Janis Joplin is widely regarded as one of the greatest rock singers of all time, following her stunning success in the 1960s. But her signature gutsy tones came from a place of pain and tragedy. From failed relationships to drug abuse, here’s a look at her heartbreaking journey.
Joplin was born in Port Arthur, Texas, in January 1943. She started performing in her teenage years and in 1966 moved to San Francisco. Here, she became a member of Big Brother and the Holding Company. The psychedelic blues outfit had struggled to make any notable impression before Joplin’s appointment. But she soon elevated them to chart-topping fame.
The band first caught national attention after Joplin’s mesmerizing performance at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967. After signing to Columbia Records, their album Cheap Thrills reached pole position on the Billboard 200 a year later. But Joplin had even bigger aspirations and shortly after she left the band to forge a solo career.
In 1969 Joplin assembled her very own backing group. With the Kozmic Blues Band, she released her solo debut album, I Got Dem Ol’ Kozmic Blues Again Mama! Featuring popular tune, “Try (Just a Little Bit Harder),” it pursued a more polished soulful sound. But some reviews noted that Joplin’s new band lacked the freewheeling spirit that made Big Brother and the Holding Company so captivating.
As a result, Joplin recruited another group of more versatile musicians, The Full Tilt Boogie Band, for her second and final solo album, Pearl. Produced by Paul Rothchild, the LP spawned several Joplin classics including “Get It While You Can,” and “Mercedes Benz.” Sadly, she didn’t live long enough to see it hit the shelves.
Indeed, in 1970 Joplin became a member of the notorious 27 Club when she passed away in her hotel room in Hollywood. The star, who had battled alcohol and drug abuse throughout her career, died of a heroin overdose. Her cover version of Kris Kristofferson’s “Me and Bobby McGee” posthumously reached the top of the U.S. charts in 1971.
Of course, Joplin had suffered hardships and heartache long before she rose to international fame. She regularly admitted to being a victim of bullying in high school over her weight and acne, with kids routinely calling her “freak,” “creep” and “pig.” Joplin once recalled, “I was a misfit. I read, I painted, I thought.”
Joplin had her first brush with the law in 1963 when she was arrested for shoplifting in San Francisco. Over the next two years, she developed a drug habit which included speed and heroin. Joplin also became dependent on alcohol, with Southern Comfort her particular drink of choice.
Shocked at the impact her hedonistic lifestyle was having on her, Joplin’s friends arranged for her to head back to her parents’ home in Texas. On her return, the singer gave up both alcohol and drugs completely and enrolled at Lamar University as an anthropology student. During her studies she began performing at various bars in Austin.
Joplin suffered heartbreak in 1965 when she was dumped by her fiancé Peter de Blanc. The couple had announced their engagement earlier that same year, with de Blanc even visiting the former’s father to ask his permission. It was just one of many short-lived relationships which Joplin entered into over the next five years.
A year later Joplin joined Big Brother and the Holding Company despite her previous reservations about pursuing a rock ’n’ roll career. Indeed, the star had regularly visited a therapist to discuss her fears of relapsing if she continued to perform. However, Joplin was encouraged to chase her dreams after being told that she would end up like every other woman in her hometown if she didn’t.
Joplin initially stayed clean after moving to San Francisco. She even banned the use of needles in the band’s rehearsal space. But sadly she eventually succumbed to her temptations. Indeed, three years after joining the group Joplin reportedly developed a $200-a-day heroin habit, approximately $1300 in today’s money.
Inevitably Joplin’s drug abuse began to affect her performances. She was visibly high during a duet with Tina Turner at a 1969 Rolling Stones gig at Madison Square Garden. Some observers believe she also tried to incite a riot during another show at the same venue that same year. Meanwhile, at a performance at Woodstock in 1969, Joplin went on a ten-hour alcohol and heroin binge.
In 1970 Joplin revealed she would attempt to put her high school demons to rest by attending a ten-year class reunion. She told TV host Dick Cavett that her fellow students had previously “laughed me out of class, out of town and out of the state.” However, despite support from her sister and road manager, the experience proved to be an unhappy one.
In August that same year Joplin booked a room at Hollywood’s Landmark Motor Hotel while recording her last studio album. Sadly, she spent much of her stint there pleading with her on/off lover Peggy Caserta, also a fellow drug user staying at the same place, for heroin. The pair had previously vowed to keep their distance. This was to prevent each other sinking even deeper into their addictions.
Caserta refused to give Joplin the heroin she craved. But the star managed to get her hands on the drug through Caserta’s dealer. Myra Friedman and Albert Grossman, Joplin’s publicist and manager, respectively, later claimed they had no idea that the Landmark Motor Hotel Joplin was staying at was a drug haven.
Joplin also discovered during this period that her fiancé Seth Morgan had been spending time with other women. The star had met the 21-year-old, a student at UC Berkeley and cocaine dealer, just a few months previously. Joplin reportedly became angry after learning that Morgan had taken several women to play pool in her very own home in California.
Joplin was also left saddened by the fact that both Caserta and Morgan stood her up for a pre-arranged visit at the Landmark Hotel. Just two days later, John Cooke, the road manager for the Full Tilt Boogie Band, drove to the hotel to see Joplin. She had failed to arrive for a recording session. He subsequently discovered the star’s lifeless body next to her bed.
Joplin’s death came just over two weeks after the passing of another same-aged rock idol, Jimi Hendrix. Four years later Caserta published a book, Going Down with Janis, detailing her experiences with the star. Despite the tragic death of her friend, Caserta herself took a long time to get clean. In fact, she nearly suffered a fatal overdose herself in 1995.
Joplin’s life story formed the basis of 1979’s Bette Midler-starring The Rose. The star was also the subject of the late 1990s musical Love, Janis and the 2015 documentary biopic, Janis: Little Girl Blue. The singer posthumously received an induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1995 and a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Grammys ten years later.