Cover of Iron Butterfly’s June 1968 Atco album which included the famous ''In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida'' track.
Iron Butterfly. That’s the name of a rock group – a rock group from 1968. The name made eminent sense then, of course. It was the time of psychedelic music – music associated with mind-altering, hallucinogenic drugs. Butterfly imagery was cool at the time, part of the “counter-cultural” fare and quite acceptable. As for the “iron” part, well yes, that was psychedelically appropriate, too. But perhaps you had to be doing drugs to grasp the full meaning and context of how “heavy” it all was….
In any case, Iron Butterfly was a group that made the music of its day. Four California musicians established the group in 1966. Vocalist, organist, and bandleader, Doug Ingle, formed the first version of the group in San Diego with drummer Ron Bushy and two others.
The Iron Butterfly sound was long and heavy. The group’s style was similar to that of acts such as Blue Cheer and Steppenwolf. Iron Butterfly’s music helped provide a bridge of sorts from the “psychedelia sound” to the heavy metal music that followed, influencing groups from Deep Purple to Led Zeppelin. “Now remembered as a passing fancy of the acid-rock era,” observes one writer describing the group in the Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock and Roll, “at its peak Iron Butterfly was considered a leading hard rock band.”
Record sleeve for single version of Iron Butterfly’s “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida,”1968.
The most famous of Iron Butterfly’s songs that emerged in June-July 1968 was “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida,” a 17-minute, mostly instrumental feast of organ and electric guitar that typified the psychedelic sound that summer. The song also used some repeating, mostly unintelligible lyrics. The song’s title was derived – sort of – from “in the garden of Eden.” The track was written by vocalist, organist, and bandleader, Doug Ingle.
Legend has it that Ingle wrote the song when he was in his cups, or worse, spending the day drinking red wine, as former band mate Ron Bushy recounted in a 2006 interview. But when Ingle was asked about the song’s title, he couldn’t pronounce it correctly, so Bushy wrote it down as he heard it, phonetically. “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” was the translation, and the name stuck. As for the music, in its day, the song hit the mark – especially in extended play. And that was important in the event its listeners were in an “altered state,” as some might have called back then, also known as “stoned.” In such condition, devotees of the band could listen to “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” for hours. But that was 1968.
Called a one-hit wonder by some, and worse by others, “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” is a tune that can’t be dismissed or laughed off, however. For in its day, this song and its album by the same name, sold millions and millions of copies. The album was released by Iron Butterfly in mid-June 1968, with the song “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” comprising the entire first side of the vinyl edition. It sold more than 4 million copies right out of the gate – and millions more later that year.“In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” is no joke; it is ranked among the 50 best-selling albums in the world, and by some counts has sold more than 30 million copies worldwide. According to one Wikipedia list, the album version of In-A-Gadda -Da-Vida, is ranked among the 50 best-selling albums in the world. Iron Butterfly’s website reports that the album has sold more than 30 million copies worldwide. In July 1968, a shortened version of the song, adapted for radio play, was released by ATCO records in a 2:53 minute format. The single also climbed into the Top 30. The album stayed on the Billboard albums chart for 140 weeks, 81 of them in the Top 10. Part of Iron Butterfly’s initial national exposure was attributed to being an opening act for The Doors and Jefferson Airplane, two major and more popular groups of that era. Iron Butterfly’s album, meanwhile, broke sales records and far exceeded the music industry’s then “gold album” standard, selling eight million copies in its first year. In fact, In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida received the industry’s first “platinum album” award for exceeding one million in sales. The award was created and presented by then-president of ATCO Records, Ahmet Ertegun, a famous record executive who helped advance the careers of many artists.
The Fidelity Ad
“In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” left enough of a psychic imprint on the boomer generation that Fidelity Investments found it worthy of use as a musical hook in one of its 2006 retirement planning TV ads. The song would be one of several in the Fidelity pantheon of rock-driven commercials the firm would use around that time to pitch its financial products to baby boomers. Known by some as the “Flower Power” ad, the Fidelity commercial uses an animated scene of 1960s-style psychedelic flowers and butterflies as a brief, 30-second selection from the song plays.
