by Sam Andrew
I want to tell you about Love, Janis, which has already opened and will be at The Cleveland Play House (216 795 7000) on 8500 Euclid Avenue in Cleveland, Ohio, until 4 April 1999. I was lucky enough to be music director for this project.
Love, Janis, is a play that Randal Myler wrote based on letters that Janis Joplin wrote home to her parents while Big Brother and the Holding Company were traveling around the country playing music and trying to understand all of the wonderful things that were happening in the sixties.
Janis was honest enough and energetic enough to try to interpret that chaotic period for her mother and father who were, after all, not only uncomprehending but actually hostile to the path that she was trying to clear for herself. The fact that Janis persisted in this letter writing all through this crazy period and right up to her death says a lot about her as a daughter and a human being.
There is no line in this Love, Janis play that she did not actually speak or write when she lived. This raises the drama to a higher level than most treatments of her life because Janis was nothing if not articulate and intelligent. She was her own best interpreter.
We didn't all live through the sixties and play in a rock band, but we have all had a mother and father and we have tried at one time or another to describe our developing lives to them. This is why this Love, Janis play is important and universal. It reaches out to that place in us that remembers when the world was new and full of promise, when we were leaving the nest, and when we were trying to explain our new direction to our parents.
Laura and Michael Joplin have been here in town this last week of the play rehearsals and I have come to know them much better. They are Janis' sister and brother and I almost feel related to them. After all, I was Janis' brother too.
Michael is very warm and funny with a ready laugh and Laura is precise and bright. It is a happiness for me to know them as well as I have come to know them. Laura and I did a lot of interviews together and she has a calm and correct demeanor that is very appealing. She is the perfect balance for a certain enthusiastic rush of feeling on my part. We're a good interviewing team.
Michael Joplin is an artist. He has that creative spark and ready wit that make life spicier and not so much like school.
The 'tech week' of the play Love, Janis, has begun here at The Cleveland Play House. Picture a large brick building with domes and turrets, very complex architecturally. You drive into the parking lot and enter the main rotunda which is festooned with posters from the sixties. There is some beautiful work here including a huge poster from The Royal Albert Hall in London. This was a night that Eric Clapton was standing in the wings. He told me I played well and I did too. It was just one of those nights.
As I walk across the rotunda I see Peter Hackett who is the Artistic Director of this oldest regional theatre in the United States. Peter is calm and well spoken this morning which is amazing considering that he has about ten plays to supervise at any given moment
There are many stages in The Cleveland Play House complex. Ours is The Drury Theater which has a capacity of 506. The set for the play is a series of columns, textured and ancient in feel. It is quite simple and effective. The band has set up along the back curtain with the drums in the middle, horns stage right and Hammond B-3 and acoustic piano stage left.
Dawn Fenton our frighteningly competent stage manager is seated at a long table as I walk in and she is deciding when the musicians need to rehearse today. At another table across the aisle is Don Darnutzer the lighting designer.
Maryann "Killer" Morris who is a production assistant is talking to Matthew Cambell about moving the "wagon" smoothly across the stage. This is a platform which moves the little bit of scenery we use in the play. Bob Blackman who is the set and costume designer is watching Maryann closely since he is quite worried about the integrity of his set. Bob came out from Hollywood where he dresses Klingons. He has been with Startrek a long time and he has done some very good, quality costuming for Love, Janis. If the real Janis were here she would covet some of the outfits that "she" wears in this play.
Bob talks a bit with Rich Taylor who is going to be dressing the three Janises. (Randal Myler jokes that if we only had two more we could have a basketball team. It is funny when they are all on stage together in costume listening to one of Randy's directions.)
I take one of the seats in the darkened theatre to wait for the musicians and there is Betty Brooks, Company Manager, waiting to talk to me about our road trip this weekend. We are going to play in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and she is going to do everything for The Sam Andrew Band just as she does everything for The Play House. If Betty suddenly disappeared not only this Love, Janis production but everything else that is going on at The Play House would be in serious jeopardy. This is not the first time I marvel at her ability to juggle a myriad facts, figures, temperaments and itineraries in her head. Go, Betty, go.
The singing Janis and the talking Janis (yes, there are two Janises which doesn't seem as if it would work but it does) have learned their lines and are walking through the blocking of the play. Catherine Curtin who plays the speaking Janis has a big heart and a lot of experience. She was on the Guiding Light for years, has done a lot of film work (Quiz Show, Six Degrees of Separation, Permanent Midnight) and has a lot of what musicians call "chops" (technique). She can open your heart in a second.
