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Janis Joplin
1943 - 1970

 

 

Janis Joplin was one of the most popular and influential female singers to emerge from the West Coast "counterculture" that thrived in the mid- to late-1960s. Her compelling stage and recording persona effectively transcended any regional boundaries. Her trademark raucous performing presence, combined with the raw emotion conveyed in her bluesy singing style and her unconventional but trend-setting and highly personal taste in fashion, captivated a national audience who sensed both her toughness and vulnerability and, in turn, embraced her without condition. Joplin, who was given to emotional excess and susceptible to unhealthy indulgence, passed away at the height of her fame.

Joplin, the future blues and rock song stylist, voiced her first full-throated, attention-demanding shriek on January 19, 1943. The first child of Seth and Dorothy Joplin, she was raised in Port Arthur, Texas, a small oil-industry town located on the Gulf Coast, fifteen miles from Louisiana.

At the time, Port Arthur was a conventional middle-class community, where many residents worked for oil companies. Her family enjoyed middle-income comforts. Her father was a canning factory worker (and later a Texaco employee) and her mother was a registrar at Port Arthur College, a business school.

In retrospect, its easy to see how such an environment would prove stifling to someone of Joplin's sensitivities and sensibilities, but her early life gave little indication of the unconventional, hard-living, hard-working performer she'd later become. She got along well with her parents and younger siblings, Michael and Laura. Joplin did demonstrate artistic interests as a child, and her parents encouraged these inclinations. Still, her life pretty much conformed to Port Arthur standards. She earned good grades, regularly attended church and displayed her artwork at the local library. But things started to change when she began high school.


Troubled Adolescence

As it is with many young students, high school proved a painful period for Joplin. Afflicted with severe acne and a weight problem, she suffered the humiliations of peer-group torment and rejection. Understandably, Joplin was greatly hurt and, at first, she responded by becoming somewhat of a loner. However, she soon adapted more extroverted responses to her ostracization: she began wearing wild clothes, affected vulgar language and, in general, cultivated a reputation as a rebel.

Further, her artistic interests took a bohemian turn, and she started listening to folk and blues records - not exactly the kind of music appreciated by fellow Port Arthur teenagers during the late 1950s. Her favorite artists were Odetta, Leadbelly and Bessie Smith. Joplin sung along to the artists' recordings, developing what would later become her signature vocal style.

A typical non-conformist, Joplin rejected traditional roles and expected behaviour, and fell in with a group of like-minded, rebellious peers. While rejecting social norms of her community, she embraced causes such as equal rights and identified strongly with what was then termed the "beatnik" culture. Her interests included poetry and music, particularly jazz and blues. As is often the case with individuals who march to the cadences of a different drummer, however, Joplin often was overwhelmed by a sense of alienation and she suffered bouts of depression - feelings that she'd battle throughout her relatively short life.


The Runaway

After Janis graduated from high school in May, 1960, she enrolled at Lamar College in Beaumont, Texas. She lasted two semesters before she turned her face to the wind and answered the call of the open road. When she was only seventeen years old, she left home - or, as some more specifically define it, she "ran away" - at first working in country and western clubs in various Texas towns and cities. Eventually, she made her way to southern California. Though it was only the early 1960s, Joplin essentially adopted the "hippie" lifestyle, dropping in and out of colleges, working at odd jobs, and even living in a commune.

During her meanderings and wanderings, Joplin made friends with a man named Chet Helms, who later would have an enormous impact on her career direction. In January 1963, Helms talked Joplin into going with him to San Francisco.

During this period in her life, she sang in coffee houses in the North Beach area, and she also began experimenting with various drugs, and developed a fondness for alcohol. Experimentation led to an addiction to amphetamine, which, most likely was partially driven by poor self image fostered by what she felt was an ongoing weight problem.


Returned Home to Recover

By 1965, her lifestyle had taken its toll, and Joplin returned to Port Arthur. Reportedly, she only weighed 88 pounds. Back home, Joplin worked on restoring her physical and emotional health. She stayed sober, ate well, and toned down her appearance. She even stopped singing for a short while, as she felt it reinforced an excessive lifestyle.

