Classic Tracks: Big Brother & The Holding Company's "Piece of My Heart"

Jul 1, 2009 12:00 PM, By Blair Jackson


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Catero is much less diplomatic: “Janis sounded great but the band was terrible.” (Nevertheless, a number of tracks from the Grande were released later, on Joplin in Concert and the expanded version of Cheap Thrills.)

After that, Mazer says, “They went back to New York and decided to go back into the studio, and I didn't get involved in those sessions.”

Both CBS in New York and their branch in L.A. (which later hosted Cheap Thrills sessions) had been old broadcast studios originally, with “all-tube hand-built consoles designed by Eric Porterfield, who was the official head of Columbia engineering,” Mazer says. “They had their own machine shops; they did everything. All the studios had very similar boards, some with more inputs, some with fewer; rotary pots and passive equalizers, which are basically like tone controls. Engineers today would die if they saw how few options we had.” The recorders were custom Ampex 8-tracks. Both New York and L.A. had live chambers, and, Mazer says, “because they were former radio studios, the post-production rooms were small — 10×15 or so — with a small console, and a rack on your right as you sat there, and probably some kind of Altec A7 speaker and maybe an Auratone. In those days you probably had an LA-2A, an RCA compressor and maybe a Pultec. And the EQ in the board was a minimal 4-band equalizer.”

Fred Catero is not sure about what mics he might have used on Big Brother. “On an 8-track session, I probably would have had three mics on the drums — kick, snare and overhead — going to one track. For drums, I didn't use condenser mics; I'd use high-quality dynamics. For guitars I used dynamics. U47s were out then, and I might use that on a lead vocal, but if it was a raunchy thing, I might use an SM57.”

In Catero's memory, the studio sessions for Cheap Thrills were “like pulling teeth. Janis always sounded good, take after take, but it was hard to get the band to play in tune and in time; they just weren't very good musicians.” Still, they tried to capture the group live in the studio — even setting them up as they played live. But the perfect take remained elusive. Producer Simon was continually frustrated by the group's sloppiness, and was not shy about showing his displeasure. But as Mazer notes of Simon, who remains a close friend, “John's a Princeton music graduate, he's got perfect pitch, a great sense of time, and it was hard for him dealing with that band, who were very, very loose.”

“Piece of My Heart” was penned by New York songwriters Bert Berns and Jerry Ragovoy. It had been a Top 10 R&B hit for Erma Franklin (Aretha's older sister) in 1967, and had been suggested to Joplin by Jefferson Airplane bassist Jack Casady. From the outset, it was viewed as the most likely candidate for a single: It captured Joplin's tough-yet-vulnerable persona; it had a scorching lead solo by Sam Andrew; and a winning hook. They just couldn't quite nail it.

With admittedly rough versions of the songs completed, the tapes (and the band) went to CBS Studios on Sunset Boulevard in L.A., where Mazer came back onboard for a couple of weeks' work, along with L.A. engineer Jerry Hochman. “We did some vocal tweaks here and there, overdubbed some parts on it and then mixed it,” Mazer says. “What happened in L.A. is the band and Janis got confidence that it was going to sound really good. And we finished a few things that had irritated them or which John remembered as not being as good as they should be.

“And I've gotta say, Janis was there all the time,” he adds. “She was the first one in the studio in the morning and the last one to leave at night. She wanted to know everything that was going on: ‘Why did you do that? Why did you plug that in?’ She was fascinated with the process and really cared.”

Because of some problems with one of the tape machines in L.A., a couple of the mixes for the album had to be re-done back in New York, with Roy Siegel supervising. It was in New York, too, that the “live” component of the album was added: Bill Graham's famous introduction — “Four gentlemen and one great, great broad…Big Brother and the Holding Company!” — was grafted onto the album opener, “Combination of the Two”; as well as applause at the end of several cuts, which Catero says was mostly manufactured recording “secretaries and whoever was around, cheering and banging tambourines in the hallways of the studio.” Despite the proclamation on artist R. Crumb's iconic cover for Cheap Thrills (original title nixed by Clive Davis: Sex, Dope and Cheap Thrills) that the album was recorded live at the Fillmore Auditorium, there is only one truly live track, “Ball and Chain,” recorded at Winterland.

“Piece of My Heart” does not have any audience fakery on it, and it was an instant hit on both FM and AM radio when the album was released in the fall of 1968. The truth was, it didn't need the polish of true radio hit: It had Janis Joplin! The single version — a mono mix with a fade-out ending — made it all the way to Number 12, and the album sold more than 1 million copies on its way to becoming one of the best-loved works to come out of the psychedelic era. The following year, Joplin broke with Big Brother and, with Mazer's help, formed the horn-heavy Kozmic Blues Band. She died of a drug overdose in the fall of 1970.

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