Michael Santo plays the Interviewer in Love, Janis. He is a voice from offstage but he keeps the action moving along. There are no men in the play since the musicians do not have any speaking parts. This is a Janis show throughout, but Michael and the women have a bit of interplay even though we never see him.
The musicians know the tunes quite well now. I thought my work as music director here was almost finished since tech week is mostly for all of the technical people, lighting, blocking, props and things of that nature. Joe Martin the Production Manager is in charge of this phase of the proceedings.
We began rehearsals at the beginning of February. The band had 19 songs to learn and Robin Heath the Sound Designer would play the relevant CD over and over until we understood every nuance. These Cleveland musicians play with a lot of force and we have polished the tunes until every beat is accented the way we want it to be.
The horns came in last Tuesday for the first time, we did some "head" arrangements (talking the song down without writing out the music) and even arranged horn parts for Get It While You Can and Move Over which didn't have horn parts origianlly. "Janis" sings these tunes after she has died (which she does to Little Girl Blue in a very affecting scene).
Tonight we had to arrange a little "button" at the end of Get It While You Can so that the singers could take their final bows, hug the speaking Janis, blow kisses to the band and send everyone home happy. The chords for this part are C-Bb-F played about eight times. "About" because we wait for the audience and the singers to finish emoting while we (the band, not me really) play these chords over and over as a sort of vamp. It is odd for a musician to choreograph everything this way. Odd, but very instructive. We should do some of this blocking in concert. It makes everything very organized and smooth looking. This entire experience has taught me a great deal about the visual aspects of making music.
The horns in this Love, Janis band sound better than the ones in the original Kozmic Blues. (All except for the trumpet. As good as he is Joe Miller is still not up to Luis Gasca who, after all, played with Mongo Santamaria and Ray Charles. We also had Randy Brecker in the Kozmic Blues Band horn section but I much preferred Luis who had that red hot range and a beautiful Latin soul.) On tenor saxophone here in Cleveland we have Ken LeeGrand who knows how to go for the ecstacy notes at the end of a tune.
So, when tech week arrived I was wondering what the band would really have to do. Would they just sit there for long periods of time?
After all, tech is for lighting, blocking, sound mixing and balance, making sure the proper slide projections are up on the screen, doing the right vocal cues, moving scenery and technical things of this nature. What were we going to do while Randal the director and Dawn the stage manager were organizing these activities? A lot as it turned out.
I was busier tonight than I have been on any of the other days. First, we had to balance the instruments with each other and with the voices. I thought that the band was going to be so loud that the vocalists would be overpowered. The opposite has proven to be the case. We had to make the backup vocals stronger in the mix. This proved to be very difficult, but it was finally achieved. Then the horns had to have a monitor to hear themselves and they still need to be a bit stronger. All of this entailed a lot of talking with Richard Ingraham the sound engineer. I was wondering if we were ever going to hear the background vocals and it wasn't until opening night that we did.
Our usual trumpet player, Joe Miller, had to play tonight with the Ellington Orchestra so I took the substitute man aside and went over a tricky part on Try with him. It is odd to revisit these tunes so intimately after doing them 30 years ago in The Kozmic Blues Band. That was a chaotic, troubled time for Janis and me but I remember clearly working out this very part on this very song with trumpeter Marcus Doubleday on my birthday 18 December 1968.
The bass, guitar and drums are missing an accent on one of the IV chords in this same song Try and it makes the tune indecisive and unclear to the rest of the band, the singer and finally the audience. This is something to be attended to soon.
Bernard Watt, the baritone saxophone player (who plays with the Ojays, the Spinners and just about everyone else), was inaudible for a while and we had to position him for more volume. This balancing act with baritones is often tricky especially when they have to contend with a tenor and a trumpet.
I am writing a bagatelle for baritone, tenor and trumpet just for the fun of writing it. So far the piece sounds good in my head anyway. It is more Impressionistic and "Viennese" (Schoenberg, Berg, Webern) than The OK Chorale on our last CD. That piece has a kind of sweet Baroque sound. Here I am going for a strident, striving, even sour pointillistic kind of ensemble playing. Stark and weird. Horns are interesting to write for. They can sound so much like human voices.
