Remembering Janis Joplin: Some Classic Live Performances and Previews of a New Joplin Musical

Janis Joplin died forty-two years ago this month at age 27 of the same excess­es that killed many of her peers and at the absolute height of her career. But in the mid-nine­teen fifties, Joplin was a mis­fit kid with ter­ri­ble acne liv­ing a lone­ly exis­tence in Port Arthur, Texas. Then she dis­cov­ered the blues, and it trans­formed her. Bessie Smith and Lead­bel­ly, Odet­ta and Aretha Franklin. By 1964, she was liv­ing in San Fran­cis­co and record­ing blues stan­dards with future Jef­fer­son Air­plane gui­tarist Jor­ma Kauko­nen. She rose to promi­nence and found her­self a place to fit in with psy­che­del­ic pio­neers Big Broth­er and the Hold­ing Com­pa­ny. Big Broth­er didn’t ini­tial­ly take to Joplin’s soul­ful rasp, but she even­tu­al­ly won them over, and won mil­lions of fans over to the band, par­tic­u­lar­ly with their sec­ond album Cheap Thrills, which spawned the sin­gle “Piece of My Heart,” and my favorite, her ren­di­tion of blues clas­sic “Ball and Chain.” Her per­for­mance of the lat­ter at the Mon­terey Pop Fes­ti­val in 1967 is leg­endary, and the record­ing of it above is pris­tine, with excel­lent live sound qual­i­ty and close-up cam­era angles of Joplin and the rest of the band.

Joplin broke away from Big Broth­er short­ly after Cheap Thrills and formed a solo act, tour­ing and record­ing with The Kozmic Blues Band, with whom she record­ed just one album, I Got Dem ‘Ol Kozmic Blues Again Mama!. Crit­ics didn’t love it, but this tran­si­tion­al phase was impor­tant for Janis since it enabled her to work in a more blue-based sound bet­ter suit­ed to her dra­mat­ic per­sona. Kozmic draws on the clas­sic Stax/Volt records tem­plate, with horns and back­ing vocals as promi­nent accom­pa­ni­ment.  The record’s strongest moments are prob­a­bly the Bee Gees-penned “To Love Some­body” and the funk-soul “Try (Just a Lit­tle Bit Hard­er)” (above in Frank­furt, Ger­many).

In the last year of her life, Joplin head­lined the all-star Fes­ti­val Express train tour through Cana­da, with Bud­dy Guy, The Band, The Grate­ful Dead, and oth­ers. The tour was doc­u­ment­ed by Acad­e­my Award win­ning cin­e­matog­ra­ph­er Peter Biziou and the footage has been acquired by His­toric Films Archive, who are dig­i­tiz­ing almost 96 hours of film from the tour, includ­ing, they claim, the only known live footage of Joplin singing “Me and My Bob­by McGee.” Below is a full, ener­getic, per­for­mance of “Tell Mama” from the Fes­ti­val Express tour:

Joplin con­tin­ued, through most of that year, to ele­vate her art, record­ing the best-sell­ing, posthu­mous­ly-released Pearl with new back­ing band Full Tilt Boo­gie. This is the Joplin most casu­al fans know—of “Me and My Bob­by McGee” and “Mer­cedes Benz,” and for good rea­son. One of her final pub­lic appear­ances was on The Dick Cavett Show in June of 1970 (below), where she per­forms sev­er­al live num­bers with Full Tilt Boo­gie. In Cavett’s inter­view with her, Joplin returns to her painful teenage years, say­ing that her high school class­mates “laughed me out of class, out of town, and out of the state.”

While the final peri­od of Joplin’s life saw her pro­duce some incred­i­ble work, her name occa­sion­al­ly becomes a short­hand for rock and roll excess­es that obscure her amaz­ing, if all-too-brief, career. In an effort to cel­e­brate her life, rather than dwell on her death, the pro­duc­ers of the new show One Night With Janis Joplin (cur­rent­ly at the Are­na Stage in Wash­ing­ton, DC) elide the drug abuse that killed her and focus on the music. Joplin’s broth­er Michael talks about their musi­cal upbring­ing in the video below, which also includes clips from the loose­ly-plot­ted musi­cal, with Mary Brid­get Davies as the star.

Josh Jones is a doc­tor­al can­di­date in Eng­lish at Ford­ham Uni­ver­si­ty and a co-founder and for­mer man­ag­ing edi­tor of Guer­ni­ca / A Mag­a­zine of Arts and Pol­i­tics.


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