As the flowers grow in the scene and the music plays, Fidelity begins its pitch in print with a question: “Is your IRA blooming?” The ad then continues to another scene with more flowers branching out. “It can help to plant the right fund,” appears next on the screen. The music continues. “Consider the Fidelity Strategic Income Fund,” says the next scene, followed by a frame which shows that fund as a plant branching out with various numeric rates of income yield. Then comes the narrator with the final punchline: “Need a little flower power?” His answer: “Our retirement specialists can help. Call 1-800-Fidelity. Smart move.” As the animation continues, the words “No Loads. No IRA Fees” appear in a hedgerow. Then on the final screen, “Fidelity Investments, Smart Move” appears amid the flowers as the ad ends.
1968 French record sleeve for Iron Butterfly’s “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida,” single.
Other versions of the ad for different Fidelity funds used somewhat different visuals. But the lyrics heard in the commercials – certainly not “investment grade,” some might say – typically used the following lines:
Don’t you know that I love you?
Don’t you know that I’ll always be true?
In September 2005, Fidelity had begun using rock music to reach boomers, beginning with former Beatle Paul McCartney, who launched the Fidelity ad series using some Wings music on ABC-TV’s widely-watched Monday Night Football program. In March and April 2006, as Fidelity continued to air its campaign, Fidelity spokeswoman Jenny Engle explained that her company chose “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” for use in the campaign specifically to target boomers, calling the song “a classic anthem for a lot of people” in that age group. “The key is to catch people’s attention,” Engle said at the time. The spot was created by Arnold Worldwide in Boston, MA. The Fidelity “Flower Power” TV ad also appeared during the February 2007 Grammy Awards show.
After the ad’s initial run in 2006, San Diego Union Tribune reporter Michael Stetz tracked down some of the band’s founders, by then in their mid-60s. “I guess the method to their madness,” said former Iron Butterfly drummer Ron Bushy, …Fidelity must have thought that “all the baby boomers who got stoned listening to that song are now all grown up and have money.” referring to Fidelity’s use of the music, “is that all the baby boomers who got stoned listening to that song are now all grown up and have money.” Bushy, 64, was then living in the Los Angeles area. Bushy’s investments, however, were not with Fidelity. Bushy and Lee Dorman, another band member, didn’t know that “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” was going to be used to sell mutual funds and IRAs until they saw the ad on TV. Meanwhile, Iron Butterfly the band – although in somewhat different form as of 2006 – was still touring occasionally, and Bushy and Dorman figured the ad could only spread their music around to their benefit. More royalties would come in for band members, and as Bushy pondered the possibilities: “Maybe we’ll get a lot more gigs,” he offered. No word on how many new accounts came to Fidelity as a result of its boomer campaign.
Poster for March 1968 “St. Paddy's Medicine Show,” Pasadena Exhibition Hall, featuring Iron Butterfly, Peanut Butter Conspiracy, Steppenwolf, Jackson Browne & others.
Over the years, “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida,” has also found its way into a number of other commercial uses, including as background music in various TV series — from The Simpsons to Seinfeld. In House M.D., the song is heard in Episode 23 of Season 3, after a patient ingests some magic mushrooms as part of a treatment for cluster headaches. In the TV series Supernatural, it is used in episode 6, “Skin,” of season 1. The song was also used in television’s Criminal Minds series, season 1, episode 16, titled “The Tribe” in the opening scene. “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida,” has also been used in Hollywood films such as Manhunter in 1986 and Resident Evil: Extinction in 2007. And in video games, the song was scheduled to appear in 2009’s Band Hero, an expansion game in the Guitar Hero and Rock Band series of music video games. In 2011, the song was among those used on ESPN’s Monday Night Football program.
Janis Joplin featured in a ‘Newsweek’ cover story, ‘Rebirth of the Blues,’ May 26, 1969.
In the rock ‘n roll firmament of the 1960s, Janis Joplin was a shooting star who burned white hot for five short years. She died of a heroin overdose at age 27. Joplin sang her own brand of the blues in an incendiary style. Yet in her short time — between 1966 and 1970 — she carved out a piece of music history that was distinctly her own. During these years, she traveled from the conservative community of Port Arthur, Texas to the expansive and unpredictable world that was the drug/hippie/music scene of 1960s San Francisco — and mostly in the glare of national stardom.
