Joplin, Janis Lyn

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JOPLIN, Janis Lyn

(b. 19 January 1943 in Port Arthur, Texas; d. 4 October 1970 in Hollywood, California), blues-influenced vocalist whose powerful voice and excessive lifestyle made her a legend even before her untimely death.

Joplin was the daughter of Seth Joplin, an engineer, and Dorothy East Joplin, the registrar of a business college. Encouraged from an early age to take an interest in the arts and literature, she became fascinated with the writing of F. Scott Fitzgerald and with the reckless, tragic life he shared with his wife Zelda. Though she had no musical training except a stint singing in glee club at Thomas Jefferson High School, she developed an early appreciation for blues and jazz artists, including Billie Holiday, Bessie Smith, Lead-belly, and Odetta.

Located close to the Louisiana state line, on the Gulf of Mexico about an hour due east of Houston, Port Arthur is noted for its oil refineries and its shipbuilding facilities but is not an obvious breeding ground for artists and poets. By the standards of the South in the 1950s, it was unusual for a white girl to take an interest in "black music," and although Joplin's parents were liberal, she probably exceeded their expectations for nonconformity.

Some biographers have suggested that she later exaggerated tales of her troubled experiences in school, but it is clear that Joplin's offbeat interests and shy personality tended to make her something of an outcast. On the other hand, her claim that she was never close to her family—an assertion made, no doubt, to emphasize the contrast between her lonely childhood and her wildly successful adulthood—seems to have been a fabrication.

As a teenager Joplin learned to sing the blues and to play guitar, piano, and autoharp. At that point, however, her ambition was to become a visual artist, not a singer. She drew and painted, and after graduating from high school in 1960 began taking arts classes, first at Lamar State College of Technology (now Lamar University) in nearby Beaumont and then at Port Arthur State College.

Joplin first sang professionally at the Halfway House in Beaumont in 1961. Soon thereafter she embarked on her first sojourn in a state where the most pivotal events of her later life were destined to take place: California. During that summer she lived with an aunt in Los Angeles, where she worked briefly as a keypunch operator for the Los Angeles Telephone Company. A fan of Beat poetry from her high school days, she soon gravitated to Venice Beach, home to communities of beatniks and other rebels.

Back in Texas, Joplin returned to college in Port Arthur and began making regular forays into Houston. There she discovered a small but growing beatnik scene and soon found work singing in country and western clubs such as the Purple Onion. Playing her autoharp as accompaniment, with a bluegrass band called the Waller Creek Boys backing her up, she sang a repertoire that included Lead-belly, Bessie Smith, and Jean Ritchie. Around this time she began drinking heavily and using drugs.

By 1962 Joplin had enrolled as a fine arts major at the University of Texas at Austin. Instead of living in the dormitory, she took up residence in a ramshackle apartment house nicknamed "the ghetto," which served as a nerve center for Austin's emerging counterculture scene. She also performed at Threadgills, a local bar.

Joplin, who was nearsighted and had frizzy, mouse-brown hair, a wide nose, and occasional problems with acne, was not conventionally pretty. Later, wealth and stardom would bolster her confidence immensely, and she became widely recognized as a sex symbol. As a shy and off-beat college student, however, she was an easy target for callous treatment. Thus it was that her classmates voted her "the ugliest man on campus," an incident that led to her leaving the university in 1963.

It had long been Joplin's intention to return to California, and she had saved money from her gigs in Texas for this purpose. With a friend named Chet Helms she hitchhiked to San Francisco, where she attended several different colleges while singing folk songs at local coffeehouses. Pay was low, but she also sold a few paintings and managed to find money to feed a growing amphetamine addiction. Her work as an artist brought her into contact with cartoonist Robert Crumb and others.

After a summer visit to New York's Lower East Side, during which time she began shooting up amphetamines, Joplin spent the rest of 1964 in San Francisco. Concerned about her drug habit, she contemplated the prospect of marrying and settling down and enrolled as a sociology major at Lamar State College in June 1965. Events, however, conspired to send her on a trajectory toward fame and, ultimately, tragedy.

