Janis Joplin Biography

Janis Joplin
Rock singer Janis Joplin in 1969. Evening Standard / Getty Images

Janis Joplin rose to fame in the late 1960s after her appearance at the Monterey Pop Festival. As the lead singer of Big Brother and the Holding Company, she was a charismatic performer known for her raw vocals and bluesy style. After releasing just three albums, Joplin died of a heroin overdose in 1970, becoming part of rock and roll's infamous "27 Club."

Fast Facts: Janis Joplin

  • Known For: Musician with a raw, bluesy musical style, a swaggering onstage persona, and a tragic early death at age 27
  • Parents: Seth and Dorothy Joplin
  • Born: January 19, 1943, in Port Arthur, Texas
  • Died: October 4, 1970, in Hollywood, California.
  • Education: Attended Lamar Tech College of Technology and University of Texas

Early Years

Born on January 19, 1943, in Port Arthur, Texas, Janis Lyn Joplin was the oldest of three children. Her parents, who were an oil company engineer and a business college registrar, were occasionally quoted as saying Janis needed a lot of attention when she was growing up. Her father described her as "willful" and emotionally immature compared to her peers, in part because she had been skipped a grade in school, and thus was a year younger than all of her classmates.

An outcast who never quite fit in during high school, Janis had few friends, and was often bullied over her weight and facial scars from severe acne. She immersed herself in music and art, and graduated when she was seventeen; shortly afterwards she left Port Arthur and relocated to Austin to attend college classes. In 1962, the University of Texas school newspaper ran a brief profile of their unusual student, saying, “She goes barefooted when she feels like it, wears Levis to class because they’re more comfortable, and carries her autoharp with her everywhere she goes so that in case she gets the urge to break into song, it will be handy."

Janis had discovered the blues, as well as the poetry of the Beatnik movement, and began experimenting with different singing styles while at UT Austin, but in early 1963, she decided she'd had enough of Texas and hitchhiked with a friend to San Francisco. Within a year or two, she and Jorma Kaukonen of Jefferson Airplane had begun recording studio tracks together.

Janis threw herself into the Haight-Ashbury scene, and began drinking heavily and using recreational drugs. By 1965, she was dabbling in heroin and methamphetamines, and her friends in San Francisco persuaded her to return to Texas and get healthy again. Back home with her parents, Janis got off drugs, re-enrolled in college, and began seeing a mental health counselor.

Janis Joplin
Janis Joplin. GAB Archive / Redferns / Getty Images

Musical Career

Janis' return home to Texas was short-lived. She continued to work on her music, as both a writer and a singer, and in 1966, several of her Haight-Ashbury friends convinced Chet Helms of Big Brother and the Holding Company that he needed to check out the bluesy singer from Texas. Helms sent a friend to collect Janis from Austin, and she once again told her parents she was heading back to San Francisco. Janis performed her first gig with Big Brother in June of that year, at the Avalon Ballroom. Over the coming months, Janis tried hard to stay clean and sober—by some accounts, she demanded her bandmates abstain from using drugs in front of her, and got them to promise there would be no needles in their rehearsal location. During the summer of 1966, Janis and the other members of Big Brother lived in a communal space in Haight-Ashbury.

Despite a number of setbacks, including a midwestern tour that tanked when the group was stranded without money, Big Brother got into the studio and began recording, with Janis at the helm. When not recording, they toured up and down the west coast, and attracted a following not only within the San Francisco music scene, but all over the country. In June 1967, the band played the Monterey Pop Festival, and it was largely agreed that their set—and Janis—was the stuff that legends are made of. Two months later, the album Big Brother & the Holding Company was released.

Janis Joplin
Janis Joplin with her 1965 Porsche 356C Cabriolet, circa 1969. RB / Redferns / Getty Images

For the next two years, the band toured, made television appearances, and worked on their second studio album, Cheap Thrills; by this point, the act was being billed as Janis Joplin and Big Brother and the Holding Company. Janis worked tirelessly in the studio, not only singing, but also arranging, scoring, and experimenting with production modules. However, in 1969, she split from the group, and formed the Kozmic Blues Band, which had a more soulful, R&B sound than Big Brother's psychedelic style. Janis' influences were early African American blues singers like Bessie Smith, Big Mama Thornton, and Leadbelly. Kim France of the New York Times wrote:

By all accounts, Joplin behaved as no white woman had ever before behaved on stage—a sexed-up powerhouse who stalked the stage as if she owned it, reducing male rock critics to comically blubbering buffoons.

During this period, Janis was again using drugs. In addition to drinking a lot, she was shooting hundreds of dollars worth of heroin every day. When the Kozmic Blues band arrived at Woodstock, in 1969, they sat backstage for nearly ten hours; Janis spent much of this time getting high, and when the band finally took the stage, it was clear that she was feeling the effects. Janis later said she was unhappy with her performance, and insisted that it not be included in the documentary about the festival.

After a brief stint in Brazil, where she tried to kick heroin, Janis returned to the United States and formed her next band, Full Tilt Boogie in May 1970. That summer, they recorded tracks for Pearl, an album which wouldn't be released until the following year. In early fall, Janis worked with Sunset Sound Recorders, and was scheduled to be at the studio to finalize some vocal tracks on October 4.

Janis Joplin
Janis Joplin at the Royal Albert Hall in London. Estate Of Keith Morris / Redferns / Getty Images

Death and The 27 Club

On October 4, Full Tilt Boogie's manager, John Cooke, and record producer Paul Rothschild became concerned when Janis didn't show up for her studio session, so they drove to the Hollywood hotel where she was staying. Her psychedelically-painted Porsche was still in the parking lot, so the two men entered the room, where they found 27-year-old Janis dead on the floor.

The official cause of death was a heroin overdose, with alcohol likely being a contributing factor. It is believed that Janis had been given an unusually potent dose of heroin; there were a number of overdoses that same week, all traced back to the dealer from whom Janis obtained her product.

Three weeks prior to Janis' death, guitar icon Jimi Hendrix, also age 27, had died from an overdose. As an odd pop culture phenomenon, a number of celebrities have passed away at the same age, leading to the macabre nickname of the 27 Club. "Members" include Joplin and Hendrix, as well as Jim Morrison, Kurt Cobain, and Amy Winehouse.

Janis' primitive and bluesy style opened the gates for a number of women in rock music who have cited her as an influence. Performers like Stevie Nicks, Pink, Lana del Rey, Florence Welch, and Joan Jett all credit Janis as a musical hero, who brought her own unique, dangerous, and raw style to every song she sung.

Sources

  • France, Kim. “Nothin' Left to Lose.” The New York Times, 2 May 1999, archive.nytimes.com/www.nytimes.com/books/99/05/02/reviews/990502.02francet.html.
  • “Janis Joplin.” Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, www.rockhall.com/inductees/janis-joplin.
  • Vincent, Alice. “Janis Joplin: Why She Still Has a Piece of Our Heart.” The Telegraph, Telegraph Media Group, 19 Jan. 2016, www.telegraph.co.uk/music/artists/janis-joplin-why-she-still-has-a-piece-of-our-heart/.
  • Weller, Sheila. “Discovering the Vulnerable Woman Behind Janis Joplin's Legend.” The Hive, Vanity Fair, 25 Nov. 2015, www.vanityfair.com/culture/2015/11/janis-joplin-little-girl-blue-documentary-interviews.