Janis Joplin was the descendant of a long line of passionate jazz and blues singers, such as the likes of Etta James, Billie Holiday, and Aretha Franklin. Joplin’s biggest influence was Bessie Smith, who she called the ‘Empress of the Blues.’ Joplin took these influences along with her as she explored her raw, powerful and whiskey-soaked vocals.
Before Joplin became one of the leading figures of the bohemian counter-culture in music in San Francisco, she attempted to break into the music industry in her home state of Texas. She performed various gigs around Austin, worked as a waitress at a bowling alley and after spending time in the bohemian scene, she enrolled in University there.
Growing up, Joplin was continuously picked on and bullied because of her physical appearance; while at the university she was voted ‘ugliest man on campus’. While dealing marijuana on campus, she sang and played the autoharp in a group called The Waller Creek Boys Plus One. Texas would prove to not be conducive to her bohemian spirit and longed for a more unified and professional scene.
Her ticket to the nucleus of the hippie movement in San Fran came in the form of her friend, Chet Helms after he told her about the post-beat scene. Her first stint on the West Coast in 1963 lasted until 1965, and this time was no easy ride for Joplin. She would find herself on the lower skirts of society, playing residencies at coffee-houses which barely paid, so as a solution she would pass her hat around for extra tips and then end up spending it all on beer anyway.
Her drug problems started around then, she would start taking speed and drinking copious amounts of alcohol, while shacking up with other like-minded people. She would be involved in a motorcycle accident, get beaten up in a street brawl and then arrested for shoplifting. It all culminated in an unsuccessful attempt to check herself into the general hospital.
In 1965, fairly beaten down, to say the least, she returned to her hometown of Port Arthur in Texas and decided to enrol in a Sociology course.
Joplin would continue to play gigs around Texas and even considered at one point joining the Texan band, The 13th Floor Elevators. Meanwhile, back in San Francisco, Joplin’s friend Chet Helms is friends with the newly formed Big Brother and the Holding Company (whose mission statement is “to speak to all the children of the earth”) and witnesses the blossoming of the music scene in its full San Franciscan naked glory.
One important thing that he notices, is the success of bands that are fronted by female singers, (Jefferson Airplane, The Great Society). Helms sends an old mutual friend of theirs, Travis Rivers to go to Texas to persuade Janis Joplin to return and audition for Big Brother and the Holding Company.
The audition goes well and exactly a month later on June 10th of 1966, Joplin played her first gig with the band at the Avalon Ballroom in San Francisco. The band at the time consisted of Peter Albin on bass, Sam Andrew and James Gurley on guitar, David Getz on drums, and Joplin on vocals.
A year later, Joplin and Big Brother would perform at the Monterey Pop Festival – the first major international broadcasted music festival. Their performance was historic and catapulted the group and especially Joplin as one of the West Coast’s greatest performances of the time.
While the impassioned blues singer struggled for years in the earlier part of the decade – starting with her first performance at the Avalon Ballroom and then only a year later at the Monterey Pop Festival – one can only marvel at how quickly soon after Joplin rose to international stardom.
Michelle Phillips of the Mamas and the Papas recalled, “I remember being amazed that this white woman was singing like Bessie Smith.” It seemed like things had come full circle for Joplin and a large audience began recognising her as the next in line of the great jazz and blues singers.