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Janis Joplin: More Than Just A Great Big Voice

David Gahr/Getty Images)
Janis Joplin on the roof garden of the Chelsea Hotel in New York City in June 1970.

From Texas Standard:

Janis Joplin left her Texas home in the early 1960s. She didn't fit in in Port Arthur, where she grew up, and she wanted to make a name for herself as a musician. She did that, and more, becoming the biggest female rock star of the era. Joplin's greatest musical success, the album, "Pearl," was released after her death from a heroin overdose in 1970. She was just 27. 

In the new biography, "Janis: Her Life and Music," author Holly George-Warren says Joplin was much more of a musical and creative force than people realize. 

"I got to hear this woman – … she kind of painted this persona," George-Warren says. "She never talked about how hard she worked to get to where she was and become the musician she was. And suddenly, I hear her coming up with guitar parts, figuring out different tempos, new arrangements of the songs. She was really calling the shots."

In her early life, Joplin wasn't so self-assured. She had been happy and popular in her hometown of Port Arthur, but as she gravitated toward blues music, and the freer lifestyle of the 1960s, George-Warren says Joplin's community rejected her.

"She had a very loving, supportive family. She did very well at school, and she got awards for her writing ability. And of course, she was also a very talented painter," George-Warren says. "But once she read Jack Kerouac's "On the Road" when it came out – once she discovered music that was pretty verboten in white neighborhoods in Port Arthur … she became obsessed with that music."

Credit Photo by David Gahr
Janis Joplin at the 1968 Newport Folk Festival.

Joplin's style was at odds with the time, too, George-Warren says.

"This was still the era where most of the gals were still wearing the shirtwaist dresses and bobby socks, the loafers and the bouffant beehive hairdos," she says. "Janis was letting her hair hang down, long. She was wearing big, floppy shirts over tights, barefooted half the time."

George-Warren says Joplin found her people when she came to Austin in the early 1960s. She began performing live, playing the blues with a group called the Waller Creek Boys.

Joplin moved to San Francisco, where she stayed, in 1966, joining Big Brother and the Holding Company. That was when she was "for the first time, playing in a band with electric instruments," George-Warren says. And she needed a new way to be heard over the loud guitars, hence her unique, loud singing style.

George-Warren says she thinks that if Joplin had lived longer, she would have continued to experiment with different kinds of music. She points to Joplin's cover of Kris Kristofferson's "Me and Bobby McGee." It was Joplin's first No. 1 hit, and was a departure from the raucous rock numbers for which she was known. 

"I'd like to imagine that she would be doing some more of that – some people called it 'Cosmic Country,'" George-Warren says. 

And she thinks Joplin would have become a music producer. 

"She probably would have been one of the first women ever behind the boards in the studio," George-Warren says.

Written by Shelly Brisbin.

David entered radio journalism thanks to a love of storytelling, an obsession with news, and a desire to keep his hair long and play in rock bands. An inveterate political junkie with a passion for pop culture and the romance of radio, David has reported from bases in Washington, London, Los Angeles, and Boston for Monitor Radio and for NPR, and has anchored in-depth public radio documentaries from India, Brazil, and points across the United States and Europe. He is, perhaps, known most widely for his work as host of public radio's Marketplace. Fulfilling a lifelong dream of moving to Texas full-time in 2005, Brown joined the staff of KUT, launching the award-winning cultural journalism unit "Texas Music Matters."
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