Scott Merrell smiles as he reads the worn letter, sent to him at the age of 10 or 11, not long after he fell in love with the music of Big Brother and The Holding Company and their frontwoman, Janis Joplin. But the note, typed on CBS Records’ formal letterhead, doesn’t quite match his enthusiasm.
“‘Columbia Records does not have posters available of Janis Joplin or Big Brother and The Holding Company,’” he recites with a chuckle. “‘We can also not sell you unreleased recordings by Janis Joplin.’ So that’s how long I’ve been a fan.”
It’s been five decades since Big Brother’s second and final album, Cheap Thrills, shined a spotlight on Joplin’s incredible vocal power — a musical beacon undimmed by her untimely passing in 1970, dead of a heroin overdose at 27. Now, Merrell is helping do what Columbia wouldn’t all those years ago: open the vaults. He’s co-produced and compiled Sex, Dope & Cheap Thrills, a two-disc set featuring 30 outtakes (only five of which have ever been released) from the mythic, often tense sessions that nonetheless hurled the group into the mainstream, topping Billboard’s album chart for eight consecutive weeks at the end of 1968.
Merrell, a retired banker, has maintained a lifelong love of Joplin, citing her as a gateway into countless genres. “Her music really gave me an understanding of other types of music. She was the first blues singer I ever listened to,” he said in an interview. “Once I heard her, because of her musical influences, I started checking out musicians she was listening to: Tina Turner, Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday.” He also started collecting audience recordings and radio broadcasts, and got to know those who knew Janis best, like Myra Friedman (author of Buried Alive: The Biography Of Janis Joplin) and Dave Getz (the Big Brother drummer whose liner notes are a highlight of the Sex, Dope & Cheap Thrills package).
Eventually, Sony Music’s catalog arm Legacy Recordings set up a call asking for Merrell’s input in compiling outtakes from the Cheap Thrills sessions alongside Rob Santos, a longtime member of the label’s A&R staff. His time spent working on the package had some cosmic (or, perhaps, kozmic) significance: Merrell’s first day listening to session material at Battery Studios was Oct. 4, 2017, the anniversary of Janis’ death, and his last day arranging the track list with Santos was Jan. 19, 2018, what would have been her 75th birthday.
Throughout the making of the set, Merrell said, his goal was to present Janis’ expressive voice in a way even the most incisive critics may not have considered. “I saw it more like a jazz reissue… As a singer she really was not given the recognition she deserves. She never sang the same way twice, at all,” he explained. “She’s a completely unique artist, innovative in what she did, [but] the public or the press focuses on her lifestyle, her drug use and her quick demise.”
Part of the trouble, Merrell surmises, is not only the brevity of her recorded output but Cheap Thrills’ somewhat tortured creation. “John Simon [the album’s producer] really did not like her music or the band’s music at all. Going through the sessions, you really hear the tension in the way he wanted to record them.” Days would be spent on single songs, take after take, with Simon in search of “a perfect record…but they’re a garage band. They’re raw, they didn’t play in tune. Everyone knows that — the band would say it themselves!”
But from that tension came some of the highlights of Sex, Dope & Cheap Thrills (the rejected title of the original album). There are three takes of Turtle Blues, a showcase for Joplin’s ever-changing vocal delivery. Of album outtake Catch Me Daddy, represented by another three versions on the album, Merrell says, “It was so intense…every time she sang it, she left blood on the floor.” Then there are other gems like Harry, the rejected opener of Cheap Thrills’ second side (the original album sleeve features a turbaned “Harry Krishna” in one panel, whose name is replaced by artist R. Crumb’s).
Merrell is particularly proud of the discovery of How Many Times, a blues jam borne of one particularly “maddening” session following tracking of album cut Oh, Sweet Mary. (Joplin’s screamed question, a pointed response to the constant takes, gives the track its title.) “Even Dave Getz didn’t remember that!” Merrell said, laughing.
Beyond the primal, gale force version of Janis Joplin we all know (Cheap Thrills single Piece Of My Heart, Big Brother and The Holding Company’s only Top 20 hit, still resonates across generations), Sex, Dope & Cheap Thrills is a rare opportunity to discover a rock and roll legend through unheard material only now being revealed to the public. It’s a welcome rarity when it seems like all the classic rock and pop vaults are well-plundered. And Merrell, for his part, couldn’t be happier.
“It’s truly as if she was singing in front of an audience. They’re so completely different,” he says of Janis’ unearthed performances on Sex, Dope & Cheap Thrills. “She’s such a great musician, and I hope that’s what people take away from it.”