I am enjoying reading the early chapters of record producer Clive Davis’ memoir, The Soundtrack of My Life, where he recalls working with artistes like Bob Dylan, Simon Garfunkel, Janis Joplin, the Grateful Dead, Sly and the Family Stone, Blood, Sweat and Tears, Chicago, Johnny Winter and Miles Davis.
Davis, who became the president of Columbia Records and later founded the Arista record label, made his name with Sixties artistes and bands.
Big Brother and Holding Company was his first major signing. He was wowed by their lead singer, Janis Joplin’s performance at the legendary Monterey festival in 1967.
Big Brother played a short set, five songs, and were onstage for perhaps thirty minutes. But they took the crowd on an emotional journey that made it seem as if they had performed for hours.
Big Brother played a kind of blues-based acid rock. They were noisy and undisciplined… but they seemed very much in tune with Janis. She, of course, was hypnotic. Mesmerizing. She had a voice like no other—raspy, pleading, dominating, aggressive, vulnerable, the most expressive white female soul singer anybody could ever have seen. She exerted full command of the stage, with a power that just took your breath away. Big Brother’s closing number, a cataclysmic version of Big Mama Thornton’s “Ball and Chain” and is now regarded not merely as one of Janis’s greatest moments onstage, but as one of the classic performances in rock history. It was simply overwhelming.
Janis’s performance somehow brought the entire meaning of the festival itself home to me. The impact of seeing an artist that raw, earthy, and fiery just floored me. This is a social and musical revolution, I thought… This has got to be my moment, I thought. I’ve got to sign this band.
Janis died of a heroin overdose at a Los Angeles hotel in October 1970. She was only 27 years old.
Jimi Hendrix had died just a few weeks before, and Jim Morrison would die less than a year later, both at the same age. This was the grim establishment of the so-called 27 Club that would later claim Kurt Cobain and Amy Winehouse among its unfortunate members.
Janis, who had split up with Big Brother and Holding Corporation, was working on her album, Pearl, when she died.
Davis was shocked by her death. He writes:
The last time I spoke with Janis on the phone, she was totally coherent and clear. She seemed so thrilled about the record she was making. She was so upbeat, so positive about her beautiful version of Kris Kristofferson’s “Me and Bobby McGee.” She just loved it. She called and played me a few of her new songs on the telephone, and she couldn’t have seemed happier.
Simon and Garfunkel
Davis also writes at length about Simon and Garfunkel. He writes:
Fans responded emotionally and enthusiastically to Simon and Garfunkel and found in their music a way to make sense of and come to terms with all the cultural disruptions of the Sixties. But I do believe the beauty of their songs caused critics to undervalue them during that decade. I personally felt that as a songwriter Paul Simon was in a class with Dylan and Lennon/McCartney, and that Simon and Garfunkel were qualitatively the equivalent of the Beatles. To me, rock critics sometimes seem to value edge above all other qualities, and they’re drawn to artists whom they see as embattled or as underdogs. Simon and Garfunkel’s commercial success and easy way with melodies, their desire to comfort as well as challenge, did them no favours in this regard. While they were actively making records, their work, and particularly Paul’s songs, rarely got the serious consideration they deserved.
About the eventual breakup of Simon and Garfunkel, Davis writes:
Relations between Paul and Artie had become frayed beyond repair, unfortunately. As much as anything else, it was a case of two young artists whose ambitions and egos got in the way of the brilliance of their collaboration. Artie was seeking a film career in part because of feeling overshadowed by Paul’s talents as a songwriter. Artie made about $75,000 for his role in Catch–22, while he made more than $1 million at the time from Bridge over Troubled Water, so he clearly wasn’t acting for the money. Paul, on the other hand, grew jealous of the attention that Artie got as the group’s main vocalist and “front man.” Unlike those in the know, casual fans might not realize that Paul wrote all the songs, and might view Paul merely as Artie’s accompanist. Paul has said in interviews that when audiences erupted in applause after Artie completed the bravura close to “Bridge over Troubled Water,” he would be onstage thinking, yes, thank you, I wrote that song. That’s not the way successful partners should be thinking.