Janis Joplin was a singer from Port Arthur, Texas. Her powerful voice and unusual timbre are unmistakable; her primitive and emotive live performances with Big Brother & The Holding Company are her greatest achievements and lasting legacy. A shooting star in the music business, Janis was immensely popular and only 27 years old when she died of a heroin overdose. She was inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall of Fame in 1995.
Janis Joplin (1943-1970), singer
I had cool parents, Ivy League graduates who fled their class conscious environment and moved to California in the late fifties. Both of them loved music. They were raised on big band swing, and liked Dixieland jazz. They were open minded people who embraced the burgeoning music scene in the San Francisco Bay Area.
In particular, my mother loved the San Francisco music scene. Put yourself in her shoes — a young woman in her early thirties, Ivy League educated but in a traditional housewife role. Living near Stanford University, there was a groundswell of liberal thought, a willingness to experiment, to search for a better way. It was an era of great innovation in California that revolutionized society, and for a brief moment, San Francisco was the epicenter of pop music innovation as young musicians journeyed there to participate in the revolution.
Big Brother & The Holding Company
Among the musical artists popular in the Bay Area were two charismatic female singers. The Jefferson Airplane featured Grace Slick, a dark haired beauty with a deep voice and strong sense of social consciousness. Big Brother & The Holding Company featured the raw and powerful Janis Joplin, all fire and emotion, dying to be loved and appreciated. Both were unafraid to express themselves in fresh new ways. This appealed to my mother, who was also expressing her needs and ideas more assertively.
Janis Joplin moved to San Francisco and joined Big Brother & The Holding Company in June, 1966. Their first album Big Brother & The Holding Company was recorded in the summer of 1966, but legal hassles with a less than honorable minor record label held up its release for a year or so. To get an idea of Big Brother’s raw, amateurish sound, here is a clip from 1966:
Of the music featured in my “big artist countdown”, Big Brother & the Holding Company is among the most primitive and least refined. The first album is very short, with ten songs each under three minutes long. The recordings are poorly produced; in particular, Janis Joplin’s voice is too loud at times, as if they needed to place her further from the microphone. She is not the central figure in the band, as other musicians take turns as lead singer. Some of the songs are quite charming. Simple songs like “Call On Me” and “Bye Bye Baby” work best. “All Is Loneliness” and “Light Is Faster Than Sound” are an early window into the “psychedelic” sound.
Everything changed after the Monterey International Pop Festival in the summer of 1967, the first, the best and most influential of the early rock music festivals. The film by D. A. Pennebaker documents groundbreaking performances by The Who, The Jimi Hendrix Experience, and many others. Janis Joplin’s memorable performance of Big Mama Thornton’s “Ball And Chain” is one of many great moments.
Legendary music mogul Clive Davis promptly signed Big Brother to a contract. Columbia Records then spent a year freeing the band from its previous obligations with Mainstream Records in Chicago. During that time, they toured and recorded the tracks for their second album, Cheap Thrills. The focus began to turn away from the band, and onto Janis Joplin.
In a 1978 interview, band members Sam Andrew and James Gurley discuss the record industry and their brief period of popularity with Janis Joplin as the lead singer, among other things.
Cheap Thrills was a major success, a #1 album and a cultural phenomenon. The band’s musicianship had improved dramatically. The album’s first side is solid throughout, and their cover versions of “Summertime” and “Piece Of My Heart” are pop standards. Janis Joplin was improving as a singer, adding nuance to her power. Right down to the great cover artwork by one of my heroes, Robert Crumb, Cheap Thrills is an essential document of the San Francisco hippie movement of the 1960s.
The band’s brush with fame was short-lived. Whether it was friends or record executives bending her ear, Janis convinced herself she needed a more accomplished backing band. Big Brother & The Holding Company toured for several months following the success of Cheap Thrills but the die was cast, and Janis would soon leave to become a solo performer. During that year, my parents took me and my younger sister to a Big Brother & The Holding Company concert. My main memory is Janis striking that percussive instrument that kicks off “Combination Of The Two”. I was nine years old, a period of life where the memories are vague.
