Pat Blythe – The Women of Blues Revisited – Part IV – Maggie & Janis

I have “moved” Janis Joplin from my Women in Rock series to this one. When I started the “Women of ……” series, I felt she had a foot in both camps. However, the more I listen to Joplin the more I realize her feet were far more firmly planted in the blues as her voice alone attests. There have been comparisons over the years between Maggie Bell and Janis Joplin. They are reminiscent of each other and that starts with the hair. Scotland is steeped in the blues (just listen to the pipes and some of the Celtic music) but the seeds were planted, and the roots run to the core of the earth, in the U.S.’s “deep south”. Keep in mind, much of the southern U.S. became home to the Scots fleeing the oppressive English in the late 1700’s. Combine that with the African “slave” songs….mix with oppressive heat and stir….so, sometimes I wonder, who exactly influenced whom?

I hope you don’t mind the continuation of this series. Every time I re-read these pieces and do a little more digging, I continue to learn and think and listen. How the music links everything and everyone together. How it progresses and changes and yet remains the same, like stitching pieces of old and new together and yet creating something fresh. The Blues have done that and more, influencing all genres of music more than any other. From the “dark” continent to the plantations of the south to the laments of the lovelorn….from Memphis Minnie to Ma and Bessie and every other bluesperson past and present. But these two women have probably  influenced my love of the blues more than any other.

The Scottish Connection

I was first introduced to Maggie Bell and the blues 40 years ago. Greg Simpson, an old friend from London, Ontario, handed me the album, Suicide Sal, and suggested I give it a listen. I fell in love with the music, the passion and intensity in her voice and still own that original vinyl. I love to listen to those songs even now. Fast forward 40 years and Simpson, now living in B.C., calls to let me know Maggie is performing at the Vancouver Island Musicfest in Courtaney, B.C. Within 24 hours my flight is booked. I’ve waited a very long time for this…..40 years!

So let’s go back to Maggie’s beginning. Margaret Bell arrived on the scene in January, 1945. Born in Glasgow, Scotland to musical parents, Bell began singing at a very early age. Raised in the notorious Maryhill Estate, Bell had this to say about it in a 2008 interview.“It was tough. There was no hot water or inside toilets and when you went to school you just got beat up regularly by the teachers and the headmaster. As far as they were concerned you were either going to get pregnant or work in the Walls’ sausage factory and that was it, your whole life was already mapped out for you.” Remembering those days of singing in the gritty Glasgow dance halls, “You’d have the gangs – the Fleet and the Tong – knocking hell out of each other at one end and American sailors at the other. It was tough but it was all part of what made me the person I am today.” Having been to school with many of the Fleet members, Bell realized that being in a band was a kind of protection from the gang activity. “It was weird but they all seemed to respect the musicians. I just shut my eyes and got on with it.” But the message was loud and clear. If you wanted any kind of future you had to get out of town and the best escape was music.

Maryhill Tenements (Glasgow, Scotland)

By the time Bell was 15 she was working as a window dresser by day and a singer at night and at 18 found herself singing professionally at Glasgow’s Locarno Ballroom. She was earning 70 pence a week, much more than her window dressing job ever paid. “It was big bucks!” remembers Bell, singing Shirley Bassey and Dionne Warwick songs with a 32-piece orchestra. Bell’s introduction to blues was singing with Alex Harvey and The Alex Harvey Soul Band at a club in Glasgow called La Cave. However, Harvey suggested his band was “a bit too rough and ready…a bit too old for you” so he introduced Bell to his younger brother Leslie Harvey who was a guitarist with the Kinning Park Ramblers. Bell joined the Ramblers as a vocalist and when the Ramblers split up Bell joined the Mecca Band followed by the Dennistoun Palais Band. By 1968 Bell was back with Harvey and together they formed a new group, naming themselves The Power of Music, later shortened to The Power. They played regularly at The Easterhouse Project* run by Archie Hind (author of The Dear Green Place), and Graeme Noble and toured the U.S. Air Force bases in Germany.

