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Janis Lyn Joplin (January 19, 1943 – October 4, 1970) was an American blues-influenced rock singer and occasional songwriter with a distinctive voice. Joplin performed on four albums recorded between 1966 and 1970—two as the lead singer of San Francisco's Big Brother and The Holding Company, and two released as a solo artist. Joplin was inducted to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1995, and received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2005.

She was ranked #41 on VH1's The 100 Greatest Artists of Rock 'n Roll in 1998, the third highest ranking for a female (only behind Aretha Franklin and Joni Mitchell) on the list. In 1999, she was ranked #3 on VH1's The 100 Greatest Women in Rock and Roll (effectively the same position). In 2004, Rolling Stone magazine ranked Joplin #46 on their list of the 100 Greatest Artists of All Time.[1]

Life and career

Early life

Janis Joplin was born at St. Mary's Hospital in Port Arthur, Texas, the daughter of Seth Ward Joplin and Dorothy Bonita East.[1] Her father was an engineer at Texaco. Janis had two younger siblings, Michael and Laura. As a teenager, she befriended a group of outcasts, including Jim Langdon and Grant Lyons, the latter of whom played her the blues for the first time. She began listening to musicians such as Leadbelly, Bessie Smith, Odetta, and Big Mama Thornton and singing in the local choir. While at Thomas Jefferson High School, she was mostly shunned. Among her high school classmates was another individual destined for stardom: future college and NFL coach Jimmy Johnson. In a 1992 Sports Illustrated profile of his career, Johnson claimed that he gave Janis the high school nickname of "beat weeds." Primarily a painter, in high school she first began singing blues and folk music with friends. Joplin graduated from high school in 1960 and attended the University of Texas at Austin, though she never obtained a degree. One persistent story is of her being nominated in a Fraternity contest "The Ugliest Man on Campus." She lived in a building commonly referred to as "The Ghetto" which was located at 2812 1/2 Nueces Street. The building has been torn down since and replaced with new apartments. The rent was $40 a month when she lived there.

Cultivating a rebellious manner that could be viewed as "liberated," Joplin styled herself in part after her female blues heroines, and in part after the Beat poets. She left Texas for San Francisco in 1963, lived in North Beach and in Haight-Ashbury as well as Corte Madera. On 25 June 1964 Janis and future Jefferson Airplane guitar player Jorma Kaukonen recorded a number of blues standards, further accompanied by Margareta Kaukonen on typewriter (as percussion instrument). These lo-fi sessions 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 were later released as the bootleg album The Typewriter Tape.

Around this time her drug use began to increase, and she acquired a reputation as a "speed freak" and occasional heroin user. She also used other psychoactive drugs. She was a heavy drinker throughout her career, and her trademark beverage was Southern Comfort.

Like many other female singers of the era, Joplin's feisty public image was at odds with her real personality. The book Love, Janis, written by her sister, has done much to further the reassessment of her life and work and reveals the private Joplin to have been a highly intelligent, articulate, shy and sensitive woman who was devoted to her family.

Big Brother and the Holding Company

Joplin again moved to San Francisco in 1966, where her bluesy vocal style saw her join Big Brother and The Holding Company, a band that was gaining some renown among the nascent hippie community in Haight-Ashbury.

She was recruited to join the group by Chet Helms, who had known her in Texas. He was at the time the manager of Big Brother, and as a promoter his Family Dog Productions company, founded in February 1966, was quickly becoming a major force in the San Francisco scene alongside Bill Graham. Janis joined the Big Brother on 4 June 1966 and her first public performance with them was at the Avalon Ballroom in San Francisco on 10 June.

On 23 August 1966 the group signed a deal with independent label Mainstream Records and they recorded an eponymously titled album in the fall of 1966. However, the lack of success of their early singles led to the album being withheld until after their subsequent success; it was eventually released in August 1967, shortly after the group's breakthrough appearance at the Monterey Pop Festival in mid-June 1967. The Big Brother set included a version of Big Mama Thornton's "Ball and Chain" and featured a barnstorming vocal by Joplin, and like Jimi Hendrix, Joplin's performance at Monterey made her an international star virtually overnight. (The D.A. Pennebaker documentary Monterey Pop captured Cass Elliot in the crowd silently mouthing "Wow, that's really heavy" during Joplin's performance.)

In November 1967 the group parted ways with Helms—who had introduced them at Monterey—and they signed with top artist manager Albert Grossman, who had become famous in his own right as the manager of Bob Dylan and Joan Baez. Up to this point, Big Brother had performed only in California (mostly in San Francisco) but they had gained national prominence with their Monterey performance. On 16 February 1968 the group began its first East Coast tour in Philadelphia, and the following day they gave their first performance in New York City at the Anderson Theater. On 7 April 1968, the last day of their east coast tour, Janis and Big Brother performed with Jimi Hendrix, Buddy Guy, Joni Mitchell, Richie Havens, Paul Butterfield and Elvin Bishop at the 'Wake for Martin Luther King Jr' concert in New York.

