The Life And Career Of Janis “Pearl” Joplin

Janis Joplin died on October 4th, 1970

The Life And Career Of Janis “Pearl” Joplin

She paved the way for the modern female Rock Star, through her attitude, looks and voice, her unique vocals and charisma have placed her on the Rock Stardom Pantheon, we look back at the force of nature that was Janis Joplin

Early Years: Texas, Blues and Beatniks

Janis Joplin or Pearl as friends called her, was born Janis Lyn Joplin on January 19th, 1943 in Porth Arthur, Texas. Janis it’s a legend that lives in the highest pantheon of Rock stardom, her immortality was already assured during her short life time, unfortunately cut too short at the age of just 27. Janis grew up in an environment that wasn’t too kind for girls who didn’t cared about looks or didn’t aim at being beauty queens, she was rough, she liked to smoke and hang out with the boys and outcasts and sing the blues As a teen, she became overweight and suffered with acne, leaving her with deep scars. Other kids at school would routinely taunt her and call her names like “pig”, “freak”, “nigger lover”, or “creep”. She stated, “I was a misfit. I read, I painted, I thought. I didn’t hate niggers.”. When she studied at the University Of Texas, newspaper The Daily Texan, ran a profile of her in the issue dated July 27, 1962, headlined “She Dares to Be Different.”The article began, “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. Her name is Janis Joplin”. She cultivated a rebellious manner and styled herself partly after her female blues heroines and partly after the Beat poets. Her first song, recorded on tape, was called “What Good Can Drinkin’ Do”.

“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. Her name is Janis Joplin”, The Daily Texan, 1962

Moving To California: Big Brother & The Holding Company

Feeling ostracized at her home town, Janis moved to San Francisco, California during the mid 1960’s, at the right moment in time, when everything was changing culturally and socially, to a place she knew she would find acceptance, however, acceptance was something that Janis ended up struggling for all her life, even when she was adored by millions all around the world. Her bluesy vocal style attracted the attention of the San Francisco-based psychedelic rock band Big Brother and the Holding Company based in the nascent hippie community in Haight-Ashbury. She was recruited to join the group by Chet Helms, a promoter who had known her in Texas and who at the time was managing Big Brother. Unfortunately this was also a time that saw Joplin beginning her downward spiral into heavy drugs such as amphetamines and heroin. In early 1967, Joplin met Country Joe McDonald of the group Country Joe and the Fish. The pair lived together as a couple for a few months, but relationships would proved to be hard for her to handle for the rest of her life. Joplin and Big Brother began playing clubs in San Francisco, at the Fillmore West, Winterland and the Avalon Ballroom and got massive attention from all over the country, playing gigs coast to coast. Their debut album self-titled “Big Brother & The Holding Company” was released in 1967, and with it came success. Their big breakthrough was when they appear in June of the same year at the Monterey Pop Festival, the “Ball And Chain” performance left the audience stunned by Joplin’s vocal capabilities, including Mama Cass Elliot, and launched the band internationally. Joplin’s success and charisma grew so big that by 1968, the band was being billed as “Janis Joplin and Big Brother and the Holding Company”,and the media coverage given to Joplin generated resentment within the band.The other members of Big Brother thought that Joplin was on a “star trip”, while others were telling Joplin that Big Brother was a terrible band and that she ought to dump them.Their second album “Cheap Thrills” was released in 1968, it was their first on a major label, Columbia. The album became an absolute, influential and enduring Rock classic, it produced some of the band’s biggest hits such as “Piece of My Heart”,  “Summertime” and also “Ball And Chain”, which was recorded live. The album reached No. 1 on the Billboard 200 album chart eight weeks after its release, remaining for eight (nonconsecutive) weeks. It was certified gold at release and sold over a million copies in the first month. The lead single from the album, “Piece of My Heart”, reached No. 12 on the Billboard Hot 100 in the fall of 1968 and became one of Janis’ signature songs. By the end of 1968, Joplin was confident enough to know she could engage on a solo career without worrying to be attached to a band, after all, Joplin always loved freedom.

