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November 2 2019
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Janis Joplin, three years before her death, in 1970.

Janis Joplin, who died at 27, was not a victim. She was a cultural outlaw who knew the risks of the chances she took—from hitchhiking to San Francisco at 20 to shooting heroin at 24. A hardworking musician, she strove to be the best singer in rock, no matter the cost. Her all-consuming passion for music prevented her from marrying and settling down to the “white picket fence” existence she secretly craved. These are among the truths I discovered over the four-plus years I researched and wrote the biography Janis: Her Life and Music.

Joplin in San Francisco, 1963.

Onstage and in interviews, Janis projected the persona of psychedelic-blues mama who just let go and let the music take her over. Her seismic performances certainly looked that way. But she was actually a serious student of the blues who sought hard-to-find 78s while a teenager in segregated Port Arthur, Texas. Her education included Lead Belly, Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey, and Big Mama Thornton—touchstones she discovered as a rare female crate-digger in the late 50s and early 60s.

By 1963, when Janis first tried to make it as a singer in Bay Area coffeehouses, her woodshedding with the blues 78s paid off. She stunned listeners with impassioned, heart-stopping vocals. Jerry Garcia’s then bandmate David Nelson recalled seeing her in those days: “She got up onstage and started singing this jug-band song, and me and Garcia were ‘Wow!’ It had so much power—just fucking incredible. I thought, ‘Here’s somebody who got into this obscure kind of music and adopted the style’—but then I realized, ‘She’s not adopted it, she is it.’”

Part of the Job

Living the blues singer’s life, for Janis, included heavy drinking and shooting speed, which exacted a toll; after almost three years, an 88-pound Joplin returned to Texas. She remained sober for a year while playing guitar, writing songs, and singing in Houston and Austin clubs—until the call came to return to San Francisco to become lead singer of Haight-Ashbury “freak rockers” Big Brother and the Holding Company.

Joplin performs at the Newport Folk Festival, 1968.

Having never performed with drums and electric guitars, Janis quickly developed a new style, working day after day to add a banshee wail to her vocal repertoire. She also re-invented herself—no more Beatnik blues singer sitting on a stool and belting; she twirled and whirled with erotic intent. She compared singing with “when you’re first touching somebody. Chills, things slipping all over me. It was so sensual, so vibrant, loud, crazy!”

By the time of Big Brother’s first recording session, in the fall of 1966, Janis’s many hours of work paid off; she took to the recording process immediately and excelled at it. When her bandmates wanted to slack off, she pushed them to rehearse and learn new material, particularly after the band broke through at the Monterey Pop Festival, then signed with powerful manager Albert Grossman and Columbia Records. Still, to journalists, she downplayed her craft, saying that “music is just about feelin’ things … gettin’ stoned, carryin’ on” and that “I don’t write songs, I just make them up.”

Janis compared singing with “when you’re first touching somebody … chills, things slipping all over me.”

In reality, Janis clocked longer hours than her bandmates in the studio recording Cheap Thrills, the band’s Columbia debut. (She wrote her parents letters detailing the technical minutiae of various recording sessions.) One engineer recalled of her, “I never knew an artist that worked harder.” Her ambition led her to leave Big Brother and strike out as a solo artist in 1969.

Joplin poses outside of the Chelsea Hotel, in New York City, 1969.

Janis’s final producer, Paul Rothchild, encouraged her to produce records, a rarity for women then. Tapes of her and Rothchild in the studio document Janis calling the shots, telling the musicians what to play, determining the songs’ tempos and arrangements. In addition to producing, she told Rothchild that by age 50 she wanted to be “like the world’s greatest blues singer, Bessie Smith.” She knew there was a lot riding on her second solo recording, and she relapsed into her addiction to heroin, which she’d quit five months earlier. The self-described “chick singer” died, leaving Pearl, her second studio album—and her musical journey—unfinished.

Holly George-Warren is a two-time Grammy nominee and the author of 16 books. Her latest, Janis: Her Life and Music, is out now from Simon & Schuster

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