Their second album, Cheap Thrills, was recorded in Los Angeles between April and June 1968 and released in August, featuring cover design by noted underground cartoonist Robert Crumb. Consisting of concert and live-in-the-studio performances, it featured more raw performances and together with the Monterey performance, it made Joplin into one of the leading musical stars of the late Sixties. It also produced the band's breakthrough hit single, "Piece of My Heart." Cheap Thrills sold over one million copies in its first month of release. Live at Winterland '68, recorded at the Winterland Ballroom on April 12 and 13, 1968 shows Janis and Big Brother and the Holding Company at the height of their mutual career working through a selection of tracks from their studio albums.

The group made another eastern tour during July–August 1968, which included performances at the Columbia Records convention in Puerto Rico and the Newport Folk Festival. After returning to San Francisco for two hometown shows at the Palace of Fine Arts Festival on August 31 and September 1, Janis announced that she would be leaving Big Brother at the end of fall 1968. The group continued touring through the fall and Joplin gave her last official performance with Big Brother at a Family Dog benefit on December 1, 1968.

Solo career: Woodstock to Festival Express

After splitting from Big Brother Joplin formed a new backup group, modeled on the classic soul revue bands, named the Kozmic Blues Band, which backed her on I Got Dem Ol' Kozmic Blues Again Mama! (1969: the year she played at Woodstock). Their first public performance, which clearly signalled the group's soul connections, was at the Stax-Volt Christmas Show in Memphis, Tennessee on 21 December 1968, with The Bar-Kays, Booker T. & the M.G.'s, Albert King, Rufus Thomas and Carla Thomas, William Bell and Eddie Floyd.

The band contained a horn section and although many reviewers felt the horns competed with her voice, she toured solidly with the band across America throughout 1969. The Kozmic Blues album was released in September 1969 and the album was certified gold later that year but was a more modest success than Cheap Thrills. The group was not as well received as Big Brother and it broke up after a year; their final gig with Joplin was at Madison Square Garden in New York City on 21 December 1969.

Joplin then formed The Full Tilt Boogie Band, which was made up mostly Canadian musicians. Just prior to beginning a summer tour with her new group, she performed in a one-off reunion with Big Brother & The Holding Company at the Fillmore West in San Francisco on 4 April 1970

In late June 1970 Joplin and her new band joined the all-star Festival Express tour through Canada, performing alongside The Band, The Grateful Dead and others. However, the financial and other problems that led to the tour being cut short also resulted in the concert footage remaining unseen for more than thirty years after Joplin's death.



The cover of Joplin's posthumous album Pearl

During September 1970 Joplin and her band began recording a new album in Los Angeles with renowned producer Paul A. Rothchild, who was famous for his work with The Doors. Although Joplin died before all the tracks were fully completed, there was still enough usable material in the can to compile an LP. "Mercedes Benz" was included despite it being a "first take", and the track "Buried Alive In The Blues"—to which Joplin had been scheduled to add her vocals on the day she was found dead—was kept as an instrumental.

The result was the posthumously released Pearl (1971). It became the biggest selling album of her short career and featured her biggest hit single, the definitive version of Kris Kristofferson's "Me and Bobby McGee", as well as the wry social commentary of the a cappella "Mercedes Benz", written by Joplin and beat poet Michael McClure. In 2003, Pearl was ranked #122 on Rolling Stone magazine's list of the 500 greatest albums of all time.

Among her last public appearances were two broadcasts of The Dick Cavett Show on June 25 and August 3, 1970. On the June 25 show she announced that she would attend her ten-year high school class reunion, although she admitted that when in high school, her schoolmates "laughed me out of class, out of town and out of the state, man". She made it there, but it would be one of the last decisions of her life and it reportedly proved to be a rather unhappy experience for her.

Janis Joplin's last public performance, with the Full Tilt Boogie Band, took place on 12 August 1970 at the Harvard Stadium in Cambridge, Massachusetts.


During the fall 1970 recording sessions for the Pearl album with The Doors and Phil Ochs producer Paul A. Rothchild, Joplin was found dead at the Landmark Hotel in Hollywood on October 4, 1970, most likely due to an overdose of heroin and loneliness. She was 27. The last recordings she completed were "Mercedes Benz" and a birthday greeting for John Lennon on October 1, 1970; Lennon, whose birthday was October 9, later told Dick Cavett that her taped greeting arrived at his home after her death.

