That voice – high, husky, earthy, explosive – remains among the most distinctive and galvanizing in pop history. But Janis Joplin didn’t merely possess a great instrument; she threw herself into every syllable, testifying from the very core of her being. She claimed the blues, soul, gospel, country and rock with unquestionable authority and verve, fearlessly inhabiting psychedelic guitar jams, back-porch roots and everything in between. Her volcanic performances left audiences stunned and speechless, while her sexual magnetism, world-wise demeanor and flamboyant style shattered every stereotype about female artists – and essentially invented the “rock mama” paradigm.
Born in Port Arthur, Texas, in 1943, Joplin fell under the sway of Leadbelly, Bessie Smith and Big Mama Thornton in her teens, and the authenticity of these voices strongly influenced her decision to become a singer. A self-described “misfit” in high school, she suffered virtual ostracism, but dabbled in folk music with her friends and painted. She briefly attended college in Beaumont and Austin but was more drawn to blues legends and beat poetry than her studies; soon she dropped out and, in 1963, headed for San Francisco, eventually finding herself in the notoriously drug-fueled Haight Ashbury neighborhood. She met up with guitarist Jorma Kaukonen (later of the legendary San Francisco rock outfit Jefferson Airplane) and the pair recorded a suite of songs with his wife, Margareta, providing the beat on her typewriter. These tracks – including blues standards like “Trouble in Mind” and “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out” – would later surface as the infamous “Typewriter Tapes” bootleg.
She returned to Texas to escape the excesses of the Haight, enrolling as a sociology student at Lamar University, adopting a beehive hairdo and living a generally “straight” life despite occasional forays to perform in Austin. But California drew her back into its glittering embrace in 1966, when she joined the Haight-based psychedelic-rock band Big Brother and the Holding Company. Her adoption of a wild sartorial style – with granny glasses, frizzed-out hair and extravagant attire that winked, hippie-style, at the burlesque era – further spiked her burgeoning reputation.
The band’s increasingly high-profile shows earned them a devoted fan base and serious industry attention; they signed with Columbia Records and released their major-label debut in 1967. Of course, it was Joplin’s seismic presence that caused all the commotion, as evidenced by her shattering performance at the Monterey Pop Festival, which was captured for posterity by filmmaker D.A. Pennebaker; in the film, fellow pop star Mama Cass can be seen mouthing the word “Wow” as Joplin tears her way through “Turtle Blues.”
Big Brother’s “Piece of My Heart,” on 1968’s Cheap Thrills LP, shot to the #1 spot, the album sold a million copies in a month, and Joplin became a sensation – earning rapturous praise from Time and Vogue, appearing on The Dick Cavett Show and capturing the imagination of audiences that had never experienced such fiery intensity in a female rock singer. Her departure from Big Brother and emergence as a solo star were inevitable; she put together her own outfit, the Kozmic Blues Band, and in 1969 released I Got Dem Ol' Kozmic Blues Again Mama!, which went gold. That year also saw her perform at the Woodstock festival.
Joplin assembled a new backup group, the Full Tilt Boogie Band, in 1970; she also joined the Grateful Dead, the Band and other artists for the “Festival Express” railroad tour through Canada. Her musical evolution followed the earthier, rootsier direction of the new decade, as reflected in her final studio album, the landmark Pearl. Embracing material such as Kris Kristofferson’s gorgeous country ballad “Me and Bobby McGee” and her own a cappella plaint, “Mercedes Benz,” the disc showcased Joplin’s mastery of virtually all pop genres. The latter song was, along with a phone-message birthday greeting for John Lennon, the last thing she recorded; she died in October of 1970, and Pearl was released posthumously the following year. The quadruple-platinum set became the top-selling release of Joplin’s career and, in 2003, was ranked #122 on Rolling Stone’s “500 Greatest Albums of All Time.”
