Who Was Janis Joplin?
Janis Joplin developed a love of music at an early age, but her career didn't take off until she joined the band Big Brother and the Holding Company in 1966. Their 1968 album, Cheap Thrills, was a huge hit. However, friction between Joplin and the band prompted her to part ways with Big Brother soon after. Known for her powerful, blues-inspired vocals, Joplin released her first solo effort, I Got Dem Ol' Kozmic Blues Again Mama!, in 1969. The album received mixed reviews, but her second project, Pearl (1971), released after Joplin's death, was a huge success. The singer died of an accidental overdose on October 4, 1970, at age 27.
Joplin was born on January 19, 1943, in Port Arthur, Texas. Breaking new ground for women in rock music, Joplin rose to fame in the late 1960s and became known for her powerful, blues-inspired vocals. She grew up in a small Texas town known for its connections to the oil industry with a skyline dotted with oil tanks and refineries. For years, Joplin struggled to escape from this confining community, and spent even longer to trying to overcome her memories of her difficult years there.
Developing a love for music at an early age, Joplin sang in her church choir as a child and showed some promise as a performer. She was an only child until the age of six, when her sister, Laura, was born. Four years later, her brother, Michael, arrived. Joplin was a good student and fairly popular until around the age of 14 when some side effects of puberty started to kick in. She got acne and gained some weight.
At Thomas Jefferson High School, Joplin began to rebel. She eschewed the popular girls' fashions of the late 1950s, often choosing to wear men's shirts and tights, or short skirts. Joplin, who liked to stand out from the crowd, became the target of some teasing as well as a popular subject in the school's rumor mill. She was called a "pig" by some, while others said that she was sexually promiscuous.
Joplin eventually developed a group of guy friends who shared her interest in music and the Beat Generation, which rejected the standard norms and emphasized creative expression (Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg were two of the Beat movement's leading figures).
Early Musical Interests
Musically, Janis Joplin and her friends gravitated toward blues and jazz, admiring such artists as Lead Belly. Joplin was also inspired by legendary blues vocalists Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey and Odetta, an early leading figure in the folk music movement. The group frequented local working-class bars in the nearby town of Vinton, Louisiana. By her senior year of high school, Joplin had developed a reputation as a ballsy, tough-talking girl who like to drink and be outrageous.
After graduating from high school, Joplin enrolled at Lamar State College of Technology in the neighboring town of Beaumont, Texas. There, she devoted more time to hanging out and drinking with friends than to her studies. At the end of her first semester at Lamar, Joplin left the school. She went on to attend Port Arthur College, where she took some secretarial courses, before moving to Los Angeles in the summer of 1961. This first effort to break away from wasn't a success, however, and Joplin thus returned to Port Arthur for a time.
In the summer of 1962, Joplin fled to the University of Texas at Austin, where she studied art. In Austin, Joplin began performing at folksings—casual musical gatherings where anyone can perform—on campus and at Threadgill's, a gas station turned bar, with the Waller Creek Boys, a musical trio with whom she was friends. With her forceful, gutsy singing style, Joplin amazed many audience members. She was unlike any other white female vocalist at the time (folk icons like Joan Baez and Judy Collins were known for their gentle sound).
In January 1963, Joplin ditched school to check out the emerging music scene in San Francisco with friend Chet Helms. But this stint out west, like her first, proved to be unsuccessful, as Joplin struggled to make it as a singer in the Bay Area. She played some gigs, including a side-stage performance at the 1963 Monterey Folk Festival—but her career didn't gain much traction. Joplin then spent some time in New York City, where she hoped to have better luck getting her career off the ground, but her drinking and drug use (she'd begun regularly using speed, or amphetamine, among other drugs) there proved to be detrimental to her musical aspirations. In 1965, she left San Francisco and returned home in an effort to get herself together again.
Back in Texas, Joplin took a break from her music and her hard-partying lifestyle, and dressed conservatively, putting her long, often messy hair into a bun and doing everything else she could to appear straight-laced. But the conventional life was not for her, and her desire to pursue her musical dreams wouldn't remain submerged for long.
