Between 1969 and 1971, four of the most iconic figures of 60s Rock died, all at the age of 27. These deaths signalled the end of an era when the adventurous, unconventional and experimental sides of Rock were also commercially successful as well as hugely influential on mainstream Pop. These artists were Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones, Jim Morrison of the Doors, Jimi Hendrix, and the only girl among them, Janis Joplin.
Janis Joplin was born in Port Arthur, Texas, on January 19, 1943, to Seth, an engineer at Texaco, and Dorothy, a registrar at a business college. As a teenager, she befriended a group of outcasts, one of whom had albums by blues artists Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey and Lead Belly, whom Joplin later credited with influencing her decision to become a singer. She began singing in the local choir and expanded her listening to blues singers such as Odetta, Billie Holiday and Big Mama Thornton.
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 home 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). Her first song recorded on tape, at the home of a fellow University of Texas student in December 1962, was What Good Can Drinkin' Do.
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. In 1964, Joplin and future Jefferson Airplane guitarist Jorma Kaukonen recorded a number of blues standards, which incidentally featured Margareta Kaukonen using a typewriter in the background. This session 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 was later released as the bootleg album The Typewriter Tape. Around this time, her drug use increased, and she acquired a reputation as a "speed freak" and occasional heroin user. She also used other psychoactive drugs and was a heavy drinker throughout her career. Here's Nobody Knows You When You're Down and Out:
In early 1965, Joplin's friends in San Francisco, noticing the detrimental effects on her from increased drug use, persuaded her to return to Port Arthur, Texas. 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. She even became engaged to Peter de Blanc in the fall of 1965. But the conventional life was not for her, and her desire to pursue her musical dreams wouldn't remain submerged for long.
Joplin recorded seven studio tracks in 1965. Among the songs she recorded was her original composition for her song Turtle Blues and an alternate version of Codine. Here's the latter:
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's members included James Gurley, Dave Getz, Peter Albin and Sam Andrew. Due to persistent persuading by keyboardist and close friend Stephen Ryder, Joplin avoided drug use for several weeks, enjoining bandmate Dave Getz to promise that using needles would not be allowed in their rehearsal space or in her apartment or in the homes of her bandmates whom she visited. In July, all five bandmates and guitarist James Gurley's wife Nancy moved to a house in Lagunitas, California, where they lived communally. They often partied with the Grateful Dead, who lived less than two miles away. She had a short relationship and longer friendship with founding member Ron "Pigpen" McKernan.
After playing at a "happening" in Stanford in early December 1966, the band travelled back to Los Angeles to record 10 tracks between December 12 and 14, 1966, produced by Bob Shad, which appeared on the band's debut album released in August 1967, shortly after the band's major success at the Monterey Pop Festival.
Down on Me was released as a single and was a moderate hit (it peaked at #42). It was, however, a classic recording, the unleashing of a very powerful force among us.
Bye, Bye Baby was also a great song and another single from this album:
The album was a minor success, peaking at #60. It was the next album that made it big: Cheap Thrills was a great success, hitting #1 on the charts for eight nonconsecutive weeks in 1968. It also had good to very good reviews at the time, although the retrospective reviews were more than enthusiastic. In 2003, Cheap Thrills was ranked #338 on Rolling Stone magazine's list of the 500 greatest albums of all time. 10 years later, the album was deemed "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant" by the Library of Congress and thus it was preserved into the National Recording Registry.
The Gershwin classic Summertime was present in an extraordinarily good adaptation:
Another highlight was the Berns/Ragovoy composition Piece of My Heart:
The album's closing track is Big Mama Thornton's Ball and Chain:
Her definitive version of this song, however, is the one that appeared in her Greatest Hits collection in 1973. A masterpiece:
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 the group, feeling that she was being held back professionally. She struggled with her decision to leave the band, as her bandmates had been like a family to her, but she eventually decided to part ways with them. 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 the Kozmic Blues Band. It reached gold record status within two months of its release. The reviews were mixed, however, most of the blame falling on the backing musicians, who sounded "a little stiff".
