Born: January 19, 1943 in Port Arthur TX
Died: October 4, 1970 in Hollywood CA
Her star shone brightly and burned out quickly, but singer Janis Joplin brought the blues back to rock 'n' roll in a big way. Inspired by blueswomen of the 1920s and '30s, Joplin was a raw singer that poured her emotional pain into nearly every song. Although her career was brief and resulted in only a handful of albums, her dynamic vocal style, larger-than-life personality, and smoldering sexuality created a mystique that appeals to a large audience four decades after her death, resulting in a steady flow of books, albums, and even movies.
From Texas To San Francisco
Born and raised in the small, conservative Texas oil town of Port Arthur, Janis Lyn Joplin had troubles fitting in from the very beginning. She began singing as part of the church choir, but after friends turned her on to recordings by blues artists like Bessie Smith and Leadbelly, the teenaged Joplin found solace in their music. An overweight teen with an artistic bent that was often taunted and ridiculed by classmates in high school, Joplin painted and sung folk and blues songs with friends.
After graduating high school, Joplin attended college in Beaumont, and later Austin, Texas, dropping out before getting a degree. At the age of 20, she moved to San Francisco, California where she eventually landed in the bohemian Haight-Ashbury district. Modeling herself on her blues heroes, she began drinking and using both amphetamines and heroin. In 1964, Joplin recorded a number of blues standards with future Jefferson Airplane guitarist Jorma Kaukonen, a performance that would later be released as the bootleg album The Typewriter Tape.
Big Brother & the Holding Company
Alarmed by her rapid weight loss, the result of drug and alcohol abuse, Joplin's friends convinced her to return home to Texas, even going so far as to raise bus fare. Back in Port Arthur, Joplin cleaned up, changed her lifestyle and re-enrolled in college at Lamar University in nearby Beaumont, Texas. She would travel to Austin to perform solo, but destiny had other plans for the singer. Joplin had come to the attention of San Francisco's Big Brother & the Holding Company, a psychedelic blues-rock band managed by Chet Helms, a promoter and acquaintance of Joplin's from Texas.
Helms convinced Joplin to return to San Francisco in 1966 and join Big Brother as the band's singer. The band began to make a name for itself, playing shows up and down the coast, from Vancouver to L.A.. They recorded their debut album, Big Brother & the Holding Company for Mainstream Records, but it would subsequently be released by Columbia Records due to the influence of their new manager, Albert Grossman. A performance at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival, with Joplin blasting out Big Mama Thornton's "Ball and Chain," would be featured in the Monterey Pop film, bringing Joplin and Big Brother national acclaim.
Big Brother released its blues-rock landmark Cheap Thrills in 1968. Sporting a nifty cover by underground cartoonist Robert Crumb, the album would yield a #1 hit with "Piece of My Heart," the album selling over a million copies in its first month. Several high profile gigs would follow, including the 1968 Newport Folk Festival. At the end of the year, though, Joplin announced that she was leaving the band to pursue a solo career.
Joplin immediately formed the Kozmic Blues Band, her new backing band heavily influenced by the Memphis soul and R&B of Stax Records. Pursuing a sound that was less psychedelic blues-rock and leaning more towards a funkier soul groove, Joplin's I Got Dem Ol' Kozmic Blues Again Mama! was released in 1969 to mixed reviews. Still, the album went Gold, selling more than a half-million copies on the strength of the hit single "Try (Just A Little Bit Harder)." The band toured the U.S. and Europe, culminating in a disastrous drug-addled performance at the Woodstock Festival in August. The band broke up at the end of 1969.
Joplin had begun abusing drugs and alcohol again while still with Big Brother in San Francisco, which had affected her Woodstock performance. An early February 1970 trip to Brazil with friends allowed her to abstain from her abuse and achieve some balance. Upon returning to the states, Joplin formed the Full Tilt Boogie Band from a group of young Canadian musicians. Joplin would also reunite for several shows with Big Brother, and would enter the studio in September 1970 to begin recording the album that would become Pearl with the Full Tilt band.
Returning to her self-destructive habits, Joplin would suffer a heroin overdose while recording tracks for Pearl, the Nick Gravenites song "Buried Alive In The Blues" remaining unfinished on the album. Fueled by the chart success of her recording of Kris Kristofferson's "Me and Bobby McGee," the posthumously-released Pearl would become the best-selling album of Joplin's career. Joplin's In Concert, which included performances with both Big Brother and the Full Tilt band, would be released in 1972, followed by a glut of archive-clearing compilation and "greatest hits" albums.
Recommended Albums: There aren't many to choose from, so start out with Big Brother's Cheap Thrills, grab up a copy of Pearl, and finish up with In Concert to experience Joplin's world-weary vocals in a live setting. Live At Winterland '68 is a fine document of a Big Brother performance with Joplin, but pass by The Woodstock Experience, which pairs I Got Dem Ol' Kozmic Blues Again Mama! with ten songs from Joplin's uncertain Woodstock performance.
Janis Joplin – Select Discography
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- Big Brother & the Holding Company+ (Columbia Records, 1967)
- Cheap Thrills+ (Columbia Records, 1968)
- I Got Dem Ol' Kozmic Blues Again Mama! (Columbia Records, 1969)
- Pearl (Columbia Records, 1971)
- In Concert (Columbia Records, 1972)
- Janis (Columbia Records, 1975)
- Live At Winterland '68 (Legacy Recordings, 1998)
- The Woodstock Experience (Legacy Recordings, 2009)
+ with Big Brother & the Holding Company