Occasionally, as listeners, we get the privilege of hearing an album that is the epitome of an artist. A recording that not only captures the physical grooves of music, but the burning essence of that artist. When it is their final album, usually due to it being followed by a fatal end — giving the piece of art that final touch of totality and denouement — as tragic as that is; it truly immortalises them.
Pearl by Janis Joplin is such an album. From the title – Pearl is Joplin’s self-given nickname within the music community – to the artwork of the album, Paul Rothschild’s (Who worked with The Doors and Love) amazing production work, to the eclectic musicianship of Joplin’s band, Full Tilt Boogie Band, which allowed her space and provided the perfect foundation for her to belt her unique brand of soul within the framework of blues. Pearl was always set to be an album never to be forgotten.
Janis Joplin possessed the sheer skill that was moulded over years of non-stop work through various bands. Upon becoming a musician, Joplin stated, “I want to be a white, black singer.” Frequently compared to Bessie Smith and worshipping other classic jazz and blues singers such as Billie Holiday, she would become the first real female white blues singer. What’s more, she came equipped with a vocal power never heard before.
Born in Texas, Janis Joplin was frequently picked on in school and eventually university, never truly fitting in with the in-crowd. Joplin continuously fought and advocated for the rights of black citizens. It wasn’t only her beliefs and principals that set her apart from her peers. While attending the University of Austin in Texas, she was voted “the ugliest man” by her classmates and was frequently the target of many bullies. Joplin, while a strong woman who both enjoyed and suffered hard living; was also simultaneously a soft and kind spirit who in many simply wanted to get along and fit in.
Janis Joplin biographer, Holly George-Warren said: “At that point in time there weren’t too many women taking centre stage. Janis created this incredible image that went along with her amazing vocal ability. Joplin was very, very different than most of the women that came before.”
She moved to San Francisco in the early 1960s to start her career in music, but by ‘65, she began having her doubts and moved back home to Texas to try and have a real go at “fitting in”. It wasn’t meant to be, and by 1966, she had returned to San Francisco and found some sense of belonging with the psychedelic blues band, Big Brother and the Holding Company. With this band, Joplin truly flourished, widely adored every time she stepped on the stage and unleashed her visceral vocal performances.
After the success of Big Brother and the Holding Company’s performance at the Monterey Pop Festival and by the time they released their second album Cheap Thrills in 1968, Janis and the band reached commercial success.
After leaving Big Brother, she would go on to form her own band, Kozmic Blues Band, and release her only solo album while she was alive.
In 1970, Janis was ready to record her final seminal album Pearl, for which she had truly developed and fine-tuned her “act”, so to speak. She has become known for her rawness and pure feeling during her performances, and many would be apt to think that this is who she was — a one-trick pony, in a way. Biographer Holly George-Warren would say otherwise: “She was a real scholar of music. She didn’t want people to know how hard she worked,” George-Warren says. “She wanted people to think she was just this vessel, or this megaphone, or something that was just up there on stage, and the music and emotions were just coming out of her.”
Her newest band was developed over the last year or so of touring and would culminate in the Full Tilt Boogie Band, whose name originated from one of Joplin’s entourage. According to Joplin, when she was on the Dick Cavett show, before one of her shows, while in the dressing room, a friend of hers burst in and yelled: “are you ready to full tilt boogie?!”
Pearl encapsulates the full array of Janis Joplin’s emotional range as a true blues and soul singer and a vessel for emotional agony. However, there is one other aspect to her “energy”, so to speak, that cannot be overlooked. Despite her, what was frequently described as “average looks”, Joplin possessed a fiery, sexually charged, enigmatic personality that came across in her music, specifically on this album. Her laugh was infectious, her style was bohemian, she was part ’40s and ’50s jazz, part early ’60s psychedelic blues rocker, and part countercultural hippie. She was everything.
According to Terry Gross for NPR: “You can look to two major influences that Janis had that I think affected her sexuality and the way she expressed it onstage. One was, of course, the great Bessie Smith, whose lyrics Janis knew by heart. She started performing Bessie Smith songs around 1963, and those kind of lyrics of sexuality, of sexual longing, sexual betrayal: Those very much informed Janis’ own songwriting and the songs that she chose to sing.
“The other major influence was Otis Redding. She was a huge Otis fan until the day she died, and she got to see him perform live three nights in a row at the Fillmore back in 1966, and it transformed her.”
Released today, posthumously in 1971, Pearl reached number one on Billboard charts and has since been certified platinum, four times. The album yielded a number one hit, ‘Me and Bobby McGee’, written by Kris Kristofferson and Fred Foster; Joplin plays acoustic guitar on it. The last song Joplin would record before her fatal overdose of heroin, would be the haunting acapella track, ‘Mercedez Benz’. Janis was due to go track vocals on the tragically and ironically named ‘Buried Alive in the Blues’, written by Nick Gravenites, on the day she tragically overdosed. The album also contains ‘Cry Baby’ which may well be Joplin’s finest vocal performance and the singer’s stonking rendition of ‘Move Over’.
Holly George-Warren, the award-winning writer, editor, producer, writes: “What made Janis really different as a live performer is that she connected with her audiences by tapping into her deepest feelings. And there was this authenticity that came across. She wasn’t just standing up there singing — she was basically emptying out her guts through that amazing voice of hers, and touching her audience members like they had never been touched before.” One factor was Joplin’s gender. As a woman, being so sexually raw and open made her an icon for the age and, still to this day, inspired people to refute the labelled box picked out for them in pursuit of their own space.
One only has to look upon the album artwork of Pearl to get a sense of what Janis Joplin was all about. Forever smiling, and forever living free, exuding charisma and southern charm; Joplin remains to this day, a hero among all women working in the music industry today, and all aspiring singers attempting to channel the power of heartache and emotion within their music.