Joplin was born in Port Arthur, an oil refinery town, in 1943. As a teenager in the late 1950s, she had read about Jack Kerouac and the Beatniks, began to dress in her own style, and started listening to blues music with a few high school friends. Black blues singers Bessie Smith and Leadbelly were among her heroes.
An outcast in Port Arthur by the early 1960s, Joplin had made her way to California a time or two, and eventually came to San Francisco’s music and hippie scene. At the June 1967 Monterey Pop Festival she captured national attention with a stunning blues performance of “Ball and Chain.” From that point on, she became something of national phenomenon.
“Piece of My Heart”
But not everyone loved Janis Joplin. Her stage antics and whiskey-swilling, devil-may- care style put many people off. Some were convinced she had a death wish and was killing herself slowly with each performance and each day’s excesses, so that when she sang “Piece of My Heart,” the meaning was for real. The article that follows here covers some of the main events in the last four years of her life, from her rapid rise to stardom to her untimely death.
Janis Joplin performing at the Monterey Pop Festival in June 1967 where she would do a stunning version of ‘Ball and Chain’ that would mark her as an overnight blues sensation. Photo, Ted Streshinsky.
Janis Joplin did not initially see herself as a big-time performer or a major talent. But in 1966, when she first teamed up with a real rock band she had met through friends, Joplin had a kind of epiphany. Chet Helms, a fellow Texan and one of San Francisco’s music promoters, introduced her to a then little-known band called Big Brother and the Holding Company. Up to that point, Joplin was thinking she had a good enough voice for local gigs, but that was about it. “… All of a sudden someone threw me into this rock band,” she would later explain, recalling her Big Brother session. “They threw these musicians at me, man, and the sound was coming from behind, the bass was charging me, and I decided then and there that was it, I never wanted to do anything else. It was better than it had been with any man, you know… Maybe that’s the trouble…”
Joplin joined Big Brother in June 1966. Her first public performance with them was at the Avalon Ballroom in San Francisco where they became the house band. In the following year, they cut their first album, Big Brother and The Holding Company, and gained a following with songs from that album, including, “Bye Bye Baby,” “Blind Man” and “Down On Me.” Then on June 17, 1967 she an Big Brother performed their show-stopping set on the second day of the Monterey International Pop Festival, sending them on a more national course.
Janis Joplin shown with members of the band, Big Brother and the Holding Co., in a 1968 poster for a performance at Winterland in San Francisco.
After Monterey, and after signing with Bob Dylan’s manager, Albert Grossman in November 1967, she and Big Brother were playing all over the country. Grossman got them a whopping recording contract with CBS/Columbia Records. They were soon making about $10,000 a performance, with Joplin’s annual income rising to about $150,000 — then very big money. In February 1968, they began an East Coast tour in Philadelphia, and also played Anderson Hall in in New York where Joplin revealed her raw power over an audience. On the last day of their East Coast swing, April 7, 1968, Joplin and Big Brother performed at the “Wake For Martin Luther King Jr.” concert in New York along with Jimi Hendrix, Buddy Guy, Joni Mitchell, Richie Havens, Paul Butterfield and Elvin Bishop. The next month or so was spent recording the album Cheap Thrills, which would be released later that summer. In July 1968 she hit the Newport Jazz Festival in Rhode Island. In August, Cheap Thirlls was released and debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard album charts. It sold one million copies in the first month featuring songs such as “Piece Of My Heart,” among others. Joplin and Big Brother appeared on the West coast TV show, Hollywood Palace on October 26, 1968, performing two songs: “Summertime” and “I Need a Man to Love.”
Janis Joplin on the cover of the March 15th, 1969 edition of Rolling Stone, featuring a story that asks if she is “the Judy Garland of Rock?”
