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Jerry Ragavoy and the ghost of Janis Joplin

Wednesday, Jul 2 1997
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The new collection Songs of Janis Joplin: Blues Down Deep is merely the latest in a series of outrages foisted upon a gullible public by the House of Blues, a nightclub chain and music label that seems to think we were all born yesterday; but for sheer chutzpah, it may be its crowning achievement to date. Joplin, in case you were stoned or born later, was the nonpareil hippie-chick singer. In her brief career, she scored several minor hits, including "Piece of My Heart." Having more talent for dying than living, she overdosed on heroin in a Hollywood hotel at age 27, and that's when her legend took off -- her biggest hit was the posthumously charting "Me and Bobby McGee."

The title is the most offensive thing about Songs of Janis Joplin. Of 13 tracks, she had a hand in writing five; only one of those, the annoyingly fluffy "Mercedes Benz," is associated with her today. HoB's idea seems to have been to get a bunch of soul, blues, and folk artists -- Etta James, Otis Clay, Syl Johnson, Koko Taylor, Taj Mahal -- and have them interpret "Joplin's" songs. Amazingly, the HoB people do not seem to realize that the best of Joplin's songs were black blues and soul recordings to begin with: Erma Franklin's "Piece of My Heart," Garnet Mimms' "Cry Baby" and "My Baby," Howard Tate's "Get It While You Can," and Big Mama Thornton's "Ball and Chain."

I know some people have at least a sentimental attachment to Joplin's performances, and I can understand that; when I first heard her at summer camp on a battery-powered tape player, I was taken by her renditions, too. But when I got a little older and stumbled onto Erma Franklin's version of "Piece of My Heart" and Garnet Mimms' sides, there was no going back to Joplin's fumbling rasp. Heard back to back with the originals, she sounds like a drunk trying to fit a key in a locked door.

But merely reissuing the originals wouldn't serve the tragic myth of the lost little girl from Port Arthur, Texas, that has grown around Joplin. Her fame is burnished by six biographies and a Canadian fanzine (search vainly for a tome about Aretha Franklin, or Dusty Springfield, who really could sing soul but are apparently less interesting because they lived). Take Janis Joplin: Buried Alive, a memoir by Myra Friedman, her former publicist. It's a strangely tin-eared work filled with peculiar assertions, but reading it, you do learn a few things: If Friedman is to be trusted, Joplin was a dishonest, manipulative, insecure person who once suggested shooting up tape-head cleaning fluid -- and that's the impression conveyed by a woman who was paid to turn Joplin's best face to the light; better to remember her for her music, if at all.

Good luck. Earlier this year, Billboard reported that rocker Melissa Etheridge was negotiating to star in a Joplin film bio. It's criminal that mounds of vinyl, paper, film stock, and whatever CDs are made of are used to obscure great soul music. I was tempted to leave it at that: HoB issues another shitty collection, blacks are written out of American history again, what else is new, at least I've got my Solomon Burke albums to comfort me. I'll say this though: The film's casting is perfect. It was Etheridge, at the 1995 Concert for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, who screeched through a medley of Ronettes/Shangri-Las/Supremes hits.

But, reading the Billboard announcement, something else caught my eye. Lakeshore Entertainment, the company producing the Joplin film, reportedly agreed to pay $1.1 million for the rights to use "Piece of My Heart." The licensing fee, it says, "is believed to be one of the richest ever offered for the movie rights to a song. ... Jerry Ragavoy and Bert Berns originally wrote the tune for Irma [sic] Franklin, who took it to the top of the R&B charts."

I've been seeing Ragavoy's name here and there for years, but I didn't really think about him until I imagined someone opening the mail and finding a check for $550,000. So I pulled some CDs off my shelves and started checking songwriting and arranging credits.

Ragavoy not only co-wrote "Piece of My Heart" for Franklin, he also co-wrote Mimms' "Cry Baby" and "My Baby" and Tate's "Get It While You Can." For this alone you could make a good case that HoB has the wrong name on its album. Ragavoy also single-handedly penned "Time Is on My Side," perhaps the best-ever cut by soul diva Irma Thomas. This is more than just a portfolio of somewhat obscure songs. For one thing, I'd always taken these to be quintessentially black compositions, steeped in the church. And in almost every instance, the artists reached the pinnacle of their careers with a song Ragavoy had a part in writing, arranging, or both. I'd been thinking of Joplin as a needy pseudo-mama who passed off black music to hippies, who in turn had no capacity to inquire, and then I discovered another layer. Beneath the not-so-secret black heart of American song, there was a white Jewish boy from Philadelphia, the son of a Hungarian optometrist, pulling levers.

Ragavoy, born in 1930, grew up listening to classical music and playing the piano. His life changed course just after high school, when he got a job at an appliance store in a black West Philly neighborhood. In those days -- this was 1948 -- appliance stores often sold 78 rpm records and record players, and salespeople played the latest product for customers. For the next five years, he listened to black gospel groups like the Soul Stirrers, the Swan Silvertones, and the Caravans; R&B greats Charles Brown and Amos Milburn; and gutbucket bluesman John Lee Hooker, who became his touchstone. He soaked it all up, he says, speaking from his home near Atlanta, and "it came out as a natural part of my musical expression."

About The Author

Robert Meyerowitz

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