Janis Joplin

From Citizendium
Jump to navigation Jump to search
This article is developing and not approved.
Main Article
Related Articles  [?]
Bibliography  [?]
External Links  [?]
Citable Version  [?]
Discography [?]
This editable Main Article is under development and subject to a disclaimer.
Janis Joplin in 1970.

Janis Lyn Joplin (19th January, 1943 - 4 October, 1970) was an American blues-influenced rock singer and occasional songwriter with a distinctive, raspy voice. She is widely considered to be the greatest female rock singer of the 1960's.[1] Joplin performed on four albums recorded between 1966 and 1970 -- two as the lead singer of San Francisco's Big Brother and The Holding Company, and two released as a solo artist.

Joplin was inducted to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1995, and received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2005. In 2004, Rolling Stone magazine ranked Joplin #46 on their list of the 100 Greatest Artists of All Time.[2]

Life and career

Early life

Janis Joplin was born at St. Mary's Hospital in Port Arthur, Texas, on January 19th the daughter of Seth Ward Joplin and Dorothy Bonita East.[3] Her father was an engineer at Texaco. Janis had two younger siblings, Michael and Laura. As a teenager, she befriended a group of outcasts, including Jim Langdon and Grant Lyons, the latter of whom played her the blues for the first time. She began singing in the local choir and listening to musicians such as Leadbelly, Bessie Smith, Odetta, and Big Mama Thornton. While at Thomas Jefferson High School, she was mostly shunned. Among her high school classmates was another individual destined for stardom: future college and NFL coach Jimmy Johnson. In a 1992 Sports Illustrated profile of his career, Johnson claimed that he gave Janis the high school nickname of "beat weeds." Primarily a painter, in high school she first began singing blues and folk music with friends. Joplin graduated from high school in 1960 and attended the University of Texas at Austin, though she never obtained a degree. She lived in a building commonly referred to as "The Ghetto" which was located at 2812 1/2 Nueces Street. The building has since been torn down and replaced with new apartments. The rent was $40 a month when she lived there.

Cultivating a rebellious manner that could be viewed as "liberated," Joplin styled herself in part after her female blues heroines, and in part after the Beat poets. She left Texas for San Francisco, California in 1963, lived in North Beach and in Haight-Ashbury as well as Corte Madera. In Haight-Ashbury Joplin lived in the same building as the chess master Jude Acers. On 25 June 1964 Janis and future Jefferson Airplane guitar player Jorma Kaukonen recorded a number of blues standards, further accompanied by Margareta Kaukonen on typewriter (as percussion instrument). These lo-fi sessions included seven tracks: "Typewriter Talk," "Trouble In Mind," "Kansas City Blues," "Hesitation Blues," "Nobody Knows You When You're Down And Out," "Daddy, Daddy, Daddy" and "Long Black Train Blues," and were later released as the bootleg album The Typewriter Tape. Some more early recordings are found on the album collection Janis, among other her own titles "What Good Can Drinkin' Do", "Mary Jane" and "No Reason For Livin'".

Around this time period, Joplin's drug use increased, attaining the reputation as a "speak freak". Along her career she also used heroin, alcohol (her trademark beverage was Southern Comfort), and other psychoactive drugs.

The book Love, Janis, written by her sister Laura, has done much to further the reassessment of her life and work and reveals the private Joplin. The biography was later turned into a musical.

Big Brother and The Holding Company

In 1966, her bluesy vocal style saw her join Big Brother and The Holding Company, a band that was gaining some renown among the nascent hippie community in Haight-Ashbury.

She was recruited to join the group by Chet Helms, who had known her in Texas. He was at the time the manager of Big Brother, and as a promoter his Family Dog Productions company was quickly becoming a major force in the San Francisco scene alongside Bill Graham. Janis joined the Big Brother on 4 June 1966[4] and her first public performance with them was at the Avalon Ballroom in San Francisco on 10 June.

