Blues legend Janis Lyn Joplin was born on January 19th 1943, the eldest child of parents Seth and Dorothy Joplin. Janis was born and raised in the small Southern petroleum industry town of Port Arthur, Texas. Her father was a canning factory worker, her mother a registrar at a local business college. Her non-abberational upbringing coupled with the atmosphere of Port Arthur at the time; generally restrictive, intolerant, and unnurturing must’ve made even Janis’ early childhood difficult. By all accounts, however, Janis seems to have been a “normal” and happy child, who fitted society’s usual definition of “pretty”. It was in Janis’ adolescence that the hang-ups and hassles that were to affect the path of the rest of her life. In a sense, her rigid upbringing played a large part in making Janis who she was. This would never have been admitted at the time, but, predictably, the “Port Arthur” ethic created a fire inside Janis (the fire which later made her so famous) and kept it burning until her death.
Janis’ troubles began, when, as a teenager, her “good looks” gradually began to disintegrate, her soft blonde hair turned into an unruly brown mane. She also developed severe acne, which would scar her mentally as well as physically. Hence, Janis became something of a loner, an “ugly duckling”- somebody who no longer fitted society’s absurd notion of “pretty.” She soon began avoiding mirrors, and her anxiety about her looks was made worse by the constant taunts by peers, who rejected her and often made fun of her. When Janis found that society had rejected her, she simply rejected it.
Janis raised on classical music and omnipresent country music back in Texas, discovered the blues of Louisiana. Janis was soon inspired to both learn and appreciate music, and its roots- her idols included Odettea, Leadbelly and Bessie Smith, who would have great influence on her subsequent musical career, especially her vocal style. By the time Janis graduated from Thomas Jefferson High School in 1960, she had already decided she wanted to be a singer, and left home.
At first, Janis found work in the country and western clubs of Texas, also singing folk songs for very little money. Her ultimate goal in doing this was to raise enough money for a bus fare to California. She played the folk circuit around Austin for a short while, then left for San Francisco.
In the summer of 1965, Janis returned home to Port Authur for a year to question her life direction. Drugged-up and burned-out, she attempted, unsuccessfully, to conform to a “straight” lifestyle.
Then, ironically, a fed-up Janis headed back to Austin, where she had previously experienced such hostility, and stayed there for a further seven months before she was on the move again this time to San Francisco, where the next, and most important, chapter of her life was to begin.
By 1967, Janis had joined Big Brother and the Holding Company and hit the big time, or at least, had established a healthy following locally. Albert Grossman, arguably the most influential and important entertainment manager of the era, showcased them. Thanks to him, they secured a three-record deal with Colombia Records.
The band played at Bill Graham’s Fillmore Auditorium, and, famously, at the Monterey Pop Festival, California, where Janis gave a legendary performance.
A year later, Big Brother released their first album- “Cheap Thrills” (the original title: “Sex, Dope and Cheap Thrills,” having been vetoed by censors). As a result of the album, the group was now playing even larger audiences for bigger fees. Concert flyers read: “Big Brother and The Holding Company with Janis Joplin.” Increasingly, it was Janis who was singled out for critical acclaim. It was her powerful vocals on the extracted tracks “Summertime” and “Piece Of My Heart” that propelled the album to the top end of the charts. What is more, every Janis shriek and growl was painstakingly recorded with utmost precision.
However, as the pressure on the hippie rockers began mounting, and they began using stronger, more expensive drugs, the relentless hedonism began to affect their working relationship. It was evident in Janis’ performances. She began scratching her head excessively- a side effect of excessive heroin use- and, in December of 1968, she left Big Brother in pursuit of a solo career.
By now, Janis was a national celebrity, with an established reputation and critics everywhere raving about her performances. Of course, her established reputation didn’t stop at her exceptional music…. She was very much a typical rock star hedonist, using drugs and drinking excessively. Southern Comfort was her particular favorite that has been contributed to her raspy whisky voice.
Janis decided against going solo and instead joined another band entitled the Kozmic Blues Band. She appeared with them at the great Woodstock festival, and they released one album together: “I Got Dem Ol’ Kozmic Blues Again, Mama”, released in September 1969, which, although it showed the maturity of her sound, received mixed reviews. Rolling Stone, in particular, slated the album. It was a somewhat different sound from Big Brother, with more emphasis on R;B than previously.
In 1970, while recording her first album with the Full Tilt Boogie Band (entitled “Pearl” after a nickname given to her by her closest friends), Janis chanced into using heroin once again. Ironically, it was the workaholic side of Janis that landed her with her heroin habit. Unbelievably, despite the obvious negative effects, she believed that the drug made her feel fresh for rehearsals and performances- the two things that added the most pressure to her life. Like any heroin user, she was deluding herself. The slippery slope had begun….
On Saturday October 4th 1970, Janis Joplin was staying at the Landmark Hotel in Los Angeles, California. She had almost finished recording the album “Pearl” with the Full Tilt Boogie Band and, that evening, she injected some heroin to help her to relax amid the recording sessions that were taking place. She also used Southern Comfort, to the extent that, if she were not actually an alcoholic at that time, she was very close to it indeed.
Janis had bought the heroin from her usual, “reliable” dealer, named George. George, being a “nice” drug dealer, routinely had a local chemist come to check out his stash before he sold it onto the streets, to ensure it was cut adequately as to avoid fatalities.
However, that night, of all nights, the chemist was not in town. Hence, the heroin Janis purchased would have been approximately 4 to 10 times stronger than normal, and she died. The last person to speak to Janis before her death was quite probably the man off whom she purchased a packet of cigarettes.
The truth is, no one will really ever know the exact reasons why, having been so determined to kick her heroin habit, Janis Joplin reverted to the drug that had shown her mercy on so many occasions but ultimately killed her.
What can definitely assumed is that Janis is a legend, who will never be forgotten. Just like the old blues singers whom she idolized, Janis will remain firmly etched into the memory of all those who were there during her time at Rock’s Pantheon. This memory has also been passed down to a whole new generation, who are at last appreciating records by an artist who could sing without state-of-the-art technology. Today, Janis’ albums have gone gold, platinum and triple platinum. Her Greatest Hits Album still tops the charts on the American Billboard, and numerous compilation albums have been released since her death, including the box-set “Janis”. She has been the subject of a feature documentary “Janis” (1973), more recently VH1s “Legends”, and a film of her life is currently under discussion.
Three decades on and still, few other women could’ve earned the nickname “Pearl” so well.