“I want my children to know what I stood for. I want everybody to remember me as a person who fought injustice.”
With startling intensity Janis Joplin burst onto the music scene of the late 1960s. Many consider her to be the most original and electrifying singer of the era.
Born in the oil refinery town of Port Arthur, Janis grew up playing records by Odetta, Leadbelly, and Bessie Smith. She suffered a miserable adolescence, feeling rejected by classmates on account of her affinity for black artists and her acne and body size. She responded with flamboyance and disdain. During her junior year, Janis fell in with a group of “wild” boys, and together they roamed nightspots in nearby Louisiana, mining a mother lode of American folk music.
Upon graduating from high school, Janis enrolled at Lamar College in Beaumont. After an unhappy year, she traveled to California and was instantly drawn to the beatnik counterculture. Back in Texas in 1962, she enrolled as an art student at The University of Texas at Austin. Here Janis found her musical voice. With a group called the Waller Creek Boys, she performed regularly in the student union and in Threadgill’s, a gas station converted into a bar on North Lamar. Rejection stabbed her again when, in a fraternity prank, she was named “Ugliest Man on Campus.” Soon afterwards she hitchhiked to California.
Taking up lodging in the San Francisco Bay area, she sang sporadically in bars and coffeehouses. Drugs permeated this milieu, and in 1965 Janis came home to Texas in poor health. For a year she alternated between Port Arthur and Austin, then received an invitation to audition for a band in San Francisco—a siren call that proved irresistible.
Janis got the job with Big Brother and the Holding Company. From there her career steamed full-throttle ahead. Her raspy, belting voice and stomping performance stopped the show at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967. She played concerts in Madison Square Garden, Paris, London, Woodstock, and Harvard Stadium. She changed bands twice, garnered two gold record albums, and was working on another album when she died of a heroin overdose in a Los Angeles motel. Her album Pearl, issued posthumously, contains two of her biggest hits: the rollicking, haunting “Me and Bobby McGee” and the a cappella satire "Mercedes Benz."
After you reach a certain level of talent (& quite a few have that talent) the deciding factor is ambition, or as I see it, how much you really need. Need to be loved & need to be proud of yourself. . . & I guess that’s what ambition is—Letter to her parents upon her California successes
Without the music, I might have destroyed myself. Now my feelings work for me. . . . Maybe I won’t last long, but if I hold back I’m no good now.—Response to concerns about conserving her voice