"Some people say they get a Janis feeling from me. Of course, some people still do psychedelic drugs."
There's a city of St. Petersburg cat license hanging from the necklace of Tampa Bay's soul-shakin' queen of the blues these days. It jingle-jangles all over the place when Wendy Rich is on stage, belting out those wild signature standards and lusty blue ballads that stop the barflies from buzzing and send the rafter rats to quivering with each and every growling phrase. The tiny license is her tribute to Chife, Rich's tomcat of 17 years who took his last blue breath a couple months ago; the loss sent his owner deep into a stormy Monday funk, busted flatter than Baton Rouge waitin' for a train.
"I didn't think I could go on," she says, smiling the impish child-like grin that belies the veteran blues singer within. She raises a fist to the sky revealing Chife's old collar around her wrist. "Then I thought, 'Chife's not gone. His spirit will always be with me.' In fact, he's with me every day."
Chife is not the only ghost hanging around the spirit of Wendy Rich these days. This Saturday night, a poltergeist of legendary rock singer Janis Joplin is likely to emerge, swirling all over the Largo Cultural Center when Big Brother and the Holding Company join Rich on stage for a nostalgic night of 1960s psychedelia-laced rockin' blues.
Big Brother, of course, is the San Francisco band that skyrocketed to fame after the 1967 Monterey Rock festival where they backed up Joplin, a previously unknown but mournfully wild blue singer from Texas. During the stormy two years the feisty Joplin sang with Big Brother (fronted by hard-edged guitarist Sam Houston Andrew), two of the era's most significant LPs were released: the self-titled Big Brother and the Holding Company (1967) and Cheap Thrills (1968). "Summertime," "Ball and Chain" — you know, those albums.
Andrew joined Joplin in the short-lived Kozmic Blues Band, but returned to Big Brother after the singer's death from a heroin overdose on Oct. 4, 1970, at age 27.
After two more albums sans Joplin, Big Brother disappeared for most of the '70s and all of the '80s. As with many other groups of that era, the compelling nostalgia (and decent bucks) of live classic rock gave a re-formed Big Brother new life in the '90s; today they tour the world with three original members (guitarist Andrew, drummer Dave Getz and bassist Peter Albin). And that's where Wendy Rich comes in.
We all know her as the frontwoman for Wendy and the Soul Shakers, hosts of the Bay area's longest blues jam, every Sunday night at St. Pete's Ringside Café. But every so often, she disappears ...
"It started out in 1999 as a coincidence," says Rich, a transplanted Floridian from Houston. "I was surfing on the Web and came across the Big Brother website and saw they were going to tour. I sent Sam Andrew an e-mail. At the very same time, a friend of mine in Dunedin just up and called Dave Getz and told them about me."
Shortly thereafter, Andrew contacted Rich and asked for a promo kit. Then he showed up in St. Petersburg for a week, to watch Wendy perform at Ringside and at Traders in Lakeland. "We sat around hashing out song ideas. He said he was always on the lookout for female singers and didn't want to just use one," she remembers. The two even co-wrote and recorded a song, "Dogs in the Rain," which has never been released.
Andrew hired Wendy for the first time in Green Bay, Wis., in 1999. "I never had a rehearsal with the band," she says. "Sam just e-mailed a set list with lyrics. It was scary."
Rich does not try to imitate Joplin: "Oh no. I don't dress like her. I don't carry any bottle of Jim Beam around with me. I made it past that stage a long, long time ago. Big Brother specifically does not want me to try and act like her. I do my own version of 'Summertime,' but with 'Ball and Chain' I guess I kinda do it like her, but not really. I don't really look like her. We're both from Texas is all. The only thing I can see is that I really get into it and get immersed in the songs. And the hair. I think I've got her hair."
Janis Joplin music was not even a part of Rich's repertoire until 1989, she says: "I started out in Texas as a heavy metal singer doing Metallica, Priest, Ozzy, the Scorpions. Robert Plant was my favorite singer. I had people come up to me all the time and want me to listen to Janis, but I didn't like her music. I thought all she did was just scream and scream. I was into male singers. Later on, when I did listen, I gained a whole lot of respect for Janis Joplin."
Though Rich claims "Janis sang way wicked higher than I do," the connection is evident to anyone with ears. Eventually bowing to a barrage of requests from fans, Rich began singing "Me and Bobby McGee" (Joplin's biggest hit, a Kris Kristofferson-penned song released after the singer's death). The reaction stunned Rich. "I mean, people really, really love that song," she says. "Right away they started comparing me to Janis. I don't know, any female singer with a little gravel in her voice could do it."
To make scheduling easier, Big Brother uses three separate Janis "stand-ins." The Largo show marks the first time Rich's Tampa Bay fans will have a chance to see the Soul Shaker's other life. The experience has been mind-boggling to Rich. "I've had people come up to me after the show, all crying and remembering the past, just so moved by my performance," she says. "Then there are the negatives: In Germany a girl walked up and threw her drink at me. She said, 'You're not Janis.'
I told her, 'You are absolutely correct: I'm not Janis. I'm Wendy!'"
Peter B. Gallagher is a freelance writer who lives in St. Petersburg.