With weight regained, and feeling emotionally stronger, she enrolled at the University of Texas in Austin, where she studied art. At first, she felt at home. In college, where she mixed in with a diverse population of students, she found kindred spirits among the academic bohemians who shared her artistic interests and social experiences. She became involved in the local folk scene, and she continued her dalliance with drugs and alcohol, developing a reputation as an enthusiastic drinker who could keep up with the boys. This helped to differentiate her from fellow students and underscored her sense of alienation.

Soon, she was subjected to the same kind of hurts she experienced in high school, only this time there was a far more cruel edge. The torments reached a height when fraternity members sought to have her recognized as the "ugliest man on campus," a highly visible campaign carried out in the college newspaper.

Music provided a solace, and Joplin sang and played autoharp with the Waller Creek Boys, a trio from Austin. While performing with the Wallers, Joplin began to truly develop the harsh but alluring vocal style that gained her fame. The small lineup included R. Powell St. John, who wrote songs for a rock and roll band called the 13th Floor Elevators, a Texas group whose primitive garage-band style engendered a cult following through the years. In the spring of 1966, the group asked Joplin to become a member, and she seriously considered the offer. But she was diverted from this course when Helms got back in touch with her, encouraging her to return to San Francisco. There was a band called Big Brother and the Holding Company, he told her, and they needed a female singer.


Joined Big Brother and the Holding Company

Actually, Helms was the manager for the group. Since Joplin had last seen him, Helms had become a major player in the burgeoning San Francisco music scene. He was part of an urban hippie commune called the Family Dog, and he owned the Avalon Ballroom, a popular entertainment venue that hosted rock concerts and "psychedelic dances."

In June 1966, following Helm's advice, Joplin returned to San Francisco. By this time, the city had become a counter-cultural Mecca. The beatnik/bohemian scene of the late 1950s and early 1960s had evolved into the so-called "hippie scene." In this trend-setting hub, "flower children" promoted "love, peace and understanding" while flaunting alternative lifestyle choices and a spiritual awakening fueled by the drug LSD, and music had become a central preoccupation.

First as a band calling itself the Warlocks, the Grateful Dead were at the vanguard of what would soon be termed the "San Francisco sound," and they were followed by other bands poised for stardom including Country Joe and the Fish, Jefferson Airplane and Quicksilver Messenger Service. With the addition of Janis Joplin, Big Brother and the Holding Company would soon join that West Coast pantheon.

Before Joplin, Big Brother developed a strong following as the house band at Helm's Avalon Ballroom. Like other local bands, the group's performances often ventured off into extended instrumental improvisations that the media would tag as "psychedelic music." Personnel included guitarist and vocalist Sam Andrew, guitarist James Gurley, bassist Peter Albin and drummer David Getz.

Joplin agreed to join the band, and she immediately felt at home, both in the city and with her new professional situation. Even though she had no experience working with a rock band, her vocal style proved a highly appropriate complement to Big Brother's loose and loud style. After its debut on June 10, 1966, at the Avalon, the new-version Big Brother became an immediate hit on a local level.

Afterward, the band hit the road and pretty much worked continuously. Only two months later, after performing at a club in Chicago, Joplin and her band mates were asked to sign a recording contract with Mainstream Records, a small, independent company. Gratified and encouraged, the group immediately went into the studio, putting together its first album. However, the deal turned out to be a fiasco. Andrew told Rolling Stone that it was a "disaster."

"We were na´ve kids," Andrew recalled. "The club was burning us and here was this cat saying come on down to the recording studio tomorrow, sign up and let's go to the lawyer and make sure it's all cool…."

But it wasn't "cool." The sessions were rushed and under-financed, and Mainstream delayed the album's release for almost a year. In addition, the company, and the lawyer, was out to exploit the band rather than nurture the relationship. "We asked [the lawyer] for $1,000, and he said no," Andrew recalled in Rolling Stone in 1970. "We said 500? He said no. Well, can we have plane fare home? He said not one penny … we got back and it was a good time in San Francisco, small gigs…."


Stole the Spotlight at Monterey

Big Brother kept performing throughout California, providing itself with the exposure that translated into an ever-increasing and adoring audience. Their hard work and growing reputation earned them an invitation to perform at what would turn out to be a historic event: the Monterey International Pop Festival of 1967.