Try (Just a Little Bit Harder) was a hit - and a great song:
The Chantels' Maybe was also in this album:
The Bee Gees' To Love Somebody was another single:
Kozmic Blues was my favorite song of this album:
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.
Here's Move Over:
Here's Mercedes Benz:
Cry Baby was another Berns/Ragovoy composition:
Get It While You Can was written by Jerry Ragovoy and Mort Shuman:
It was her recording of former lover Kris Kristofferson's Me and Bobby McGee that stood out more than everything else - this ode to freedom became her only #1 single, posthumously.
Janis was a bisexual. Some of her most famous sexual liaisons, were Kris Kristofferson, Joe Namath, Jim Morrison, and, if the rumors are true, Jimi Hendrix. According to Alice Echols, author of Scars of Sweet Paradise, and Myra Friedman, author of Buried Alive, there were six other long-term partners of Joplin's. Five out of six of these names belonged to women.
Most of her sexual affairs with women happened towards the end of her life. Unfortunately, the time period discouraged her from coming out publicly. Her straight friends, some of which who were even homophobic, remember her as being very straight. In contrast, her bisexual or gay friends remember her as the exact opposite. This shows a surprising need to fit in, despite her rebellious attitudes. Multiple Janis Joplin biographers quote a very drunk Janis Joplin as saying, "I hear a rumor that somebody in San Francisco is spreading stories that I'm a d*ke. You fly up there tomorrow and tell this b*tch [that] Janis says she's gotten it on with a couple thousand cats in her life and a few hundred chicks and see what they can do with that!"
In 1973, Peggy Caserta wrote Going Down With Janis with coauthor Dann Knapp. She reveals detailed stories of her relationship with Joplin, including stories about their very active sex life. Different biographers see this relationship in all different levels of importance, from just sex partners, to a true, loving relationship. The significance has to be questioned, looking at the dates of her relationship with Caserta, and her last fiancé, Seth Morgan. Both were going on at the same time. It is unsure whether or not they knew about each other at the time, but it has been confirmed that Joplin had plans to meet with both of her significant others on the night of her death.
Another one of her long-term relationships was with Jae Whitaker. This relationship was not only same-sex, but it was also interracial. Only two months after they met in the Spring of 1963, Joplin moved in with her. This was "her most sustained relationship," even though it only lasted for two years. The two remained close friends until Joplin's death.
On Sunday, October 4, 1970, producer Paul Rothchild became concerned when Joplin failed to show up for a recording session. Road manager, John Cooke, drove to the Landmark Motor Hotel in Hollywood where Joplin was staying. Upon entering Joplin's room (#105), he found her dead on the floor beside her bed. The official cause of death was an overdose of heroin, possibly compounded by alcohol. Cooke believes that Joplin had accidentally been given heroin that was much more potent than normal, as several of her dealer's other customers also overdosed that week.
Joplin was cremated. Her will funded $2,500 to throw a wake party in the event of her demise. The party, which took place October 26, 1970, at the Lion's Share in San Anselmo, California, was attended by Joplin's sister Laura, fiancé Seth Morgan, and close friends, including tattoo artist Lyle Tuttle, Bob Gordon, Jack Penty, and road manager Cooke.
Her death stunned her fans and shocked the music world. Songs were written about her: we've listened to Leonard Cohen's Chelsea Hotel #2 before, but let's hear it again anyway.
Country Joe & the Fish gave us Janis:
The film The Rose (1979) is loosely based on Joplin's life. Originally planned to be titled Pearl, Joplin's nickname and the title of her last album, the film was fictionalized after her family declined to allow the producers the rights to her story. Bette Midler earned a nomination for the Academy Award for Best Actress for her performance in the film. Here's the title track: