Janis: From Blues Mama to Rock Queen

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“I’m one of those regular weird people.” ~Janis Joplin

It began with her friend’s record collection. They were all there, the African-American blues divas whose raw, powerful vocals grabbed hold of a teenage loser — a white girl from a white-bread family in Port Arthur, Texas — and altered her DNA. Bessie Smith. Ma Rainey. Big Mama Thornton. She listened to them over and over. Their bold faces stared at her from the album jackets. The stories they told! — like dispatches from another world. Lying men and hard women, fighting, loving, hating, killing.

“Judge, judge, good kind judge, send me to the ’lectric chair.”

“I spend every dime on liquor, got to have the booze to go with these blues.”

“All around I felt it, all I could see was the rain. Something grabbed a hold of me, honey, felt to me, honey, like, lord, a ball and chain!”

The Joplins had a respectable record collection, including cast recordings of The King and I and My Fair Lady. Janis and her sister Laura loved them. They used to sing along and act out the parts (Janis played the boys). But this — this was something else.

“He’s a deep sea diver with a stroke that can’t go wrong. He can stay at the bottom, and his wind holds out so long.”

What did that mean? Janis didn’t know. She’d never even had a boyfriend. But she knew how it made her feel.
Janis Joplin began her performing career as a folk singer, a girl with an acoustic guitar, singing alone and with friends in local clubs.

Despite the left-wing politics of most of its practitioners, folk music was enjoying a revival during Joplin’s high school years.

“Hootenannies” were parent-approved venues for traditional American music making and safe, mild fun, a welcome alternative to that devilish rock ’n’ roll.

But when the parents weren’t around, Janis would slip in a couple of  her raunchy blues favorites. Weren’t they folk music too? And by now she had learned what the words meant.

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It’s hard to pin down a definition of the blues. Some people say it’s a mood, usually melancholy or hopeless, but there are comic blues as well. Musicians point to its unusual 12-bar form, but there are also plenty of 8-bar blues. Others point to its characteristic chord progression. It’s a folk style, but some commercial Tin Pan Alley songs seem to become blues when they’re sung by blues singers. In the end, it comes down to what a Supreme Court Justice said when a reporter asked him to define obscenity: “I know it when I see it.”

In the late ’50s Janis wasn’t just singing the blues — she was, within the privileged world of a southern white girl, living the blues.

In high school she was mocked and ostracized for her clothes, her weight, her bad skin, and her friendships with black people. In college things improved a bit. She wasn’t openly harassed, but was singled out as the campus oddball, someone who went to class barefoot (gross!), wore blue jeans (gasp!), and carried an autoharp everywhere she went (weird!).

She dropped out of the University of Texas and moved to San Francisco. It was 1963, and the hippie counterculture that would eventually replace the previous generation’s beatniks was just gaining a toehold.

She found a cheap room in Haight-Ashbury and recorded some blues standards with future Jefferson Airplane guitarist Jorma Kaukonen.

She also developed a taste for methamphetamines and got a reputation as a speed freak. In 1965 her new friends convinced her to go back to Port Arthur and clean up her act.

And she did. She enrolled in school as an anthropology major, adopted a beehive hairdo, and became engaged to an IBM employee from New York City.

She also began singing again, commuting to Austin to perform as a solo act, playing guitar and singing. Her performances were well reviewed and soon she was recruited to join the psychedelic rock band Big Brother and the Holding Company. Her marriage plans fell apart and she moved back to San Francisco. Her first rehearsal with Big Brother was, amazingly, the first time she had ever sung with a band. It was, in sixties-speak, mind blowing.

She later said

“All my life I just wanted to be a beatnik. Meet all the heavies, get stoned, get laid, have a good time. That’s all I ever wanted. All of a sudden someone threw me in this rock-n-roll band. They threw all these musicians at me, man, and the sound was coming from behind. The bass was charging me. And I decided then and there that that was it. I never wanted to do anything else.”

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UNSPECIFIED - CIRCA 1970: Photo of Janis Joplin Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Big Brother and the Holding Company were a blues rock band (with currently trendy psychedelic trappings), practitioners of a new sound in pop music.

In the 1960s certain rock musicians infused American blues songs with the loud, aggressive sound and faster tempos of electric rock, creating a fusion genre called blues rock.

In the United Kingdom the new style was championed by groups like the Rolling Stones, the Animals, and the Yardbirds, while in the United States pioneer blues rockers included Lonnie Mack, Canned Heat, and the Paul Butterfield Blues Band.

The core sound of blues rock was created by the electric guitar, bass guitar, and drum kit, frequently enhanced by piano and/or Hammond organ, as well as blues harmonica (“harp”).

Guitars were distorted and amplified through tube amps, giving a growling “overdriven” quality to the sound.

That growling sound was often attempted by featured vocalists. It was a sound that Janis had already perfected. Singing with Big Brother felt like coming home.

Janis and the band got the break of a lifetime when they were asked to perform at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival, a mammoth three-day concert event that was one of the defining moments of the Summer of Love.

Big Brother was a nearly unknown act, but thanks to Janis’s astounding vocals they more than held their own against Jimi Hendrix, The Who, Jefferson Airplane, Ravi Shankar, The Mamas and the Papas, and another relative newcomer, Otis Redding.

And by great good fortune, the entire event was captured by documentary filmmaker D.A. Pennebaker. His film, Monterey Pop, is our best source for early footage of Janis in all her raw glory.

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Big Brother’s first major studio album, Cheap Thrills, was a fixture in nearly every college dorm in 1968.

Its two big selling points: Janis’s volcanic vocals (“Summertime,” “Piece of My Heart,” “Ball and Chain”) and the iconic album art by underground cartoonist R. Crumb.

Later that year Janis left Big Brother and embarked on a solo career. Oddly, the announcement of the split came with the explanation that “Shortly she will be merely Janis Joplin again, a vocalist singing folk-rock on her first album as a single.

Luckily, that didn’t happen.

Janis formed her own backup group, the Kozmic Blues Band, made up of studio musicians under contract to her.

For the rest of her short career, she sang to increasing fame in her signature style, appearing at major venues such as Woodstock and Madison Square Garden, and recording two more studio albums: I Got Dem Ol’ Kozmic Blues Again Mama! and Pearl, released after her death in 1970 at the age of 27.

Janis Joplin’s death (from a overdose of heroin, possibly compounded by alcohol) stunned the music world.

Her close friends vehemently denied that Janis could have deliberately ended her life. In her final days, they insisted, she was full of joy, proud of her accomplishments and excited about the future.

A Night with Janis Joplin chooses, rightly, to focus on her life and her legacy.

Her music has never gone out of fashion and her voice remains an inspiration to aspiring female singers everywhere.

Florence Welch of Florence and the Machine says:

“She was so unrestrained, so free, so raw and she wasn’t afraid to wail. There was always a sense of longing, of searching for something. I think she really sums up the idea that soul is about putting your pain into something beautiful.”

-5th Avenue Theatre Artistic Associate Albert Evans

To meet the cast or buy tickets, visit our website here: https://www.5thavenue.org/show/janis-joplin/#meet-the-cast

 

Author: The 5th Avenue Theatre

The Nation's Leading Musical Theater

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