By early December 1968 Joplin decided to leave Big Brother, and by the end of the year she had formed a new band called the Kozmic Blues Band, a soul revue band with a complete horn section. Their first performance playing soul music was in late December in Memphis, TN. However, perfor- mances at the Fillmore East in February 1969 received mixed reviews. Elsewhere though, Janis and her band were getting more notice. In March there was a TV appearance on CBS’s 60 Minutes with Mike Wallace and a Rolling Stone cover story that month posing the question: “Janis: The Judy Garland of Rock?” Also in March, Joplin and her band appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show. Then it was back to San Francisco to Winterland and The Fillmore West. A European tour came in April-May 1969 — Frankfurt, Stockholm, Amsterdam, Copen- hagen, and Paris. Her debut in London at Albert Hall that April produced rave reviews in the papers and trade press — Disc, Melody Maker, and The Telegraph. Back in the States, studio work for another album, Kozmic Blues, began in Hollywood in June. Joplin also appeared on The Dick Cavett Show for the first time July 18,1969. She would appear on Cavett’s show two more times in 1970. She and her band also played various music festivals that summer–Devonshire Downs in Northridge, CA, and the Atlanta Pop Festival in Georgia in July. At the Atlantic City, New Jersey Pop Festival in early August, she sang with Little Richard.
Janis Joplin performing at Woodstock, 1969.
Then in mid-August came Woodstock where she performed on the second day of the festival, singing a ten-song set that included such tunes as: “To Love Somebody,” “Summertime,” “Try (Just a Little Bit Harder),” Piece of My Heart,” and “Ball & Chain.” Joplin by then had parted ways with Big Brother & the Holding Company. Still, she had a full compliment of musicians backing her at Woodstock. She played in the wee hours, Saturday-to- Sunday, at about 2:00 a.m. Some reported that without her normal band, Joplin’s performance lacked its usual punch, but others found it a solid performance. Henry Diltz was an official photographer at Woodstock and had an “all-access pass” that got him to the stage, and more importantly, “a little catwalk built just under the lip of the stage” where he took photographs of Joplin performing. “I was literally feet in front of her while she was singing — the absolutely best seat in the entire house of 400,000 people.” Diltz said of Joplin’s performance: “Everything I saw her sing, it was nothing held back.”
A younger Janis Joplin performing at an unidentified rock-festival venue sometime in the 1960s.
Following Woodstock, and through the remainder of 1969, there were other outings for Joplin and her band. In September they played the New Orleans Pop Festival at Baton Rouge International Speedway in Louisiana and the Hollywood Bowl in L.A. In October there were gigs in Austin and Houston, Texas. In November she appeared at Curtis Hall concert in Tampa, Florida where she was charged with two counts of using vulgar and obscene language on stage. Later that month she appeared at Auditorium Hall in Chicago, and also Madison Square Garden in New York where she sang with Tina Turner at a Rolling Stones concert. Her first solo effort, I Got Dem Ol’ Kozmic Blues Again Mama!, with the Kozmic Blues Band, was released about that time, and received mixed reviews. It included songs such as “Try (Just a Little Bit Harder)” and “To Love Somebody,” a cover of a Bee Gees’ tune.
Music Player “Try (Just a Little Bit Harder)”
At the end of November 1969 Joplin played the West Palm Beach Rock Festival. In December there was an appearance in Nashville and another at Madison Square Garden — called a “rousing display of blues and rock” by the New York Times — where she was joined on stage by Johnny Winter and Paul Butterfield. It was about this time that she was “romantically linked” with Joe Namath in the New York papers, which appears to have been exaggerated beyond a meeting and a date or two. Other appearances in 1969 included ABC-TV’s Tom Jones Show, the Quaker City Rock Festival/Philadelphia, the Civic Center/Baltimore, ABC-TV’s show Music Scene, and the Toronto Pop Festival. Back home in California, meanwhile, Joplin moved into to a secluded home in a Redwood forest in the Larkspur are of Marin County, California, north of San Francisco, a beautiful spot between Mount Tamalpais and the San Francisco Bay. But toward the end of 1969, Joplin decided to take some time off.
R&R in Brazil
In January of 1970, Janis and her Kozmic Blues band parted ways, and in February, Joplin traveled to Brazil with her friend and costume designer Linda Gravenites. Gravenites had been with Joplin since 1966 and had lived a clean and sober life and was traveling with Joplin in part to help Joplin kick her drug and alchohol habits. In Brazil, Joplin met and became involved with David Niehaus, a clean and sober American schoolteacher who was traveling around the world at the time. The two were later photographed as happy revelers at Carnival in Rio de Janeiro, described as a “carefree” couple having a great time. By April she reported from Rio that she was “going off into the jungle with a big bear of a man.” But when Joplin returned to the U.S. she began using heroin again and her relationship with the schoolteacher ended as a result.
