Janis Lyn Joplin was born to Seth and Dorothy Joplin on January 19, 1943. Her father was an engineer at Texaco and her mother worked at a local business college. She was the oldest child with two younger siblings, Michael and Laura. Growing up in Port Arthur, Texas she began singing in the local choir and listening to musicians such as Leadbelly, Bessie Smith, Odetta and Big Mama Thornton. She was not a popular student at Thomas Jefferson High School and later stated in interviews that she felt shunned. She focused on painting and later began singing blues and folk music with her friends.
Joplin graduated from Thomas Jefferson High School in 1960 and went on to attend the University of Texas at Austin. She did not complete her studies while there. She lived in a building that was commonly referred to as “The Ghetto,” located at 2812 1/2 Nueces Street. Her rise to prominence came in the late 1960s as the lead singer of Big Brother and the Holding Company, and later branched into a solo career.
She left Texas for San Francisco in 1963, where she first lived in North Beach and later Haight-Ashbury. It was around this time her drug use began to increase, and she acquired a reputation as a “speed freak” and occasional heroin user. She was known as a heavy drinker throughout her career, and her trademark beverage was Southern Comfort.
In April 1965, several months after Joplin recorded her first songs her friends, noticing the physical effects of her amphetamine habit (she weighed 88 pounds),convinced her to return to her parents in Port Arthur, Texas. While living at home, she changed her entire lifestyle. She attempted a complete lifestyle makeover by avoiding drugs and alcohol, wearing relatively modest dresses, adopting a beehive hairdo, and enrolling as sociology major at Lamar University in nearby Beaumont, Texas. Despite all of this change she still corresponded by mail with a methamphetamine dealer she had known in San Francisco and even considered his proposal of marriage. In a strange incident the man visited the Joplin household wearing a conservative suit and tie, charming the entire family and asking Mr. Joplin for permission to marry his daughter, and then without reason broke off contact with her. She did not give up performing altogether during her year at Lamar University, she commuted to Austin to perform solo, accompanying herself on guitar.
After breaking away and beginning her solo career Joplin and her new band toured North America and Europe throughout 1969, appearing at Woodstock in August. The Kozmic Blues album, released in September of 1969, was certified gold. At the end of the year, the group broke up. Their final gig with Joplin was at Madison Square Garden in New York City on December 21, 1969.
She reformed her group with a new band and for a brief period (after vacationing in Brazil) seemed to be drug-free again. But the demons that had plagued her(depression, perfectionism, lack of self-esteem) coupled with the influences of the day once again had her returning to her drug and drinking habits with ever more vengeance.
Among her last public appearances were two broadcasts of The Dick Cavett Show on which she appeared on June 25 and August 3, 1970. While on the June 25 show, she announced that she would attend her ten-year high school class reunion, although she admitted that when in high school, her schoolmates “laughed me out of class, out of town and out of the state”. She did attend the reunion on August 14, accompanied by fellow musician and friend Bob Neuwirth and road manager John Cooke, but it would be one of the last decisions of her life and it reportedly proved to be a rather unhappy experience for her.
When she failed to show up for a scheduled recording session on October 4 producer Paul Rothchild became concerned. Her band’s road manager, John Cooke, drove to the Landmark Motor Hotel (since renamed the Highland Gardens Hotel) where Joplin had been a guest since August 24. Upon arriving he saw Joplin’s psychedelically painted Porsche still in the parking lot. After entering her room, he found her dead on the floor. The official cause of death was listed as an overdose of heroin, possibly combined with the effects of alcohol. She was only 27 years old.
Joplin was cremated at the Pierce Brothers Westwood Village Mortuary in Los Angeles. Her ashes were scattered from a plane into the Pacific Ocean and along Stinson Beach. The only funeral service was held at Pierce Brothers and was attended by only Joplin’s parents and maternal aunt.
Joplin is remembered for her powerful and distinctive voice with it’s rasping, overtone-rich sound which diverged significantly from the soft folk and jazz-influenced styles that were common among many artists at the time. She personified that period of the Sixties when the San Francisco sound, along with the outlandish dress and lifestyles, that jolted the rest of the country via magazines and television.
Ironically the girl that felt ignored during her life by her hometown was remembered much later. Her life and achievements were showcased and recognized in 1988 in Port Arthur, Texas by the dedication of the Janis Joplin Memorial, with an original bronze, multi-image sculpture of Joplin done by Douglas Clark.
Joplin was also inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1995, and received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2005.