Janis Joplin was an American singer-songwriter who sang blues-influenced rock. She is best known for her number one hit “Me and Bobby McGee” and was known as “The Queen of Psychedelic Soul” and the ”First Lady of Rock ‘n’ Roll.”
Joplin was born in 1943 in Port Arthur, Texas. Joplin had a tough time as a teenager, and was bullied at school for her appearance. She was able to find some solace in music. Through friends, she was introduced to blues artists Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey and Lead Belly, a discovery that inspired her to become a singer. Joplin began singing in the local choir while listening to blues singers like Odetta, Billie Holiday and Big Mama Thornton. After graduating from Thomas Jefferson High School, Joplin attended Lamar State College of Technology in Beaumont, Texas for a summer before moving on to the University of Texas in Austin. While at the University, a profile on her entitled “She Dares to be Different” ran in the campus newspaper. It began “She goes barefooted when she feels like it, wears Levis to class because they’re more comfortable, and carries her Autoharp with her everywhere she goes so that in case she gets the urge to break into song, it will be handy. Her name is Janis Joplin.”
In 1962, Joplin recorded her first song on tape “What Good Can Drinkin’ Do” and began performing at folksings, similar to open mic nights with the Waller Creek Boys. A year later, Joplin dropped out of school to move to San Francisco hoping to gain some success in the Bay Area music scene. Although she played at the 1963 Monterey Folk Festival, Joplin had few opportunities to develop her career and she moved to New York City. In New York, her drink and drug use caught up with her and in 1965 she returned to Texas to try and get herself together. She tried to ignore her urge to play music, and dressed conservatively to try and distance herself from that lifestyle.
In 1966, Joplin returned to performing and joined Big Brother and the Holiday Company, a psychedelic rock band. Joplin started out singing a few songs and playing the tambourine, but she soon ended up as lead vocalist. In 1967, Big Brother played at the Monterey Pop Festival and the group began to attract a growing fanbase. Joplin had returned to drink and drugs, and this, coupled with her sexual, raw and emotion style of performance created tension between her and the other band members. In 1968, the band released the album Cheap Thrills and this cemented Joplin as one of the leading musical stars of the late Sixties. That same year, Joplin left Big Brother and the Holding Company to play with a new backing group, the Kozmic Blues Band. In August 1969, Joplin and the band gave a historic performance at Woodstock. Joplin was drunk, but managed to give a performance that ended with demands for an encore. According to Pete Townshend from The Who, “even Janis on an off-night was incredible.” Later that year, the band released I Got Dem Ol’ Kozmic Blues Again Mama! The album reached number 5 on the Billboard 200 and was later certified gold, but critics were divided on whether or not it was a success.
In 1970, Joplin managed to briefly get clean again while in Brazil but quickly went back to heroin when she returned to the U.S. Joplin then formed a new band, the Full Tilt Boogie Band which she was able to have far more of an input with, and she claimed “It’s my band. Finally it’s my band!” In April, Joplin performed in a reunion with her former band, Big Brother at the Fillmore West in San Francisco. The recordings from the concert would be released posthumously. In
May, Joplin began touring with the Full Tilt Boogie Band and from June to July they joined the all-star Festival Express tour through Canada, performing with many others including Buddy Guy and Grateful Dead. Joplin’s performances from the tour are said to be some of her greatest. In August, she made her last public performance with the Full Tilt Boogie Band at the Harvard Stadium in Boston, with positive reviews. Joplin and the band then threw themselves into recording a new album in Los Angeles, but she died of an accidental drug overdose at the age of 27 before the record was finished.
In 1971, Pearl was released posthumously. The record contained the songs from the recording session prior to Joplin’s death and became the biggest-selling album of her career. Her most successful single was a cover of Kris Kristofferson’s “Me and Bobby McGee.” Numerous collections of her songs have been released since her death, including In Concert (1971) and Box of Pearls (1999). Despite her addiction, Joplin was able to achieve success in a male-dominated industry where it was made difficult for female singers and opened up opportunities for future women to make a career in rock music. She was hugely influential, and has been an inspiration for many singers including Stevie Nicks and has been the subject of many songs including Leonard Cohen’s “Chelsea Hotel #2”, Jerry Garcia’s “Birdsong”, The Mamas & the Papas “Pearl” and Jane Birkin’s “Ex fan des sixties” references her.
In 1995, Joplin was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and in 2005 she was honoured with a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. In 2009, the Hall of Fame and museum honoured her as part of its annual American Music Masters Series. In 2013, she was awarded a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 6752 Hollywood Boulevard, in front of Musicians Institute and a year later she was honoured with a commemorative stamp by the U.S. Postal Service as part of its Music Icons Forever Stamp series.