Piece of My Heart: Erma Franklin, Big Brother and the Holding Company

Hello there! In this week’s blog we consider Piece of My Heart, a great rhythm and blues song from the 60s. We will review the original by Erma Franklin, and a cover of that song by Big Brother and the Holding Company.

Erma Franklin and Piece of My Heart:

Consider the following scenario. You have a terrific voice – a natural for rhythm & blues. Also, you are a singer who can use her training in gospel to great effect in soul music. You are given a terrific tune by two talented songwriters, and the song is given a first-rate arrangement by your producer. Looks like you are headed straight for stardom, right?

Well, not if you are Erma Franklin.

First off, although you may be a really talented singer, your little sister Aretha Franklin turns out to be the greatest R&B vocalist of all time. What little success you garner occurs  mainly as one of Aretha’s backup singers.

Now, Erma Franklin’s story is not unique. In fact, a number of incredibly talented pop singers have never managed to crack the big time, instead becoming backups for others. In some cases it would appear that the backup singers are more talented than the “stars,” but just never get the big break so essential for success. This was beautifully depicted in the 2013 documentary 20 Feet From Stardom, which interviewed a number of backup singers and talked with them about their experiences. That film won the 2014 Academy Award for Best Documentary.

And the great song recorded by Erma Franklin? It somehow languished in the pop charts, until it was covered by some white chick from Texas. The song then became a psychedelic-rock classic, and the cover artist turned out to be a singing sensation whose tragic death turns her into an iconic figure.

So, despite a wealth of talent, Erma Franklin could never catch the big break. Her singing career ended up in the shadow of her sister Aretha, and Janis Joplin’s cover of her biggest song completely overshadowed her original version. Here is a photo of Erma from early in her career.

Of course, as one of the Franklin sisters, Erma had a wonderful voice that was trained in the family’s gospel choir (her father, Reverend C.L. Franklin, was pastor of a big church in Detroit). Erma and her sister Carolyn can be heard providing the sassy backup vocals on Aretha’s 1967 breakout hit, Respect.

Here is Erma Franklin singing Piece of My Heart. The identification is rather carefully worded – it says that it was “filmed at The Soup Kitchen, Detroit, Oct. 1992.” That is technically correct, but the music wasn’t live — it is simply a music video with lip-synching from Erma, and the audio is the original 1967 recording of the song. However, Erma has a terrific voice for soul music, and the song by Jerry Ragovoy and Bert Berns has a powerful message.

Although the singer has lost her love to someone new, she reiterates her dedication to him, and she vows that her love will continue despite the pain she is suffering. She asks him to reconsider and urges that whenever he wants, he can “take another little piece of my heart.”

Didn’t I make you feel like you were the only man,
And didn’t I give you nearly everything that a woman possibly can?
Honey, you know I did!
And each time I tell myself that I’ve just had enough,
But I’m gonna show you, baby, that a woman can be tough.

I said come on, come on, come on, come on and take it,
Take another little piece of my heart now, baby,
Break another little bit of my heart now, darling, yeah.
Hey! Have another little piece of my heart now, baby, yeah.
You know you got it if it makes you feel good.

Presumably the music video was made in 1992 because in that year the song was re-released in the UK. The occasion was that the song gained renewed popularity when it was featured in a Levis jeans commercial. The song reached #9 on the UK singles chart in 1992.

I have to say that Piece of My Heart is a pretty terrific song. In 1967 it made the top ten on the Billboard R&B charts but didn’t even crack the Top 40 on the pop charts, stalling out at #62. Erma Franklin’s vocals are first-rate, she has a great group of backup singers, and the arrangement with horns and woodwinds is very impressive. Hard to imagine that it wasn’t a big hit; it just goes to show how much luck is involved in scoring a hit record.

Earlier we mentioned Bert Berns, a co-writer of Piece of My Heart.  Although he died of a heart attack at age 38, Berns was one of the most influential rock music writers and producers during his lifetime.  Berns worked his way from a $50-per-week Brill Building songwriter to record-company owner.  He wrote and/or produced such songs as Twist and Shout for the Isley Brothers, and Tell Him for the Exciters.

