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Notables: Janis Joplin


notable resident: Janis joplin

'Queen of psychedelic soul'

Janis Lyn Joplin is one of the most iconic, enduring, influential musicians in the history of Rock n’ Roll. She is known as both the “The Queen of Rock” and “The Queen of Psychedelic Soul.”

Janis had a difficult time growing up in Port Arthur. She enjoyed art and was a free spirit who was often mocked by her classmates at Thomas Jefferson High School. As a teenager, she found solace listening to blues artists Bessie Smith, Big Mama Thornton, and Lead Belly, both at her friend’s homes and at the local library.

Joplin graduated from high school in 1960 and attended Lamar State College of Technology in Beaumont, during the summer and later the University of Texas at Austin. Her daring and unconventional spirit continued to catch the attention of her classmates, even in Austin. The Daily Texan, ran a profile of her on 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.” While at UT, she performed with a folk trio called the Waller Creek Boys at Threadgills and frequently socialized with the staff of the campus humor magazine The Texas Ranger. Her first song, “What Good Can Drinkin’ Do,” was recorded on tape in December 1962 at a fellow University of Texas student’s home.

Well on her way to developing her famous singing style, Janis dropped out and left Texas in January 1963, hitchhiking with her friend Chet Helms to San Francisco. Still in San Francisco in 1964, Joplin and future Jefferson Airplane guitarist Jorma Kaukonen recorded a number of blues standards, which incidentally featured Kaukonen’s wife Margareta using a typewriter in the background.

In May 1965, Joplin’s friends noticed the toll methamphetamine usage was having on her, and persuaded her to return to Port Arthur. During that month, her friends threw her a bus-fare party so she could return to her parents in Texas.

Back in Port Arthur in the spring of 1965, Janis changed her lifestyle. She avoided drugs and alcohol, adopted a beehive hairdo, and enrolled as an anthropology major at Lamar University. She often traveled to Austin to sing solo, accompanying herself on acoustic guitar.

Joplin became engaged to Peter de Blanc in the fall of 1965. She had begun a relationship with him toward the end of her first stint in San Francisco. Now living in New York where he worked with IBM computers, he visited her to ask her father for her hand in marriage. Joplin and her mother began planning the wedding. De Blanc, ended the engagement soon afterward.

During this time, she recorded seven studio tracks with her acoustic guitar. Among them was her original composition for the song “Turtle Blues” and an alternate version of “Cod’ine” by Buffy Sainte-Marie. These tracks were later issued as a new album in 1995, titled This is Janis Joplin 1965.

In 1966, her old hitchhiking buddy Chet Helms, who had known her in Texas, sent his friend Travis Rivers to find her in Austin and to bring her back to San Francisco. Helms was now managing the band Big Brother and the Holding Company. Aware of her battles with drug addiction, Rivers insisted that she inform her parents face-to-face of her plans, and he drove her from Austin to Port Arthur (he waited in his car while she talked with her startled parents) before they began their long drive to San Francisco. Joplin joined Big Brother on June 4, 1966. Her first public performance with them was at the Avalon Ballroom in San Francisco. They often partied with the Grateful Dead, who lived less than two miles away. She had a short relationship and longer friendship with founding member Ron “Pigpen” McKernan.

Joplin and Big Brother began playing clubs in San Francisco, at the Fillmore West, Winterland, and the Avalon Ballroom. They also played at the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles, as well as in Seattle, Washington, Vancouver, British Columbia, the Psychedelic Supermarket in Boston, Massachusetts, and the Golden Bear Club in Huntington Beach, California.

The band’s debut studio album, Big Brother & the Holding Company, was released by Mainstream Records in August 1967, shortly after the group’s breakthrough appearance in June at the Monterey Pop Festival. The debut album spawned four minor hits with the singles “Down on Me,” a traditional song arranged by Joplin, “Bye Bye Baby,” “Call On Me,” and “Coo Coo,” on all of which Joplin sang lead vocals. They made their television debut on The Dick Cavett Show in 1968. Vogue magazine called Janis “the most staggering leading woman in rock.”

Big Brother’s second album, “Cheap Thrills” included the hits “Piece of My Heart” and “Summertime,” No. 1 on the Billboard 200, it sold over a million copies in the first month.

Three days after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. and the last day of their East Coast tour—Joplin and Big Brother performed with Jimi Hendrix, Buddy Guy, Joni Mitchell, Richie Havens, Paul Butterfield, and Elvin Bishop at the “Wake for Martin Luther King Jr.” concert in New York.

In 1968, Time magazine called Joplin “probably the most powerful singer to emerge from the white rock movement,” and Richard Goldstein wrote for the May 1968 issue of Vogue magazine that Joplin was “the most staggering leading woman in rock … she slinks like tar, scowls like war … clutching the knees of a final stanza, begging it not to leave … Janis Joplin can sing the chic off any listener.”

Despite this success, Janis felt the need to work with more gifted musicians. Aside from two 1970 reunions, Joplin’s last performance with Big Brother was at a Chet Helms benefit in San Francisco on December 1, 1968.