This seminal event in rock music history, which predated later music festivals such as Woodstock (where Joplin also appeared), was organized by music executive Lou Adler and musician John Phillips (founder of the Mamas and the Papas). It was designed as sort of an alternative to the popular and ongoing Monterey Jazz Festival, as a means to spotlight rock music, which was just beginning to be perceived as a major cultural force.

The festival, held in Monterey, California on June 16-18, 1967, at the beginning of what became known as the "Summer of Love," included the some of the best known names in the pop and rock music scene such as the Mamas and The Papas, the Association, The Who, the Byrds, Paul Butterfield Blues Band, Scott McKenzie, Canned Heat, Buffalo Springfield, Johnny Rivers, Electric Flag (with legendary guitarist Michael Bloomfield), Eric Burdon and the Animals, and Simon and Garfunkel. The up-and-coming San Francisco bands featured included Jefferson Airplane, Country Joe and The Fish, The Grateful Dead, the Steve Miller Band, Quicksilver Messenger Service and Moby Grape. Moreover, reflecting the increasing diversity of popular music styles, the eclectic lineup also included Lou Rawls, Otis Redding, Booker T. and The MGs with The Mar-Keys, Hugh Masakela, Laura Nyro, and Indian sitarist Ravi Shankar.

Despite the strong lineup, the festival proved to be the breakout occasion for what would become two major entities in rock music. Rising far above the rest of the big-name talent were the Jimi Hendrix Experience and Big Brother and The Holding Company. Indeed, today, along with Otis Redding, the names most closely associated with the Monterey festival are Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin.

Originally, Big Brother was slated for only one appearance, during the festival's afternoon show. However, Joplin's performance so electrified the audience that festival organizers quickly made a spot for the group in the evening show. Joplin's star-making performance was recorded for posterity by filmmaker D. A. Pennebaker (who previously made the Bob Dylan documentary Don't Look Back, and it appears in his film of the festival called Monterey Pop.

Response to Joplin and the group was so great, and word-of-mouth enthusiasm spread so fast and far, that Mainstream records felt commercially compelled to release the group's album. On initial release, the album was a moderate national hit, and today it is considered an essential classic by rock album connoisseurs.

More importantly, though, Big Brother and the Holding Company - and especially Janis Joplin - had caught the attention of the major record labels. Famed music business manager Albert Grossman, whose clients included Dylan, signed the band to a management deal and secured Big Brother a recording contract with Columbia Records.


Recorded "Cheap Thrills"

By late 1967 and early 1968, Big Brother had developed into a major performing act across the country. In the winter of 1968, the group toured the East Coast for the first time and, on February 18, they made their first-ever New York City appearance, garnering rave reviews in the area's influential alternative press.

The rest of the country was now getting an up-close look at Joplin's unique presence and style, and she became their "Janis." In performance, characteristically foot-stomping her way across a stage, Joplin was a swirl of colors and physical movement. With psychedelic stage lights high-lighting her tossed and wild red hair, feather boas flowing about her flailing arms and writhing body, streaming sweat glistening on her face like copious tears as she belted the blues, swigging openly and unapologetically from the bottles of Southern Comfort that accompanied her both onstage and off - Joplin was harnessed lighting unleashed inside a concert hall. She was at once uncontrolled, physically dirty, foulmouthed, yet endearing and inspirational, not to mention sensual and sexy. Audiences had never seen anything like her before, and they were easily seduced.

In the March and April of 1968 the group was hard at work on its second album, at that point tentatively titled Dope, Sex, and Cheap Thrills. When the record was released in August, the provocative title was shortened to just Cheap Thrills, and the band's live billing was now "Janis Joplin with Big Brother and the Holding Company," which indicated the shifting status within the band. Joplin's stature was outdistancing the rest of the members'. People even began referring to the group as Janis and the band.

During the late summer and early fall, the album's single "Piece of My Heart" became a huge radio hit. The album itself reached the top of the Billboard chart on October 12, 1968, and proved the artistic equal of other major albums released in the very same period. Cheap Thrills held its own against late-summer/fall releases that included The Beatles' White Album, The Band's Music From Big Pink, Jimi Hendrix's Electric Ladyland and Cream's Wheels of Fire.


Big Brother Breakup

With success came the usual pressures that would sink many a rock and roll band: ego conflicts, hurt feelings and the increased drug and alcohol use that often accompanied increased income. Joplin, with her fragile emotional state, was particularly susceptible to the entrapments of stardom. She reportedly used liquor and heroin to help ease the pain of a loneliness that never seemed to go away, even before an audience of adoring fans.