In 1963 Berns was hired at Atlantic Records by Ahmet Ertegun and Jerry Wexler, and he subsequently became staff producer at Atlantic.  There, Berns wrote for and produced artists like The Drifters, Wilson Pickett, and Solomon Burke.

Berns subsequently formed two record companies, Bang Records (BANG was an anagram formed from the first names of Bert Berns, Ahmet Ertegun, Nesuhi Ertegun and Gerald Wexler) which focused on rock and roll, and Shout Records, which featured rhythm and blues.  Bang Records produced artists like Van Morrison and Neil Diamond, while Shout Records released Erma Franklin’s Piece of My Heart. We hear that a documentary “BANG — the Bert Berns Story” is in the works.  We can’t wait for its release!

Despite Erma’s great voice and musical pedigree, she never really made much headway as a solo pop singer. She tended not to land records that appropriately showcased her gospel-infused R&B talents. Although she recorded as a backup singer with sister Aretha and occasionally accompanied her on tour, Erma’s career languished and she was out of the music business by the mid-70s.

In the spring of 2002, Erma was diagnosed with throat cancer, and she died in September of that year. She is buried in Detroit’s Woodlawn Cemetery.

Big Brother and the Holding Company and Piece of My Heart:

In 1967 I was a graduate student at Oxford University. I greatly enjoyed my first-hand experience of British Invasion music; however, there were aspects of rock music and American culture that either never penetrated the British scene, or that arrived in the UK only after a long wait.

Over the 1967 Christmas holidays, a friend of mine went back for a visit to California. He returned with fascinating news about the hippie scene, particularly in the Bay Area of San Francisco. He brought back posters, alternative comics (R. Crumb and the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers were real eye-openers) and a stack of West-Coast rock albums, by artists such as: Creedence Clearwater Revival; Jefferson Airplane; Country Joe and the Fish; the Grateful Dead; and Big Brother and the Holding Company.

Holy cow, how long had this been going on? Although the live music scene, particularly in London, was wonderful, radio was another matter. Unlike the States, where you could find radio stations with dozens of different formats, your UK radio choices were drastically limited. At that time, the BBC treated rock music as though it carried some kind of loathsome disease. You could get a few hours a week of pop music from BBC-2, but other than that you were pretty much out of luck.

If your radio had really good reception, you could pick up signals from Radio Caroline, a boat anchored in international waters that broadcast nonstop rock music, in an attempt to break the BBC’s monopoly on recorded music on UK radio. Even so, in England I had never heard music by these Bay Area groups before my friend returned loaded down with a suitcase full of psychedelic shit.

For example, here is a poster for a concert at San Francisco’s Fillmore Auditorium featuring Big Brother and the Holding Company. Far out, man — just looking at this poster, my head felt like it was ready to explode!

It would take a small encyclopedia to fully explore the West Coast freak scene in the 60s, so we will concentrate here on the band Big Brother and the Holding Company and their iconic lead singer, Janis Joplin. Here is Janis with Big Brother at Golden Gate Park on Jan. 1, 1967.

Janis came out of the small town of Port Arthur, Texas, trying to make the big time as a blues singer. Like so many other young talents (e.g., Otis Redding and Jimi Hendrix), Janis became an overnight sensation following her performance at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival. One secret of Janis’ appeal was that she held absolutely nothing back. Her singing was raw and brutal; she shrieked, screamed and pleaded until her voice gave out.

Part of the reason why she was so direct and heartfelt was that even before she was famous, Janis had serious issues with both alcohol and drugs, and in particular heroin. I can’t remember ever seeing an interview with Janis when she wasn’t stoned out of her gourd, slurring her words, often barely able to construct a sentence and frequently carrying a bottle of her favorite drink, Southern Comfort. The addictive substances would prove fatal for Janis, but they removed any inhibitions in her performances.

