Janis Joplin


Janis Joplin was born January 19th, 1943, in Port Arthur, Texas. Her father was an oil refinery worker and her mother was a registrar at a business college. Though her family was middle-class, as a teenager she showed signs of the unconventional woman she would become. She was something of a loner, and, unlike her siblings and neighbourhood peers, she listened to folk and blues music. Joplin's favourite artists included Odetta, Leadbelly, and Bessie Smith, and she was greatly influenced by them in her own vocal style. By the time she was seventeen, she had decided to become a singer, and left home.

At first, Joplin found work in country and western clubs in Houston and other Texas cities with the goal of saving enough money from her gigs for bus fare to California. She enrolled in several different colleges while singing folk songs for little money, but her attempts at continuing her education never lasted long. She also tried living in various communes, and eventually settled in San Francisco for a few years.

Ironically, Joplin went back to Texas in early 1966, right before a friend of hers, Chet Helms, became the manager of a new Rock group called "Big Brother and the Holding Company". The band needed a female vocalist, and Helms thought of Joplin. He contacted her and convinced her to return to San Francisco.

Though Joplin had not had much previous experience singing rock music, the combination of her gravely, bluesy voice with Big Brother's hard rock sound was a success. The group quickly became popular in the San Francisco area, and by the time the Monterey International Pop Festival took place in 1967 in Monterey, California, Big Brother and the Holding Company were a featured attraction, getting top billing over veterans, Booker T and the MGs and new comers, The Iron Butterfly. Joplin's performances at this festival and at Woodstock in 1969 are considered by many specialists in the music of the late 1960s to have been classic moments in the history of rock.

Big Brother's triumph at Monterey gained them a recording contract with Mainstream, a small label with whom they released their debut album, "Big Brother and the Holding Company". Joplin and the rest of the band were in demand on a national scale as they toured much of the United States and Canada. Increasingly, Joplin was the member of Big Brother who was singled out for critical acclaim; for instance, a Village Voice reviewer lauded one of her concert performances thus: "She sure projects. ...She jumps and runs and pounces, vibrating the audience with solid sound. The range of her earthy dynamic voice seems almost without limits." With critiques like that, it is not surprising that Joplin left Big Brother to go solo in 1968, soon after the group recorded their second album, "Cheap Thrills", for Columbia. From that LP, came the band's first success on the singles chart, when "Piece Of My Heart" reached number 12 in November.

The first group of musicians Joplin recruited to back up her solo career was dubbed the "Kozmic Blues Band" and with them she released her first album on Columbia, "I Got Dem Ol' Kozmic Blues Again Mama". Though it contained no overwhelmingly successful single, "Kozmic Blues" went gold, and Joplin's popularity as a concert performer continued. After a brief reappearance with Big Brother and the Holding Company in early 1970, she formed yet another back up group, "the Full-Tilt Boogie Band".

They played on what would be Joplin's last album, 1970's "Pearl", (the nickname the singer's closest friends called her). Besides her acclaimed version of Kristofferson's "Me and Bobby McGee," Pearl included cuts like "Get It While You Can" - which she considered one of her theme songs, "Cry Baby," and the humorous "Mercedes Benz," a song she composed herself.

It seemed like everything was going well for Janis Joplin, when on October 4th, 1970, her body was found in the Landmark Motor Hotel in Hollywood, California. She had died the day before from an overdose of heroin. In a strange coincidence, the building Janis died in was right across the street from where Bobby Fuller died in 1966. Janis was cremated and her ashes were scattered off the California coast.

The publicity over Joplin's rough-and-tumble, blues-mama lifestyle nearly overwhelmed the heartfelt music she made, but years after her death, she is remembered as the best white blues singer of the '60s. The commercial success that had eluded her in life, came in 1971, when "Me and Bobby McGee was awarded a Gold record.

The members of Big Brother and the Holding Company kept the band going for a while, with a succession of lead singers, but never again found the success they enjoyed with Joplin.

In 2004, Rolling Stone magazine ranked Janis Joplin number 46 on its list of the 100 Greatest Artists of All Time and number 28 on its 2008 list of 100 Greatest Singers of All Time.

On November 4th, 2013, Janis was honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. The ceremony featured a speech by music industry mogul Clive Davis and an acoustic performance by Kris Kristofferson, who sang "Me and Bobby McGee", a song he wrote that became Joplin's only number one single in 1971.

In November, 2015, Janis: Little Girl Blue, a new Janis Joplin documentary led by Oscar-nominated director Amy Berg, started a limited theatrical run, followed by airings on PBS' American Masters series.

For a behind the scenes look at Janis Joplin's life, be sure to read WSHE Radio interviews with
Big Brother's guitarist Sam Andrew and Janis' sister, Laura Joplin

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