Janis Joplin made a lot of great music, however, not all great songs become hits. After all, top 40 radio is dominated by pop stars and Joplin wasn’t a pop star in the conventional sense. She only had one No. 1 hit — “me and Bobby McGee.” Here’s a look at the story behind it.
Janis Joplin’s only No. 1 hit
Joplin gave the world many classic songs. Among them are “Kozmic Blues,” “Down On Me,” “Cry Baby,” and “Get It While You Can.” However, only one of these songs became a No. 1 hit on the Billboard Hot 100: “Me and Bobby McGee.” Interestingly, this song wasn’t composed by Joplin. “Me and Bobby McGee” was written by superstar Kris Kristofferson and Fred Foster, a producer who often worked with Roy Orbison.
What inpsired Kris Kristofferson to write ‘Me and Bobby McGee’
During an interview with Performing Songwriter, Kristofferson revealed where the title of “Me and Bobby McGee” came from. “The title came from [producer and Monument Records founder] Fred Foster,” he said. “He called one night and said, ‘I’ve got a song title for you. It’s “Me and Bobby McKee.” I thought he said “McGee.” Bobby McKee was the secretary of Boudleaux Bryant, who was in the same building with Fred. Then Fred says, ‘The hook is that Bobby McKee is a she. How does that grab you?’ (Laughs) I said, ‘Uh, I’ll try to write it, but I’ve never written a song on assignment.’ So it took me a while to think about.”
Kristofferson was inspired by the beat of another track. “There was a Mickey Newbury song that was going through my mind—‘Why You Been Gone So Long?’ It had a rhythm that I really liked. I started singing in that meter.”
He drew inspiration from Frederico Fellini’s classic arthouse movie La Strada while composing the song. Specifically, he was struck by how Anthony Quinn’s character found a sort of freedom that destroyed him. That’s what inspired Kristofferson to write the line “Freedom is another word for nothing left to lose.” Kristofferson performed the original version of “Me and Bobby McGee.” After Kristofferson heard Joplin’s cover of the song, he took a walk all over Los Angeles and cried. Afterward, he was inspired to write a song in tribute to her called “Epitaph.”
How ‘Me and Bobby McGee’ performed compared to other Janis Joplin songs
Joplin’s version of “Me and Bobby McGee” was released in 1971, the year following her death. The track wouldn’t just become her only No. 1 hit on the Billboard Hot 100. It would be the only one of her songs to reach the top 40. In fact, her second-highest charting hit was “Kozmic Blues,” which reached No. 41. While Joplin was not a major phenomenon on the charts, she still gave the world many classic songs.
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