NEW YORK – JUNE 1970: Blues singer Janis Joplin on the roof garden of the Chelsea Hotel in June 1970 in New York City, New York. (Photo by David Gahr/Getty Images)
A little over 50 years ago, Janis Joplin landed like a meteorite in San Francisco, California’s bustling, late ’60s arts and music scene. Armed with one of the utmost powerful and explosive voices in music history, she quickly became one of the most popular and iconic acts to emerge from the Bay Area, as well as one of rock music’s first female stars. Sadly, just a few years into her career, and right as she was truly coming into her own as an artist, her life was cut tragically short at the age of 27. Though Janis Joplin’s brilliance as a musician continues to live on through recordings that find new fans year after year, her strong presence as a woman in a male-dominated industry, her choice to never hide her romantic relationships with women, and her outspokenness about ending cannabis prohibition are often not as well-known and are woefully underappreciated.
Born in Port Arthur, Texas in 1943, Joplin’s early years in the 1950s American South were marked by bullying and alienation. Because of an early love of African American blues music, she was teased and harassed by racist peers, but this passion for the blues would develop into inspiration to become a singer herself. As early as 1962 Joplin’s reputation as a singer would begin to precede her—she became known for carrying an autoharp and performing folk songs around the University of Texas at Austin where she was attending school. However, it wasn’t until after she’d hitchhiked to San Francisco, California in 1963 with old friend and future concert promoter Chet Helms that she began to have a career as a performer.
In 1965, Joplin performed her blues song “Mary Jane” alongside The Dick Oxtot Jazz Band. A live recording of the song was later part of the 1975 album, Janis. The first verse of the song has the line, “When I bring home my hard-earned pay, I spend my money all on Mary Jane.” The song also made its way onto the album, The Very Best of Janis Joplin.
5th April 1969: Rock singer Janis Joplin (1943 – 1970). (Photo by Evening Standard/Getty Images)
Joplin joined established San Francisco-based psychedelic blues rockers Big Brother & The Holding Company in 1966 and enabled the band to take its sound to the next level. The band immediately became known for delivering some of the heaviest and most riveting performances of any of the rising West Coast acts and played one of the most blistering sets of the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival, where the band shared a bill with other legendary artists like The Jimi Hendrix Experience, Otis Redding, The Who and Ravi Shankar. Though the band as a whole innovated a noisy, aggressive and textured sound of electric blues, it was Joplin with her powerful, eviscerating voice and flamboyant hippie style that became the stand out.
“When I bring home my hard-earned pay, I spend my money all on Mary Jane”.
By the end of 1968, Joplin’s time with Big Brother & The Holding Company was fading and her desire to strike out as a solo artist was growing. In August of 1968, Big Brother & The Holding Company released its seminal work with Joplin on vocals, Cheap Thrills, and managed to capture its fiery sound on tape in all of its glory. In December of that year, the band played its last show with Joplin as its singer, and by June of 1969, she was recording what would become her debut solo release, I Got Dem Ol’ Kozmic Blues Again Mama! Released just a few weeks after a wild and highly inebriated 3 a.m. set at the Woodstock Festival, the record received mixed reviews but still cracked the Billboard Top 50 and was certified gold in two months.
THE MUSIC SCENE 1969-70 – (Photo by ABC Photo Archives/ABC via Getty Images) JANIS JOPLIN
In 1970, Joplin returned with renewed vigor and a new backing band, performing a slew of acclaimed concerts including two reunion shows with Big Brother & The Holding Company. At the height of her popularity she appeared on The Dick Cavett Show to perform and be interviewed alongside old Hollywood actress Gloria Swanson, where she took a radical stand for cannabis legalization. In response to Swanson’s comments about repression in the past and criticism of the modern youth movements, Joplin said, “But it shouldn’t be illegal just because somebody up there doesn’t like it. I mean, when you were making movies, x, y and z were considered risqué and you couldn’t do it. Well, now they’re doing it. Back then you couldn’t drink because they didn’t like it; well now you can’t smoke grass. Back then you couldn’t be a flapper because they didn’t like it, and now you can’t play rock ‘n’ roll. It seems to me that the people who went through all that prohibition and flapper time should realize that young people are always crazy. You know? And to leave us alone.”
“But it shouldn’t be illegal just because somebody up there doesn’t like it. I mean, when you were making movies, x, y and z were considered risqué and you couldn’t do it. Well, now they’re doing it. Back then you couldn’t drink because they didn’t like it; well now you can’t smoke grass.”
Blues singer Janis Joplin at home in San Francisco. (Photo by © Ted Streshinsky/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)
In September of 1970 Joplin began work on what would be her final album, Pearl. However, the sessions ended abruptly with Joplin’s death from a heroin overdose on Oct. 4. The record was released posthumously on Jan. 11, 1971, reached number 1 on the Billboard charts, and contains the biggest hit of her career, a cover of Kris Kristofferson’s “Me and Bobby McGee.”
