Janis Lyn Joplin (January 19, 1943 – October 4, 1970) was an American blues-influenced rock singer and occasional songwriter with a distinctive voice. Joplin released four albums as the frontwoman for several bands from 1967 to a posthumous release in 1971.
Joplin was born in Port Arthur, Texas. She grew up listening to blues musicians such as Bessie Smith and Big Mama Thornton and singing in the local choir. Joplin graduated from Jefferson High School in Port Arthur in 1960 and went to college at the University of Texas in Austin, though she never completed a degree. There, she began singing blues and folk music with friends.
Cultivating a rebellious manner that could be viewed as "liberated" - the women's liberation movement was still in its infancy at this time - Joplin styled herself in part after her female blues heroines, and in part after the beat poets. She left Texas for San Francisco in 1963, lived in North Beach and in Haight-Ashbury. For a while she worked occasionally as a folk singer. Around this time her drug use began to increase, and she acquired a reputation as a "speed freak" and occasional heroin user. She also used other intoxicants. She was a heavy drinker throughout her career, and her trademark beverage was Southern Comfort.
After a return to Port Arthur to recuperate, she again moved to San Francisco in 1966, where her bluesy vocal style saw her join Big Brother and The Holding Company, a band that was gaining some renown among the nascent hippie community in Haight-Ashbury. The band signed a deal with independent Mainstream Records and recorded an eponymously titled album in 1967. However, the lack of success of their early singles led to the album being withheld until after their subsequent success.
The band's big break came with their performance at the Monterey Pop Festival, which included a version of Big Mama Thornton's "Ball and Chain" and featured a barnstorming vocal by Joplin. (The D.A. Pennebaker documentary Monterey Pop captured Cass Elliott in the crowd silently mouthing "Wow, that's really heavy" during Joplin's performance.) Their 1968 album Cheap Thrills featured more raw emotional performances and together with the Monterey performance, it made Joplin into one of the leading musical stars of the late Sixties.
After splitting from Big Brother, she formed a new backup group, modelled on the classic soul revue bands, named the Kozmic Blues Band, which backed her on I Got Dem Ol' Kozmic Blues Again Mama! 1969 (year she played at Woodstock). That group was indifferently received and soon broke up, and Joplin then formed what is arguably her best backing group, The Full Tilt Boogie Band. The result was the (posthumously released) Pearl (1971). It became the biggest selling album of her short career and featured her biggest hit single, the definitive cover version of Kris Kristofferson's "Me and Bobby McGee", as well as the wry social commentary of the a capella "Mercedes-Benz", written by beat poet Michael McClure.
Her last public appearance was on The Dick Cavett Show in 1970, where she announced that she would attend her 10-year high school reunion, although she admitted that when in high school she had been "laughed out of class, out of school, out of town, out of the state". She made it there, but it would be one of the last decisions of her life and it reportedly proved to be a rather unhappy experience for her.
Shortly thereafter, during the recording sessions for the Pearl album with Doors producer Paul A. Rothchild, Joplin died of an overdose of unusually pure heroin on October 4, 1970 in a Los Angeles, California motel room, aged only 27.
She was cremated in the Westwood Village Memorial Park Cemetery in Westwood, California, and her ashes were scattered into the Pacific Ocean. The album Pearl, released six weeks after her death, included a version of Nick Gravenites' song "Buried Alive In The Blues", which was left as an instrumental because Joplin had died before she was able to record her vocal over the backing track.
Joplin is now remembered best for her powerful, distinctive voice — her rasping, overtone-rich sound was significantly divergent from the soft folk and jazz-influenced styles that were common at the time — as well as for her lyrical themes of pain and loss.
Not everyone was enamored of Joplin, however. Although she was crowned posthumously "Queen of the Blues," neither her yowlish, screaming singing style nor her tile was ever widely appreciated or accepted by black audiences. Her designation as blues royalty also has raised vehement objections about "cultural appropriation". Joplin's fan base was and remains overwhelmingly white. Music critic Sam Graham writes of the harsh appraisal of Joplin by Peter Townsend of The Who, who said of her that she was "just an ugly, hard-drinking, screaming woman" with a band that was "just about the worst f***ing band I'd heard."
Many comparisons can be drawn with her close contemporary Jimi Hendrix, who was similarly catapulted to fame by his appearance at Monterey, had a brief, successful career, and who also died from drug-related causes within weeks of Joplin, also at the age of 27. But unlike Hendrix, whose fame continued to grow after his death, Joplin did not enjoy a significant revival of public interest until the late 1990s. In part this was due to the fact that she made a relatively small number of recordings during her career, and because she was not a prolific songwriter. By comparison, although Hendrix released only three official LPs in his lifetime, he was both a prolific songwriter and a tireless studio worker, laying down many albums' worth of material, that has continued to be released in the decades since his death.
She is also compared with another contemporary (and onetime lover) Jim Morrison, who also had a brief, successful career marked by alcoholism and drug abuse, and died of an overdose at 27.
Joplin's contributions to the rock idiom were long overlooked, but her importance is now becoming more widely appreciated, thanks in part to the recent release of the long-unreleased documentary film Festival Express, which captured her at her very best. Janis's scorching vocal style, her flamboyant dress sense, her outspokenness and sense of humour, her liberated stance and her strident, hard-living "one of the boys" image all combined to create an entirely new kind of female persona in rock.
Although there were some notable exceptions, it can be argued that, prior to Joplin, there was a tendency for solo female pop performers to be pigeonholed in to a few broadly-defined roles -- the gentle, guitar-strumming 'folkie' (e.g. Judy Collins, Joni Mitchell), the virginal 'pop goddess' (Doris Day, Rosemary Clooney) or the cool, elegantly dressed chanteuse (Dusty Springfield, Diana Ross). In her attitude, image, repertoire and performance style, Janis was pivotal in redefining what was possible for female singers in popular music.
Alongside Grace Slick of Jefferson Airplane she pioneered an entirely new range of expression for women in the previously male-dominated world of post-Beatles rock. It is also notable that, in a very short time, she transcended the role of "chick singer" fronting an all-male band, to being an internationally famous solo star in her own right.
The movie The Rose, with Bette Midler in the lead role, was loosely based on Joplin's life. There are plans for a film staring Renee Zelwegger called Piece of My Heart that is based on Joplin's life.
In terms of her visual image, Joplin is also notable as one of the few female performers of her day to regularly wear pants (or slacks), rather than skirts or dresses. Another trademark was her flamboyant hair styles, often including coloured streaks and accessories such as scarves, beads and feathers, a style strikingly at odds with the 'regulation' perms or wigs sported by most female singers of the day. It is especially remarkable that she is probably the only major female pop-rock star of the period who never wore makeup -- a stance that was very striking (and undoubtedly quite provocative) at a time when the wearing of makeup was still considered to be de rigeur for women.