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Ball ‘n’ Chain

22/07/2017

This is one of the most legendary performances in the history of rock music. If you haven’t heard it before stop reading and listen.  If you have heard it I don’t need to say anything. You’ll listen.

The band is Big Brother and the Holding Company. The lady at the microphone needs no introduction. The awestruck young woman in the audience is ‘Mama’ Cass Elliot. Mama Cass had several earlier hits with The Big Three and The Mamas and the Papas. Janis Joplin was virtually unknown outside her Haight-Ashbury stomping grounds, but that was about to change.

Janis wrote some great songs. Down on me. Move Over. But where she truly excelled was in her interpretations of the songs of others. Jerry Ragovy and Bert Berns’ Piece of my Heart. George and Ira Gershwin’s Summertime. Kris Kristofferson and Fred Foster’s Me and Bobby McGee. And Ball ‘n’ Chain by Willie Mae ‘Big Mama’ Thornton.

Although the song is quintessentially African-American Thornton praised Joplin’s cover, saying “That girl feels like I do”. Thornton herself received no royalties for her song, which had been copyrighted by her record company but never released.

There’s macabre irony in the intersection of three superb female vocalists at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival. All three struggled with substance abuse. Joplin and Thornton died of it. Both ‘Mamas’, Cass and Thornton, suffered from morbid obesity. That’s what killed Elliot, not the apocryphal ham sandwich. All three famous singer-songwriters died alone in their beds.

Janis Joplin: January 19, 1943 to October 4, 1970 (aged 27).
Cass Elliot: September 19, 1941 to July 29, 1974 (aged 32).
Willie Mae Thornton: December 11, 1926 to July 25, 1984 (aged 57).

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