Big Brother & The Holding Company feat. Janis Joplin Play “Summertime”

Cheap Thrills Big Brother & The Holding Company
The cover of *Cheap Thrills*, as designed by renowned cartoonist on the ’60s Counterculture scene in San Francisco, Robert Crumb. Janis Joplin was a big fan of underground comics in general, and Crumb’s work in particular. As it happens, Crumb is an enthusiastic collector of old blues records from the ’20s to the ’40s of the sort that brought Joplin to her singing career.

Listen to this track by San Franciscan psychedelic blues band fronted by transplanted Texan R&B shouter Janis Joplin. It’s “Summertime”, a re-telling of the Gershwin-Heyward American songbook classic as featured on the band’s 1968 debut album Cheap Thrills. 

The song is one of three cover versions on the record, and the one with the longest pedigree having been covered by many over the years since it was written in 1935 for the musical Porgy and Bess. That musical, and certainly this song, was a snapshot of American southern life through a very romanticized lens. Maybe this band covering this song is kind of an unexpected choice for a long-haired rock ‘n’ roll band like Big Brother & The Holding Company. The song had grown a sheen of respectability by the 1960s along with the jazz traditions out of which it came. But, when you think of where jazz, the blues and rock music comes from, and the idealistic nature of the counterculture, it really isn’t all that much of a leap. After all, George Gershwin was as fascinated by African-American folk culture as any white rock ‘n’ roll singer was by 1968.

But, I think this cover version is notable for something else, too when it comes to Big Brother frontwoman Janis Joplin. In many ways, this song was waiting for her to record it. Because its story is hers. Read more

Ella Fitzgerald Sings “Mack the Knife”

Here’s a clip of jazz vocal matriarch and sweetly-voiced Louis Armstrong foil Ella Fitzgerald, performing Brecht & Weill’s “Mack the Knife”, a song she made her own, although not without some interesting blips along the way. This is a performance from 1966. I wish I could find a clip of the 1960 album track, which is very special indeed.*

[Actually, these few years later, here is Ella Fitzgerald’s “Mack the Knife”, to which I referred. The clip is dead, I fear. Alas, poor YouTube. I knew him well.]

On her 1960 Ella in Berlin record, Fitzgerald busted this tune wide open in a way she probably did not expect.

She forgot the words.

Ella Fitzgerald; a consumate professional
Ella Fitzgerald; a consummate professional

But rather than this turning into a disaster, she did what jazz musicians do. She improvised. And I don’t mean scat singing in this case, although she’s known for that. Nope. She made up her own words. For this, she earned a very well-deserved Grammy for best female vocal performance the following year, not to mention kudos for her professionalism and creative spark as tested in real time, in front of a real audience.

You’ll notice in this clip, she takes the existing words and adds to them as well, name checking Bobby Darin, who had a hit with this tune, as did Louis Armstrong (who she imitates affectionately). Where a lot of singers might look ruefully upon material they find difficult, Ella owns this, and makes a potential screw up into something joyous and fun.

Enjoy!

Song Rendition Showdown: ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’, Rufus vs Iz.

Which version of ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’ will triumph? Chamber pop-prince Rufus Wainwright or gentle giant Israel ‘Iz’ Kamakawiwo’ole? You decide!

‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’ is probably most associated with Judy Garland, and with the 1939 film The Wizard of Oz. The song was written by legendary American songwriter Harold Arlen and lyricist E.Y Harburg specifically for the film, a tale of a dreamer who wishes for a new world beyond the drabness of her own. Since the film, the song has been interpreted by others many times. In at least two separate shows, I’ve seen it done to great effect; first by Grateful Dead guitarist Bob Weir who I saw in 1992, and then by the Flaming Lips in 1999 while touring their the Soft Bulletin album. Both times, the crowd was hushed hanging on every note. I think it’s because no matter who is performing this song, it strikes a chord with everyone. I think everyone at times hopes that somewhere, there is a world that is a happy and safe place, that it is the place that our own world should be. As such, it’s pretty universal song that transcends time and genre. It’s been recorded by artists as diverse as Ray Charles, Carly Simon, opera singer Placido Domingo, and cartoon punk band Me First & the Gimme Gimmes, among many others.

But, for our purposes today, which two versions of the song listed here will gain your vote?

Israel Kamakawiwo’ole

Israel Kamakawiwo'ole Facing FutureThis version of the song has graced the soundtracks of a few films, much like the original version served as the centerpiece to The Wizard of Oz. Israel Kamakawiwo’ole infused it with passion, albeit as a Hawaiian folk song and not a Hollywood show tune. The man himself released it along with his album Facing Future in 1993. Since then, it’s appeared on a number of recent soundtrack albums such as 50 First Dates, Fred Claus, Meet Joe Black, and many others. The track is a stripped down take on the tune, with just Iz’s voice and ukulele accompaniment. His voice is both hushed and strong at the same time, and the starkness of the arrangement brings out the gentle simplicity of the song, and its connection with childhood innocence which lays at the heart of it. The spirit of the tune, which is really about optimism, is further accentuated by adding a bit of Bob Thiele’s “What A Wonderful World” into the mix, which was the subject of another song rendition showdown not too long ago.

Iz would have his career and life cut short in 1997 at the age of 38 due to a weight-related illness. But, this version of the classic song is a worthy tribute to his talent as a musician and interpreter.

Rufus Wainwright

Rufus Wainwright Rufus Does Judy at Carnegie HallIt’s been firmly established that Judy Garland is one of Rufus Wainwright’s musical heroes, and it’s also of no surprise perhaps that his version is closer to the Garland original which was first recorded in October 1938, and released the next year to become her signature tune until her death in 1969. In the Wainwright version, recorded for his Rufus Does Judy At Carnegie Hall album in 2007, the song lives and breathes again, imbued as it is with Garland’s dramatic delivery . The concert and live album reproduces Garland’s 1961 performance at the same venue note for note, featuring his own soaring tenor against lush strings and sumptuous orchestral backing.

Because he sticks so closely to that latter-day Garland arrangement, he captures something of a different take on the song at the same time. No longer is the song about an innocent looking for a better world, but rather it is the yearning of someone who has been run over by life, scarred by bitter experience, knowing that such a world is out of reach. The song becomes less the optimistic vision, and more the tale of disappointment and weariness. It is the song of someone who knows that the innocence once enjoyed, and the dreams that once came so easily are gone for good. Perhaps this idea is also underscored by the fact that Wainwright is conjuring a fantasy world of his own, a glitzy tin-pan alley Hollywood Musical world which has long since gone, and perhaps never really existed.

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So, good people. Which version of ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’ gets your vote? Is it the folky simplicity of Israel Kamakawiwo’ole’s version? Or, is it the lush theatrical Rufus Wainwright version? As always: you decide!