest hit. It hit No. 1 in 1971.

9. “Cry Baby”

Another hit of Joplin’s was the song “Cry Baby,” which also came out on her seminal album, Pearl. That song is a frantic, frenetic track that showcases just how big and powerful Joplin’s voice can be, as well as how nuanced and slinky.

10. “Ball and Chain”

This song was a favorite of Joplin’s to play live, which she did so before she died at the Monterey Pop Festival. Check out this live cut of Joplin killing the track below. The song originally came out on Joplin’s 1968 album with the band Big Brother & The Holding Company.

Photo by John Byrne Cooke Estate/Getty Images

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