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With a rasping voice punctuated by wild screeching, singer Janis Joplin emerged from the burgeoning San Francisco music community of the late-1960s to become one of music history's most important performers. Combining rhythm-and-blues with rock-n-roll, Joplin burst onto the scene with her first band, Big Brother and the Holding Company, following an explosive performance at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967. Though marred by serious alcohol and heroin addiction, she managed to rise from obscurity to become arguably the most popular female singer of her day, thanks in part to the band's second album, Cheap Thrills (1968), which featured the hit "Piece of My Heart." But drugs took their toll with the band, leading to Joplin's departure at the end of the year in pursuit of a solo career. She found a fuller sound with the Kozmic Blues Band, which performed at the Woodstock Music Festival in August 1969, but again an excessive lifestyle led to the band breaking up. She emerged the following year with Full Tilt Boogie, a group of polished musicians who finally gave Joplin the space for her voice to fully bloom. With several notable performances and appearances on television, Joplin's new band seemed...
With a rasping voice punctuated by wild screeching, singer Janis Joplin emerged from the burgeoning San Francisco music community of the late-1960s to become one of music history's most important performers. Combining rhythm-and-blues with rock-n-roll, Joplin burst onto the scene with her first band, Big Brother and the Holding Company, following an explosive performance at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967. Though marred by serious alcohol and heroin addiction, she managed to rise from obscurity to become arguably the most popular female singer of her day, thanks in part to the band's second album, Cheap Thrills (1968), which featured the hit "Piece of My Heart." But drugs took their toll with the band, leading to Joplin's departure at the end of the year in pursuit of a solo career. She found a fuller sound with the Kozmic Blues Band, which performed at the Woodstock Music Festival in August 1969, but again an excessive lifestyle led to the band breaking up. She emerged the following year with Full Tilt Boogie, a group of polished musicians who finally gave Joplin the space for her voice to fully bloom. With several notable performances and appearances on television, Joplin's new band seemed poised for great things. But her death from an accidental overdose while recording the posthumously released Pearl (1971) - which featured her most remembered songs, "Me and Bobby McGee" and "Mercedes Benz" - ended any realization for their full potential. Regardless of the hard-living and pain endured in life, Joplin was regarded as a pioneer for female rock singers, having reached enormous popularity in a world previously dominated by men, while often being cited as one of the greatest musical artists of all time.
Born on Jan. 19, 1943 in the oil refining city of Port Arthur, TX, Joplin was raised by her father, Seth, an engineer for Texaco, and her mother, Dorothy, a registrar at a business college. As a child, Joplin sang in the youth choir at First Christian Church while attending Tyrrell Elementary and Woodrow Wilson Junior High. As a teenager, she began going around with a group of outcasts and started listening to rhythm & blues singers like Bessie Smith and Big Momma Thornton; the latter being hugely influential on the impressionable young singer. Also at this time, Joplin became overweight and suffered severe acne that left deep scars that required surgery. As a result, she was cast even further into the shadows while her classmates at Thomas Jefferson High School treated her like a misfit, routinely making fun of her over her weight and looks. During this time, she began singing blues and folk music in local coffeehouses, and graduated high school in 1960. That summer, she took classes at Lamar State College of Technology in nearby Beaumont, TX, before moving over to the University of Texas at Austin, though she failed to finish her studies.
In 1963, Joplin left Texas and headed for San Francisco, where she lived in North Beach and later Haight-Asbury, while immersing herself in the burgeoning music scene. During this time, she met future Jefferson Airplane guitarist Jorma Kaukonen, with whom she recorded a number of blues standards. But she also indulged in alcohol and amphetamines, which left her health in serious jeopardy. Her friends convinced Joplin to return home, which she did in May 1965. Back in Port Arthur, she cleaned herself up, including her appearance, and began taking sociology classes at Lamar University. But the pull of performing remained, as she routinely went to Austin to perform solo. She then received a call from an old Austin friend, Chet Helms, who was in San Francisco working as a music promoter. Helmes offered her an opportunity to audition for a lead singer spot in an up-and-coming group called Big Brother and the Holding Company, which she eagerly accepted. Upon her return to San Francisco, Joplin began performing with Big Brother in June 1966, with the band signing a contract with Mainstream Records, a small outfit that allowed them to record tracks in Chicago, but refused to pay for their return to San Francisco.