“She had been amazing at Monterey, but tonight she wasn’t at her best, due, probably, to the long delay, and probably, too, to the amount of booze and heroin she’d consumed while she waited. But even Janis on an off-night was incredible”,  Pete Townshend

Kozmic Blues: Woodstock and Full Tilt Boogie Band

Towards the end of 1968, she left Big Brother & The Holding Company and formed her own band that included Big Brother guitarist Sam Andrews, The Kozmic Blues Band that later would be renamed The Full Tilt Boogie Band. With a sonority distinctively different from what she had done with Big Brother, the first album “I Got Dem Ol’ Kozmic Blues Again Mama!” released in 1969, was mainly based on Hard R&B featuring  the use of horns and a funky, pop-oriented sound in contrast to many of the psychedelic/hard rock bands of the period.The album included some of Joplin’s most well known songs such as “Try (Just a Little Bit Harder)”, “Maybe” and “Kozmic Blues”. But not all was golden in Joplin’s new solo career, she missed being in Big Brother and noticed that her music had better reviews and appreciation when she was in the band, Some music critics, including Ralph J. Gleason of the San Francisco Chronicle, were deeply negative. Gleason wrote that the new band was a “drag” and Joplin should “scrap” her new band and “go right back to being a member of Big Brother…(if they’ll have her).” it was a situation that made her regret her decision to pursue a solo career at times. The true was Big Brother also needed Janis, after she left, their subsequent albums, as good as they were, sold poorly and didn’t produced anymore hits. Despite that, Janis did a successful European tour in 1969 and in August she played the Woodstock Festival. Initially Joplin was eager to get on the stage and perform, but she got nervous after seeing the the enormous Woodstock crowd from a helicopter. Faced with a ten-hour wait after arriving at the backstage area, Joplin shot heroin and drank alcohol to calm herself. The reviews of the concert that night are mixed, some saying Joplin was not at her best as she was when she did Monterey with Big Brother. The Who’s Pete Townshend, that watched the performance on site, states: “She had been amazing at Monterey, but tonight she wasn’t at her best, due, probably, to the long delay, and probably, too, to the amount of booze and heroin she’d consumed while she waited. But even Janis on an off-night was incredible.”. With an increasing drug and alcohol habit, in February 1970, Joplin traveled to Brazil to try to kick the habit, she stopped using any type of drugs while there. In Brazil, Joplin was romanced by a fellow American tourist named David Niehaus, who was traveling around the world, a man who was not in the showbiz, David did his best to help Janis keeping clean while both fell in love with each other. Her relationship with Niehaus soon ended because he witnessed her shooting drugs at her new home in Larkspur, California. The relationship was also complicated by her ongoing romantic relationship with Peggy Caserta (Janis was bisexual), who also was an intravenous addict, and Joplin’s refusal to take some time off and travel the world with him. Prior to beginning a summer tour with Full Tilt Boogie, she performed in a reunion with Big Brother at the Fillmore West, in San Francisco, on April 4, 1970. She again appeared with Big Brother on April 12 at Winterland, where she and the band were reported to be in excellent form. Among Joplin’s last public appearances were two broadcasts of The Dick Cavett Show. In her June 25, 1970 appearance, she announced that she would attend her ten-year high school class reunion. When asked if she had been popular in school, she admitted that when in high school, her schoolmates “laughed me out of class, out of town and out of the state”, during her college years, Joplin had been voted “Ugliest Man on Campus” by frat boys. Joplin attended her high school reunion on August 14, but it was reportedly an unhappy experience for her. She held a press conference in Port Arthur during her reunion visit. Rolling Stone journalist Chet Flippo reported that she wore enough jewelry for a “Babylonian whore”. When asked by a reporter if she ever entertained at Thomas Jefferson High School when she was a student there, Joplin replied, “Only when I walked down the aisles.” She denigrated Port Arthur and the classmates who had humiliated her a decade earlier.

