“I want to be the biggest blues singer in the world!”
That’s what Janis Joplin told her producer Paul Rothchild when he asked her where she wanted to be at age 65. Five years past that landmark, January 19, 2013, would have been Janis’ 70th birthday. She didn’t make it to “retirement age,” but she had already achieved her espoused goal in her way-too-short lifetime. When she died while completing her masterpiece, Pearl, on October 4, 1970, she was only 27 years old. Her swan song would top the charts for nine weeks upon its release in January 1971. During her brief life, as she worked hard to fulfill her aspirations, she not only changed the way pop culture views women, but inspired many of us who grew up in little pockets of conservatism (like her hometown of Port Arthur, Texas) to spread our wings and fly.
I was a 14-year-old growing up in North Carolina when Janis’ posthumous Number One single, “Me and Bobby McGee,” became a staple on AM radio. But between seeing a colorfully garbed and articulate Janis on The Dick Cavett Show in June 1970, and hearing that bittersweet road song, in January 1971, my eyes – and ears – were opened by this singular woman with a magnificent voice. A decade later, I was living in New York City, playing in bands and writing about music.
Janis always had a larger-than-life image that inspired girls like me, but as Elliott Landy’s photographs testify, she was multifaceted. She enjoyed a good book, even backstage at Detroit’s psychedelic Grande Ballroom, and scintillating conversation with the likes of director Paul Morrissey, sphinx-like Andy Warhol and singer-songwriter Tim Buckley at the legendary Manhattan watering hole, Max’s Kansas City. She loved her manager Albert Grossman, a wheeler-dealer who’d handled Bob Dylan, and she adored her audiences, whom she addressed onstage – from the Fillmore East to Newport to Woodstock – like they were old friends. In concert, she transformed into a shamanic force of nature; in the studio, working with longtime Doors producer Paul Rothchild, she helped steer the ship.
“What a gorgeous lady to photograph,” marveled Landy, whose images of Joplin also can be found in his book, Woodstock Vision. “She was very exciting to look at. When she sang and performed, visual harmony happened.” On his travels with Joplin and Big Brother and the Holding Company in 1968, he attempted to make himself “as invisible as possible and try to make her forget I was there, so I could capture her soul.”
Janis often referred to herself as the “chick singer,” first finding fame with Big Brother, in 1966-7; then going solo and forming the Kozmic Blues Band to back her in 1968-9; and finally leading the Full-Tilt Boogie Band, with whom she recorded the timeless Pearl. Listening to the studio chatter documented on the two-CD set, The Pearl Sessions, you hear her brainstorming ideas for song arrangements and tempos, guitar parts, and vocal styles – proving she was so much more than just a chick singer.
With surplus vocal talent, intellect, and artistry, Janis fearlessly lived by the philosophy “Get It While You Can,” also the title of the gut-wrenching final track on Pearl. Just four days before her death, she told New York radio DJ Howard Smith, “You are only as much as you settle for.”
Janis never settled; she kept striving for the next musical step. Nicknamed “Pearl” by her Full-Tilt band mates, Janis spent her final days doing what she loved, and as Rothchild later told her sister, Laura Joplin, “She was a singer, full of song, totally immersed in the magic of that moment of creativity – she was at one.”
Her decision to shoot heroin during a break from the recording sessions, tragically, took her away from us. But what she left behind – her music and her legacy – have enriched generations.
A hidden track on The Pearl Sessions finds Janis and her band singing to John Lennon in honor of his thirtieth birthday on October 9. Using her most-polished croon, Janis breaks into fellow Texan Dale Evans’ cowgirl classic, “Happy Trails,” ending with “Happy birthday, John!” and that crazy cackle of hers.
Forty-three years later, on the occasion of our biggest blues singer’s seventieth: Happy trails, Pearl!
Holly George-Warren is the author or coauthor of more than a dozen books, including The Road to Woodstock (with Michael Lang), Public Cowboy No. 1: The Life and Timesof Gene Autry, and Grateful Dead 365. Her liner notes to The Pearl Sessions were nominated for a Grammy Award.