Of all the songs Janis Joplin recorded in her brief, but spectacular career, one of the best-known and most fondly remembered is “Mercedes Benz.”
Few remember now that Janis was also interested in poetry and often attended poetry readings. Her tongue-in-cheek paean to consumerism began as a quick poetry jam between her and songwriter Bob Neuwirth in a bar in Port Chester, NY. They built their short poem around a line written by poet Mike McClure.
About an hour after the poem was completed, she performed it live during her show that night at the Capitol Theater in Port Chester, inventing an acapella melody on the spot.
It was promptly forgotten until she had finished recording her second solo album, “Pearl.” With the pressure of the major session work behind her, Joplin stepped to a microphone while the tapes were still rolling and announced she was about to sing “a song of great social and political import.”
She quickly ran through her little “Mercedes Benz” performance. One take. She also recorded a quick birthday message to John Lennon that included her rendition of Roy Rogers’ theme song, “Happy Trails.” Those would be the last two songs she ever recorded.
Only three days later, she would be dead of a drug overdose.
When Columbia released “Pearl” posthumously, producer Paul A. Rothchild decided to include “Mercedes Benz.”
The song quickly caught the fancy of FM deejays. Radio listeners also fell in love with the tune.
Today it has been covered by more than 30 other recording acts.
(And yes, we know the car in the photo is a Porsche! It belonged to Janis. She did not own a Mercedes-Benz.")