In the years since, Janis Joplin’s recordings and filmed performances have cemented her status as an icon, inspiring countless imitators and musical devotees. Myriad hit collections, live anthologies and other repackaged releases have kept her legend alive, as have one-woman shows such as the hit Love, Janis (which Joplin’s sister, Laura, helped create) and 2009’s Edinburgh Festival Fringe “Best Solo Performance” nominee Janis. A documentary film, produced by Jeff Jampol in tandem with Spitfire Films, is currently in development. In 1988, the Janis Joplin Memorial, featuring a bronze sculpture by artist Douglas Clark, was unveiled in Port Arthur.
Joplin was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1995 and posthumously given a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2005. But such honors only made official what rock fans already knew: that she was among the greatest, most powerful singers the form had ever known – and that she’d opened the door for countless artists across the musical spectrum.
Janis broke with local social traditions during the tense days of racial integration, standing up for the rights of African Americans whose segregated status in her hometown seared her youthful ideals. Along with fellow band beatnik-reading high school students, she pursued the non-traditional via arts and literature, especially music. They gravitated to folk and jazz with Janis especially taken with the blues. Discovering an inborn talent to belt the blues, Janis began copying the styles of Bessie Smith, Odetta and Leadbelly. She played the coffee houses and hootenannies of the day in the small towns of Texas. She later ventured to the beatnik haunts of Venice, North Beach and the Village in New York, eventually landing in Austin, Texas as a student at the University of Texas. Jumping into the on-the-edge lifestyle cultivated by the beats, Janis thrilled at her creativity, but almost lost herself in experiments with drugs and alcohol, especially speed.
Returning home for a year to question her life direction, she excelled at college but was never content. Music still called her to her in spite of its dangerous association with drugs. "The two aren't wedded," her friends counseled. When old Austin friend, Chet Helms, then in San Francisco, called to offer her a singing audition with an up-and-coming local group, Janis was tempted. She found a vital San Francisco community, turned upside down by the flower children of 1966, and was offered the singing position in a relatively obscure group called "Big Brother and the Holding Company."
Big Brother played in the Bay area and up and down the California coast, to ever-increasing enthusiasm for their unique brand of psychedelic rock. They initially signed with Mainstream Records, a small outfit that did little promotion, but did produce an album and two singles, "Blindman" and "All Is Loneliness." Then during the summer of 1967--the "Summer of Love"--Big Brother played a large concert, The Monterey International Pop Festival. Janis smashed through her anonymity with Big Mama Thornton's "Ball and Chain" and the world took note.
The group was actively courted by Albert Grossman, one of the most powerful entertainment managers of the day. Through his representation, they signed a three-record recording contract with Columbia Records, who bought out Mainstream's rights. Their "Cheap Thrills" album was released in August, 1968 and soon went gold, presenting the hits "Piece of My heart" and "Summertime." The band was playing to large audiences, for big fees, and the billing now read "Janis Joplin with Big Brother and the Holding Company." The pressure mounted, income rose and hippie rockers indulged themselves with their new ability to use high-priced drugs. Drugs began affecting their performing and work relationships and in Christmas of 1968, the group played its last gig together.
Janis formed a new group, oriented more toward blues and released a new album "I Got Dem 'Ol Kozmic Blues Again, Mama" in September of 1969. In the U.S., mixed reviews greeted the new sound but in Europe the group was welcomed with loudly enthusiastic praise. Still the anything-goes lifestyle grew with greater use of drug and alcohol to both increase the artistic creativity and to handle the tensions of coming down. Finally recognizing the problems in her life, Janis quit her drug use. She formed a third band, called Full Tilt Boogie Band, which evolved more professional popular sound. Janis felt she'd finally found her unique style of white blues. She was never happier with her new music. While recording her next album "Pearl," she chanced into using heroin again. Obtaining a dose more pure than usual, she accidentally overdosed in a motel in Los Angeles at the age of 27. Her third album was released posthumously to wide acclaim, launching the popular songs "Me and Bobby McGee" and Mercedes Benz."
Janis's albums have gone gold, platinum, and triple-platinum. Her "Greatest Hits" album still tops the charts in Billboard. Several new releases have followed her death, with wide acclaim for her boxed set, "Janis." She was the subject of a 1973 feature documentary, "Janis," and numerous TV documentaries, the most notable being VH-1's Legends program. She is currently the subject of two hotly contested biographical movie projects.