Janis Joplin - Biography
When Janis Joplin's heroin habit got the better of her in 1970, she was arguably at the peak of her powers, and had only just begun to perfect the white blues style of singing that was wholly her own. The former social outcast was now a chart-topping, thrillingly explosive singer with a voice that was bluesy and raw, and as arresting as her stage presence. After jumping ship from Big Brother & the Holding Company, the band that helped her become a star, Joplin embarked on a short-lived solo career that had its share of peaks and low points. As the old story goes, Joplin's growing success was paralleled by an increased availability of drugs, which claimed her life before the release of one of her landmark albums, Pearl, cutting short a career that was bound to become even more significant and revered.
Janis Joplin was born on January 19th, 1943 in Port Arthur, Texas, where she would be raised. Early on, her parents noticed in their daughter an intense desire for attention, one that wasn't easily satiated. Janis couldn't help feeling like an outcast even as a young girl, and she soon began hanging out with a group of people who felt the same way about themselves. These new friends turned her on to the music that would influence her career, playing her albums by Bessie Smith and Delta Blues singers. In high school, Joplin painted and read, dealing with the loneliness of unpopularity that had a great deal to do with her appearance; she was rather pudgy and her skin was badly broken out. After high school, Joplin briefly attended the Lamar State College of Technology before switching to the University of Texas.
Joplin started to seriously consider a singing career, taking off for San Francisco and playing with Jorma Kaukonen, who would later become the guitarist for Jefferson Airplane. Her drug use had been increasing over the years, and while in California, it got out of control. Aside from her fondness for Southern Comfort, Joplin used speed and heroin on occasion. Her amphetamine habit became so bad that she lost a remarkable amount of weight, which became of great concern to the friends around her. They helped pay for her bus ride home in 1965. Joplin tried to live a clean, conventional life back in Port Arthur, staying away from drugs and going back to school. She did continue to sing however, eventually getting a call from her old friend, Chet Helms, who suggested she come back to San Francisco for an audition with an obscure psychedelic group called Big Brother & the Holding Company.
Joplin wasn't even the lead singer of Big Brother when she first hooked up with the band, and they were not quick to welcome her in as an official member. But the often sloppy blues musicians are indebted to Joplin for pulling them out of obscurity, just as she is indebted to them for recognizing her talent. Eventually, they realized that her singing/screeching style could set them apart from other Bay Area psychedelic bands, and they decided to make her a focal point of the group. Big Brother played all around California, where their audience was constantly growing. It wasn't until they were invited to play a particular life-changing event that their audience would include the rest of the country.
At the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival, Joplin's importance to Big Brother was on full display. The singer made them one of the most talked-about bands on the bill with her rendition of “Ball and Chain,” which stands as one of her best and most remembered performances. Big Brother's set that day led to copious offers from major labels, but the band had already signed to a much smaller imprint called Mainstream. It was a label whose devotion to its artists was a bit on the weak side; after recording some songs in a Chicago studio, label head Bob Shad declined to pay the band's airfare back to Frisco.
Big Brother debuted on Mainstream Records with Big Brother & the Holding Company in 1967. Recorded in three days in December of the previous year, the album, though not a masterpiece, does contain some great cuts, including original compositions by Joplin. The LP would later be reissued by Columbia with two of the session's best songs, “Coo Coo” and the Joplin original “The Last Time,” which were missing from the first pressings. Big Brother were able to shake free of their Mainstream contract when they were signed by manager Albert Grossman (the same man who managed the Band, Bob Dylan, and Peter, Paul & Mary), who then got them a deal with Columbia.
While Columbia Records' legal team were hard at work figuring out a way to free the band from their Mainstream contract and sign them, anticipation for Big Brother's next album was swelling to a fever pitch. Because all of the excitement was essentially based on one earth-shaking live performance at Monterey, the band were understandably nervous about coming up with material that would live up to the expectations. Once the contract was signed, Columbia tried recording the band live during a tour, but the recordings did not stack up to the energy they displayed at the Monterey Pop Festival. Eventually, the band was back in the studio, and instead of taking three days, they took three months this time to come away with a finished LP. Making the album proved to be an overwhelming task for producer John Simon, who found the band so unprofessional and difficult that he withdrew his production credit from the final product. When Cheap Thrills (Columbia) finally arrived in August of 1968, however, the struggle was made worthwhile. The album leaped to the number one position, spawned the top 40 hit “Another Piece of My Heart” (one of Joplin's most well-known recordings) and reached gold status in a matter of months. Joplin didn't stick around long to enjoy the success. She wanted stardom that was all her own, and so she left the band to become a solo artist while Cheap Thrills was still reveling in its chart success.
While Joplin would not benefit from the decision as much as she'd anticipated, Big Brother's career would be all but finished. They went on to make several stabs at success with different singers, releasing three more albums for Columbia in the early 70's that went mostly unnoticed despite containing some worthwhile material.
The first Joplin solo album was I Got Dem Ol' Kosmic Blues Again Mama! (1969, Columbia). She recorded it with the Kosmic Blues Band, an ensemble that included the guitarist from Big Brother, Sam Andrew. The album was a hit, but also a disappointment, given that Joplin had sacrificed a lot of the blues singing she'd come to be associated with in favor of a more soul-based sound. Probably to the fault of her new band, the recordings weren't as authentic-sounding as the charming sloppiness of Big Brother.
Joplin assembled a brand new group for what would be her last album. Working with the Full Tilt Boogie Band and producer Paul Rothchild, Joplin turned out a remarkable set of songs that scored on the charts and with critics. Some detractors, however, accused Joplin of screaming where so much emotion was unnecessary. Nevertheless, some of her best performances are on Pearl, including the passionate, a capella “Mercedes Benz.” “Get it While You Can” shows Joplin's band in fine form while she turns in a classic vocal performance where singing turns to shrieking and back in a matter of seconds. An excellent cover of Kris Kristofferson's “Me & Bobby McGee” was so good it would come to be more closely associated with Joplin than with the man who did it first.
Sadly, Joplin did not make it to the album's release day. Although she had effectively kicked her heroin addiction prior to recording Pearl, she fell back into the habit and succumbed to an overdose in a Hollywood hotel on October 4th, 1970. One song off the album, “Buried Alive in the Blues”, was left without any vocals. Pearl was posthumously released in February of 1971 on Columbia. It went to number one on the pop album charts and number 13 on the R&B charts. “Me & Bobby McGee” went to number one in 1971 while “Cry Baby” nearly broke the top 40.
Production of the much-talked about Janis Joplin biopic has been delayed for years, with different actresses being slated for the role at different times, and revision after revision of the script slowing things down considerably. It's a testament to the admiration Joplin inspires that the subject of her life is being so carefully considered, but perhaps the greatest tribute to the singer would be if the project was abandoned completely. The filmmakers might have to concede that Joplin's work, her voice, the way she moved on a stage, are simply impossible to duplicate on a screen.