On 23 August 1966[5] the group signed a deal with independent label Mainstream Records and they recorded an eponymously titled album in the fall of 1966. However, the lack of success of their early singles led to the album being withheld until after their subsequent success; it was eventually released in August 1967, shortly after the group's breakthrough appearance at the Monterey Pop Festival in mid-June 1967. The Big Brother set included a version of Big Mama Thornton's "Ball and Chain" and featured a barnstorming vocal by Joplin. Like Jimi Hendrix, Joplin's performance at Monterey made her an international star virtually overnight. (The D.A. Pennebaker documentary Monterey Pop captured Cass Elliot in the crowd silently mouthing "Wow, that's really heavy" during Joplin's performance.)

In November 1967 the group parted ways with Helms -- who had introduced them at Monterey -- and they signed with top artist manager Albert Grossman, who had become famous in his own right as the manager of Bob Dylan and Joan Baez. Up to this point, Big Brother had performed only in California (mostly in San Francisco) but they had gained national prominence with their Monterey performance. On 16 February 1968[6] the group began its first East Coast tour in Philadelphia, and the following day they gave their first performance in New York City at the Anderson Theater. On 7 April 1968, the last day of their east coast tour, Janis and Big Brother performed with Jimi Hendrix, Buddy Guy, Joni Mitchell, Richie Havens, Paul Butterfield and Elvin Bishop at the 'Wake for Martin Luther King Jr' concert in New York.

Their second album, Cheap Thrills, was recorded in Los Angeles between April and June 1968 and released in August, featuring cover design by noted underground cartoonist Robert Crumb. Consisting of concert and live-in-the-studio performances, it featured more raw performances and together with the Monterey performance, it made Joplin into one of the leading musical stars of the late Sixties. It also produced the band's breakthrough hit single, "Piece of My Heart." Cheap Thrills sold over one million copies in its first month of release. Live at Winterland '68, recorded at the Winterland Ballroom on April 12 and 13, 1968 shows Janis and Big Brother and the Holding Company at the height of their mutual career working through a selection of tracks from their studio albums.

The group made another eastern tour during July-August 1968, which included performances at the Columbia Records convention in Puerto Rico and the Newport Folk Festival. After returning to San Francisco for two hometown shows at the Palace of Fine Arts Festival on August 31 and September 1, Janis announced that she would be leaving Big Brother at the end of fall 1968. The group continued touring through the fall and Joplin gave her last official performance with Big Brother at a Family Dog benefit on 1 December 1968.

Solo career: Woodstock to Festival Express

After splitting from Big Brother Joplin formed a new backup group, modeled on the classic soul revue bands, named the Kozmic Blues Band, which backed her on I Got Dem Ol' Kozmic Blues Again Mama! (1969: the year she played at Woodstock). Their first public performance, which clearly signalled the group's soul connections, was at the Stax-Volt Christmas Show in Memphis, Tennessee on 21 December 1968, with The Bar-Kays, Booker T. & the M.G.'s, Albert King, Rufus Thomas and Carla Thomas, William Bell and Eddie Floyd.

The band contained a horn section and although many reviewers felt the horns competed with her voice, she toured solidly with the band across America throughout 1969. The Kozmic Blues album was released in September of 1969 and the album was certified gold later that year but was a more modest success than Cheap Thrills. The group was not as well received as Big Brother and it broke up after a year; their final gig with Joplin was at Madison Square Garden in New York City on 21 December 1969.

Joplin then formed The Full Tilt Boogie Band, which was made up mostly of Canadian musicians. Just prior to beginning a summer tour with her new group, she performed in a one-off reunion with Big Brother & The Holding Company at the Fillmore West in San Francisco on 4 April 1970.[7]

In late June 1970, Joplin and her new band joined the all-star Festival Express tour through Canada, performing alongside The Band, The Grateful Dead and others. However, the financial and other problems that led to the tour being cut short also resulted in the concert footage remaining unseen until more than thirty years after Joplin's death.