Eventually, and predictably, the band broke up. Big Brother, with Joplin, made its final appearances together in December 1968, even as Cheap Thrills remained at the top of the charts and national audiences were just getting to know the group. The drink and the drugs began affecting both the performing and personal relationships. More significantly, however, the personal dynamics within the band were similar to those within a relationship or marriage that nears its end when one partner achieves greater success than the other. There was a widening gulf between Joplin and the rest of Big Brother. Albin recalled for Rolling Stone what is was like: "The kind of performance she would put out would be a different trip than the band's. I'd say it was a star trip, where she related to the audience like she was the only one on the stage, and not relating to us at all."

But to many observers, it did not appear that Joplin was on a ego trip. Rather, she simply outgrew the group. Big Brother was considered a good band that became a great band with Janis Joplin. The prevailing opinion became that the band was sloppy and informal, and Joplin was way out of its class.


Joplin's Kozmic Blues

Soon, Joplin and Andrew formed a new band, one with a horn section that would add a necessary element to Joplin's vocal style and song choices. The band became known as Janis Joplin and Her Kozmic Blues Band, and she took it on the road for her one and only European tour. Throughout 1969, the band played with Joplin in her appearances at major rock festivals including the Newport '69 Pop Festival, the Atlanta Pop Festival, and Woodstock.

In October 1969, Joplin released the album I Got Dem Ol' Kozmic Blues Again, Mama!, which earned gold-record status. But the band only remained together for about a year.


Going Full-tilt Toward Tragedy

In 1970, on April 4, Janis performed with Big Brother and the Holding Company for a reunion concert in San Francisco, but she was in the process of forming a new band that would be called the Full Tilt Boogie Band. The new lineup went into the studio to record Joplin's last album called Pearl, the singer's nickname adopted by her closest friends. At this point, everything seemed to be going well for Joplin. The new band demonstrated more professionalism, and Joplin herself had appeared to quit using drugs. In addition, with the new band, she felt she finally landed on a sound that best reflected her vocal style.

She was never able to completely free herself from the lure of drugs, though, or her continuing affection for alcohol, and this resulted in her sudden death from an accidental overdose in a Hollywood motel in October 1970.

According to reports, Joplin's body was found in the Landmark Hotel on October 4, 1970. Apparently, the death followed a night of drinking and drug use. The condition of her body and her state of dress generated a great deal of speculation. She was found wearing only underwear, and her body was wedged between the bed and night stand. There were fresh needle marks in her arm, her lip and nose were bloodied, and $4.50 in bills and change were clenched in one fist.

Much was also made of that fact that Joplin had created a will shortly before she died. But signing a will is typically a legal move that someone decides to make when things are going well - and, indeed, things were going well for Joplin. She appeared on the verge of greater success, she had found a set of musicians who seemed in sync with her artistic ambitions, she had bought a house, and, reportedly, she was in a healthy and loving relationship.

But the actual circumstances of her death were more sordid than sensational. The scenario that was eventually pieced together from evidence indicated that Joplin, who was staying in the motel while recording the Pearl album, had indulged in alcohol and heroin, then went out to get change for cigarettes. She arrived back in her room around one o'clock in the morning, and partially undressed she suddenly lurched forward, in a drug-and-alcohol-induced spasm, striking her face on the nightstand.

Joplin's body was found hours after she died, making it a sad and lonely death, all the more perplexing because of the affection she easily attracted both from her listening audience, fellow professionals, family and close friends. She was just 27 years old. She was cremated and her ashes were scattered off the California coast.

The Pearl album was released posthumously several months later, becoming one of the best-selling albums of 1971. It held the number-one spot on the Billboard charts for nine weeks. The single released from the album, "Me and Bobby McGee," also reached number one. But more than that song, or the equally popular "Mercedes Benz," the highpoint of the essentially unfinished album was "Cry Baby," Joplin's stunning interpretation of the soul song originally performed by Garnett Mims and the Enchanters in 1963. It provided an appropriate coda, both to a professional career waiting to realize its full potential and to a sad life of a much beloved performer.

 

 

 

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This web page was last updated on: 11 December, 2008