Rock revisited Legendary success can be a pricey affair

Singer Janis Joplin was perhaps the premier blues-influenced singer of the ’60s, and certainly one of the biggest female stars of her time. Even before her death, her tough blues-mama image only barely covered her vulnerability. The publicity concerning her sex life and problems with alcohol and drugs made her something of a legend. In recent years, periodic attempts to recast her life and works within the context of feminism have met with mixed results, and of her deceased contemporaries (Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, et al), she is perhaps the least well known to younger audiences.

Born into a comfortable middle-class family, Joplin was a loner by her early teens, developing a taste for blues and folk music; soon she retreated into poetry and painting. She ran away from home at age 17 and began singing in clubs in Houston and Austin, Texas, to earn money to finance a trip to California.

By 1965, she was singing folk and blues in bars in San Francisco and Venice, California; had dropped out of several colleges; and was drawing unemployment checks. She returned to Austin in 1966 to sing in a country and western band, but within a few months a friend of San Francisco impresario Chet Helms told her about a new band, Big Brother and the Holding Company, which needed a singer in San Francisco. She returned to California and joined Big Brother.

Joplin toured constantly and made television appearances as a guest with Dick Cavett, Tom Jones, and Ed Sullivan. Finally the Kozmic Blues LP appeared, with gutsy blues-rock tracks like Try (Just a Little Bit Harder). During this time she became increasingly involved with alcohol and drugs, eventually succumbing to heroin addiction.

Yet her life seemed to be taking a turn for the better with the recording of Pearl. She was engaged to be married soon and was pleased with the Full Tilt Boogie Band she’d formed for the Pearl album (Pearl was her nickname). On October 4, 1970, her body was found in her room at Hollywood’s Landmark Hotel, Face-down with fresh puncture marks in her arm. The death was ruled an accidental heroin overdose.

The posthumous Pearl LP (#1, 1971) yielded her #1 hit version of former lover Kris Kristofferson’s Me and Bobby McGee and was released with one track, Buried Alive in the Blues, missing the vocals Joplin didn’t live to complete. Several more posthumous collections have been released, as well as the 1974 documentary Janis.