The greatest white female rock singer of the 1960s, Janis Joplin was
also a great blues singer, making her material her own with her wailing,
raspy, supercharged emotional delivery. First rising to stardom as the front
woman for San Francisco psychedelic band Big Brother & the Holding Company,
she left the group in the late '60s for a brief and uneven (though
commercially successful) career as a solo artist. Although she wasn't always
supplied with the best material or most sympathetic musicians, her best
recordings, with both Big Brother and on her own, are some of the most
exciting performances of her era. She also did much to redefine the role of
women in rock with her assertive, sexually forthright persona and raunchy,
electrifying on-stage presence.
Joplin was raised in the small town of Port Arthur, TX, and much of her subsequent personal difficulties and unhappiness has been attributed to her inability to fit in with the expectations of the conservative community. She'd been singing blues and folk music since her teens, playing on occasion in the mid-'60s with future Jefferson Airplane guitarist Jorma Kaukonen. There are a few live pre-Big Brother recordings (not issued until after her death), reflecting the inspiration of early blues singers like Bessie Smith, that demonstrate she was well on her way to developing a personal style before hooking up with the band. She had already been to California before moving there permanently in 1966, when she joined a struggling early San Francisco psychedelic group, Big Brother & the Holding Company.
Big Brother's story is told in more detail in their own entry. Although their loose, occasionally sloppy brand of bluesy psychedelia had some charm, there can be no doubt that Joplin -- who initially didn't even sing lead on all of the material -- was primarily responsible for lifting them out of the ranks of the ordinary. She made them a hit at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival, where her stunning version of "Ball and Chain" (perhaps her very best performance) was captured on film. After a debut on the Mainstream label, Big Brother signed a management deal with Albert Grossman, and moved on to Columbia. Their second album, Cheap Thrills, topped the charts in 1968, but Joplin left the band shortly afterward, enticed by the prospects of stardom as a solo act.
Joplin's first album, I Got Dem Ol' Kozmic Blues Again Mama!, was recorded with the Kozmic Blues Band, a unit that included horns, and retained just one of the musicians that had played with her in Big Brother (guitarist Sam Andrew). Although it was a hit, it wasn't her best work; the new band, though more polished musically, was not nearly as sympathetic accompanists as Big Brother, purveying a soul-rock groove that could sound forced. That's not to say it was totally unsuccessful, boasting one of her signature tunes in "Try (Just a Little Bit Harder)."
For years, Joplin's life had been a roller coaster of drug addiction, alcoholism, and volatile personal relationships, documented in several biographies. Musically, however, things were on the upswing shortly before her death, as she assembled a better, more versatile backing outfit, the Full Tilt Boogie Band, for her final album, Pearl (ably produced by Paul Rothschild). Joplin was sometimes criticized for screeching at the expense of subtlety, but Pearl was solid evidence of her growth as a mature, diverse stylist who could handle blues, soul, and folk-rock. "Mercedes Benz," "Get It While You Can," and Kris Kristofferson's "Me and Bobby McGee" are some of her very best tracks. Tragically, she died before the album's release, overdosing on heroin in a Hollywood hotel in October 1970. "Me and Bobby McGee" became a posthumous number one single in 1971, and thus the song with which she is most frequently identified. ~ Richie Unterberger, All Music Guide
Born January 19, 1943, in Port Arthur, Tex.; died October 3, 1970, in Hollywood, Calif.; father was a canning factory worker, and mother was a registrar at a business college. She attended various colleges for short periods during the 1960s.
She sang in various small clubs in Texas and California, c. 1960-66; vocalist for Big Brother and the Holding Company, 1966-68, 1970; solo recording artist and concert performer, 1968-70.
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 neighborhood peers, she listened to folk and blues music. Joplin's favorite 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 she left home.
At first Joplin found work in country and western clubs in Houston and other Texas cities. Gradually she formed the goal of saving enough money from her gigs for bus fare to California, and after a few years she accomplished this and arrived on the Pacific coast. Joplin 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 gravelly, 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. 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. As Geoffrey Stokes reported in his portion of the book Rock of Ages: The Rolling Stone History of Rock and Roll, at Monterey, "Janis Joplin walked away with an afternoon blues show."
Described as one of the most influential women singers of the late 1960s, first came to the attention of rock fans as the vocalist for Big Brother and the Holding Company. Compared to music greats like blues artist Bessie Smith and soul singer Aretha Franklin, most critics agree that she was the main reason for the group's success with songs like "Piece of My Heart" and "Summertime." Renowned for her performance at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival, and later for her solo appearance at the Woodstock festival in 1969, Joplin nevertheless failed to achieve a chart-topping single until her rendition of country composer Kris Kristofferson's "Me and Bobby McGee" was released posthumously in 1971.
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. Also, Joplin and the rest of the band were in demand on a national scale; they toured many areas of the United States and Canada, including New York City. 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.
The first group of musicians Joplin recruited to back up her solo career was dubbed the Kozmic Blues Band; 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 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.
But before Pearl could be released, what Stokes called "a drug she'd had an on-and-off affair with for most of her performing life" brought about Joplin's death. On October 4, 1970, the singer's body was found in the Landmark Motor Hotel in Hollywood, California. Joplin had died the day before from an overdose of heroin. She 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 25 years after her death she is remembered as the best white blues singer of the '60s.