During September 1970 Joplin and her band began recording a new album in Los Angeles with renowned producer Paul A. Rothchild, who was famous for his work with The Doors. Although Joplin died before all the tracks were fully completed, there was still enough usable material in the can to compile an LP. "Mercedes Benz" was included despite it being a "first take", and the track "Buried Alive In The Blues" -- to which Joplin had been scheduled to add her vocals on the day she was found dead -- was kept as an instrumental.

The result was the posthumously released Pearl (1971). It became the biggest selling album of her short career and featured her biggest hit single, the definitive version of Kris Kristofferson's "Me and Bobby McGee" (which she learned from Arlo Guthrie), as well as the wry social commentary of the a cappella "Mercedes Benz", written by Joplin, close friend and song writer Bob Neuwirth and beat poet Michael McClure. In 2003, Pearl was ranked #122 on Rolling Stone magazine's list of the 500 greatest albums of all time.

Among her last public appearances were two broadcasts of The Dick Cavett Show on June 25 and August 3, 1970. On the June 25 show she announced that she would attend her ten-year high school class reunion, although she admitted that when in high school, her schoolmates "laughed me out of class, out of town and out of the state, man". She made it there accompanied by fellow musician and friend Bob Neuwirth, but it would be one of the last decisions of her life and it reportedly proved to be a rather unhappy experience for her.

Janis Joplin's last public performance, with the Full Tilt Boogie Band, took place on 12 August 1970 at the Harvard Stadium in Boston, Massachusetts.


On October 4, 1970, in Los Angeles, Joplin was found dead at the Hollywood Landmark Hodel (later renamed to The Highland Gardens Hotel), during recording sessions for the Pearl album with with The Doors and Phil Ochs producer Paul A. Rothchild. She was 27 years old then, and the reason of death was reportedly heroin overdose. Allegedly, Joplin bought and used heroin as a consolation when her boyfriend Seth did not arrive for a scheduled date, but the inexperienced seller made the drug too pure that it killed her and some others.

The last recordings Janis completed were "Mercedes Benz" and a birthday greeting for John Lennon on October 1, 1970; Lennon, whose birthday was October 9, later told Dick Cavett that her taped greeting arrived at his home after her death. When what was to be the last session for her upcoming album - laying down vocals for the Nick Gravenites' song "Buried Alive In The Blues", producer Paul Rothchild became concerned. Traveling to The Landmark, he saw Joplin's psychedelic Porsche still in the parking lot. Upon entering her room, he found Janis dead on the floor. After injecting the heroin the night before, she had gone down to the hotel lobby, received change to buy cigarettes from a vending machine and returned to her room. While getting undressed, the overdose overwhelmed her. She fell next to the bed, breaking her nose against the nightstand, her change still clenched in her hand.

She was cremated in the Westwood Village Memorial Park Cemetery in Westwood, California, and her ashes were scattered into the Pacific Ocean and along Stinson Beach. Her final album Pearl was released six weeks after her death in 1971 and received critical and commercial acclaim. Both the album and the single "Me And Bobby McGee" went to #1 in the US and stayed there for weeks.


Joplin is now remembered best for her powerful, and distinctive voice — her rasping, overtone-rich sound was significantly divergent from the soft folk and jazz-influenced styles that were common among many white artists at the time. To many, she personified that period of the Sixties when the San Francisco sound, along with (then considered) outlandish dress and life style jolted the country. Many Joplin fans remember her appearance on the Dick Cavett show with an obviously delighted Dick Cavett.

Joplin's contributions to the rock idiom were long overlooked, but her importance is now becoming more widely appreciated, thanks in part to the recent release of the long-unreleased documentary film, Festival Express. Janis's vocal style, her flamboyant dress, her outspokenness and sense of humour, her liberated stance (politically and sexually) and her strident, hard-living image all combined to create an entirely new kind of female persona in rock and challenged prescriptive gender stereotypes.

