Listen to this track by Duchess of Soul and sisterly presence to the Queen (but definitely her own woman), Erma Franklin. It’s “Piece of My Heart”, a 1967 single that would be more famously associated with Janis Joplin by the next year.
The song is by big time R&B writers and producers Jerry Ragovoy and Bert Berns and put out on Shout Records as a vehicle for Erma Franklin. The song would later become something of a late-20th Century standard with versions by Dusty Springfield to Sammy Hagar (?!), Faith Hill, to Joss Stone.
But, Erma Franklin recorded it first, setting the stage for the song’s long life in various annals of the pop charts.Not only would this tune be an R&B hit. It would help to shape the way songs were sung in general, in soul music, and in rock music, too.
So, what distinguishes Erma’s version?
This would be one of Franklin’s best known tracks, later to be joined by her version of The Doors’ “Light My Fire”. Despite being related to one of the most game-changing soul vocalists of the 20th Century, elder sister Erma had a sound of her own. And “Piece Of My Heart” is certainly a spotlight for her unique talents.
I love the Janis Joplin version of “Piece of My Heart” that she performed while fronting Big Brother & The Holding Company, of course. But, Janis plays the role differently than the original version by Erma Franklin. Janis’ character is wilder, angrier, more desperate. It’s a storming performance. A lot of singers have since taken it as gospel. But, Erma’s interpretation preceded it.
On Erma’s version, this “woman can be tough”, because her character carries herself above the behaviour of her louse of a lover. She never loses her cool. Really, this is what distinguishes Erma’s version of the song from almost everyone else’s. Erma’s character on this song is more restrained, less needy, and even stately. She’s pure grace under pressure. She’s tough not because she’s in a harrowing relationship that she can’t get out of, but rather because she doesn’t need to be in the relationship, and chooses it anyway. It’s not a song about being a glutton for punishment so much as it is one of sheer defiance. This interpretation won her a Grammy nomination, even if she’d lose her association with this song to others for many years.
By the mid-70s, Erma Franklin left the music business, returning only occasionally to back up Aretha as she’d once done concurrently with her own solo career in the ’60s. It was while she was with Aretha that her alto voice provided an essential element to the vital push me-pull you call-and-response dynamic that made so many soul favourites of the era work so well.
But, she was her own woman.
She died in 2002.
To learn more about Erma Franklin, check out this article that traces her career, and something of who she was as a person, too.