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Having one of the most powerful, bluesy singing voices ever to come out of a woman, Janis Joplin not only left a legacy of her timeless, electrifying performances, but she also helped pave the way for future female rock and roll front women.
Janis Joplin knew at a young age that she wanted to be a singer. She began by singing in her hometown church choir as a child and made her way to stardom on a not-so-easy, short-lived path.
Fans remember her as having a strong, ballsy and infectious personality, appearing to be an unstoppable force. Her personal life revealed a much darker and sadder existence. Joplin was a victim of bullying, something of which we are only now beginning to understand the effects on individuals.
As a child, she was thought of as talented and popular, but that all changed with puberty, when she developed acne and gained weight. She was viciously taunted by her schoolmates, often called "pig."
Joplin spent her teenage years rebelling, dressing differently than other girls, typically wearing men's shirts with either tights or short skirts. She found it easier to make friends with boys who shared her love of blues and jazz and her interest in the culture of the Beat Generation. They would drive across the border to Louisiana at night and visit the bars. She had a reputation for drinking, swearing and being sexually promiscuous, though the latter wasn’t true, at least until years later.
In her late teens, she began performing at campus folk-sings and at local bars in Austin while attending the University of Texas. She played an autoharp and sang with a bluegrass group, the Waller Creek Boys. Her influences were Leadbelly, Bessie Smith, Odetta, and Big Mama Thornton.
Even in college, she could not escape the cruelty of classmates. As a joke, a fraternity nominated her as the “ugliest man on campus.” That and her subsequent winning of the title hurt her deeply. It is believed to have been the reason she never finished college.
In 1963, she hitchhiked to San Francisco with an acquaintance from Austin, Chet Helms. There, she mostly sang in bars and coffeehouses making what little money she could by passing the hat. Her drinking became excessive and her drug use, an already common factor in her life, increased.
By 1965, she tried to have herself committed at a San Francisco hospital, but was not successful. She returned to Port Arthur, Texas, and attempted to lead a reformed, conservative life. But she soon realized that was not the life she wanted and it didn’t last for long.
In 1966, Helms sent word for her to return to San Francisco to try out as lead singer for a band he was currently managing, Big Brother and the Holding Company, a psychedelic band whose name was fashioned while playing a game of Monopoly. Joplin got the job and, at first, was mainly in the background, only singing a few songs and playing tambourine. But in June 1967, at the Monterey International Pop Festival, Janis Joplin became known to the world with her performance of “Ball and Chain,” a Big Mama Thornton song covered on Big Brother’s completed, unreleased at the time, debut album.
You can see Cass Elliot of The Mamas and the Papas in this video looking totally dumbfounded at what she is hearing. The rest of the world reacted likewise.
Joplin’s mind-numbing performance at Monterey Pop not only gained notice for the band - their previously withheld self-titled album was released, Albert Grossman signed on as manager, and Columbia Records bought out Mainstream Records’ contract and signed them - but it also caused friction to develop between Joplin and the band, as she was obviously the bigger draw.
A second album by the band, now known as Janis Joplin and Big Brother and the Holding Company, Cheap Thrills, was released in 1968 to mixed reviews but tremendous album sales. The album went gold before it was even released.
Tension within the band increased and in December of 1968, Joplin left Big Brother and the Holding Company and embarked on a solo career.
Joplin toured and released her next album with a band of performers that included one of the original Big Brother musicians and an added horn section. They would end up being called the Kozmic Blues Band, the name taken from the one album released with Joplin, I Got Dem Ol’ Kozmic Blues Again Mama!, but not until after they disbanded. This album also went gold, but no Top 10 releases came from it. However, one of Joplin’s signature songs did, Try, which was performed at the famed Woodstock Music and Art Festival in August 1969.
In 1970, Kozmic Blues disbanded and Janis went to Brazil to try to “get off drugs and dry out.”
She pulled together a new group, the Full Tilt Boogie Band, toured the U.S. and Canada and then began recording sessions for a new album in September of 1970. The album, called Pearl, a nickname Joplin had earned, would be her best yet, but unfortunately she didn’t live to see it released. She died of an accidental heroin overdose in October of 1970 at 27 years old.
Her producer, Paul Rothchild, completed the album, leaving one last song as an instrumental, as Janis was scheduled to record the lyrics the day after her death. The album was released in 1971. It held the No. 1 spot on the Billboard 200 for nine weeks and has been certified quadruple platinum.
It generated a No. 1 hit in her cover of Kris Kristofferson’s “Me and Bobby McGee,” and eventual uncharted hits in the Joplin penned “Move Over” and co-penned “Mercedes Benz,” and the famously covered "Cry Baby."
Janis Joplin was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1995 and recognized with a Lifetime Achievement Award at the 2005 Grammys. The "wild woman of blues" eventually got all she had wanted out of life: love and acceptance.
Image courtesy of Twitpic