Not recognized by her hometown during her life, she was remembered much later. In 1988, her life and achievements were showcased and recognized in Port Arthur, Texas by the dedication of the Janis Joplin Memorial, with an original bronze, multi-image sculpture of Joplin by Douglas Clark.

Joplin followed the precedent set by her white male counterparts in adopting the image, repertoire and performance style of black blues and rhythm and blues artists, both male and female. Alongside Grace Slick of Jefferson Airplane, she also pioneered an entirely new range of expression for white women in the previously male-dominated world of post-Beatles rock.

Her body decoration included a wristlet and a small heart on her left breast. The tattoo was made by Lyle Tuttle, a tattoo artist from San Francisco. This work was regarded to be instrumental in the "tattoo revolution" and helped the increase of popular acceptance of tattoos as a form of art.[8] Joplin's flamboyant hairstyles, often ornamented with colored streaks and accessories such as scarves, beads, and feathers, were another one of trademarks.

The 1979 film The Rose was allegedly based on Joplin's life. The odd choice for the lead role was Bette Midler and earned Midler an Academy Award nomination as Best Actress. In the late 1990s, a musical based on "Love, Janis," was launched, with an aim to take it to Off-Broadway. Opening there in the summer of 2001 and scheduled for only a few weeks of performances, the show won acclaim and packed houses and was held over several times, the demanding role of the singing Janis attracting rock vocalists from relative unknowns to pop stars Laura Branigan and Beth Hart. A national tour followed. Gospel According to Janis, a biographical film starring Zooey Deschanel as Joplin as currently in production and scheduled for a 2008 release.


  • Joplin was romantically linked with Ron "Pigpen" McKernan from the Grateful Dead. They had performed duets together as early as 1963, and were often seen polishing off large quantities of alcohol together.
  • Drove a porsche with a Psychedelic color scheme on it
  • She once went on a blind date with conservative author and former Secretary of Education William Bennett. When asked what he and Janis did on their date, Bennett joked, "Hey, a gentleman doesn't tell."
  • Before Janis died, she had money allocated in her will for a party for her friends. After she died, her closest friends held a party, with a banner at the door that said: "Drinks are on Pearl!"
  • The last verse of Don McLean's 1971 folk-rock song "American Pie" is believed to be referring to Janis, when it says: "I met a girl who sang the blues, and I asked her for some happy news. She just smiled and turned away..."
  • The Mamas and Papas wrote a song about Janis Joplin entitled "Pearl," and released it as part of their 1971 album, People Like Us.
  • Joplin's premature death is the subject of Dory Previn's song "A Stone for Bessie Smith", which appears on Previn's 1971 album Mythical Kings and Iguanas. The lyric sheet of this record refers to a televised conversation between Joplin and actress Gloria Swanson.
  • "Birdsong" by Jerry Garcia / Robert Hunter, which appeared on Garcia's eponymous 1972 studio album, was written about Janis Joplin.
  • "Hollywood", a track on Jay-Z's album Kingdom Come, includes the line "Heroin's following Marilyn hopping over the edge. It's like Janis Joplin, River Phoenix, Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Morrison all them ended by Hollywood".
  • Rap artist Lil' Wayne used a sample from Joplin's "I Feel Like Dying," to record the song "I Feel Like I'm Dying".
  • After seeing Joplin perform at the Montery Pop Festival in 1968, Columbia Records Chief Clive Davis approached her to ask about a record deal. She agreed to sign only if he would sleep with her.


Some content on this page may previously have appeared on Wikipedia.


  1. Janis Joplin Vh1 Biography.
  2. The Immortals: The First Fifty. Rolling Stone Issue 946. Rolling Stone.
  3. Famous Folks Genealogy: Janis Joplin
  4. [1]
  5. [2]
  6. [3]
  7. [4]
  8. Deb Acord "Who knew: Mommy has a tattoo", Maine Sunday Telegram Nov. 19, 2006