Stone the Crows (1970): L-R – Leslie Harvey, John McGinnis, James Dewar, Maggie Bell, Colin Allen

Stone the Crows (1971): L-R – Ron Leahy, Colin Allen, Leslie Harvey, Maggie Bell, Steve Thompson

The Power’s final name “transformation” came at the hands of Peter Grant. After hearing them play, Grant was very impressed by the vocal ability of Bell and the versatile guitar playing of Harvey and agreed to produce and co-manage them with Mark London. So in 1970, Stone The Crows, an expression used by the Brits when one is shocked or surprised, were born. At the time Grant’s primary focus was Led Zeppelin, a band formed out of the ashes of the Yardbirds whom Grant had also managed. It was London who took on most of the management duties for the new band. Stone the Crows were signed to Polydor, toured the U.S. which included a spell with Joe Cocker’s Mad Dogs & Englishmen tour and a gig at the Fillmore West with Miles Davis who told Bell “she could sing her ass off”.

Freedom Road – Stone the Crows

According to reviewer Peter Kurtz, “Stone the Crows was a tough-luck, working class, progressive soul band that came out of the pubs of Scotland in the early 70’s. They had everything going for them at the start: not one but two gritty singers, a talented guitarist, a rhythm section that had played with John Mayall and the name recognition of having Led Zeppelin manager Peter Grant as their producer.” Despite four albums their music was never quite able to sell to a wide audience. In 1972 Leslie Harvey, the band’s guitar player, primary songwriter and Bell’s fiancé, was accidently electrocuted on stage during a sound check. He touched a microphone that had been energized by an amp which wasn’t grounded and was killed instantly. After some personnel changes, Stone the Crows managed to hold it together for another year but, with Leslie Harvey’s death, the momentum was lost. They split permanently in 1973.

Sad Mary – Stone the Crows

One year later, in 1974, Grant became a record executive for the brand new Swan Song Records immediately signing, among others, Maggie Bell, who was the only female artist ever signed to the label. Bell would record two albums under Grant’s guidance — Queen of the Night in 1974 and Suicide Sal in 1975 — as well as a 1981 album with the Midnight Flyer (another Grant-managed band).

Maggie Bell & Paul Rodgers (Bad Company) at the launch of Swan Song in NYC.

Bell had recorded two albums for Atlantic prior to Queen of the Night — one with Felix Pappalardi (Mountain) and the other with Felix Caveliere (Young Rascals). Luther Vandross did the vocal backings.

Neither of these albums were ever released. According to Bell, “The record company said they weren’t good enough. I was quite upset about that….I think it was down to a load of politics.” Queen of the Night was  recorded in NYC with legendary record producer Jerry Wexler who had also produced Aretha Franklin, Dusty Springfield and Ray Charles. Bell and Wexler listened to over 200 songs, meticulously selecting the songs Bell would record for the album. The title song was written by Leahy whom Bell had played with in Stone the Crows. Another tune, Oh My! My! was written by Ringo Starr who, unfortunately, released his version just ahead of Bell’s. Queen of the Night did so well Bell was encouraged to do a second album. In 1975 Sucide Sal was released. Bell’s version of Free’s Wishing Well still gives me chills but I love both.

Queen of the Night – Maggie Bell

(odd visuals but the song is fab)

Oh My! My! – Maggie Bell

Oh My My – Ringo Starr

Bell and her band toured Europe supporting a wide range of top musical acts including Humble Pie, The Who, Roxy Music, Davie Bowie, Marc Bolan and Earth, Wind and Fire. She opened up AC/DC’s 1981 world tour with her UK band Midnight Flyer and played Live At Montreaux in July 1981, jamming with Taj Mahal and Albert Collins.

Hold On – Maggie Bell

(This one of my favourite songs from the Sucide Sal album. Maggies voice and the plaintive sounds of the guitar solo.)

Wishing Well – Maggie Bell

Wishing Well – Free

While she never broke big in North America, Bell was one of Britain’s best-loved and most highly regarded singers, regularly voted Best Female Vocalist by the readers of Melody Maker and the New Musical Express in the early and mid-seventies.” Bell also did session work with Rod Stewart as co-lead vocal with Stewart on the song Every Picture Tells a Story, (noted as vocal abrasives) and guested on Long John Baldry’s album It Ain’t Easy. Bell had a hit duet, Hold Me, with B.A. Robertson in 1981 which reached number 11 in the U.K. Singles Chart. Her song No Mean City, co-written with Mike Moran, is the theme music to the crime drama Taggart.