Joplin formed a new backup group, the Kozmic Blues Band, composed of keyboardist Stephen Ryder, saxophonist Cornelius Flowers, former Big Brother guitarist Sam Andrew, and bassist Brad Campbell.

Joplin appeared at Woodstock on Sunday, August 17, 1969. Initially, Joplin was eager to get on the stage and perform but was repeatedly delayed as bands were contractually obliged to perform ahead of Joplin. Faced with a ten-hour wait after arriving at the backstage area, Joplin finally took the stage at 2 a.m. She frequently engaged with the crowd, asking them if they had everything they needed. After her set, the audience cheered for an encore, to which Joplin replied and sang “Ball and Chain.”  

During this time, she also briefly dated Johnny Winter and appeared with him on stage at Madison Square Garden. According to her younger sister, Laura, Janis told her parents how much she loved Woodstock, but they did not understand the hippie movement. Her mother felt Janis had a constant need for attention, and she did not approve of her daughter’s lifestyle.

When Kosmic Blues did not live up to Joplin’s expectations, she created the Full Tilt Boogie Band in 1970. The band was comprised mostly of Canadian musicians previously associated with Arkansan Ronnie Hawkins and featured an organ but no horn section. Joplin took a more active role in putting together the Full Tilt Boogie band than she did with her prior group. She was quoted as saying, “It’s my band. Finally, it’s my band!” In May 1970, Full Tilt Boogie Band began a nationwide tour. Joplin became very happy with her new group, which eventually received mostly positive feedback from both her fans and the critics.

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 her schoolmates “laughed me out of class, out of town and out of the state” Although this quote is often used to refer to her hometown, it is also arguably a reference to her time in Austin (during the year she had spent at the University of Texas, Joplin had been publicly derided by a fraternity).

Joplin checked into the Landmark Motor Hotel in Hollywood on August 24, 1970, near Sunset Sound Recorders, where she began rehearsing and recording her album. During the sessions, Joplin continued a relationship with Seth Morgan, a 21-year-old UC Berkeley student and future novelist who had visited her new home in Larkspur in July and August. She and Morgan were engaged to be married in September.

On September 26, 1970, Joplin recorded vocals for “Half Moon” and “Cry Baby.” The session ended with Joplin, organist Ken Pearson, and drummer Clark Pierson making a special one-minute recording as a birthday gift to John Lennon. Joplin was among several singers who had been contacted by Yoko Ono with a request for a taped greeting for Lennon’s 30th birthday on October 9. Joplin, Pearson, and Pierson chose the Dale Evans composition “Happy Trails” as part of the greeting. Lennon told Dick Cavett on-camera the following year that Joplin’s recorded birthday wishes arrived at his home after her death. The last recording Joplin completed was on October 1, 1970—”Mercedes Benz”.

Her Port Arthur high school classmate, renowned artist Robert Rauschenberg had dinner with her the next night and stated that she was extremely happy and excited about the way her recording sessions were progressing.

On Saturday, October 3, Joplin visited Sunset Sound Recorders to listen to the instrumental track for Nick Gravenites’s song “Buried Alive in the Blues,” which the band had recorded earlier that day. Although she was upset with her fiancée, people at Sunset Sound Recorders remember her joy at the progress of the sessions and that she was exhilarated by the prospect of doing her scheduled vocal on Sunday.

On October 4, 1970, producer Paul Rothchild went to look for Janis when she did not show for the session and discovered she had died from a heroin overdose. According to a 1983 book authored by Joseph DiMona and Los Angeles County coroner Thomas Noguchi, evidence of narcotics was removed from the scene by a friend of Joplin and later put back after the person realized that an autopsy was going to reveal that narcotics were in her system. Noguchi performed an autopsy on Joplin and determined the cause of death to be a heroin overdose, possibly compounded by alcohol. Cooke believed the singer had been given heroin that was much more potent than what she and other L.A. heroin users had received on previous occasions, as was indicated by overdoses of several of her dealer’s other customers during the same weekend. Her death was ruled accidental.

The last person to see her was the Landmark’s night shift desk clerk. He had met her several times but did not know her. Joplin was cremated at Pierce Brothers Westwood Village Memorial Park and Mortuary in Los Angeles, and her ashes were scattered from a plane into the Pacific Ocean.

Joplin’s will funded $2,500 for a party to be thrown in her honor. Her second solo album Pearl was released posthumously in 1971, and peaked at No. 1 on the Billboard 200, and was certified quadruple platinum.

Janis was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1995 and given a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2005. She was awarded a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2013. Rolling Stone ranked Joplin number 46 on its list of the 100 Greatest Artists of All Time and number 28 on its list of the 100 Greatest Singers.

Joplin’s psychedelic 1965 Porsche 356 Cabriolet, formerly displayed at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, was auctioned off by Sotheby’s in 2016. It sold for $1.76 million. A replica of this car and some original artwork by Janis can be seen at the Museum of the Gulf Coast. Janis Joplin is also a member of the Museum of the Gulf Coast, Music Hall of Fame in her hometown of Port Arthur.