Joplin slowly returned to performing, and in May 1966, was recruited by friend Travis Rivers to audition for a new psychedelic rock band based in San Francisco, Big Brother and the Holding Company. At the time, the group was managed by another longtime friend of Joplin's, Chet Helms. Big Brother, whose members included James Gurley, Dave Getz, Peter Albin and Sam Andrew, was part of the burgeoning San Francisco music scene of the late 1960s; among the other bands involved in this scene were the Grateful Dead.
Joplin blew the band away during her audition, and was quickly offered membership into the group. In her early days with Big Brother, she sang only a few songs and played the tambourine in the background. But it wasn't long before Joplin assumed a bigger role in the band, as Big Brother developed quite a following in the Bay Area. Their appearance at the now legendary Monterey Pop Festival in 1967—specifically their version of "Ball and Chain" (originally made famous by R&B legend Big Mama Thornton) brought the group further acclaim. Most of the praise, however, focused on Joplin's incredible vocals. Fueled by heroin, amphetamines and the bourbon she drank straight from the bottle during gigs, Joplin's unrestrained sexual style and raw, gutsy sound mesmerized audiences—and all of this attention caused some tension between Joplin and her bandmates.
After hearing Joplin at Monterey, Columbia Records President Clive Davis wanted to sign the band. Albert Grossman, who already managed Bob Dylan, the Band, and Peter, Paul & Mary, later signed on as the band's manager, and was able to get them out of another record deal they'd signed earlier with Mainstream Records.
While their recordings for Mainstream never found much of an audience, Big Brother's first album for Columbia, Cheap Thrills (1968), was a huge hit. While the album was wildly successful—quickly becoming a certified gold record with songs like "Piece of My Heart" and "Summertime"—creating it had been a challenging process, causing even more problems between Joplin and band's other members. (The album was produced by John Simon, who'd had the band do take after take in an attempt to create a technically perfect sound.)
Cheap Thrills helped solidify Joplin's reputation as a unique, dynamic, bluesy rock singer. Despite Big Brother's continued success, Joplin was becoming frustrated with group, feeling that she was being held back professionally.
Joplin struggled with her decision to leave Big Brother, as her bandmates had been like a family to her, but she eventually decided to part ways with the group. She played with Big Brother for the last time in December 1968.
Following a historic performance at Woodstock (August 1969), Joplin released her first solo effort, I Got Dem Ol' Kozmic Blues Again Mama!, in September 1969, with Kozmic Blues Band. Some of the project's most memorable songs were "Try (Just a Little Bit Harder)" and "To Love Somebody," a cover of a Bee Gees tune. But Kozmic Blues received mixed reviews, with some media outlets criticizing Joplin personally. Feeling uniquely pressured to prove herself as a female solo artist in a male-dominated industry, the criticism caused distress for Joplin. "That was a pretty heavy time for me," she later said in an interview with Howard Smith of The Village Voice. "It was really important, you know, whether people were going to accept me or not." (Joplin's interview with Smith was her last; it took place on September 30, 1970, just four days before her death.) Outside of music, Joplin appeared to be struggling with alcohol and drugs, including an addiction to heroin.
Joplin's next album would be her most successful, but, tragically, also her last. She recorded Pearl with the Full Tilt Boogie Band and wrote two of its songs, the powerful, rocking "Move Over" and "Mercedes Benz," a gospel-styled send-up of consumerism.
Tragic Death and Legacy
Following a long struggle with substance abuse, Joplin died from an accidental heroin overdose on October 4, 1970, at a hotel in Hollywood's Landmark Hotel. Completed by Joplin's producer, Pearl was released in 1971 and quickly became a hit. The single "Me and Bobby McGee," written by Kris Kristofferson, a former love of Joplin's, reached the top of the charts.
Despite her untimely death, Janis Joplin's songs continue to attract new fans and inspire performers. Numerous collections of her songs have been released over the years, including In Concert (1971) and Box of Pearls (1999). In recognition of her significant accomplishments, Joplin was posthumously inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1995, and honored with a Recording Academy Lifetime Achievement Award at the Grammy Awards in 2005.
Dubbed the "first lady of rock 'n' roll," Joplin has been the subject of several books and documentaries, including Love, Janis (1992), written by sister Laura Joplin. That book was adapted into a play of the same title. Amy Berg’s documentary, Janis: Little Girl Blue, premiered at the Toronto Film Festival in September 2015.
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