Janis Joplin: The Queen Of Rock

Jan 19, 2013
Originally published on January 19, 2013 7:25 pm
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JACKI LYDEN, HOST:

If you're just tuning in, this is WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden. And it's time now for music. Today, a major musical birthday.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PIECE OF MY HEART")

LYDEN: Janis Joplin would have turned 70 years old on this day.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PIECE OF MY HEART")

LYDEN: Janis Joplin died in 1970 at the age of just 27. She left behind a regrettably short yet incomparable catalog. NPR's Laura Sydell has this remembrance.

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LAURA SYDELL, BYLINE: In the mid-1960s, San Francisco was a Mecca for counterculture musicians. Many became megastars: Jimi Hendrix, the Grateful Dead, Santana. But when singer and songwriter Tracy Nelson arrived in 1966, it wasn't so open for her.

TRACY NELSON: I had I don't know how many musicians tell me: Why do you want to do this? This is no business for a woman. You know, why not just stay home, find a man, love, you know, just this kind of (bleep) that I didn't even think I was ever going to hear again.

SYDELL: That same year, another woman artist was trying to bust through the paternalistic San Francisco culture.

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SYDELL: Janis Joplin and Tracy Nelson shared a bill at the Avalon Ballroom.

NELSON: I had to follow Janis Joplin. And I'm standing out there listening to her, and I was just thinking: Man, this is a force of nature.

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SYDELL: Joplin was fronting a group called Big Brother and The Holding Company. They were pretty much a local San Francisco band until they played the Monterey Pop Festival in June of 1967.

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SYDELL: Among the 1,200 journalists covering the festival was critic Robert Christgau, who was then writing for Esquire magazine.

ROBERT CHRISTGAU: I very much remember her playing in the sunshine, and everyone really not just excited but kind of flabbergasted at how intense it was.

SYDELL: Like a lot of white musicians at the time, Joplin was trying to sing like a black blues musician.

CHRISTGAU: Not too many of them were very convincing in that role. She was convincing in that role.

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SYDELL: It's not how Joplin started out singing. She grew up in Port Arthur, Texas. She was a featured singer in the church choir. When she left for college in 1960, her models were folkies - singers like Joan Baez and Judy Collins. Initially, Joplin tried to imitate them.

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SYDELL: But the young singer didn't believe she could make it as a folkie, says Alice Echols, the author of a Joplin biography called "Scars of Sweet Paradise."

ALICE ECHOLS: Janis Joplin made a calculation. And the calculation was, you know what, I'm not pretty like Judy Collins or Maria Muldaur. And using that pretty voice is not going to get me very far.

SYDELL: In fact, Joplin had a hard time growing up in Texas. She didn't fit in to the conformist 1950s. She was a painter. She was chubby. She had bad skin, and she wasn't conventionally pretty. In an appearance in 1970 on "The Dick Cavett Show," she spoke bitterly about her adolescence.

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SYDELL: So maybe it's not surprising that Joplin fell in love with the blues, especially Bessie Smith, Leadbelly and Big Mama Thornton. As she told Cavett, singing was the only way she could express how she felt.

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(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ALL IS LONELINESS")

SYDELL: Unfortunately, many of the artists of the 1960s who emulated the blues also emulated the drug habits of blues musicians. In early October of 1970, just a little over three years since she hit it big, Joplin was making an album with a new band. One night, she went back to her Los Angeles hotel room and shot up. She was found dead the next day. Tracy Nelson remembers hearing the news.

NELSON: I was kind of pissed off, because she had gone beyond that. She was really beginning to be a really serious musician and singer. And it was just so dumb.

SYDELL: That winter, Joplin's record label released her last album, "Pearl." "Me and Bobby McGee" topped the charts.

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SYDELL: Many critics say it was Joplin's best album. She began to take more control of her voice. She was the first woman to make it big in rock. Yet, biographer Alice Echols says she really has no imitators.

ECHOLS: Nobody has come close to capturing the way that that girl sang. And I don't think they ever will, because there's something in her voice that can't be replicated.

SYDELL: Echols thinks it's no accident that they've been trying to make a movie about Joplin for years but still haven't found anyone who can play the part. Laura Sydell, NPR News, San Francisco.

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LYDEN: Today would have been Janis Joplin's 70th birthday.

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LYDEN: And for Saturday, that's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden. Check out our weekly podcast. Check for WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED on iTunes or on the NPR app. Click on programs, scroll down. We're back on the radio tomorrow. Until then, thanks for listening and have a great night.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ME AND BOBBY MCGEE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.