Janis Lyn Joplin was born January 19, 1943 and died October 4, 1970. In between she led a triumphant and tumultuous life blessed by an innate talent to convey powerful emotion through heart-stomping rock-and-roll singing. Born and raised in Port Arthur, Texas, a small Southern petroleum industry town, she gravitated to artistic interests cultivated by parents Seth and Dorothy Joplin.
Janis broke with local social traditions during the tense days of racial integration, standing up for the rights of African Americans whose segregated status in her hometown seared her youthful ideals. Along with fellow band beatnik-reading high school students, she pursued the non-traditional via arts and literature, especially music. They gravitated to folk and jazz with Janis especially taken with the blues. Discovering an inborn talent to belt the blues, Janis began copying the styles of Bessie Smith, Odetta and Leadbelly. She played the coffee houses and hootenannies of the day in the small towns of Texas. She later ventured to the beatnik haunts of Venice, North Beach and the Village in New York, eventually landing in Austin, Texas as a student at the University of Texas. Jumping into the on-the-edge lifestyle cultivated by the beats, Janis thrilled at her creativity, but almost lost herself in experiments with drugs and alcohol, especially speed.
Returning home for a year to question her life direction, she excelled at college but was never content. Music still called her to her in spite of its dangerous association with drugs. “The two aren’t wedded,” her friends counseled. When old Austin friend, Chet Helms, then in San Francisco, called to offer her a singing audition with an up-and-coming local group, Janis was tempted. She found a vital San Francisco community, turned upside down by the flower children of 1966, and was offered the singing position in a relatively obscure group called “Big Brother and the Holding Company.”
Big Brother played in the Bay area and up and down the California coast, to ever-increasing enthusiasm for their unique brand of psychedelic rock. They initially signed with Mainstream Records, a small outfit that did little promotion, but did produce an album and two singles, “Blindman” and “All Is Loneliness.” Then during the summer of 1967–the “Summer of Love”–Big Brother played a large concert, The Monterey International Pop Festival. Janis smashed through her anonymity with Big Mama Thornton’s “Ball and Chain” and the world took note.
The group was actively courted by Albert Grossman, one of the most powerful entertainment managers of the day. Through his representation, they signed a three-record recording contract with Columbia Records, who bought out Mainstream’s rights. Their “Cheap Thrills” album was released in August, 1968 and soon went gold, presenting the hits “Piece of My heart” and “Summertime.” The band was playing to large audiences, for big fees, and the billing now read “Janis Joplin with Big Brother and the Holding Company.” The pressure mounted, income rose and hippie rockers indulged themselves with their new ability to use high-priced drugs. Drugs began affecting their performing and work relationships and in Christmas of 1968, the group played its last gig together.
Janis formed a new group, oriented more toward blues and released a new album “I Got Dem ‘Ol Kozmic Blues Again, Mama” in September of 1969. In the U.S., mixed reviews greeted the new sound but in Europe the group was welcomed with loudly enthusiastic praise. Still the anything-goes lifestyle grew with greater use of drug and alcohol to both increase the artistic creativity and to handle the tensions of coming down. Finally recognizing the problems in her life, Janis quit her drug use. She formed a third band, called Full Tilt Boogie Band, which evolved more professional popular sound. Janis felt she’d finally found her unique style of white blues. She was never happier with her new music. While recording her next album “Pearl,” she chanced into using heroin again. Obtaining a dose more pure than usual, she accidentally overdosed in a motel in Los Angeles at the age of 27. Her third album was released posthumously to wide acclaim, launching the popular songs “Me and Bobby McGee” and Mercedes Benz.”
Janis’s albums have gone gold, platinum, and triple-platinum. Her “Greatest Hits” album still tops the charts in Billboard. Several new releases have followed her death, with wide acclaim for her boxed set, “Janis.” She was the subject of a 1973 feature documentary, “Janis,” and numerous TV documentaries, the most notable being VH-1′s Legends program. She is currently the subject of two hotly contested biographical movie projects.