Known for their association with the soul scorching female lead Janis Joplin, Big Brother & The Holding Company released their second album titled “Cheap Thrills” nearly 50 years ago, gaining popularity after Joplin’s raw, impassioned performance with the band at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967. The band was one of the many driving forces of the San Francisco psychedelic music scene along with bands like the Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane.
The album was originally to be named “Sex, Dope, Cheap Thrills”, but Columbia rejected the title and forced the band to keep it as just “Cheap Thrills”. They also faced more creative limitations when their original album cover concept featuring the band in bed, which of course featured partial nudity, was restricted to be the the now famous artwork by R.Crumb. Regardless of the constraints they faced on the look of the album, the sound of this album shows no boundaries. Peaking at Number one for several non-consecutive weeks, this album has stood the tests of time, and features one of the most well known songs by the band and Joplin herself. “Piece of Heart”, the single from the album and one that most people can identify with Big Brother shows the musical genius and vocal and emotional ferociousness that Joplin delivered throughout this entire album as well as her career.
It starts off with “Combination of the Two” which features Bill Graham, a prominent rock concert promoter during the 60s, introducing the band as, “Four gentlemen and one great, great broad.” A fun and energetic tune that has guitar player, Sam Andrew, as the lead vocalist allows the band to be seen as more than just Janis, though her fiery tones can can be heard throughout. The second track “ I Need a Man to Love” has Joplin taking the lead back and absolutely expresses her sensual seductive singing that can be matched with no other. With Andrew backing her, the song keeps Joplin in the spotlight, but invites the talents of her fellow band mates to join her center stage.
Bringing the album to a slower tempo, “Summertime” is a track that has been covered by many artists like Peter Seeger and The Zombies, but not in the raw and expressive fashion that has come to be expected from Janis. This song taps more into her style that one could hear again in her later albums. Since we already touched on “Piece of my Heart”, we can skip to “Turtle Blues”, a tune that Janis wrote herself and tunes into her earlier style and influences by the Blues. This track definitely has that gritty, bar recording sound that was popular with Blues musicians up to and including Jimi Hendrix in his track “Me and My Best Friend.”
The album then transitions into a very definitive psychedelic number with “ Oh, Sweet Mary.” All members in the band put their creative perspective into this song and it shows the style that Big Brother was built on. This song is very instrumentally rich and though Janis and Andrew have their vocal areas in the song, it’s clearly not the focal point in this song.
The last track on the album “ Ball and Chain”, a cover from Blues singer Big Mama Thornton, is where Joplin truly opens herself up emotionally on the album. Going from well constructed vocal sections to her notable raspy harmonious cries, this song not only bleeds emotions , but also begs to be played over and over again. Though this is Joplin’s spotlight song, the acid-rock distortion that kicks the song off is what sets the tone for such an incredible performance.
The album in its entirety is an incredible representation of the newly musical and vocal freedom that was being discovered and defined in the sixties. Big Brother had faced a lot of criticism during their time with Janis, but there is no denying that the group was, and still is something to be marveled at.