Five Good Covers presents five cross-genre reinterpretations of an oft-covered song.
You would think there would be a ton of good and/or quirky covers of “Piece of My Heart,” it being such an icon of overwrought emoting. But surprisingly (and not a little disappointingly), whilst there are many of them, most are known nearly as well known as the first cover, many making waves in the charts of their particular day. So, fewer hidden nuggets to unearth, but more fond reminders of times mislaid to be gained by revisiting.
“Piece of My Heart” was written by Jerry Ragovoy and Bert Berns, both jobbing songwriters with a slew of hits to their credit, individually and collectively. Ragovoy also had a hand in “Stay With Me, Baby,” arguably the other song of a heart breaking in explosive slo-mo. Berns was responsible for, amongst other things, our first glimpse of Van Morrison, performing the early singles of Them, “Here Comes the Night” and “Baby, Please Don’t Go.”
It was Aretha’s little sister, Erma Franklin, who first tried out “Piece of My Heart,” in 1967. (Berns had, unsuccessfully, first offered it to Van, which could have been intriguing.) Her rendition was good, very good even, hitting a credible #62 in the chart. That may well have been that, had it not caught the ears of a certain band beginning to make waves in the Bay Area.
Big Brother & the Holding Company–Piece of My Heart (Erma Franklin cover)
Big Brother and the Holding Company, already an established band locally, were short of a strong vocalist. They took on the quiet bespectacled singer who catapulted them to fame, Janis Joplin. And Janis, once unleashed onto the stage, became a frenzy of sweat and tears, her voice a coruscating tsunami of wracked angst. Their 1968 version of “Piece of My Heart” kicked Erma’s dignified rendition around a bit, adding Joplin’s heart, liver, and lungs to Franklin’s soul, along with the electric guitar of James Gurley, taking it to #12 on the charts. It made a superstar of the singer, remained her signature song for the rest of her foreshortened career, and ultimately sealed her fate as being too big for the band. There are innumerable live versions and recordings, but it is this one that first blew away the cobwebs, and it is still the best.
Faith Hill–Piece of My Heart (Erma Franklin cover)
It was probably just as well that Faith Hill had apparently never heard either the original “Piece of My Heart”–or, indeed, any other version of the song–when her producer put it to her as an idea. Thus, with no fear or taint of comparison, she actually gives a whole different nuance to the lyric. She’s aided and abetted by the Nashville production, for once demonstrating the ditch between country and soul, rather than the more frequently found similarities when the one genre covers the other. Hill later put out what was supposed to be a punchier version, showing she had now heard Janis, but, again, her first cut is the deepest.
New York Dolls–Piece of My Heart (Erma Franklin cover)
Given BB&THC were nominally a rock band, it is unsurprising there are many such rock versions of “Piece of My Heart” out there. Speaking personally, I can’t stomach many of them, through the gargle of Melissa Etheridge to the gravel of Nazareth. So I was delighted to dig out this extraordinary live 2004 version from the reformed remnants of the New York Dolls. What it lacks in vocal prowess, it more than makes up for in sheer chutzpah. I had to run around the back and play it again, so astonishing I found it and on so many levels. “Just say no, kids” exuding out of every open pore, David Johansen’s near-death mask visage and frame is as scary as is his “what key is this” vocal.
Bryan Ferry–Piece of My Heart (Erma Franklin cover)
Coming as a pleasing plate cleanser, Bryan Ferry’s trademark kitsch is here in spades. Coming from his debut solo outing, 1973’s These Foolish Things, with Roxy mark one still very much a going concern, this all-covers LP is possibly due for reappraisal. Ferry seems again in the ascendant, as an elder statesman and live performer, the world perhaps as ready for these arch interpretations as at any time during his waxing and waning critical worth. I am not sure how much emotion is conveyed in his stylized croonings here, but the brittleness is curiously effective, a bleaker and colder approach.
Dusty Springfield–Piece of My Heart (Erma Franklin cover)
Finally, a slow and starker take on “Piece of My Heart,” where the less fuss in the background is undoubtedly more. Dusty Springfield demonstrates the promise Arif Martin could see in her, as he transplanted her, if briefly, from the supper clubs of the UK to Memphis and Muscle Shoals. Ok, true, it gets a little carried away, especially the bass player, but since that bassist (and song arranger) is a pre-Zeppelin John Paul Jones, we’ll let him off. Poor Dusty never quite had the self-belief or the support to fully become the force she could have become, but it was this LP, Definitely Dusty, that drew her to the attention of Atlantic Records, and gave her the opportunity to make Dusty In Memphis the following year.