Known for her powerful, raspy voice and electric stage presence, Janis Joplin was one of the most outstanding musicians of her generation. Her combination of 1960s folk rock and southern blues led her to write unforgettable hit songs ‘Me and Bobby McGee,’ ‘Mercedes Benz,’ and ‘Piece of My Heart.’ Though her life was tragically cut short at age 27, her musical influence persists to this day.
We tend to associate Janis Joplin with San Francisco, which was where she met fellow emerging artists like Bob Dylan and established herself as one of the generation’s rockstars. But like Dylan and many others of their generation, she would also spend time in Greenwich Village. Joplin lived for a brief period at 139 West 10th Street in a third-floor apartment, above the basement bar and steakhouse The Ninth Circle. She was known to frequent the bar while she lived there, and also performed there occasionally, as did her friend Jimi Hendrix.
Joplin was born on January 19, 1943, in Port Arthur, Texas, a conservative oil refinery town. She was regarded as an outcast by her peers in high school. She often wore men’s clothing, and she also listened to blues music — her favorite artists were Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey, Lead Belly, Otis Redding, and Big Mama Thornton. She was both moved and inspired by the music that Black musicians were creating. She was also surrounded by middle and upper middle class white southerners, who disapproved of a white teenage girl having such interests. Despite their disapproval, she began performing the blues for the first time at her high school. She briefly enrolled in college, but dropped out and continued singing the blues at local clubs.
Feeling disenfranchised in her home state, Joplin hitchhiked to San Francisco with her friend Chet Helms in 1963. Helms would later be known as the ‘father of the Summer of Love’ and was an influential figure in the San Francisco music scene. A revolution of blues and folk rock and psychedelic experimentation was erupting from the city. Creedence Clearwater Revival and The Grateful Dead would emerge in the mid-60s alongside Joplin and her peers. The hippie era was in full swing.
After briefly returning to Texas, Joplin moved back to San Francisco. It was then that she met the band Big Brother and the Holding Company and joined as their lead singer in 1966. Big Brother gained a large following with Joplin at the helm, and with the help of Chet Helms as band manager, they signed with Columbia Records. Their album Cheap Thrills was number one in the charts for eight weeks in 1968.
Joplin left the band and set off on her solo career that same year. She went on to perform at the legendary Woodstock festival in 1969. Her set list included her hit ‘Piece of My Heart’ and the blues classic ‘Ball and Chain,’ originally performed by one of her musical heroes, Big Mama Thornton.
Being a female rock solo artist in the 1960s proved more challenging than Joplin had anticipated. She had already struggled with addiction throughout her adult life, but her drug use intensified in 1969 and 1970 while facing the pressure to succeed in a grueling, male-dominated industry with little support.
Janis Joplin died of an accidental heroin overdose on October 4, 1970 in her hotel room while on tour in Los Angeles. She was posthumously inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1995 by Melissa Etheridge, who was deeply influenced by Joplin. Etheridge and many other contemporary musicians, some of whom are now legendary in their own right, cite Janis Joplin as a musical inspiration.