Less than a year after the release of their 1968 album Cheap Thrills, Janis split from Big Brother in an interesting and controversial move. As a rock superstar, she had been urged by several people to drop Big Brother, on the grounds that they weren’t sufficiently good musicians to match her incredible talent. On the other hand, Janis subsequently fronted a couple of other backing groups, the Kozmic Blues Band and Full Tilt Boogie, and I have always thought that Janis was at her best as a member of Big Brother and the Holding Company.

Here is Janis Joplin with Big Brother and the Holding Company performing Piece of My Heart at New York’s Generation Club on April 7, 1968. The audio and video are definitely crummy, but you can get the feeling of a live Janis Joplin concert. Also, I particularly like Big Brother lead guitarist Sam Andrews’ solo here.

And here is the audio from the recording of Piece of My Heart. This is a studio cut, so the production values are infinitely better than the video.

spotify:track:1xKQbqQtQWrtQS47fUJBtl

The Spotify icon shows the album cover of Cheap Thrills, Janis’ most famous album with Big Brother. The cover featured the unmistakable psychedelic art of R. Crumb, which highlighted Crumb’s acid-drenched, erotic and disturbing images.  The album contained classic Janis Joplin cuts like Piece of My Heart, Ball and Chain and Summertime.

Note that many of the elements of Piece of My Heart are taken directly from Erma Franklin’s version. However, Big Brother turns the song from a relatively sedate R&B tune into a psychedelic-rock classic. Furthermore, Janis’ vocals are simply electrifying. At times she cajoles and produces some sweet sounds, but her description of the pain suffered by the singer is incredibly raw. Janis’ screams and wails are really heart-wrenching — no wonder her performances were so electric and unforgettable.

Following her breakout performance at Monterey Pop, Janis headlined at Woodstock. She was disappointed in her performance because (as usual) she was tanked on both alcohol and heroin. However, Pete Townshend later commented that at Woodstock,
“she wasn’t at her best, due, probably, to the long delay, and probably, too, to the amount of booze and heroin she’d consumed while she waited. But even Janis on an off-night was incredible.”

In September 1970, Janis and her band Full Tilt Boogie were laying down tracks in LA for the album Pearl. Janis was staying at the Landmark Hotel in Hollywood during the recording sessions. Unfortunately, Joplin’s associates, who were making a concerted effort to keep her off drugs, seem not to have realized that the Landmark was a major hangout for drug activity, and particularly for heroin dealers.

On Oct. 4, 1970, Janis Joplin was found dead in her hotel room at the Landmark. The cause of death was a heroin overdose, compounded by alcohol. Janis was just 27 years old when she died.  In a gruesome coincidence, she died just sixteen days after Jimi Hendrix was found dead (also at age 27) of complications from drug use.

The deaths of Janis and Jimi were gigantic shocks to everyone interested in rock music. The vulnerable, doomed Janis presented rock music fans with an image of someone who bared it all, whose searing songs gave people a glimpse into her soul. The album Pearl, released posthumously, contained Janis’ only top-10 single, her cover of Kris Kristofferson’s Me and Bobbie McGee. Janis’ cover of that song went to #1 on the pop charts.

Source Material:
Wikipedia, Piece of My Heart
Wikipedia, Erma Franklin
Wikipedia, Big Brother and the Holding Company
Wikipedia, Janis Joplin

About Tim Londergan

Tim Londergan is professor emeritus of theoretical physics at Indiana University-Bloomington. He studies the properties of the quarks and gluons that form the internal structure of protons and neutrons. He also writes a blog "Tim's Cover Story" that compares covers of important songs in rock music history. He and his wife share their college-town life with two delightful cats. He is also interested in tennis and ornithology.
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7 Responses to Piece of My Heart: Erma Franklin, Big Brother and the Holding Company

  1. What a waste of so much talent … this is kind of a sad story, both for Emma and never really making it and of course for Janis and her early death at 27. Did not remember that Jimi died within days of Janis when HE was only 27 …. yikes! Those were the bad old days I guess, although we’ve just lost Philip Seymour Hoffman, so I guess H is still loose in this world! SUCH great videos, Tim!!!

    Like

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