Janis Joplin Biography

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19 January 1943, Port Arthur, Texas, USA, d. 4 October 1970, Hollywood, California, USA. Having made her performing debut in December 1961, this expressive singer subsequently enjoyed a tenure at Houston’s Purple Onion club. Drawing inspiration from Bessie Smith and Odetta, Joplin developed a brash, uncompromising vocal style quite unlike accustomed folk Madonnas Joan Baez and Judy Collins. The following year she joined the Waller Creek Boys, an Austin-based act that also featured Powell St. John, later of Mother Earth. In 1963 Janis moved to San Francisco where she became a regular attraction at the North Beach Coffee Gallery. This initial spell was blighted by her addiction to amphetamines and in 1965 Joplin returned to Texas in an effort to dry out. She resumed her university studies, but on recovery turned again to singing. The following year Janis was invited back to the Bay Area to front Big Brother And The Holding Company. This exceptional improvisational blues act was the ideal foil to her full-throated technique and although marred by poor production, their debut album effectively captures an early optimism.

Joplin’s reputation blossomed following the Monterey Pop Festival, of which she was one of the star attractions. The attendant publicity exacerbated growing tensions within the line-up as critics openly declared that the group was holding the singer’s potential in check. Cheap Thrills, a joyous celebration of true psychedelic soul, contained two Joplin ‘standards’, ‘Piece Of My Heart’ and ‘Ball And Chain’, but the sessions were fraught with difficulties and Joplin left the group in November 1968. Electric Flag members Mike Bloomfield, Harvey Brooks and Nick Gravenites helped assemble a new act, initially known as Janis And The Joplinaires, but later as the Kozmic Blues Band. Former Big Brother Sam Andrew (guitar, vocals), plus Terry Clements (saxophone), Marcus Doubleday (trumpet), Bill King (organ), Brad Campbell (bass) and Roy Markowitz (drums) made up the band’s initial line-up which was then bedevilled by defections. A disastrous debut concert at the Stax Records convention in December 1968 was a portent of future problems, but although I Got Dem Ol’ Kozmic Blues Again Mama was coolly received, the set nonetheless contained several excellent Joplin vocals, notably ‘Try’, ‘Maybe’ and ‘Little Girl Blue’. However, live shows grew increasingly erratic as her addiction to drugs and alcohol deepened. When a restructured Kozmic Blues Band, also referred to as the Main Squeeze, proved equally uncomfortable, the singer dissolved the band altogether, and undertook medical advice. A slimmed-down group, the Full Tilt Boogie Band, was unveiled in May 1970. Brad Campbell and latecomer John Till (guitar) were retained from the previous group, while the induction of Richard Bell (piano), Ken Pearson (organ) and Clark Pierson (drums) created a tighter, more intimate sound. In July they toured Canada with the Grateful Dead, before commencing work on a ‘debut’ album. The sessions were all but complete when, on 4 October 1970, Joplin died of a heroin overdose at her Hollywood hotel.

The posthumous Pearl was thus charged with poignancy, yet it remains her most consistent work. Her love of ‘uptown soul’ is confirmed by the inclusion of three Jerry Ragovoy compositions - ‘My Baby’, ‘Cry Baby’ and ‘Get It While You Can’ - while ‘Trust Me’ and ‘A Woman Left Lonely’ show an empathy with its southern counterpart. The highlight, however, is Kris Kristofferson’s ‘Me And Bobby McGee’, which allowed Joplin to be both vulnerable and assertive. The song deservedly topped the US chart when issued as a single and despite numerous interpretations, this remains the definitive version. Although a star at the time of her passing, Janis Joplin has not been accorded the retrospective acclaim afforded other deceased contemporaries. She was, like her idol Otis Redding, latterly regarded as one-dimensional, lacking in subtlety or nuance. Yet her impassioned approach was precisely her attraction - Joplin knew few boundaries, artistic or personal - and her sadly brief catalogue is marked by bare-nerved honesty.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.

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