Considered by many the best white female rock/blues singer of all time, Janis Joplin’s career was a short wild ride. Born and raised in the conservative town of Port Arthur, Texas, Janis was an outcast. Too wild and totally different then her peers in high school, she was mainly shunned by them. But she had a special, very powerful voice even at an early age and therefore decided to become a singer.
Her first regular gig was at the Purple Onion Club in Houston. She sang both the blues and folk music, but her vocal style was like no others even then. Word slowly spread about her. That next year she joined her first group, Waller Creek Boys, an Austin based act that also featured Powell St. John, later of Mother Earth. In 1963 Janis made her first move to San Francisco where she became a regular attraction at the North Beach Coffee Gallery. She became addicted to amphetamines and in 1965 decided to return to Texas in an effort to clean up. She decided that she would quit the business and settle down. She even got engaged and went back to school. After her recovery from pills, her fiancée suddenly left her and she again got the yearning to perform live. She moved back to San Francisco in 1966 and never looked back again.
Shortly after her return to the Bay area, Janis joined the band Big Brother And The Holding Company. The band, a psychedelic guitar band featured Joplin on lead vocals, and had four other members; Sam Andrew and James Gurley on guitar, Peter Albin on bass and David Getz on drums. At first Andrew also handled some of the lead vocals but it didn’t take long to see that Joplin was the band’s main kick and attraction. Their first self titled album was released on a minor label in 1967, but the sessions were too rushed and the production was poor. The album did contained a few powerful songs, including “Down on Me” and “Bye Bye Baby”, that when played live would sound so much better. It was at the Monterey Pop Festival where Janis made a name for Big Brother, but perhaps more so for herself. She blew the crowd away with her performance. Her stunning version of “Ball and Chain” was captured on film.
To say a star was born there was an understatement. But there were tensions within the band even before Monterey, and the fact that it was really only Janis that everyone wanted, did not play well with the rest of the band’s members. Their second album, Cheap Thrills, topped the charts in 1968, with the acid rock single “Piece Of My Heart” also a big hit. But Joplin quit the band shortly after its release, enticed by the prospects of stardom as a solo act.
Joplin’s first solo album was recorded with a band assembled just for her called The Kozmic Blues Band and included big Brothers’ lead guitar player Sam Andrew and also a horns section. “I Got Dem Ol’ Kozmic Blues Again Mama!” sold well after its release and included one of her signature songs in “Try (Just A Little Bit Harder)”. But some fans did not care for the switch to soul-rock and again, like on the first Big Brother album, many of the songs sounded better live and many felt something was missing in the album’s production. The Kozmic Blues Band would not last too much longer.
In her personal life Janis was struggling. She became addicted to heroin while in Big Brother and would use the drug on and off from there on out. She also had a problem with alcohol and was known for drinking copious amounts of Southern Comfort daily. As far as the lifestyle of rock ‘n rollers goes – being known for sex and drugs, Janis was one of the first to live by that rule and seemed to embrace it. But deep down she wasn’t too happy. Those who knew her have said that even when she was at the height of her fame, she still spoke of her dream. Her dream was of finding the right man, settling down and raising a family in a small house far away from the madness of show business. Sadly that day would never come for her.
In early 1970 while off of the heroin, she formed a new backing band. The Full Tilt Boogie Band was a slimmed-down group compared to the Kozmic Blues Band. It featured John Till on guitar, Brad Campbell on bass, Richard Bell on piano, Ken Pearson on organ and Clark Pierson on the drums. This band was tight and just what Joplin needed. Finally the perfect fit for her music. They toured first with the Grateful Dead when she had a relationship of sorts with that band’s unofficial leader Ron “Pigpen” McKernan. Then they went to worked on their debut album. With Paul A. Rothschild producing, the sessions went great and Joplin’s voice was as strong as ever. Songs recorded included “Me And Bobby McGree”, “Cry Baby”, “Move Over” and “Half Moon”. On October 4 they were to record the final track for the album, “Buried Alive In The Blues” but Janis didn’t show for the session. She was found in her hotel room, dead, from a heroin overdose. The band recorded the track without her and it showed up on the album as an instrumental. Pearl was released posthumously that following December and was perhaps her best album. “Me And Bobby McGree” which Kris Kristofferson wrote for Janis to sing (but not about her), was a number one hit single in early 1971. The song starts out as a country rock number but ends as a almost upbeat pop tune. It would turn out to be the song most people would remember her by.
No other white woman sang the way Janis sang. She had one of the most powerful voices ever heard and to think how short her career and life was, is still today so very sad. I can’t help but think of all of the great music from Janis Joplin we never got to hear.
Born: January 19, 1943 in Port Arthur, TX, USA
Died: October 4, 1970 in Los Angeles, CA, USA
Years Performed: December, 1961 to October, 1970