Dave Hemann (who is excellent, THE jazz guitar guy in Cleveland) always forgets for some reason a II-V change in Let The Good Times Roll. He remembers it later but almost always omits it the first time. Odd, since he is very adept technically. This song has a strange structure for people who did not grow up with it. It moves straight through from IV to V in a way that few tunes do. So we need to clear up that wandering moment.
We have a bona fide rock and roller in the band from Hollywood, California. This is Jimmy Khoury. He plays some very fresh sounding chords and has a great sound. He doesn't like to play softly. No, not at all. Getting him to come down on Summertime was quite a trick. He actually plays the tune they way Big Brother does in concert but for this piece at this moment in the play the guitar on Summertime has to be more lyrical and softer. Jimmy is goodhearted and he wants to do anything the play needs but he just has that rock and roller instinct.
Some of the background vocals need a bit of polish. Herb Pruitt, the bass player, is singing the chorus of Piece of My Heart in the baritone range when that part really needs to be in the tenor. I can hear him singing a bit higher each day, though, so he will be up there in time.
One of the guitar players in the Love, Janis band likes to let his parts bleed over the bar line and if he has an effect turned on (say, an echo) it reverberates long after the band should be silent. Lead players just do not like to stop playing. I had this trouble in Big Brother. It makes a song much cleaner when there is closure right on beat one instead of a messy bleed into beat two or three. Correcting this can be touchy and can require some diplomacy.
We then played To Love Somebody to see how the horns sounded on it. This is a song that the BeeGees wrote for Otis Redding. It is such a shame that Otis never lived to sing it because the lyric and the style are perfect for him. I always hear him singing it in my head. Beth Hart now sings this song with such soul and feeling. Beth could go all the way to incandescent stardom if everything works for her. She is a marvel. No problems with this tune. Time to move on.
Here we sent the horn players home and the real work began on Act One. We played Down On Me and sharpened up the background vocals. Bill Ransom, the drummer, has some novel ideas about how to fill the six beat pause on the word "me." This must be a tough part for a drummer. Dave Getz in Big Brother also does some strange things with it.
Bye, Bye, Baby had a confused start tonight but it smoothed out. Jimmy on guitar and Herb on bass do the intro part that I used to play all by myself. I don't think they really believe that it was only I playing there. This is Michael Joplin's favorite tune in the play.
This is a sweet natured production and everything is just flowing so smoothly. I told Michael that Big Brother almost didn't do Bye, Bye, Baby. The song looks back to Janis' Austin days which is why I like it, but I think that James Gurley didn't feel it was psychedelic enough for a pioneering band of the sixties. When a band like Big Brother does a song like Bye, Bye, Baby, though, the effect can be electric because of the contrast.
I tried to get Big Brother to do The Star Spangled Banner, for example, about a year before Jimi Hendrix did it. This was right around the time we began thinking about the album that became Cheap Thrills. I think that the sound of Janis singing the National Anthem would have been very startling and almost revolutionary and I still wish we would have done the tune. I was talked out of the idea mainly by John Simon, the Cheap Thrills producer, who said that the lyric was out of date a week after it was written. Yes, but so what? That hasn't stopped anyone else from doing the tune. Oh, well, another missed opportunity.
At this point in the tech rehearsal we did Turtle Blues with Ed Ridley on piano and Jimmy on acoustic guitar. Beth sang the song in a lower register because she is trying to save her voice. What an interesting version it was. Perfectly in tune and very different, her singing was beautiful and arresting. The piano playing is so much better and so much more effortless than the playing on Cheap Thrills that it is almost embarrassing. I must say that I miss Peter Albin playing the guitar though. I always loved what he did with Turtle Blues.
Women Is Losers is probably the song that will elicit the most interest from Big Brother when they see the play. The arrangement that we use for Women Is Losers in the Love, Janis band is one that Big Brother evolved in Lagunitas, very elaborate and nonsensical in the best 60s tradition. Andra Mitrovich likes to sing over this version (and she does it very well too). It was quite an experience for me to remember this way of playing Women Is Losers. Somewhat similar to what I had to do this summer in Jacksonville, Florida, playing Black Widow Spider, Home On The Strange, House On Fire...relearning my own songs and realizing how funky they really were.
