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Big Brother and the Holding Co.’s ‘Sex, Dope and Cheap Thrills’ Offers a Vibrant Image of Janis Joplin in Her Prime

A new reissue explores the iconic singers’s brief run fronting the San Francisco acid-blues band

Big Brother and the Holding Co

Big Brother and the Holding Co

Bob Cato/Sony Music Archives

Janis Joplin’s time in the San Francisco blues crew Big Brother and the Holding Co. was relatively short, only a couple of years — just long enough to record two albums and become an era-defining flashpoint at the Monterey Pop Festival. Their second album, 1968’s Cheap Thrills, became an acid-rock landmark thanks to the barnburner “Piece of My Heart,” a sultry cover of “Summertime” and the crushing, epic cover of Big Mama Thornton’s “Ball and Chain.” It went to Number One and was certified gold and within a few months of its release, Joplin quit to become a solo star.

The new compilation, Sex, Dope & Cheap Thrills, takes its title from the band’s original pitch for the name of the LP (the squares at the record label weren’t having it) and contains nearly two-and-a-half hours of alternate takes and live recordings from the Cheap Thrills era. Most of them are previously unreleased. The live recording of “Ball and Chain” sports a heavier beat and Joplin’s double-fried vocals — a stunning performance — followed by unreasonably polite applause. The three alternate takes of “Piece of My Heart” have a similar energy to the more familiar version, but show just how vibrant Joplin was at the sessions. And the second disc’s first take of “Summertime” captures a brilliant performance that would have been a thing of legend if the band hadn’t fallen apart at the end. Other standouts include the foot-stomping “How Many Times Blues Jam,” an extended, wailing take on “I Need a Man to Love” and a charging, soulful take of “Combination of the Two.” There’s also studio banter, like Joplin cackling gloriously and saying, “I knew it was gonna take us all night,” before the ninth take of the oddball “Harry” and three takes of “Turtle Blues” on which Joplin talks out the feel of the song.

Also notable are the liner notes. The Jefferson Airplane’s Grace Slick remembers Joplin as a vivacious, joyful force and the Big Brother band as having a “down home” vibe. Meanwhile, drummer Dave Getz offers lively accounts of making the album and working with illustrator Robert Crumb on its problematic, iconic cover – and how the latter was stolen only to be sold at auction for a quarter of a million dollars. It’s the Janis Joplin bonus content you never knew you wanted.

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