No Mean City – Maggie Bell (Taggart theme)

Bell relocated to the Netherlands, living there for 20 years, but she never stopped singing. She returned to the U.K. to join The British Blues Quintet in 2006, playing once again with her old band mate from Stone the Crows, Colin Allen and sharing vocals with Zoot Money. Bell also tours with David Kelly and it was their show I caught at the Musicfest. In Bell’s own words, “I’d never been out as part of a duo before but this really works….Dave’s probably the best dobro player I’ve ever worked with and he’s got a fantastic voice too. What’s more I get to do material with him that I wouldn’t do with the British Blues Quintet so it’s a chance to perform songs that I’ve wanted to do for years.” It’s a diverse list. “We do everything from Patsy Cline to Nina Simone to Lightning Hopkins,” laughs Maggie. “All kinds of different things.” Bell is clearly comfortable on stage with Kelly and their friendship was clearly evident the night I saw them. “We’re comrades in arms. It’s exactly the same with Colin and Zoot. We’re a bunch of old fogies but we’re all having a great time. There are no egos, we’ve got nothing to prove anymore.”

….and indeed she doesn’t.

Janis – The Queen of Psychedelic Soul

Books have been written, stories told and songs composed, recorded and dedicated to this legend of rock and blues. Even several attempts at filming a biopic have been made. From the Janis Joplin website, ” That voice – high, husky, earthy, explosive – remains among the most distinctive and galvanizing in pop history. But Janis Joplin didn’t merely possess a great instrument; she threw herself into every syllable, testifying from the very core of her being.”

A bonafide Texan with a heart as big as her voice, Janis was also the classic bully target at school. During an interview with Dick Cavett Janis excitedly told Cavett she was heading home to Port Arthur for her 10th annual high school reunion.

Cavett: “Do you think you’ll have a lot to say to your old high school classmates?”

Janis (grinning): “I’m going to laugh a lot man.”.

Cavett: “Were you not surrounded by a lot of friends in high school?”

Janis: (with a big smile) “They laughed me out of class, out of town and out of the state man…so I’m going home” and then giggled.

The audience instantly understood and applauded. She was unique in a world of sameness and that doesn’t ride well in Texas. For the rest of us, the uniqueness that was Janis was the gift she bestowed on us, and the world, and it would never be the same after she hit the stage.

Janis Joplin – first interview with Dick Cavett

Janis Joplin – second interview with Dick Cavett

Janis Lyn Joplin entered the world (wailing I’m sure) on January 19, 1943. Home was Port Arthur, Texas. As a teenager she was introduced to, and fell in love with, the music of Big Mama Thornton, Leadbelly, Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith and many other blues artists of that time. Determined to follow in their footsteps, Joplin began singing in high school. Ostracised and relentlessly bullied throughout her teenage years, Joplin buried herself in music, art and poetry. She attended the University of Texas in Austin in the early sixties eventually dropping out and headed to San Francisco in 1963. The university’s campus newspaper, The Daily Texan, profiled Joplin in its July 27, 1962 issue with the headline “She Dares to Be Different”. “She goes barefooted when she feels like it, wears Levis to class because they’re more comfortable, and carries her autoharp with her everywhere she goes so that in case she gets the urge to break into song, it will be handy. Her name is Janis Joplin.”

Living and recording in San Francisco and now addicted to speed, she was arrested for shoplifting. As her drug use increased, her beverage of choice Southern Comfort, she dropped to a skeletal 88 pounds. In 1965 she was persuaded to return to Port Arthur where she avoided drugs and booze, changed her hairstyle (beehive) and enrolled at Lamar University as an anthropology major while continuing to commute to Austin to perform. That lifestyle lasted just a few heartbeats. Recruited by promoter Chet Helms for Big Brother and The Holding Company, Joplin was back in California in 1966.

She was the lead singer for Big Brother and the Holding Company from 1966 to 1968, before going solo. Her back-up bands included The Kozmic Blues Band (1968 to 1969) and The Full Tilt Boogie Band (1970 until her death). Janis and Big Brother and Holding Company performed at two of the biggest pop festivals of the time — the Monterey Pop Festival (their breakthrough appearance) and Woodstock. Her stage presence was referred to as “electric”.  Even performing stoned and drunk, barely able to dance around the stage, the audience at Woodstock loved her and demanded an encore. Called Pearl by her closest friends, Janis was also known as “The Queen of Psychedelic Soul”.