She was cremated in the Westwood Village Memorial Park Cemetery in Westwood, California, and her ashes were scattered into the Pacific Ocean. The album Pearl, released six weeks after her death, included a version of Nick Gravenites' song "Buried Alive In The Blues", which was left as an instrumental because Joplin had died before she was able to record her vocal over the backing track. Both the album and the single "Me And Bobby McGee" went to #1 in the US.


Joplin is now remembered best for her powerful, and distinctive voice — her rasping, overtone-rich sound was significantly divergent from the soft folk and jazz-influenced styles that were common among many white artists at the time. To many, she personified that period of the Sixties when the San Francisco sound, along with (then considered) outlandish dress and life style jolted the country. Many Joplin fans remember her appearance on the Dick Cavett show with an obviously delighted Dick Cavett. She is mentioned in the Louis Sachar book, "Small Steps", a sequel to the hit novel, "Holes".

Joplin's contributions to the rock idiom were long overlooked, but her importance is now becoming more widely appreciated, thanks in part to the recent release of the long-unreleased documentary film, Festival Express. Janis's vocal style, her flamboyant dress, her outspokenness and sense of humor, her liberated stance (politically and sexually) and her strident, hard-living "one of the boys" image all combined to create an entirely new kind of female persona in rock.

Not recognized by her hometown during her life, she was remembered much later. In 1988, her life and achievements were showcased and recognized in Port Arthur by the dedication of the Janis Joplin Memorial, with an original bronze, multi-image sculpture of Joplin by Douglas Clark.

Joplin followed the precedent set by her white, male counterparts in adopting the image, repertoire and performance style of African American blues and rhythm and blues artists, both male and female. Alongside Grace Slick of Jefferson Airplane, she also pioneered an entirely new range of expression for white women in the previously male-dominated world of post-Beatles rock.

Her body decoration with a wristlet and a small heart on her left breast, by the San Francisco tattoo artist Lyle Tuttle, is taken as a seminal moment in the tattoo revolution and was an early moment in the popular culture's acceptance of tattoos as art.[2] Another trademark was her flamboyant hair styles, often including colored streaks and accessories such as scarves, beads and feathers.

The 1979 film The Rose was loosely based on Joplin's life. The lead role earned Bette Midler an Academy Award nomination as Best Actress (Joplin had gone to see Midler perform several times at the Continental Baths at the Ansonia Hotel in New York City, when Midler was first starting out). In the late 1990s, a musical based on "Love, Janis," was launched, with an aim to take it to Off-Broadway. Opening there in the summer of 2001 and scheduled for only a few weeks of performances, the show won acclaim and packed houses and was held over several times, the demanding role of the singing Janis attracting rock vocalists from relative unknowns to pop stars Laura Branigan and Beth Hart. A national tour followed. Gospel According to Janis, a biographical film starring Zooey Deschanel as Joplin as currently in production and scheduled for a 2008 release.


  • Joplin was once romantically involved with Leonard Cohen who wrote the song Chelsea Hotel #2 about their relationship.
  • Joplin was romantically linked with Ron "Pigpen" McKernan from the Grateful Dead. They had performed duets together as early as 1963, and were often seen polishing off large quantities of alcohol together.
  • She once went on a blind date with conservative author and former Secretary of Education William Bennett. When asked what he and Janis did on their date, Bennett joked, "Hey, a gentleman doesn't tell."
  • Before Janis died, she had money allocated in her will for a party for her friends. After she died, her closest friends held a party, with a banner at the door that said: "Drinks are on Pearl!"
  • The last verse of Don McLean's 1971 folk-rock song American Pie is believed to be referring to Janis, when it says: "I met a girl who sang the blues, and I asked her for some happy news. She just smiled and turned away..."


  1. The Immortals: The First Fifty. Rolling Stone Issue 946. Rolling Stone.
  2. Deb Acord "Who knew: Mommy has a tattoo", Maine Sunday Telegram Nov. 19, 2006

Further reading

  • Amburn, Ellis. (1992). Pearl: The Obsessions and Passions of Janis Joplin: A Biography. NY. Warner Books. ISBN 0-446-39506-4.
  • Dalton, David (1991). "Piece of my Heart: A Portrait of Janis Joplin". NY. Da Capo Press. ISBN 0-306-80446-8.
  • Echols, Alice. (1999). Scars of Sweet Paradise: The Life and Times of Janis Joplin. NY. Henry Holt. ISBN 0-8050-5394-8.
  • Friedman, Myra. (1992). Buried Alive: The Biography of Janis Joplin. NY. Harmony Books. ISBN 0-517-58650-9.
  • Joplin, Laura. (1992). Love, Janis. NY. Villard Books. ISBN 1-888358-08-4.

External links

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