How Janis Joplin became America’s first female rock star

Author: CBS Sunday Morning
Published: Updated:
How Janis Joplin became America's first female rock star. (Credit: CBS Sunday Morning)

As a singer, Janis Joplin always gave everything she had inside, and in the “Summer of Love,” 1967, she became America’s first female rock star:

“She wanted to be like a female Elvis Presley, I think,” said Holly George-Warren, the author of “Janis: Her Life and Music,” a new biography of Joplin published by Simon & Schuster (a division of CBS).

“CBS This Morning” co-host Anthony Mason asked, “She didn’t believe in boundaries, did she?”

(Credit: Simon & Schuster)
(Credit: Simon & Schuster)

“She did not ever see a boundary that she did not try to jump over or kick down,” George-Warren replied.

The first boundary the tomboy from Texas crossed was musical, developing an abiding passion for the blues. In 1969 she told CBS’ “60 Minutes,” “I always felt that there was something, an honesty there that, like, Peggy Lee was lacking.”

Mason asked, “How did a white girl in Texas discover the blues?”

“It took a lot of gumption,” George-Warren said. “When she saw Elvis on ‘The Ed Sullivan Show’ do ‘Hound Dog,’ she somehow started doing research and found out it had originally been done by Big Mama Thornton. When she got that original version, it blew her mind.”

But Joplin herself said her parents did not encourage her to sing at all: “Oh, no, no, no. They wanted me to be a schoolteacher.”

Her father was an engineer at Texaco, her mother a school registrar. After Joplin left her hometown of Port Arthur for San Francisco, the family (including her younger brother and sister, Michael and Laura) paid a visit.

“We went to the Avalon Ballroom, which was awesome,” said Michael.

Laura said, “And on the way out the door, I overheard one of my parents say to the other one, ‘You know, I don’t think we’re gonna have much influence anymore!'”

They showed Mason their older sister’s scrapbook: Volume One, April ’66 to June ’68, in which she collected her press clippings, posters, and photographs. Michael said, “Janis was a great self-promoter.”

“She was creating her own myth?” said Mason.

“Absolutely. Absolutely.”

Her big break came at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967, when she performed with her band, Big Brother and the Holding Company. She was still largely unknown outside San Francisco.

Michelle Phillips, of The Mamas and the Papas, who headlined the festival, said, “I’d certainly never heard of Janis Joplin. Nobody had any idea who she was. And they wouldn’t let her be filmed at first.”

It was by order of Janis’ manager, who had insisted the documentary filmmakers turn the cameras off when she performed. Lou Adler, who co-produced “Monterey Pop,” said that changed when Joplin saw the reaction to her performance: “And she was in tears. She was totally broken by it.” And she was upset that it hadn’t been filmed, so she begged for another chance. “So, we said, ‘Okay, we’ll put her on again,'” Adler said.

This time the cameras rolled, capturing one of rock’s most iconic performances.

To watch Janis Joplin perform “Ball and Chain” in D.A. Pennebaker’s “Monterey Pop,” click on the video player below.

“Every music journalist in America was at ‘Monterey Pop,'” said George-Warren. “They all went home raving about Janis Joplin, writing about Janis.”

But all that love couldn’t cure an enduring loneliness. Joplin, Holly George-Warren writes, “could never escape a fundamental darkness created by loneliness” – a darkness deepened at times by heroin and whiskey

In 1969, Mike Wallace of “60 Minutes” asked Joplin: “All that talk about you and Southern Comfort? What’s that all about?”

“It’s really good when you go on stage,” she replied. “It gives you that, right when you’re going on, you need that kick.”

In October 1970, Janis Joplin died of an accidental heroin overdose. She’d been recording what would be her final album. Released posthumously, “Pearl” would soar to #1 though Janis herself knew she was only just beginning to reach the heights of her musical heroes:

“Billie Holiday, Aretha Franklin, they are so subtle,” Joplin said. “They can milk you with two notes. I don’t know that yet. All I got now is strength. But maybe if I keep singing, maybe I’ll get it. That’s my thing.”

MORE: Listen to 12 essential Janis Joplin tracks

Music journalist Holly George-Warren offers “Sunday Morning” a roster of Joplin hits – well-known and rare – that capture the brilliance and power of the rock and blues singer

READ A BOOK EXCERPT: “Janis: Her Life and Music”

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