Janis Joplin was perhaps the premier blues-influenced rock singer of the late Sixties, and certainly one of the biggest female rock stars of her time. Even before her death, her tough blues-mama image only barely covered her vulnerability. The publicity concerning Joplin’s sex life and problems with alcohol and drugs made her something of a legend. In recent years, periodic attempts to recast her life and work within the context of feminism have met with mixed results. Sadly, Joplin was one of three major Sixties rock stars (the others being Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison) to die at the beginning of the 1970s.
Born into a comfortable middle-class family, Joplin was a loner by her early teens, developing a taste for blues and folk music; soon she retreated into poetry and painting. She ran away from home at age 17 and began singing in clubs in Houston and Austin, Texas, to earn money to finance a trip to California. By 1965, she was singing folk and blues in bars in San Francisco and Venice, California; had dropped out of several colleges; and was drawing unemployment checks. She returned to Austin in 1966 to sing in a country & western band, but within a few months a friend of San Francisco impresario Chet Helms told her about a new band, Big Brother and the Holding Company, which needed a singer in San Francisco. She returned to California and joined the band.
Joplin and Big Brother mesmerized the audience at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival; Bob Dylan manager Albert Grossman agreed to work with the group, and Joplin was on her way to becoming a superstar. After a fairly successful first album in 1967 with Big Brother, Columbia Records signed the unit, and Cheap Thrills, with the hit single “Piece of My Heart” (Number 12, 1968), became a gold Number One album. Within a year Joplin had overshadowed her backing band, and she left Big Brother (though she appears, uncredited, on a few tracks on the group’s 1971 Be a Brother), taking only guitarist Sam Andrew with her to form the Kozmic Blues Band.
Joplin toured constantly and made television appearances as a guest with Dick Cavett, Tom Jones, and Ed Sullivan. After I Got Dem Ol’ Kozmic Blues Again Mama! appeared, with gutsy R&B-flavored rock tracks like “Try (Just a Little Bit Harder),” Joplin became increasingly involved with alcohol and drugs, eventually succumbing to heroin addiction. Yet her life seemed to be taking a turn for the better with the recording of Pearl with the Full Tilt Boogie Band. She was engaged to be married and was pleased with her new album Pearl (her nickname). On October 4, 1970, her body was found in her room at Hollywood’s Landmark Hotel, face down with fresh puncture marks in her arm. The death was ruled an accidental heroin overdose.
The posthumous Pearl (Number One, 1971) yielded her Number One hit version of former lover Kris Kristofferson’s “Me and Bobby McGee” and was released with one track, “Buried Alive in the Blues,” missing the vocals Joplin didn’t live to complete. Several more posthumous collections were released including the live compilation In Concert (Number Four, 1972), as well as the 1974 documentary Janis, whose soundtrack the following year reached Number 54. The 1979 film The Rose, starring Bette Midler, was a thinly veiled account of Joplin’s career.
She has since been the subject of several biographies, including Love, Janis, penned in 1992 by her therapist sister, Laura, and Alice Echols’ 1999 work, Scars of Sweet Paradise. Joplin’s former residence in San Francisco’s Haight district was converted into a drug rehab center in 1999. In 2001, the musical play Love, Janis, inspired by Laura Joplin’s work, opened to packed houses and critical acclaim, eventually going national.
A film based on her life, Gospel According to Janis, starring Zooey Deschanel, is scheduled for release in 2010. Joplin was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1995; she received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2005.