It took almost a year for Joplin to become fully comfortable fronting an electric band, particularly one as loud as Big Brother. But their sound finally came to fruition in 1967, leading to performances at legendary San Francisco clubs like the Winterland Ballroom, the Avalon Ballroom and the Fillmore West. The band was propelled to stardom following their appearance at the Monterey Pop Festival, a three-day concert featuring the Jefferson Airplane, the Grateful Dead, the Jimi Hendrix Experience, and The Who, among many others who defined the late-1960s counterculture movement. Their volcanic performance gained the group national exposure, thanks to Joplin's fiery vocals on Big Moma Thornton's "Ball and Chain," and was followed up with their first album for a major label, the self-titled Big Brother and the Holding Company (1967), which featured the Top 40 single "Down on Me." Later that year, the band split from being managed from Chet Helms and used their new representation to branch out beyond the Bay Area. After making their television debut on "The Dick Cavett Show" (ABC, 1968-1986), the group recorded Cheap Thrills (1968), a raw, live-like album that became a huge hit and spawned two of Joplin's most remember songs, "Summertime" and "Piece of My Heart" - the latter of which went to No. 1 for eight weeks.
Despite their success, the band began to experience difficulties. They were later dubbed Janis Joplin with Big Brother and the Holding Company, much to the consternation of the other members. But the bigger issue was the rampant drug use, particularly with Joplin, that began to split them apart. With her heroin use going strong, Joplin announced she was leaving the band in the fall of 1968, which led to their last performance together in December of that year. Having split off on her own, Joplin found even greater success in her solo career, starting with her first back-up group, the Kozmic Blues Band. Though efforts were made to keep her clean during the recording of I Got Dem Ol' Kozmic Blues Again Mama! (1969), Joplin was full-blown with her heroin and alcohol addictions. Prior to that album's September release, Joplin was one of the main attractions of the Woodstock Festival, though a 10-hour wait to perform led to too much heroin and Southern Comfort prior to going on stage. Her woes continued later in the year and eventually led to her departure from the Kozmic Blues Band following a pair of gigs at Madison Square Garden in December 1969.
In early 1970, Joplin traveled to Brazil, where she again managed to clean up from drugs and alcohol, only to fall back into the habit upon her return to the United States. Meanwhile, she formed her second solo band, Full Tilt Boogie, which featured a group of more polished musicians who finally gave Joplin's music the professional sound she desired. They toured across Canada in the summer of 1970 with the Grateful Dead, The Band and others, before returning to the States for more appearances on "The Dick Cavett Show." Two days after what proved to be her final public appearance with Full Tilt Boogie, Joplin attended her 10-year high school class reunion in Port Arthur, a bad experience that saw the star denounce the city and her classmates for her previous humiliations. In September 1970, Joplin began recording Pearl (1971) in Los Angeles with producer Paul Rothchild, famous for his work with The Doors. On Oct. 1, 1970, Joplin made her last recordings - the a cappella ditty "Mercedes Benz" and a birthday greeting to John Lennon. When she failed to show up for her next session two days later, road manager John Cooke went to her room on October 4th at the Landmark Hotel in Hollywood and found her dead on the floor. She had injected a potent amount of heroin while drinking and ended up smashing her face on the table next to the bed. She was 27 years old, placing her alongside Brian Jones, Jimi Hendrix and later Jim Morrison as rock icons from that era who had all died at 27.
Joplin's sudden death shocked a music community still reeling from the untimely departure of Hendrix just weeks before. Though she never finished all the track for her album, there was enough recorded for Pearl to be released in January 1971. Featuring "Mercedes Benz," "Move Over" and "Me and Bobby McGee," which was written with her last lover, Kris Kristofferson, the album became her best-selling and most well-received. More importantly, Joplin left behind a legacy as one of the best female rock and blues singer of all time, with her stature only growing in the decades following her death. Fascination with her life and music was rekindled with each successive generations, while Janis Joplin's Greatest Hits (1973) remained one of her most consistent sellers over the years. Even Hollywood tried getting into the act with several attempts at making a biopic, with stars as varied as Melissa Etheridge, Brittany Murphy, Lili Taylor and Renee Zellweger expressing interest. The hit Bette Midler film "The Rose" (1979), which detailed the tragic life of a self-destructive female rock star, was said to be modeled after Joplin.
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