Dead People You Should Know: Janis Joplin

            Janis Joplin was born on January 19, 1943, in Port Arthur, Texas. She started to love music at an early age. However, her career did not start until she joined the band Big Brother and the Holding Company in 1966. The band’s 1968 album, Cheap Thrills, was a huge hit, but soon after, she parted ways with the band and became a solo artist. Joplin is known for her powerful, blues-inspired vocals. She died in 1970 of an accidental drug overdose.

Early Life

            As a child, Joplin sang in her church choir, which helped show some promise as a performer. Joplin was a good student and was popular until around the age of 14, when she hit puberty she got acne and gained weight. While in high school, Joplin began to rebel against the girls fashions of the later 1950s. She often chose to wear men’s shirts and tights, or short skirts. She liked to stand out from the crowd, which just made it easier for people to tease her. People called her a “pig” and some even thought she was sexually promiscuous.

            Joplin’s early musical interests is what helped pave the way for the type of music she made. She gravitated toward blues and jazz, she admired artists such as Lead Belly, Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey and Odetta, an early leading figure in the folk music movement. By her senior year of high school, Joplin developed the reputation of being a tough-talking girl who liked to drink and be outrageous. After graduating she enrolled at Lamar State College of Technology in the neighboring town if Beaumont, Texas. She left Lamar after the first semester, and then attended Port Arthur College. Then in the summer of 1961, she moved to Los Angeles to break away, but it was not a success and Joplin returned to Port Arthur.

The Beginning of her Career

            In the summer of 1962, Joplin fled to the University of Texas at Austin, where she studied art. While in Austin, she began performing at Folksings, casual musical gatherings where anyone can perform, on campus and at Threadgill’s with the Waller Creek Boys. Joplin amazed many audience members with her forceful, gutsy singing style. She was not like any of the other white female singers at the time. She had a forceful voice while they had more a gentle sound. 

            In January 1963, Joplin ditched school to check out the emerging music scene in San Francisco. As she tried to make it as a singer in the Bay Area she struggled, and it proved unsuccessful just like the last time she tried it out west. At the 1963 Monterey Folk Festival she played a side stage gig, sadly her career did not gain much traction. Joplin then spent time in New York City where she was trying to get her career off the ground. However, her drinking and drug use got in the way; she was using drugs and drinking regularly.

            In 1965, she left San Francisco and returned home in an effort to get herself together. Back in Texas, Joplin took a break from her music and her partying lifestyle. She dressed conservatively; she put her long, often messy hair into a bun and tried to seem straight-laced. But that type of lifestyle was not at all for her, she could not act conventional. Her desire to pursue her musical dreams did not remain submerged for very long.

            In May of 1966, she was recruited by friend Travis Rivers to audition got a new psychedelic rock band based in San Francisco, Big Brother and the Holding Company. The group was managed by Chet Helms, which was another longtime friend of Joplin’s. The band members of Big Brother included James Gurley, Dave Getz, Peter Albin and Sam Andrew. They were part of the 1960s burgeoning San Francisco scene. Among them were the Grateful Dead.

            Joplin was quickly offered the membership into the group. She began only singing a few songs and played the tambourine in the background. However, it was not long until Joplin assumed a bigger role in the band. Big Brother’s appearance at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival brought the group further into their career. Joplin was the main focus of the group due to her heroin, amphetamines and bourbon induced vocals that were an unrestrained sexual style and raw, gutsy sound that mesmerized audiences. This caused some tension between Joplin and her bandmates.

            After hearing Joplin at Monterey, Columbia Records President Clive David wanted to sign the band. Their first album, Cheap Thrills (1968), was a huge hit; it quickly became a certified gold record. Songs like “Piece of My Heart” and “Summertime” were the biggest hits on the album. This caused even more problems between Joplin and the band’s other members because they were hard  songs to create. Cheap Thrills help Joplin’s reputation as a unique, dynamic, bluesy rock singer.

Solo Career

            Joplin struggled with her decision to leave big Brother, as her and her bandmates were like family. But she decided to part ways with the group and played for the last time with them in December 1968. After her historic performance at Woodstock (August 1969), Joplin released her first solo effort, “I Got Dem Ol’ Kozmic Blues Again Mama!” in September 1969, with the Kozmic Blues Band. The song received mixed reviews, with some media criticizing her personally. She felt uniquely pressured to prove herself as a female artist, this caused distress for her. In her, interview with Howard Smith, she said, “That was a hard time for me. It was really important, you know, whether people were going to accept me or not.”

            That interview would be Joplin’s last one; it took place on September 30, 1970, four days before her death. Joplin appeared to be struggling with alcohol and drugs, including her addiction to heroin. Her next album would be her most successful, but, tragically, also her last. She recorded Pearl with the Dull Tilt Boogie Band. She also wrote two of its songs, the powerful, rocking “Move Over” and Mercedes Benz,” a gospel- styled send up of consumerism.

Her Death and Legacy

            Following the long struggle with substance abuse, Janis Joplin died from an accidental heroin overdose on October 4, 1970. Even after her death Janis Joplin’s songs continue to attract new fans and inspire performers. In recognition of her significant accomplishments, Joplin was rightly inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1995. She was also honored with a Recording Academy Lifetime Achievement Award at the Grammy Awards in 2005.

            Joplin was nicknamed the “the first lady of rock n’ roll”, and she has been subject to several books and documentaries. They include Love, Janis (1992), written by her sister Laura Joplin. The book was then adapted into a play of the same title. Amy Berg’s documentary, Janis: Little Girl Blue, premiered at the Toronto Film Festival in September 2015.

Cites Used: 

"Janis Joplin." October 07, 2015. Accessed March 31, 2017.

10th Grade at Wellsboro Area High School

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