I will not make a habit of writing about Rock & Roll history, but it is indelibly part of our cultural history, and this week (Jan. 19) in 1943 marks the birthday of my choice for the greatest white female singer of rock, blues and soul who ever lived. Her name was Janis Joplin. I saw her in concert twice, and never before or since have I seen a performer pour as much blood, sweat and tears into a performance as she did into hers (and, yes, I have seen Bruce Springsteen in concert). The last time I saw her leave the stage she parted with the words, “I love ya, honey, but I got nothin’ left to give.” I believed it.
She was born in Port Arthur, Texas, an oil-refining town that held little allure for the budding singer, so she quickly gravitated to the San Francisco hippie scene of the mid-1960s. There she hooked up with the band Big Brother and the Holding Company, whose eclectic experimentation with the blues, soul and psychedelic rock fit Joplin’s tastes, and voice, perfectly.
Their second album, Cheap Thrills, became a rock classic and a commercial success, but it was her performance with Big Brother at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival in California that shot Joplin to stardom. When this diminutive slip of a girl skipped on stage and the first lyrics of the Willie Mae Thornton tune, “Ball and Chain,” came out of her mouth, the crowd was stunned. A camera recording audience reaction zoomed in on the face of Cass Elliott, the lead singer for one of the concert’s headline bands, The Mamas and the Papas. “Mama” Cass’s eyes were as wide as saucers and her mouth was forming one word. “Wow!”
Joplin left Big Brother in 1968 to form the Kozmic Blues Band and record her first solo album, but in 1970 she formed what would be her best and last band, Full Tilt Boogie. Their only album together, titled Pearl — Joplin’s nickname — included her best-known song, “Me and Bobby McGee,” which was penned by her former lover, Kris Kristofferson. The song’s chorus, “Freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose,” subsequently entered the American lexicon, but the song’s magic comes from Joplin’s astonishing vocal range and the passion in her voice.
On October 4, 1970, just before Pearl was finished, Joplin, who had a history of drug and alcohol abuse, died from a drug overdose in a Hollywood hotel room. Ironically, that day she was supposed to add the lyrics to the last song to be included on Pearl. Doubly ironic, the song’s title was “Buried Alive in the Blues.” It became the album’s only instrumental.