Song 210: Erma Franklin, “Piece of My Heart” (1967)

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Not to be contrarian or anything, but Erma Franklin’s original version of “Piece of My Heart” blows Janis Joplin’s version out of the water. Sure, Joplin sings the hell out of it, and it’s an overall great performance. But I think the relative restraint in Franklin’s version is a little more believable, and the arrangement, with that walking bassline and those crying horns, is a thing of beauty.

I had no idea that the two versions were released only a year apart; I always assumed that Franklin’s version was an early-sixties soul single that evolved into a late sixties rock freakout. It’s quite a stylistic leap to take in only a year’s time, which is another reason to give Joplin and her band credit where it’s due.

But I do prefer Franklin’s version, and I’ll let critic and essayist Ellen Willis sum up the difference between the two versions much better than I ever could:

When Franklin sings it, it is a challenge: no matter what you do to me, I will not let you destroy my ability to be human, to love. Joplin seems rather to be saying, surely if I keep taking this, if I keep setting an example of love and forgiveness, surely he has to understand, change, give me back what I have given.

Joplin, she adds, used the blues to “scream [pain] out of existence.” Franklin, meanwhile, interprets and reasons, as if she’s singing “Piece of My Heart” to build an argument. And speaking of building, the way Franklin’s version grows from calmness to anger is more interesting to me than Joplin’s rendition, which seems to be all anger, whether it’s seething under the surface or out in the open. Both styles have their strengths and weaknesses, but I’ll take Franklin’s.

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