Top 40 Smash Taps: “Me and Bobby McGee”

These posts are about the songs that can accurately claim to crossed the key line of chart success, becoming Top 40 hits on Billboard, but just barely. Every song featured in this series peaked at number 40.

By the time Janis Joplin’s famed version of “Me and Bobby McGee” was released, the song had already been recorded by Roger Miller, Kenny Rogers and the First Edition, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Gordon Lightfoot, original songwriter Kris Kristofferson, Bill Haley and the Comets and Sam the Sham. And that was all in the year-and-a-half span after Miller’s initial recording of the song was released in the summer of 1969. The Miller version was a Top 20 country single and Lightfoot landed in the Billboard Top 20, but it was, of course, Joplin’s take on the song that cemented it into the canon, becoming only the second posthumous number one single, after Otis Redding’s “(Sittin’ on) the Dock of the Bay.” The distinction, then, of the Jerry Lee Lewis single is that it seems to be the first charting version of the song following Joplin’s achievement.

Joplin hit number one in March of 1971. Jerry Lee Lewis’s album Would You Take Another Chance on Me? came out towards the end of that same year, one of five–five!–full-length releases to bear his name in ’71. The title cut to that album was releases as a “flip” single with the cover of “Me and Bobby McGee” on the other side. The label pushed “Another Chance” to country radio and tried to get pop radio to play the more familiar track. The tactic worked in both respects, albeit to varying degrees. “Another Chance” made it the top spot on the country charts, while “Bobby McGee” had to settle for peaking at #40 on the pop charts. The latter may seem like a tepid victory, but it’s worth noting that Lewis was all but abandoned by Top 40 radio at this point in his career. despite his stature as one of the founding fathers of rock ‘n’ roll, it had been ten years since his last visit to the Top 40.

“Me and Bobby McGee” was also The Killer’s last Top 40 single, though he came close with a pair of covers of seminal rock songs over the course of the next couple of years. The song “Me and Bobby McGee,” meanwhile, continued to be subjected to endless interpretations. No matter how iconic Joplin’s version was and is, absolutely everyone–and I do mean everyone–thinks they need to take a crack at it. Lewis’s version is actually pretty cool, infusing his trademark energy into a song that’s usually delivered with a overly ruminative reverence that only seems wan compared against the evocative emotionality of Joplin’s vocal performance. I’m not suggesting that Lewis’s cover should have been the final take on the song, but he sure deserves some credit for not feeling particularly beholden to preserve an expected stylistic take. Of course, how often did Lewis ever feel beholden to anything?

“Just Like Heaven” by The Cure.
“I’m in Love” by Evelyn King
“Buy Me a Rose” by Kenny Rogers
“Who’s Your Baby” by The Archies

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