Piece of My Heart Bryan Ferry (cover version, These Foolish Things, 1973)
Piece of My Heart Erma Franklin (original, written by Jerry Ragovoy/Bert Berns, 1967)
Piece of My Heart Big Brother & The Holding Company (cover, Cheap Thrills, 1968)
Bert Berns – one of the greatest songwriters of all bloody time, it’s as simple as that!
By the time Bryan Ferry recorded Jerry Ragovoy and Bert Berns’ ‘Piece of My Heart’ in 1973 the song was already a classic – producing hits for Erma Franklin (Aretha’s sister), Dusty Springfield and Janis Joplin. Taking on a woman’s song can never be easy, especially when one version – Joplin’s – is probably the defining track of a short career – but Ferry may have felt he could deliver a more soulful version than the throw-away delivered by Scottish all-male group Marmalade in 1968 (he could, and he did). By the time Sammy Hagar covered ‘Piece of My Heart’ in 1981, the legacy of Erma, Dusty and Janis were calling for a moratorium on men covering the song (Marmalade fared better their mega #1 hit cover of The Beatles Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da. So much for originality in pop in 1969!).
Ferry does a surprisingly excellent version of ‘Piece of My Heart’ on his first covers album These Foolish Things – surprising in that, negating the quirks of his quavering vocal style, he sweetens his voice to a degree that releases him from the narrow vocal canvas of Roxy Music and points the way towards the fuller sound heard on Stranded and 1974’s solo hit ‘Smoke Gets in Your Eyes’. Certainly, the opening line of ‘Piece of My Heart’ is stunning in its affectation as Ferry allows himself to be close-miked and vulnerable (hear the echo of the studio standing between him and the words):
Didn’t I make you feel (pause) like youuuu (hold) are the on-ly (hold) one (hold)?
Ranking as some of the best phrasing of his career to date, Ferry’s vocal is so considered and melodic in these opening lines that you, the cruel lover, cannot doubt the sincerity of the question being asked regarding actions towards the tender and broken heart. From here though, the success of Ferry’s recording really depends on how you feel about the song, for the upcoming shift in mood relies on the sudden call-to-arms of the jilted lover, an approach most successfully realized by Janis Joplin’s raspy and impatient ‘Co-o-ome on, come on, COME ON, co-o-o-ome on and TAKE IT!/Take another little piece of my heart now, baby‘. Suddenly ‘Piece’ shifts from imploring sweetness – which suits Ferry’s delivery to a tee – to brokenhearted antagonism, a style better suited to Joplin’s in-your-face Texas blues, and a reason surely why Joplin’s version is the standard for the song and not Erma Franklin’s more sombre (even glum), take. To my ears ‘Heart’ loses melody and purpose at this point, and Ferry’s version does little to change the outcome. Similiar to that perennial yet irritating 60s chestnut ‘Take a Load Off Fanny‘, you can either live with it, or you can’t. Nothing ventured, nothing gained.
Designing his version of the song to be more Erma Franklin than Janis Joplin, Ferry has in the end to deal with the legacy and weight of the Joplin version. In order to do so he applies a three-prong attack: beef up the female contingency via the all-girl harmony group The Angelettes – who do a fantastic job on ‘Hard Rain’ and indeed on the entire album (see entry ‘Hard Rain‘); beef up the horns – courtesy of Average White Band founder Roger Ball, a multi-talented composer, saxophonist, keyboardist, songwriter and arranger; and be sure to beef up Ferry’s vocal reach and range of expression – listen to the line ‘You’re out on the street (looking good)/And you know deep down in your heart that it ain’t right‘ at 23-32s and you’ll see that performing other people’s songs gives Ferry an opportunity to have some fun and stretch his range outside of the classic Roxy Music mold, with the benefit that he returns to the Roxy state of mind rejuvenated and focused.
All the same, none of this handsome attention to detail and fine vocal delivery really gets to the heart of the song – nor does it add much to the song’s presence in the world. Part of the reason is that the origin and history of ‘Piece of My Heart’ carries a heavy burden of illness and breakdown – the song’s key associations stemming from composer Bert Berns traumatic physical heart ailment that killed him at age 38 and Janis Joplin’s traumatic emotional life that killed her at 27. Too young, in both instances.
For many people The Beatles ‘Twist and Shout’ is a Lennon/McCartney number, famously belted out by a flu-struck John Lennon to complete the legendary twelve hour recording of The Beatles debut album Please Please Me. Yet it was Bert Berns who co-wrote the song with Phil Medley (Berns later credited as “Bert Russell”) and was originally a hit for the Isley Brothers in 1962. A monumental track in the Beatles catalog – performed at the critical Sunday Night at the London Palladium and Royal Command performances (“the rest of you just rattle your jewellery”), and for the February 1964 appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show – this brush with Beatles mega-fame was not the only example of Bert Berns originality. Bert created Bang Records in 1965 with Atlantic music giant Ahmet Ertegün (Ray Charles, Stones, Zeppelin) Nesuhi Ertegün and Jerry Wexler. At Bang Berns wrote and produced a string of influential hit records, including ‘I Want Candy‘, ‘Hang on Sloopy‘, ‘Brown Eyed Girl’ (Van Morrison’s first single), and other Van Morrison/Them hits like the amazing riff-heavy ‘Baby Please Don’t Go’, and ‘Here Comes the Night‘. As the movie tie-in proclaims – “Though not as widely known as his contemporaries, Bert Berns ranks among the most significant and influential of his generation” (Wiki) hardly sounds like an exaggeration.