“My schoolmates laughed me out of class, out of town and out of the state”, Janis Joplin

Buried Alive In The Blues: The Last Party

After she returned to Los Angeles, Janis and the band rehearsed and recorded a new album in Los Angeles with famous producer Paul A. Rothchild, best known for his lengthy relationship with The Doors. The last recording Joplin completed was on October 1, 1970, “Mercedes Benz”. On Saturday, October 3, Joplin visited Sunset Sound Recorders to listen to the instrumental track for the song “Buried Alive in the Blues”, which the band had recorded one week earlier. She and Paul Rothchild agreed she would record the vocal the following day.  On October 4, 1970, Rothchild became concerned when Joplin failed to show up at Sunset Sound Recorders for a recording session, earlier she had been upset and disturbed by finding out through a phone call that her boyfriend Seth Morgan had met and was going out with other women, that reminded her of all the failed relationships and rejections she had during her life. Full Tilt Boogie’s road manager John Cooke drove to the Landmark Motor Hotel in Hollywood where Joplin was staying. He saw Joplin’s psychedelically painted Porsche in the parking lot. Upon entering Joplin’s room he found her dead on the floor beside her bed. The official cause of death was a heroin overdose, possibly compounded by alcohol. Cooke believes Joplin had been given heroin that was much more potent than normal, as several of her dealer’s other customers also overdosed that week. Joplin’s last will and testament funded $2,500 to throw a wake party in the event of her demise. The party took place on October 26, 1970 at the Lion’s Share in San Anselmo, California and was attended by Joplin’s sister Laura, Morgan, and other close friends. “Pearl”, her second album was released on January 11th, 1971, it became her most successful solo album and unlike her debut, a timeless Rock classic. It included several hits for Janis, “Move Over”, “Cry Baby”, “Me And Bobby McGee”, “Mercedes Benz”, “Half Moon” and “Get It While You Can”. The album was acclaimed and praised by critics, but Janis was no longer able to witness her triumph as a solo singer.
Janis Joplin was the third Rock Star to die during one month period at age 27: Alan Wilson from Canned Heat on September 3 and Jimi Hendrix on September 18. But this bizarre circle of Rock Stars dead at 27 started exactly on July 3rd, 1969 with Brian Jones from The Rolling Stones; after Janis, Jim Morrison of The Doors closed the circle exactly two years after it begun, on July 3rd, 1971.

Joplin’s last will and testament funded $2,500 to throw a wake party in the event of her demise


Janis Joplin’s legacy to music and culture it’s enormous, the artists she influenced over the last decades are just too many to name,  together with friend Grace Slick from Jefferson Airplane she paved the way for the modern female Rock Star, through her attitude, looks and voice, proving that a woman could be capable of being Rock Star as much as a man, even when fighting, like the famous episode that happened during a party in 1968 where Janis broke a bottle of Jack Daniels on Jim Morrison’s head, both drunk and stoned were dragged out of the party. The amazing music she did during her short career it’s timeless, she’s part of that restrict group of artists that have left a legacy so strong that remains contemporary and fresh. Her death was a big loss for music and we can only imagine the things she could had done. She has received numerous posthumous honors and awards, and she still gets them regularly. Janis was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1995, in 2013 Joplin was awarded with the 2,510th star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame for her contributions to the music industry, her star is located at 6752 Hollywood Boulevard, in front of Musicians Institute and most recently in 2015, Amy J. Berg released her biographical documentary film, Janis: “Little Girl Blue”, narrated by Cat Power. It was a New York Times Critics’ Pick. Janis is eternal.

Watch the famous performance from Big Brother & The Holding Company with Janis Joplin live at Monterey Pop Festival 1967

Watch a clip of a Janis Joplin interview at The Dick Cavett Show, 1970

Listen to an Anthology of Janis Joplin including Big Brother & The Holding Company songs compiled by Pop Expresso on Spotify

Watch more Janis Joplin related videos


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