In one of her trademark tunes, "Piece of My Heart," Janis Joplin proclaimed, "I'm gonna show you, baby, that a woman can be tough," and she went on to prove it in her life, playing by men's rules and exercising her rather varied appetites -- musical and otherwise -- whenever the spirit moved her. Perhaps that allowed her to feel things that few white women would admit to, let alone express.
A fifth generation Texan, born in the deep water anchorage town of Port Arthur, Joplin always had one of her tiny high-heels firmly placed on the open road. A noisy and wildly talented harbinger of the burgeoning cultural revolution, she turned her back on small town life and hitchhiked to San Francisco with the equally atavistic impresario Chet Helms. With Helms' help, she hooked up with bluesy folk rock combo Big Brother and the Holding Company, sharpening their rather soft psychedelic edges and transforming the group into a firebrand outfit that would make a huge mark on the 1960s' musical landscape.
Joplin took her cues from the blues greats, grafting the sensual rhythms of Bessie Smith and the defiance of Willie Mae Thornton to a pulsating rock beat. The world noticed what the wild-haired chanteuse was up to when Big Brother performed at 1967's Monterey Pop Festival, bringing her rare and bombastic talent to that infamous stage and holding her own with Jimi Hendrix and The Who. Big Brother's second album, 1968's Cheap Thrills, found Joplin helping to midwife a new mode of musical expression for "chick" singers. Being a refined looker who could actually carry a tune (think Mary Hopkin, Marianne Faithfull) was no longer enough once Janis started belting with authority from her heart and deepest soul.
Unfortunately, her massive talent did not bring the peace and self-acceptance she craved. She used to bemoan her sense of isolation, remarking sadly, "Every night I make love to 25,000, but I go home alone." Ironically, she was adored by millions but had apparently lost her capacity to recognize real love when it was offered. She tried to fill the void with drugs and alcohol, and ultimately died of a heroin overdose on October 4, 1970. She looms as large in death as she did in life, encouraging subsequent generations to feel without holding back. Joplin left behind a small but tremendous legacy, including two albums with Big Brother, and two solo albums (I Got Dem Ol' Kozmic Bules Again, Mama!, recorded with the Kozmic Blues Band, and Pearl, with the Full Tilt Boogie Band, which came out a month after her death).