Despite the success, Berns life was marked by frail health: as a teenager he suffered from a rheumatic fever so virulent he was left with a permanently weakened heart: he was told he would not live to be 21 (HoF). When he died of heart-attack at 38 years old on December 30, 1967, he was building a house for his family, and it is here that the emotional weight of ‘Piece of My Heart’ can be found both in song title and the weight of its compelling history. As metaphor, ‘heart’ plays a significant role in Berns writing, particularly the love songs that evoke tender emotion – titles such as ‘Cry to Me‘, ‘Everybody Needs Somebody to Love‘, ‘Cry Baby‘, and of course ‘Piece of My Heart’ – all speak to a melancholy and sensitivity sometimes lacking from other song-writers of the era (see: Gerry Goffin, ‘Don’t Ever Change‘). ‘I cry all the time‘ Berns writes in ‘Piece of My Heart’ and it feels like time is closing in, unmistakably love-lorn and companionless: ‘When you’re all alone in your lonely room/Don’t ya feel like cryin’, don’t ya feel like cryin‘ (‘Cry to Me’). Overtly sensitive, Berns played the music game like he was short on time, clock ticking, combining both hit-making savy with feelings of approaching loss and melancholy.
In general terms then, much of the Bert Berns catalog requires a degree of emotional weight in order to be told with insight and sincerity – the performer does not necessarily have to have a life of discord and strife – certainly Bryan Ferry would presumably not have too much to complain about as his career rocketed in those few short years between 1971-1973 – but the ability to get inside a crying Bert Berns song with the necessary gravitas is crucial. This is where Janis Joplin scored so highly with her cover of ‘Piece of My Heart’ – taken from the band’s album Cheap Thrills, their version peaked at No. 12 on the U.S. pop chart, but the song became associated with Joplin long after the pop charts lost their relevance. By the time it was a hit for the hippie generation Berns was dead, and Joplin was beginning her very brief fifteen minutes in the limelight. Janis Joplin adopted ‘Piece of My Heart’ like it was her own off-spring: a wounded heart-sick woman who had only three years to live from the day of the song’s release.
In David Hepworth‘s book “Uncommon People: The Rise and Fall of The Rock Stars” Hepworth provides an extremely sad set of details chronicling Janis Joplin’s life: she came from hard working class environment in Texas. Puberty – especially the torments of acne – produced a self-conscious sensitivity about her looks, a wound she spent the rest of her life trying to shake. One student University poll cruelly called her the “ugliest man on campus”. On route to fame, she drank too much and became addicted to heroin (“I wanted to smoke dope, take dope, lick dope, fuck dope”). In spite of her fame, she never stopped trying to get acceptance and validation from those who had hurt her back in her home town. In 1970, she received an invitation to attend her high school reunion. Announcing her intention to attend on the Dick Cavett show (no less) she told the nation-wide television audience “They laughed me out of class, town, out of State, so I’m going home.” On another occasion: “Man these people hurt me…It makes me happy to know I’ve made it, and they are just still plumbers like they were” (Washington Post).
Unsurprisingly, it was not a good home-coming, doing little to settle old grudges. She clashed with the towns folk, who did not take kindly to being slagged on national TV. She clashed with siblings. Her parents left town to go to a wedding. She even volunteered to the television crew filming the event to re-visit the most painful incidents of her teenage years. “By the end of the visit,” Hepworth writes, “when the booze and pills had worn off, she looked broken and heart-sick. No vindication. No triumph of life over the little people.” (Hepworth). Two months later she was found dead in a Hollywood hotel room, alone, victim of a heroin overdose.
Heart-sick is the primary metaphor for the two people most closely associated with ‘Piece of My Heart’, writer Bert Berns and singer Janis Joplin. Other singers – notably Erma Franklin and Dusty Springfield – have gotten close to the emotional pulse of the song, but did not bring the ultimate sadness that the tune seems to demand of its singers. For Ferry, it was a genre piece – much loved and respectfully rendered – but his version is, by design, all dressed up and professionally delivered, drawing its strength and interest as much from a wish to acknowledge the great songwriting factories of the Sixties (Goffin/King; Leiber/Stoller) as opposed to portraying an emotional impact per se. This is of course in keeping with the stylistic and ironic distance found in the songs of Roxy Music. And while the solo covers & standards albums provide an opportunity to claw in the distance with a knowing wink, Ferry does have to deal with the fact that the passage of time renders the anthems of the 60s golden oldies (after all). Ferry re-invented ‘A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall’ and delivered ‘River of Salt’ straight, and produced credible, enjoyable successes. When it came to ‘Piece of My Heart’ though the song stood before him like a slab of unbearable sadness, unmovable, beyond reach.
Recorded: AIR Studios, England June 1973.
Credits: Poster for the stage musical The Bern Berns Story: Piece of My Heart; roxymusicsongs photo-composite left to right – BB in the studio/BB with Van Morrison/poster for the film Bang! The Bert Berns Story/BB with singer Solomon Burke; Pearl album cover out-take, Janis Joplin photographed by Barry Feinstein in Hollywood, Los Angeles in 1970; Janis foreign film poster for Janis: Little Girl Blue, 2015.
Next: Ferry takes on Elvis with ‘Baby I Don’t Care’ – and nary a karate chop in sight!