Janis Lyn Joplin, blues and rock singer, daughter of Seth Ward and Dorothy (East) Joplin, was born on January 19, 1943, in Port Arthur, Texas. She grew up in a respectable middle-class home; her father was an engineer and her mother a Sunday school teacher. The future queen of nonconformity is remembered as a bright, pretty, and artistic little girl.
Signs of rebellion, however, against the religious, sexual, and racial conservatism of her environment were evident in junior high school, and by the time Janis graduated from Jefferson High School in Port Arthur in 1960, her vocabulary of four letter words, her outrageous clothes, and her reputation for sexual promiscuity and drunkenness (signs of alcoholism were already apparent) caused her classmates to call her derogatory names. Bereft of friends, without dates for school dances, ashamed of her acned face and overweight figure, Janis responded with contempt and insults to cover the rejection that scarred her for the rest of her life.
In her junior year she found acceptance in a small group of Jefferson High beatniks who read Jack Kerouac and roamed the nightspots from Port Arthur to New Orleans, thus mining one of the motherlodes of American ethnic music. There were Anglo, African American, Cajun, Mexican, and Caribbean sounds. There were the lyrics and rhythms of country, gospel, jazz, soul, and the blues. Janis did not read music, but at the roadhouses or at home listening to records of Odetta, Bessie Smith, or Willie Mae Thornton, she had an uncanny ability to imitate the sounds she heard. Out of imitation there slowly developed the timing, phrasing, inflections, and talent at evoking changing moods that were the Joplin trademarks.
She found Lamar State College of Technology at Beaumont no improvement over Port Arthur; she was characterized as a rebel in both places. She fled to the University of Texas in Austin in the summer of 1962 to study art. Indifferent to classwork, she found soulmates at the Ghetto, a counterculture enclave, and got gigs around Austin, most importantly at Threadgill's, a converted filling station and late night hangout for lovers of music and nonstop partying. The proprietor, country singer Kenneth Threadgill, offered Janis encouragement and lifelong friendship.
Janis craved such acceptance, but her nonconforming behavior often provoked rejection, as when university fraternity pranksters nominated her as their candidate in the annual Ugliest Man on Campus contest. Characteristically, she laughed to cover the hurt, and dreamed of San Francisco, where Beats and Hippies were not outsiders. She spent 1963 to 1965 in the Bay area and won attention from local audiences, until drugs became more important than singing and reduced her to an emaciated eighty-eight pounds. Her friends passed the hat and gave her a bus ticket home.
Parental care restored her health, and fear of relapse produced a period of sobriety. Business suits and bouffant hairdos announced conversion to the Port Arthur ethos. But Janis's mind was torn: Port Arthur was safe but dull. San Francisco offered both excitement and potential self destruction. She made her decision after receiving an offer to audition for a new rock band, Big Brother and the Holding Company, and headed west in May 1966, toward four years of meteoric fame—and death at age twenty-seven.
"Imagine a white girl singing the blues like that!" they said of Big Brother's lead singer. And Joplin's belting of rock gathered huge swaying, clapping, shouting, and dancing audiences. For Janis a good audience was an audience in motion, and her body joined her voice in pleading for audience participation. She stopped the show at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967 with "Ball and Chain." That triumph and the album Cheap Thrills (1968) elevated her to national stardom. A new manager, Albert Grossman, whose stable of stars included Peter, Paul and Mary and Bob Dylan, urged Janis to dump Big Brother for more versatile and disciplined support. The Kosmic Blues band was never satisfactory; the Full Tilt Boogie band was.
Joplin's career now surged forward full tilt, driven by Southern Comfort booze, heroin, bisexual liaisons, compulsive work, and the hope that fame would bring inner peace. Success now meant concerts in Madison Square Garden, Paris, London, Woodstock, and Harvard Stadium; adulation in the New York Times; a guest appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show; and a six-figure salary.
Janis was ready in August 1970 to confront the Jefferson High classmates who had called her a slut. Whether her primary purpose in attending the tenth-anniversary class reunion was revenge, a desire to be worshiped as a hero, or just a quest for acceptance is unclear. What is certain is that she left Port Arthur feeling further alienated from her classmates, her parents, and her hometown. When she died in Los Angeles two months later, on October 4, 1970, of an accidental overdose of heroin and alcohol, her newly drawn will required that her ashes be strewn over California soil.
The judgment of others has been far kinder to Janis Joplin than she was to herself. She has been called "the best white blues singer in American musical history" and "the greatest female singer in the history of rock 'n' roll." Those who missed her live performances must judge her from a relatively small number of albums, audiotapes, and videotapes. Pearl, an album recorded just before her death and featuring "Me and Bobby McGee," shows that Janis was growing musically almost to the moment of her death. The film The Rose (1979), starring Bette Midler, is not faithful in detail to Janis's life, but it captures her mesmerizing power onstage, in contrast to her utter powerlessness offstage to halt her relentless descent to self destruction. Janis's sad life cannot be separated from her greatness. Her tortured soul gave her blues the authenticity of direct experience. After her death she was finally accepted in the hometown she both loved and ridiculed. In 1988 some 5,000 people from Port Arthur, tears in their eyes, sang "Me and Bobby McGee" as a bust of Janis Joplin was unveiled. It now sits in a Port Arthur library. In the 2000s Port Arthur's Museum of the Gulf Coast featured Joplin among its exhibits and she was an inductee in the Gulf Coast Music Hall of Fame. Port Arthur holds a birthday bash every January in celebration of the singer.
In the decades after her death, various Joplin anthologies and live recordings were released as well as numerous biographies. In 1992 her sister, Laura Joplin, published Love, Janis, a collection of letters Janis wrote to her family beginning in 1963. A play with the same title and based on the book opened in Denver in 1995 and subsequently had a long run at the Zachary Scott Theater in Austin in summer 1997. The performance opened off Broadway in April 2001 and ran to January 5, 2003. Janis Joplin was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame on January 12, 1995. In 2005 she was honored with a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. A Texas State Historical Marker was erected in front of Joplin’s childhood home in Port Arthur in January 2008 in commemoration of the singer’s sixty-fifth birthday. She was inducted into the Austin Music Memorial in 2010.