Andra and Beth sing Piece Of My Heart in D, a whole tone below where it was. This is (literally) disconcerting. It is just not the same. The tension is not there. There are similar key changes to more than a few songs and it really vitiates the background vocal effect. I Need A Man To Love they sing in F#minor which is so much lower than in the A minor where we did the tune on Cheap Thrills. I am having the bass player and drummer sing the backup parts and they growl around down there a minor third below where they should be. Better them than me, although it should probably be noted that when they sing they get extra pay for "doubling," so they don't seem unhappy with this unfamiliar backup singing task.
When Bill Ransom plays the drums he looks as if he is made of rubber and he makes every tune special because he acts it out. I told him to stand up at the very end of the show as he is playing the final drum beats. The audience goes wild.
Drums and bass (Herb Pruitt) play together as one instrument and it is just so simple and effortless and in the pocket and beautiful. I asked Herb how they play so together and he pointed at Bill and said, "I watch his knee."
Bill and Herb have a lot of technical knowledge but they always swing. Every tune they play is a revelation. As people, as human beings, they are a delight. We went on the road a couple of times as The Sam Andrew Band and when they opened up in a jam situation, it was scary. Herb on the bass is a major league player, no doubt about it. And drummer Bill has to be seen to be believed. They pick up all the subtle little things in a tune and highlight them so that there is a great shining force in their music.
Summertime is the biggest challenge in the Love, Janis rehearsals because it is the most original arrangement of a Big Brother tune and it is not really a rock song, of course. Andra wants to sing it in C minor and Beth prefers D minor. Neither key is really congenial to guitar meandering (which is quite facilely done in E minor, A minor or G minor, where we did it originally).
Sharp keys are always most native to stringed instruments. C minor and D minor are excellent for keys and winds but challenging and stuffy for guitar players and those keys are contraindicated on a song like Summertime that requires one of the guitar players to turn into a Baroque flautist. We're getting through it, though. I would say it is the weakest version this Love, Janis Band does of a Big Brother tune. Dunamics and interplay need a lot of work. The band's playing of the song is improving and there is some very interesting playing in thirds that we could never quite work out in Big Brother.
One good thing about Summertime is that Ed Ridley adds some Hammond B-3 to the middle range of the tune and it makes it sound so sweet. I was lucky enough to see Ed play in his church on the Sunday before I left Cleveland. He is such a natural player and he complemented the preacher and the congregation perfectly. What an inspiring visit that was. I am so glad I went.
If only Andra and Beth understood how much it changes a song to change a key. They wonder (I can see them wondering) why the song is somehow different despite their best efforts to body it forth as it was originally done. They have been persuaded that a change of key will save their voices (they have to do these songs night after night and twice a day two times a week) but they may not fully understand what they are sacrificing when they lower the keys so drastically.
I want Big Brother to hear Beth Hart sing Ball & Chain one of these days. They think they have heard all the possiblities in this tune. Not so. Beth has a couple of tricks up her sleeve, or, rather, in her soul. I still can't hear her do this without experiencing extreme feelings of beauty and a sort of searing rapture.
Andra Mitrovich has a gracious, giving and warm personality that brings the audience into the song. Andra is a natural star. Four or five people follow her around constantly basking in the sunshine of her love. She is from Austin, Texas, and she has that generous, inviting approach to life that is so magnetic and so reminiscent of Janis.
Andra and Beth are learning a lot from each other, but Andra is closest to Janis in the way that she speaks, because she is, after all, a Texan and she has that same rapid fire way of speaking that Janis did. There is something very attractive and warm in Andra's face and people sense that she has a great soul full of love and a deep understanding of life.
Beth Hart could put out Ball & Chain on a CD if she wanted to and it would turn a few heads, but, then, she doesn't really need to. The William Morris Agency is booking her and her manager is Dave Wolff who took Cyndi Lauper to the heights, so Beth is not doing so badly. The only one who can stop her is she herself. She's a major star if everything goes well. And a beautiful person too.
We had our opening night party. I did my best to entertain the Continental Airline people at my table who were themselves quite fun. We also did a lot of talking with Joyce Braun and her husband Tony who are a chic couple with a lot of flair. After dinner we walked into the Drury Theatre and saw a very exciting play with Beth singing the title role tonight. The band was crackling along, the tempos were energetic and exciting and everything worked. Beth was even better than she promised to be in rehearsals and the audience gave the show a standing ovation.
Love, Janis has been running for two weeks now. There has been a standing ovation every night, ticket sales are through the roof, and audiences are being delighted and instructed.
As Janis herself would say, "Not bad for a bunch of beatniks."
© Sam Andrew