ME AND BOBBY MCGEE – Janis Joplin, 1971
OK, maybe you know that Kris Kristofferson wrote and recorded “Me and Bobby McGee” before Janis’ earth-shattering version. But did you know that Kristofferson’s version was also a cover? He may have penned the song, but Roger Miller, Kenny Rogers, and Gordon Lightfoot all did their own versions before Kristofferson got around to it. Lightfoot’s was probably the most commercially successful (and probably also the worst) of those early recordings.
Then Janis got ahold of it and it was as if none of those earlier versions even existed. She recorded it just a few days before she died and it struck a nerve with the public. She begins quietly, accompanying herself on guitar. John Gill adds a few electric guitar flourishes. Gradually, the rest of the Full Tilt Boogie Band joins in and Janis grows bolder and bolder in her delivery. By the end, it explodes into one the greatest vocal performances in the long canon of pop music.
DRIFT AWAY – Dobie Gray, 1973
Dobie Gray had a decent hit with “The ‘In’ Crowd“ in 1965. Then he mostly toiled in obscurity until 1973, when he recorded his biggest hit, ranked by Billboard as the 17th biggest hit of the year. When you hear Gray’s weary but joyful paean to the power of music, it’s hard to imagine it in anyone else’s voice. But the song, written by Mentor Williams, was initially recorded by John Henry Kurtz a year before. Kurtz has a decent voice, but his version is a rather lumbering affair, with none of the soul that oozed out of every second of Gray’s performance.
Plenty of other artists would cover “Drift Away,” but none could match Dobie. Uncle Kracker did the best version in 2002, in part because he was wise enough to use Dobie as a guest vocalist.