janis lyn joplin. born january 19, 1943. died october 3, 1970. with a life spanning only twenty-seven
years and a career producing only four studio albums, it is amazing that janis joplin rose to the
echelons of rock divadom, but that is exactly what she did. like a sloe gin river traveling down a rock
'n' roll riverbed, janis joplin's voice sparked a furor of critical acclaim that has yet to subside, almost thirty years after her death.
raised in port arthur, texas, the daughter of a canning factory worker and a business college registrar, janis endured ridicule and austricization at the hands of her peers. overweight and afflicted with severe acne, janis took refuge in music, like so many other divas-to-be. odetta, leadbelly and bessie smith spoke to her soul and, after graduating from thomas jefferson high school, janis left home to become a singer. a nomadic college career began at lamar state college before leading her through los angeles and back to texas. while attending school, janis sang at local bars and nightclubs, earning barely enough money to support herself and making acquaintances within the local music scene. it was one of these acquaintances that would eventually launch ms. joplin's career.
shortly after moving to austin to attend the university of texas, janis received a call from chet helms of san francisco's avalon ballroom. helms was managing big brother & the holding company, a san francisco band that had grown out of the haight/ashbury music scene. like jefferson airplane, big brother & the holding company had decided it was time to get a female lead singer. helms had heard janis perform at coffee houses a few years prior and contacted her, in hopes that she would audition for the group. in 1966, janis hitchhiked out to san francisco and auditioned for the band in the deserted fire station that they were using as a rehearsal hall.
janis' debut performance with big brother & the holding company ocurred in january of 1966, at berkeley's open-air theater. a hit with fans, the group became the official house band of the avalon ballroom, making a name for themselves all over the bay area. as word-of-mouth spread about janis' performances÷which combined the baudy sexualities of mae west and ma rainey with janis' own gavely blues voice÷the group's popularity rose and they were invited to perform an extended engagement at mother blues, in chicago. the band's chicago performances lead to a record deal with mainstream records and their self-titled debut recording was released in 1967.
later that year, the group performed at the monterey pop festival, further establishing them as an up-and-coming rock/blues band. their success at this performance produced a bidding war by record labels, the likes of which had never before been witnessed. the winning bid, submitted by columbia records, was so high that the label is still too embarrassed to disclose the exact amount. while a hit, the group's first columbia album, cheap thrills, failed to live up to many people's expectations. overabundant hype, coupled with recording technology's inability to capture the raw sexuality exposed in joplin's live performances, caused cheap thrills (which janis reportedly wanted to title dope, sex and cheap thrills) to be an anticlimax. in fact, in spite of the recording's domination of the charts for several weeks, the album's producer refused to be credited and joplin began looking for musicians to form a new band. "i guess i was disappointed," janis admitted, "they just don't help the words; they either fight them or just lay there like a dead fish." "i want a bigger band," she confessed to life magazine, in 1968, "with higher highs; a bigger ladder. and i want more bottom. i want an incredible amount of bottom. i want more noise. when i do a rock tune, i want it to be huge."
janis' dreams of "more noise" took the form of the kozmic blues band, to which big brother member sam andrews followed her. with this group, joplin released the 1969 album i got dem ol' kozmic blues again mama, which contained one of her trademark numbers "try just a little bit harder". burdened, still, by feelings of inadequacy regarding her looks, and troubled by rumors of lesbianism, janis threw herself into a life of reckless abandon. excesses of drugs and alcohol had spanned her career, punctuated with visits to rehab clinics contrived to keep at bay both concerned friends and fans. with the release of kozmic blues, though, janis seemed to be on the road to recovery. five months sober, there was talk of plans to marry seth morgan and janis had already began recording a new album, pearl, with the recently-formed full-tilt boogie band. but janis was still deeply troubled. "if it doesn't get any better, "janis reportedly told long-time friend kris kristofferson, "i'm gonna go back on junk."
on october 4, 1970, janis joplin was found dead in her landmark hotel room, in hollywood, california. the coroner declared her overdose "accidental", but there is at least one person÷longtime friend and biographer, myra friedman÷who thinks there is more to it than that. "her death was an accident in only the most marginal use of that term," friedman states. joplin was cremated and her ashes were scattered along california's coastline. pearl was released posthumously, as was the 1982 album, farewell song. because she struggled to overcome a youth plagued with pain, because she exuded a raucous stength, and because, with her voice, she built a bridge between rock and blues, janis lyn joplin lives on in the mind of music fans as a true diva.