50 Years Ago: Janis Joplin Becomes a Star With ‘Cheap Thrills’
"Four gentlemen and one great, great broad ... Big Brother & the Holding Company." Bill Graham utters these words at the very start of the San Francisco band's classic Cheap Thrills album, introducing the band – not just Janis Joplin and a bunch of guys who wandered onstage to back her up.
Released on Aug. 12, 1968, Cheap Thrills was Big Brother's second album, but in a way it's their first real statement. The band's self-titled debut from the previous year was released after its breakthrough performance at the Monterey International Pop Festival. But it didn't sell well and couldn't capture the group's dynamic stage presence. They would fix all that with Cheap Thrills.
The album was supposed to be called Sex, Dope and Cheap Thrills, but Big Brother's label nixed it. Even so, the rest of the record – produced by John Simon – defined the group with its vibrant blues-influenced rock 'n' roll. The breakout star was undoubtedly Joplin, one of the most dynamic singers of her generation who set the template for anyone standing behind a microphone. Just ask Robert Plant where he got part of his banshee wail.
Things kick off with the driving "Combination of the Two," which boils over at times thanks to James Gurly's blistering guitar. Joplin and guitarist Sam Andrew share vocals, but she ably steals the spotlight. The band's celebrated cover of the Gershwins' "Summertime" ranks as one of the finest takes on this often-covered standard. Joplin delivers a near-fragile performance while the swirling guitars provide a solid web surrounding. Gurly and Andrew's fuzz-drenched solos in the middle of the song are electric-guitar poetry.
Side one ends with the band's cover of Erma Franklin's (Aretha's sister) "Piece of My Heart," which hit No. 12 and became the group's signature song. Joplin's soulful performance made her a star. "Turtle Blues," on the other hand, is pure blues, with just acoustic guitar, piano and vocal steering it. The haunting rocker "Oh Sweet Mary" follows, slithering along with mighty fine guitar work anchoring one of the most blatantly psychedelic songs in Big Brother's catalog.
It all leads up to the album's tour de force, "Ball and Chain," a highlight of the band's live sets (including the career-making one at Monterey), Big Brother take on Big Mama Thornton's song and turn it inside out, making it their own. Once again, vicious guitars weave in and out of Joplin's fiery performance. The 10-second pause at the start of the song remains one of the most spine-chilling moments of the era.
Cheap Thrills – which wasn't quite the live album it claimed to be, since studio recordings and overdubs make up a bulk of the tracks – was a huge hit, staying at No. 1 for eight weeks. Engineer Fred Catero remembered the sessions as being frustrating. "Janis always sounded good, take after take," he later told Mix. "But it was hard to get the band to play in tune and in time. They just weren't very good musicians." Even though they may not have been virtuosos, the members of Big Brother & the Holding Company gave Cheap Thrills a certain ragged glory. The album ended up being the band's last album with Joplin, who left by the end of the year to launch a solo career.