It’s all too easy to romanticize something in hindsight, to attribute to it greater power than what it had. But that’s simply not possible when it comes to the voice of Janis Joplin. That sound stretches across the decades, the mighty howl of a blues Valkyrie that still reverberates with soul and meaning. Her contemporaries marveled at her; Grace Slick of Jefferson Airplane said that she would just open her mouth and “let it out,” while no less an authority than Tina Turner praised her for her authenticity, saying that “she wasn’t trying to be anything else other than Janis Joplin.” Unfortunately, that voice was gone too soon, silenced at age 27 from an accidental overdose in October of 1970. However, one last album remained. Pearl, released 50 years ago this week, held the top spot for nine weeks and yielded Joplin’s only #1 single.
Janis Joplin started singing folk and blues in her teens. After a short unfinished stint in college in her native Texas, she made her way to San Francisco in 1963. Experiencing some severe issues with drugs, Joplin returned to Texas and tried to find a new direction in her life, even recording some acoustic tracks. However, San Francisco beckoned again when she was invited to join the band Big Brother and the Holding Company. Joplin became an official member in June of 1966.
Through two years and two albums, Joplin’s incredible vocal styling drew more and more attention. One of the biggest moments was the Monterey Pop Festival in June of 1967; even among Jimi Hendrix, Otis Redding, and The Who, the band made a big impression with Joplin up front. Tremendous buzz surrounded the powerful young singer. That excitement only escalated with the release of the Holding Company’s second album, Cheap Thrills, which contained one of Joplin’s finest moments, “Piece of My Heart.” With tensions escalating in the band over Joplin’s increasing fame and other issues, Joplin departed for a solo career at the end of 1968.
Her first solo album, I Got Dem Ol’ Kozmic Blues Again Mama!, was recorded with her new back-up group, the Kozmic Blues Band. The album would hit #5 on the charts. Throughout 1969, Joplin made appearances on popular TV programs like The Dick Cavett Show and This is Tom Jones. She also made a major appearance at Woodstock; in Who I Am: A Memoir, Pete Townshend wrote of Joplin’s set: “She had been amazing at Monterey, but tonight she wasn’t at her best, due, probably, to the long delay, and probably, too, to the amount of booze and heroin she’d consumed while she waited. But even Janis on an off-night was incredible.” Joplin asked that her set not be included in the Woodstock documentary film, as she wasn’t happy with her own performance.
In 1970, Joplin put together a new backing group, the Full Tilt Boogie Band. They launched a well-regarded tour that year. And though Joplin still contended with drugs and alcohol, she was putting in solid performances like a two-hour set at the Calgary show of the Festival Express tour. The group would play Harvard Stadium in Boston that August; no one knew it would be their last show. Joplin and the band entered the studio that fall to record a new album. Sadly, Joplin accidentally overdosed on heroin and died on October 4, 1970.
Joplin had recorded enough material to constitute an album. One of the songs was “Me and Bobby McGee,” which had been written by her friend, Kris Kristofferson, and Fred Foster. Although a number of artists had recorded the song since 1969, including Roger Miller, the Statler Brothers, Kenny Rogers and the First Edition, Gordon Lightfoot, and Kristofferson himself, it would be Joplin’s take that would stick in popular consciousness. The album, Pearl, was released on January 11, 1971, with the single released the following day. The album hit #1 for nine straight weeks, and “Me and Bobby McGee” went to #1 on the Hot 100 for two weeks in March. Pearl contained two other tracks regarded as essential Joplin: her cover of “Cry Baby” and a song that she co-wrote with Bob Neuwirth and Michael McClure, “Mercedes Benz.”
As of 2020, Pearl is listed at #259 on the Rolling Stone list of the Best Albums of All Time. Joplin routinely appears near the top on lists of the greatest singers ever, particularly in rock. Though her body of work is small compared to other artists, her influence is almost incalculable; Stevie Nicks, Pink, Joss Stone, and Melissa Etheridge are just a handful of artists who have commented on her meaning or have covered her work. When you actually sit down and listen to Joplin, it’s no wonder that her voice continues to echo down the years. Every song did indeed give us a little piece of her heart, and feeling good was easy when she sang the blues.
Featured image: wonderlustpicstravel / Shutterstock
Become a Saturday Evening Post member and enjoy unlimited access. Subscribe now