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Janis Joplin’s “Mercedes Benz” Has Roots in Westchester

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By Grossman Glotzer Management Corporation/ Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

On the 80th anniversary of the singer’s birthday, we recount the tale of her quirky little ditty’s Westchester origins.

It was at The Capitol Theatre in Port Chester, and a bar a few doors down, that the Janis Joplin hit “Mercedes Benz” was hatched. Joplin was playing both a matinee and nighttime show at The Cap in August 1970. She had ventured north from the Hotel Chelsea in Manhattan. “[Joplin] was not happy to be playing in the sticks; she was playing stadiums at the time,” says Capitol Theatre’s head usher, Bryan Lynch, who began working at The Cap in 2012 and is the club’s unofficial historian.

With time to kill between performances at The Cap, Joplin went to the bar Vahsen’s, a few doors down, on Broad Street. There, with songwriter pal Bob Neuwirth, actor Rip Torn, and Torn’s actress wife, Geraldine Page, Joplin starting singing, “Oh Lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedes-Benz.” The lyric was inspired by beat poet Michael McClure, who’d written, “Come on, God, and buy me a Mercedes-Benz,” according to the Wall Street Journal.

Janis Joplin

By Grossman Glotzer Management Corporation/ Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

Torn and Page banged beer mugs on the table to keep time, and Joplin added a second verse, about a color TV. Neuwirth jotted down the lyrics on a napkin. The third verse asked for a night on the town.

Joplin’s road manager then burst into Vahsen’s and said she was expected onstage in 15 minutes. Joplin began the performance with “Tell Mama” and “Half Moon,” then announced she’d perform a song “Acapulco” — her word for a cappella — and “Mercedes Benz” had its first public performance. “The band improvised the music behind her,” says Lynch. “The audience didn’t know what was going on.”

Janis Joplin Performance

Janis Joplin’s sign at the Capitol Theatre. Courtesy of Bob Vita

Joplin recorded “Mercedez Benz” in Los Angeles on October 1, 1970, the song a quick 1:48 and almost all a cappella. She died three days later. “Mercedes Benz” would appear on her album Pearl the following year. Lynch says The Capitol Theatre has a significant place in rock history, thanks to the Joplin track that was born there. “I probably tell the story three times a night,” he says, “and nobody’s heard it before.”

Related: Doing It His Way: Chazz Palminteri and the Play That Changed His Life

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