In such a short time, Janis Joplin lived a tremendous life and created one of the most enduring catalogs in rock music so far. She was a radical even amongst radicals. Emerging from one of the most conservative parts of the country, and despite protests from her family, Janis Joplin lived an incredibly free, defiantly shameless life even by the standards of today. In doing so she remains one of the most bright, shimmering lights of ’60s music and a trailblazer for innumerable women who came after her.
Singer Mary Bridget Davies is keeping Janis Joplin’s memory alive through talented interpretation
Over the last decade or so, Mary Bridget Davies built a reputation for being a soulful, authentic interpreter of Janis Joplin’s music, as well as being one of the most knowledgeable individuals about her life and work. Davies has starred in two plays about Joplin’s life and in 2014 was nominated for a Tony Award for her performance as Joplin in the Broadway hit, A Night with Janis Joplin. In addition to her theater work, Davies has toured extensively with both Joplin’s original band, Big Brother & The Holding Company, and her own band, The Mary Bridget Davies Group, as well as narrated the audio book, Love, Janis, a biography of Janis Joplin written by Joplin’s younger sister, Laura.
Recently, CULTURE had the opportunity to catch up with Davies and hear all of her thoughts on Joplin’s music and legacy, as well as her own personal connections to music.
Tell us about the first time you ever heard Janis Joplin’s music.
Oh yeah! I was a kid and that was my parent’s music. They were in the Vietnam-era counterculture, my dad was a musician, and so that was always playing in the house when I was a kid. I can remember jumping up and down on this super ’80s green corduroy couch that we had when I was five or six years old, and when she does that scream at the end of “Piece of My Heart,” I was frenzied. I was like, “What is this?” Then I heard “Summertime,” and it scared me a little bit. I thought it was amazing, but it kind of scared me. I thought, “Why is she screaming? Why is she crying?” But, she instantly had an effect on me, and I was a fan from single digits.
Is there anything different about the way you view Joplin and her music after having portrayed her and interpreted her music yourself for so many years?
Well, when I was a little kid I thought she was in her forties; she just seemed so road-worn and had such a tough exterior. But from getting to know her through her friends and family though, the stories they tell gave me such a better understanding of her. I realized she wasn’t just any 27-year-old, she was 27 years old and legitimately the first female rock star in the history of music. She was 27 and coming from a conservative East Texas oil refinery town where she was disappointing her family left and right, because they had what they expected her life to be and she was doing the exact opposite of that by partying, doing drugs, singing in a band and living in San Francisco. So, there was just such a split down the middle between her wanting to please her family like every child does, but also wanting to be authentic to herself.
“I think she’d be happy [the end of cannabis prohibition is] happening, but I think she’d say, “Well, it took long enough!” She’d have a smart way to say it.”
Of all Joplin’s music, do you have a favorite album that you find yourself returning to more often than others?
That’s hard; that’s like picking children. They’re all so different, because she evolved so quickly. Big Brother & The Holding Company’s Cheap Thrills is such raw, hard blues, as well as being youthful, fun and rebellious. Then, with the Kozmic Blues Band and I Got Dem ‘Ol Kozmic Blues Again Mama! Her sound became a lot more soulful. Around that time she did a Stax review in Memphis, [Tennessee] but it didn’t go over very well because the band was under-rehearsed. But she was reaching for that Otis Redding kind of thing. I love that stuff because she was being experimental, taking chances, and her voice was getting better. Then with the Full Tilt Boogie Band and songs like “Get It While You Can” and even “Me and Bobby McGee,” she was at a point where she wasn’t running away from her roots anymore; because she started out singing old folk and country blues. So, it was all way more blues and country, way more fun, and she was moving out of the whole psychedelic thing. But the stuff that I like most are the live recordings. I’ve received a lot of bootleg recordings of her over the years, and I have a copy of her last concert at Harvard Stadium on Aug. 12, 1970, and there is some really good stuff on it. She was just getting so good at that point.
Is there a song or an album that you would recommend to someone who was just checking out Joplin for the first time?
Yeah! I’d tell them to start at the beginning and listen to Cheap Thrills. However, for those who like folk music a little more, there’s this bootleg called The Typewriter Tape that are recordings of her and Jorma Kaukonen from Hot Tuna and Jefferson Airplane that are just acoustic guitar and vocals only. It’s from before she was in Big Brother & The Holding Company, so it’s a really cool, deep cuts one.
“She was 27 and coming from a conservative East Texas oil refinery town where she was disappointing her family left and right, because they had what they expected her life to be and she was doing the exact opposite of that by partying, doing drugs, singing in a band and living in San Francisco.”
If she was alive today, do you think Joplin would be impressed or disappointed with the modern world?
I think she would be socially impressed by the attempts to break down barriers and make things more inclusive for everyone, but I think she would be disappointed by the way that the internet has affected music and the way people make a living doing music. I’ve met many musicians from her period who share that disappointment, so I think she’d feel that way too.
From old interviews and show flyers, it seems like ending cannabis prohibition was something she actually took pretty seriously. Do you think she’d be impressed with how far things have come with that at least?
I think she’d be happy it’s happening, but I think she’d say, “Well, it took long enough!” She’d have a smart way to say it.