Joplin’s vulnerability and tenderness were cloaked in her tough, blues-mama image. According to a piece in Vanity Fair by Sheila Weller, Discovering the Vulnerable Woman Behind Janis Joplin’s Legend, (November 25, 2015),“Her sensitivity and transparent neediness may have been part of her charm, her lore, and her gut-level emotional appeal, but far less known is how articulate and thoughtful she was. Despite all the swearing and raucous laughter that Slick (Grace) fondly recalled, introspection and abashment were part of the Janis hidden from her fans.”

Janis in happier days with Big Brother and the Holding Company

Janis and the Full Tilt Boogie Band

Janis in the zone. The pure joy of performing.

Janis died October 4, 1970, 16 days after the death of Jimi Hendrix, both at the incredibly young age of 27, rocking the music world to its core.  In an interview with Rolling Stone magazine, Janis told writer David Dalton, after her first stint in San Francisco, “I don’t have many friends, and I don’t like the ones I had.” A sad commentary on what was to be a short, turbulent, lonely, drug and booze-filled life. Eighteen years after her death, in an article for the May 1988 issue of Vogue magazine, Richard Goldstein wrote, “Joplin was the most staggering leading woman in rock… she slinks like tar, scowls like war… clutching the knees of a final stanza, begging it not to leave… Janis Joplin can sing the chic off any listener.” This was Janis.

Little Girl Blue – Janis Joplin

When I listen to Janis’s voice today, her intensity, her passion, her anguish, and yes, even her tenderness, reach deep inside me….and she had such a beautiful smile. She was never “on top” of the music or looking at it. She was part of it. A voice that was silenced all too soon, and for some mysterious reason, I miss her.

Janis Joplin – Mercedes Benz (recorded in a single take)

Her giggle is infectious at the end of this song. Singing a cappella, in one take, only Janis could perform this in a way that was both fun, and sadly, true. A commentary on the times.

Piece of My Heart – Janis Joplin with Big Brother and the Holding Company

Originally written by Buffy Saint Marie about her addiction to codeine. Cod’ine has been recorded by numerous artists, including Eric Clapton, Donavan, The Charlatans, Quicksilver Messenger Service, Gram Parsons, Courtney Love  and numerous other artists. This is Janis’s alternate version.

Janis Joplin – Cod’ine (recorded in 1965)

American blues artist Big Mama Thornton  was an acknowledged influence on Janis. Ball and Chain, a blues song originally written and recorded by Big Mama for Bay-Tone Records was never released it. Arloohie Records finally released Ball and Chain in 1968.  It has become one of Thornton’s best-known songs, largely due to performances and recordings by Janis Joplin.

Ball ‘n’ Chain – Janis Joplin (Amazing performance at Monterey)

Cheers!

*Organised by Frankie Vaughan, who was so appalled by the gang violence and proliferation of guns, he organised a weapons amnesty and helped set up the Easterhouse Project, a community centre originally designed to get young people off the streets.

Note: To those whose shows I have attended and the folks whose photos I have taken over the past few weeks, you are not forgotten. I am knee deep in alligators at the moment. September will see the start brand of new columns of all the music happenings since the end of July. I’ll be playing catch-up.

All photo’s copyright Pat Blythe, A Girl With A Camera “The Picture Taker”

Sources

Dancing Ledge, Jeremy Miles, Chris Welch, Glasgow-Barrowland Stories, Ernest Aguirre, Dirty City Chronicles, AllMusic, Wikipedia, Facebook, YouTube, LastFM, Vancouver Island Musicfest, The Glasgow Herald, Vogue, Rolling Stone Magazine, Vanity Fair, The Daily Texan

 

=PB=

Pat’s column appears every Wednesday.

Contact us at: dbawis@rogers.com

dbawis-button7“Music and photography….my heart, my passions.” After an extended absence —  33 years as a consultant and design specialist in the telecommunications industry — Pat has turned her focus back to the music scene. Immersing herself in the local club circuit, attending the many diverse music festivals, listening to some great music, photographing and writing once again, she is eager to spread the word about this great Music City of ours…..Toronto. Together for 34 years, Pat little-red-headed-dancing-girlalso worked alongside her late husband Christopher Blythe, The PictureTaker©, who, beginning in the early 70s, photographed much of the local talent (think Goddo, Frank Soda and the Imps, BB Gabor, the first Police Picnic, Buzzsaw, Hellfield, Shooter, The Segarini Band….) as well as national and international acts. Pat is currently making her way through 40 years of Chris’s archives, 20 of which are a photographic history of the local GTA music scene beginning in 1974. It continues to be a work in progress. Oh…..and she LOVES to dance! 

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