Janis: Memphis Meltdown

Bill King By

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I'd been hustling a meager living in the coffee houses and psychedelic joints of Greenwich Village in lower Manhattan when word spread of Janis Joplin's departure from Big Brother & the Holding Company. I can't say the announcement held the same aura as the Beatles imminent crack-up or Bob Dylan converting electric, but it did reverberate along Bleecker and McDougall streets attracting greater attention among working musicians than buskers. I for one reacted swiftly to rumor.

Word came Janis was assembling a rhythm & blues band much like the high flying Memphis bands, somewhere between Sam and Dave and Otis Redding. It was a sound originating from Soulsville USA Studios in Memphis, Tennessee and reproduced on vinyl by Stax/Volt records.

I popped in a record store on Eight Avenue, one frequented on many occasions for it's diversity and scanned the jacket cover of Cheap Thrills, Joplin's most recent recording. I scanned for clues to management with no success before asking a clerk for assistance. He pointed to a recording by the Electric Flag, a contemporary rhythm & blues band who shared the same management. It turned out to be Albert Grossman, noted for successful campaigns in behalf of Peter, Paul and Mary, Bob Dylan, Paul Butterfield and others.

I dialed Grossman's office and was directed to associates Vinnie Fusco and Elliot Mazior who were closely involved in Joplin's affairs. An audition was arranged at A-1 Studios the original home of Atlantic Records. Before the date, I was summoned to an informal meeting with Albert Grossman.

I waited outside his office clutching the one recorded document of my playing, a b-side instrumental to a single by California soul unit, Kent & The Kandidates whose claim to fame was backing band on the million seller "Gimme A Little Sign," recorded by a local dishwasher named Brenton Wood.

Upon entry I catch a glimpse of Grossman through several towering stacks of papers positioned like a fortress rather than work in progress. Speaking in a near whisper Grossman beckoned me forward. While standing there listening to his take on Joplin's radical plan I couldn't help ponder how much he looked like Ben Franklin with flowing white locks tied in a ponytail and small wire-framed glasses. As far as I was concerned he could have been one of the original signatures on the Declaration of Independence. Whatever transpired in conversation landed me both duties of keyboardist and music director.

The first audition was little more than a formality geared to access the compatibility of the players. The second audition involved recording the soulful number " Piece of My Heart" at the Hit Factory. A final mix was sent to Janis for approval.

Drummer Roy Markowitz and I landed jobs. Bassist Stu Woods didn't suffer the loss instead went on to work as sideman and record with Bob Dylan, Don McLean, Pozo Seco Singers, Tony Orlando & Dawn, Janice Ian and others. In many ways his career faired better.

After coming to a financial agreement a flight was arranged for Roy and I to San Francisco. No accommodation had been met other than a few nights arranged at a studio apartment belonging to the road manager's mother in North Beach. That was fine with me, I pretty much lived the past couple years out of a suitcase.

We met bassist Brad Campbell of the Last Words, the only Canadian in the group, at the temporary digs. Rolling Stone magazine had announced the hiring of both Brad and Skip Prokop from Lighthouse, but the latter player never materialized. It was probably just as well since the three of us had spent our lives in the shadows beyond the glare of spotlights and this was truly Janis's show.

Janis invited us to her Noe street apartment for a get-to-know-you session. After dragging our nightclub-trained bodies up a severe slope to Joplin's door, we were accosted by a snarling dog that dared entry. Joplin's live-in mate, ex-wife of blues singer Nick Gravenites, collected the dog then directed us to a small sitting room resplendent in Salvation Army home furnishings. A few somber moments pass when Joplin burst from the hallway like a Texas whirlwind. She laughed and joked about a compact stereo Columbia Records had given her, which she checked as baggage during her flight home from New York. Janis watched its fatal plunge from an economy window seat as it bounced along transporting roller pins between cargo and flatbed eventually crashing to the tarmac below. The story was repeated throughout orientation.

Janis was the perfect host, serving shots of Southern Comfort and reefer sticks. When I passed on refreshments she paused and commented, "What did Albert send me, Christ?" I apologized and assured her I wasn't one of those bible-thumping southerners sent to protect her from a host of demons. She seemed more than comfortable with my assurances, and invited us back for dinner later that evening. Janis said there were a few friends she wanted us to meet.

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