Helms, who had become successful as a rock promoter in San Francisco, asked Joplin to take on the role of lead singer for a newly formed group called Big Brother and the Holding Company. Joplin returned to California, and in June 1966 she and the group made their debut at San Francisco's Avalon Ballroom. The band had a hard-driving rock sound, but what truly made them a local success was the singer's distinctive voice, by turns brassy and tender.

Big Brother and the Holding Company emerged on the national scene with its performances at the Monterey International Pop Festival on the weekend of 16 to 18 June 1967. Monterey was the first of the great outdoor festivals of the 1960s, a trend that culminated in 1969 with Woodstock, where Joplin also performed. Despite a distinguished lineup that included the Who, Simon and Garfunkel, and the Byrds, the Monterey festival is best remembered for the performances of Joplin and Jimi Hendrix.

On the heels of Monterey, Big Brother secured a recording contract with a small label called Mainstream, which released their debut album, Big Brother and the Holding Company, Featuring Janis Joplin (1967). Composed primarily of singles the group had already released independently in San Francisco, the album is an uneven mix of folk, psychedelia, and pop, but the band began to find its sound during extensive tours of the United States and Canada. That sound emerged on Cheap Thrills (1968), which features Joplin's sizzling "Piece of My Heart" and a sultry cover of the George Gershwin standard "Summertime."

Joplin had emerged as by far the most notable aspect of the group, and soon after the release of Cheap Thrills she opted to leave the band and sign a contract with Columbia Records. She brought together a group called the Kozmic Blues Band, which backed her on I Got Dem Ol' Kozmic Blues Again Mama (1969). Although the album contains no hit singles, it was certified a gold record, an impressive achievement in an era when platinum albums were rare. Joplin had reached the apex of her career, but her life began to spiral out of control even as her restless talent explored new creative territory. Turning to heroin, she sought to recreate in life the excesses of her stage shows, and thus began the final chapter of her career.

Disdaining the horn-laden Kozmic Blues Band's sound, Joplin formed yet another group, the Full-Tilt Boogie Band, to back her on Pearl (1970). The album's title refers to the nickname by which she was known to her closest friends, and critics widely regard it as Joplin's finest work. It contains her greatest hit, "Me and Bobby McGee," written by her sometime lover Kris Kristofferson, as well as "Get It While You Can" and "Cry Baby." Also notable is "Mercedes Benz," one of the few songs Joplin wrote herself; the song's engaging mix of humor and pathos is heightened by Joplin's a cappella performance. By contrast, the prophetically titled "Buried Alive in Blues" is an instrumental, because Joplin did not live long enough to record the vocals. After completing a recording session, she overdosed on heroin in a room at the Landmark Motor Lodge in Hollywood in October 1970. Her remains were cremated, and the ashes were scattered off the coast of California.

Joplin has often been compared with Hendrix and Jim Morrison: all emerged from the West Coast in 1967; all were creative geniuses who turned to drugs and alcohol for release; and all succumbed to the effects of their lifestyles over a ten-month period between September 1970 and July 1971. Yet Joplin's story is remarkably different in that she was a woman in a world still dominated by men. Though the 1960s produced numerous great female vocalists, none had a voice as bold and brassy as Joplin's, nor a performing style as frenzied and orgiastic.

As with Hendrix and Morrison, one cannot help wondering what Joplin might have achieved had she not wasted her talent on drugs, but Joplin herself (again like Hendrix and Morrison) maintained that the excess and artistry were intertwined. When her friends warned her that her full-on, shrieking vocal style would ruin her voice, she replied that she would rather burn out young than have a long, mediocre career. For better or worse, she got her wish; certainly nothing about Janis Joplin was mediocre.

Biographies of Joplin abound. Notable examples include books by Joplin's publicist Myra Friedman, Buried Alive: The Biography of Janis Joplin (1973), and younger sister Laura Joplin, Love, Janis (1992). Other important Joplin biographies include David Dalton, Piece of My Heart: A Portrait of Janis Joplin (1985); Ellis Amburn, Pearl: The Obsessions and Passions of Janis Joplin (1992); and Alice Echols, Scars of Sweet Paradise: The Life and Times of Janis Joplin (1999). An obituary is in the New York Times (5 Oct. 1970).

Judson Knight

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Joplin, Janis Lyn

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