Here the band “performs” two songs on “The Hollywood Palace” TV show just weeks before Janis leaves the band. Note the condescending interview by Tennessee Tuxedo (“Get Smart” star Don Adams) afterward.
Solo Career and Rapid Demise
Blessed with superior musicians and the support of a major record label, Janis never achieved the same level of importance or social relevance again, though her second solo album, Pearl, is a fine effort. In retrospect, one can see that she was a raw and unrefined talent. Her popularity far exceeded her ability and the emotional burden of stardom, combined with the stress of leaving the people who helped her achieve it, took its toll.
She had good taste in music and the songs selected for her to cover are excellent. Here is one of the best, Howard Tate’s “Get It While You Can”, performed on the Dick Cavett Show just months before she died.
As well as Janis interprets material, the original versions of these songs are uniformly better, with the possible exception of “Summertime”. Howard Tate, Lorraine Ellison, and Erma Franklin (Aretha Franklin’s sister), are all fine singers never given the opportunities that Janis Joplin was given. And Janis threw it all away, dead from a heroin overdose only twenty seven years old.
Ms. Joplin was an insecure young woman. A bit homely as an adolescent and an immoderate user of drugs and alcohol, her performing style begs for attention. To conclude the profile, here is a lengthy discussion of Janis Joplin’s insecurities.
Janis Joplin Song Notes:
1. “I Need A Man To Love (Live)”, “Summertime (Live)”, “Ball And Chain (Live)” and “Piece Of My Heart (Live)” can be found on Live At Winterland ’68.
2. “Summertime (Live)” can be found on Live At The Carousel Ballroom 1968.
3. “Bye Bye Baby (Live)” and “Women Is Losers (Live)” can be found on The Lost Tapes.
4. “Ball And Chain (Live)” (famous three star version) can be found on Monterey International Pop Festival (Live).
Janis Joplin (Big Brother & The Holding Company) Songs:
Call On Me, Big Brother & The Holding Company ✭✭✭
Summertime, Big Brother & The Holding Company ✭✭✭
Piece Of My Heart, Big Brother & The Holding Company ✭✭✭
Ball And Chain (Live), Big Brother & The Holding Company ✭✭✭
Me And Bobby McGee, Janis Joplin ✭✭✭
Bye, Bye Baby, Big Brother & The Holding Company ✭✭
Call On Me (Live), Big Brother & The Holding Company ✭✭
Summertime (Live), Big Brother & The Holding Company ✭✭
All Is Loneliness, Big Brother & The Holding Company ✭✭
Caterpillar, Big Brother & The Holding Company ✭✭
Combination Of The Two (Live), Big Brother & The Holding Company ✭✭
I Need A Man To Love (Live), Big Brother & The Holding Company ✭✭
I Need A Man To Love (Live), Big Brother & The Holding Company ✭✭
Ball And Chain (Live), Big Brother & The Holding Company ✭✭
Get It While You Can, Janis Joplin ✭✭
Light Is Faster Than Sound, Big Brother & The Holding Company ✭
Down On Me, Big Brother & The Holding Company ✭
Blindman, Big Brother & The Holding Company ✭
Piece Of My Heart (Live), Big Brother & The Holding Company ✭
I Need A Man To Love (Live), Big Brother & The Holding Company ✭
Bye Bye Baby (Live), Big Brother & The Holding Company ✭
Women Is Losers (Live), Big Brother & The Holding Company ✭
Mercedes Benz, Janis Joplin ✭
Try (Just A Little Bit Harder), Janis Joplin ✭
One Good Man, Janis Joplin ✭
Cry Baby, Garnet Mimms & The Enchanters ✭
Me And Bobby McGee, Kris Kristofferson ✭✭✭
Try (Just A Little Bit Harder), Lorraine Ellison ✭✭✭
Piece Of My Heart, Erma Franklin ✭✭✭✭
Summertime, Billy Stewart ✭✭
Summertime, Miles Davis ✭✭✭
Summertime, Sidney Bechet ✭✭
Summertime, Artie Shaw ✭✭
Summertime, Paul Desmond ✭
Get It While You Can, Howard Tate ✭✭✭
Get It While You Can (Live), Howard Tate ✭