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Janis Joplin, Luther Vandorss under review

April 19, 2012
Mark Miller , The Herald-Star

This week I review three new releases from Legacy.

Janis Joplin - "The Pearl Sessions"

This double CD chronicles the best-known album by the soul-belter Janis Joplin and includes the hits that made her famous -"Mercedes Benz" and "Me and Bobby McGee."

I have to admit Janis Joplin has never been my favorite singer, and I've never really "gotten" why so many fell in love with her gritty, over-the-top voice. I think part of the reason is because I believe there were so many female singers better than Joplin who never got their due, including several female blues' singers she copped her mojo from.

This isn't to say she wasn't without talent, and who doesn't like the campfire sing-a-long vibe of "Me and Bobby McGee," written by a very young songwriter named Kris Kristofferson? It's a great song and probably Joplin's finest hour as a singer.

I will say this - this was, by far, her best album, thanks mostly to the Full Tilt Boogie Band, which was a red-hot collection of players that made Joplin's previous band of hacks - Big Brother and the Holding Company - sound pathetic. I actually enjoy listening to the session pros on "The Pearl Sessions" rather than Joplin's kind-of-annoying-to-me singing. Still, Joplin paved the way for women in rock to, well, rock on their own, so she deserves credit.

"The Pearl Sessions" also features a second disc of "fly-on-the-wall" studio outtakes, snippets of studio conversation as well as the mono single masters of "Bobby McGee" and other singles as well as live cuts of "Tell Mama" and "Half Moon."

Joplin reminds me of other young white musicians in the late 1960s and early '70s who discovered the magic of the blues' masters and wanted to emulate them. Sometimes the results were something that transcended the initial influence - witness the amazing string of albums the blues'-influenced Rolling Stones recorded during this era - and sometimes the results were mediocre and hopelessly dated. Does anyone actually still remember or listen to Canned Heat?

For diehard fans of Joplin only.

Luther Vandross - "Hidden Gems"

The late Luther Vandross, who really died a tragic death, almost singlehandedly invented the template for modern R&B singers.

Vandross did this through his sultry vocals mixed with a snappish, uptown sophistication and a jazz singer's ear for harmony. Vandross also had vocal chops that defined the wine-and-dine, penthouse feel of a lot of '70s R&B, and probably the only male singer in his class doing the same would probably be George Benson.

A true pop artist in the best sense of the term who was the original American Idol to millions, Vandross made emotional vulnerability sexy with his heart-on-his-sleeve crooning and slick production style.

Vandross was more than just an R&B singer - he also was a great songwriter and producer of other talent as well, and he proved this by producing and co-writing quite a bit of David Bowie's blue-eyed soul masterpiece, "Young Americans," in the '70s - bet you didn't know that, did you?

That's why I always read the musicians and producers' credits.

Vandross now has a million imitators vying to be the next big pop sensation, and no one in modern R&B can escape his shadow. "Hidden Gems" is really just a collection of odds and ends that Vandross recorded for Sony music in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

If you want to know where Usher came from, this is the place to begin.

Donovan - "The Essential Donovan"

Donovan began as the most convincing British singer aping Bob Dylan in the 1960s but wound up as something a little different - the flower-power guru who accompanied the Beatles on their sojourn to India in 1968 see the faker-than-fake founder of Transcendental Meditation, the Maharishi.

Between his meditating and hanging out with other rock stars, Donovan also made some surprisingly good music, and while a lot of it sounds dated to the era - I can't see Marilyn Manson or Godsmack singing Donovan-penned fare such "Sunshine Superman" or "Mellow Yellow" - Donovan was a good songwriter with an appealing voice once he stopped pretending to be Dylan.

This double CD chronicles the best Donovan had to offer, including the genuinely good "Catch the Wind," the impossibly catchy "Season of the Witch" and yes, even the cornball "Hurdy Gurdy Man."

Try as I might to dislike the hippy-dippy vibe of Donovan's music - my musical elitism is showing here - I couldn't, mainly because he wrote great songs that still sound pretty good today, despite the LSD-influenced sentiments.

Ugh. I don't believe I just wrote that.

Anyway, "The Essential Donovan" is a lot of fun, even if you stayed away from the brown acid during the original Woodstock.

(Mark Miller is co-editor of Weekender. He can be contacted at

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