Janis Forever

Before there was the marketing catchphrase “Women In Rock”, there was Janis Joplin, who set a standard so incredibly high that 50 years after her passing, no one can match her. #bluesrock #womeninmusic #blues #acoustic #rockandroll #rock #counterculture #LGBTQ #bivisibility #guitarrock #janis #janisjoplin

I have not come here to bury Janis, but to praise her. October 4th, 2020, does mark the 50th anniversary of her passing in a hotel room in Hollywood, California. She was part of a triumvirate of iconic countercultural performers of the late 1960’s, all 27 years of age, who died within a year of each other, the other two being guitar legend Jimi Hendrix in September, 1970 and singer Jim Morrison of the Doors in July, 1971.

Cover of Pearl, Janis Joplin, 1971 (photo taken 1970). Barry Feinstein and Tom Wilkes, design and photography. Courtesy of Columbia Records.

Before there were “women in rock”, there was Janis. It really is as simple as that and yet doesn’t convey just how seismic her impact and influence were on the people who lived through the time of her professional recording and touring career, a brief period from 1966 to 1970, and to future generations. But this was no ordinary time in our history, then or now. Civil rights for dispossessed peoples actually seemed like an attainable freedom for those affected, and conventions were being turned upside down everywhere. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

And, most importantly, Janis was no ordinary performer, and no ordinary person.

Janis Joplin, 1968. Photo by Norman Seef, courtesy of Vogue magazine.

Prior to Janis, women in music, especially white women, had to fit into an easy to categorize mold. Non-white singers often had to conform to acceptable white standards of appearance and performance if they were going to succeed in the cut-throat music business or risk never being able to break out and make a living as a self-sufficient artist. And along came Janis, a refugee from the tiny industrial town of Port Arthur, TX.

“I’m one of those regular weird people.”

Janis Joplin

She did attend college at the University of Texas for a brief while, only to drop out after being voted the “Ugliest Man on Campus”. As I have said about so-called liberal cities like Austin and my hometown of Los Angeles, the history of marginalized populations in these places paints a very different picture.

Janis Joplin live, 1969. Photograph: Crawley/Kobal/Rex/Shutterstock.

She moved to San Francisco, initially working with the band Big Brother and the Holding Company in 1966 (hipsters, take note), recording their first album on an indie label, then moving to major label Columbia, and going solo in 1969. Along the way, she literally became the single biggest and most visible embodiment of the counterculture scene.

So, you may be asking yourself, how did she do it?

  • She did not have movie star looks and even acne well into her twenties.
  • Her singing was not pitch perfect. 
  • She was not a shrinking violet, vocally or otherwise.
  • She almost never wore make-up.
  • She wasn’t flight attendant thin.
  • She wrote some of her own material.
  • She wore clothing that set its own standards of style.
  • She didn’t ask that skin blemishes be removed in photographs.
  • On stage, she did what she wanted, sang what she wanted, didn’t stand still, danced freely and with amazing passion.

In the words of Country music legend Loretta Lynn, in speaking about the entertainment industry, “You either have to be first, best or different.” Janis Joplin was all three.

Cover of Cheap Thrills by Big Brother and The Holding Company, the #1 LP of 1968. Cover design by Robert Crumb, courtesy of Columbia Records.

Most importantly, she was also unashamed of being outspoken about her life, her sexuality, her love of Black musicians and their profound influence on her, her lovers of both sexes and most importantly, that she had something to prove, if only to herself: that no matter what life throws at you, stick to your guns and go for it.

Being honest and being kind were things she strove for herself and those around her, and there are few, if any, people who knew her personally who have given interviews about her that had an unkind thing to say. In an industry where people claw, scratch, kick, lie and backstab one another to get ahead, Janis won by just being herself, not giving a rat’s ass about other people’s pettiness toward her, staying focused and working hard.

Big Brother and The Holding Company, 1967. Photographer unknown, courtesy of Albert Grossman Holdings.

In a sense, this particular program is a love letter and a small token of my thanks and appreciation to her everything. It has gotten me through many difficult times in my life, and it is an honor to put together this program in the hope she may one day influence someone else who needs to hear her truth, especially those of us who don’t conform, stick out anywhere and refuse to give in to someone else’s standard of what is and isn’t acceptable for us.

Her immediate influence, interestingly, was toward hard rock male vocal groups. Big Brother and The Holding Company basically laid out the template for all classic rock that followed in the 1970’s. Even Robert Plant of Led Zeppelin, speaking to to radio station WFPK in 2018, said, “What happened in the late sixties, you can’t call Big Brother and the Holding Company or Janis Joplin rock and roll. It was something else.”

“Don’t compromise yourself. You’re all that you’ve got.”

Janis Joplin

For those of you who believe her cultural importance is long past gone, in Rolling Stone magazine most recent and updated 500 greatest albums of all time, the one where Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On displaced The Beatles Sgt. Pepper as the greatest LP in history, Janis features twice: once with Big Brother and Holding Company on Cheap Thrills and on her posthumous album Pearl, meaning 50% of her original studio releases are represented.

The Janis Joplin Forever stamp, 2014. Artist: Antonio Alcalá. Typographer: Daniel Pelavin. Original photograph by David Gahr. Courtesy of the United States Postal Service.

50 years later, she has become the white blues singer gold standard, a Rock icon, a feminist icon and an LGTBQ icon. Her influence and impact on dispossessed populations can be summed up her best known and most inspiring quote: “Don’t compromise yourself. You’re all that you’ve got.”

First Part

  • Tell Mama (live), 1970, Live From The Festival Express*
  • What Good Can Drinkin’ Do, 1963, home recording, appeared on Janis soundtrack, 1975**
  • Kozmic Blues, 1969, I Got Dem Ol‘ Kozmic Blues Again Mama!+
  • Move Over, 1970, single A-side, eventually on Pearl*
  • Try (Just a Little Bit Harder), 1969, I Got Dem Ol‘ Kozmic Blues Again Mama!+
  • Mercedes Benz, recorded 1970/released 1971, Pearl**
  • Piece of My Heart, 1968, Cheap Thrills++

Second Part

  • Combination of the Two (live), 1968, Live At Winterland++
  • Half Moon, recorded 1970/released 1971, Pearl*
  • Call On Me, 1967, Big Brother and The Holding Company++
  • One Night Stand (outtake), 1982, Janis box set (original on Farewell Song)^
  • Down On Me (live), 1968, Live at the Carousel Ballroom 1968++
  • Me and Bobby McGee (demo), 1970, The Pearl Sessions**
  • Raise Your Hand (live), 1969, live on The Ed Sullivan Show+

Finale

  • Ball and Chain (live), 1967, Monterey Pop Festival++

*backing by The Full Tilt Boogie band
**solo acoustic/a cappella
+backing by The Kozmic Blues Band
++with Big Brother and The Holding Company
^with the Paul Butterfield Blues Band

Love to you all.

Ben “Daddy Ben Bear” Brown Jr. 
Host, Show Producer, Webmaster, Audio Engineer, Researcher, Video Promo Producer and Writer

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