Poster for a Janis Joplin concert on June 12, 1970 in Louisville, KY with her new Full-Tilt Boogie Band.
Around this time, Joplin had formed her new band, the Full Tilt Boogie Band — a band composed mostly of young Canadian musicians; a band that Joplin had taken a more active role in forming than she did with her prior group. She would later describe this band as more fully her own. Joplin began touring with the Full Tilt Boogie Band in May 1970 and was quite happy with their performances and the feedback from fans and critics. Still, earlier that year, she had done a few performances with her former bandmates. On April 4th in San Francisco, she performed a reunion gig with Big Brother & The Holding Co. at the Fillmore West. Again, on April 12th, she appeared with Big Brother at Winterland where she and group were found in excellent form. By the time she began touring with Full Tilt Boogie in May 1970, Joplin had told friends she was drug-free. In fact, the young Canadians in her new band were also drug free and had no association with her old San Francisco crowd. Still, some noticed that her drinking had increased. In late June 1970, she appeared on TV’s The Dick Cavett Show, where she announced she would attend her ten-year high school class reunion later that summer in Port Arthur, Texas. High school had not been a happy time for Joplin, noting at one point that her classmates, “laughed me out of class, out of town and out of the state.” More on the high school visit later.
The Festival Express
In late June and early July 1970, Joplin and her new band joined the all-star Festival Express tour through Canada. On this tour, Joplin and her band performed on the same bill with other acts including: the Grateful Dead, Delaney and Bonnie, Rick Danko and The Band, Eric Andersen, Ian and Sylvia, and others.
Top portion of poster advertising the 1970 ‘Trans Continental Pop Festival,’ later renamed the Festival Express.
The Festival Express was unique among rock festivals. Rather than flying to each city — Toronto, Winnipeg, Calgary and Vancouver were each scheduled — the musicians would travel by chartered Canadian National Railways train. The idea was to foster an atmosphere of musical creativity and closeness between the performers. The trips between cities were a mix of jam sessions and partying, with no shortage of drugs and alcohol. One of these sessions became quite notable — with Rick Danko of The Band, Jerry Garcia and Bob Weir of the Grateful Dead, and Janis Joplin all having a rollicking good time. During the actual Festival Express series of concerts — which saw the Vancouver concert cancelled due to the mayor’s “anti-hippie” edicts — Janis Joplin gave some memorable performances. Footage of Joplin singing “Tell Mama” in Calgary would later become an MTV video in the 1980s. This performance would also be included on later Joplin albums and DVDs. The Festival Express Tour ended in early July 1970, but some 30 years later, in 2003, a “rockumentary” was produced featuring the original Festival Express tour, its music, and travels. That film would reap more than $1.2 million at the U.S. box office, and the DVD would become a hot seller as well. Shortly after the Festival Express, Joplin and the Full Tilt Boogie Band traveled to Honolulu, Hawaii where they performed in early July 1970 at the International Center Arena. But then it was back to California.
Poster for July 1970 Janis Joplin concert.
On July 11th, Joplin and the Full Tilt Boogie Band arrived in San Diego for a concert there at the Sports Arena. They were joined in San Diego by longtime Doors producer Paul Rothchild, who was being considered to work with Joplin on her next album. Janis’s sister, Laura, would later write of Rothchild in her book, Love, Janis, ” In San Diego, Janis gave him a stopwatch, saying ‘Look, I’ve got thirty-five good minutes in me. You stand behind the amps and I’ll look you over, you flash me how much time I have left.’ Paul thought it was a good sign that she was pacing herself like a runner.” Joplin was fighting her alcohol and drug demons at the time.
Psychedelic-style poster for the July 11, 1970 concert in San Diego with Janis Joplin photo.
Rothchild later said of watching Joplin’s performance as she was singing: “. . . I was enraptured because I was listening to one of the most brilliant vocalists I ever heard, in classical, pop, or jazz music. What a voice. . . all of the woman was revealed. The vessel of Janis vanished. For somebody like me, who was always talking about the inner beauty and all that stuff, it got me big. So I was totally hooked from that moment on, on every single possible level.” Several weeks later, Rothchild would help Janis work on her final album, Pearl.
On the plane ride back to San Francisco after the San Diego concert, Janis was upbeat, as the presence of old friends at the concert had energized her. She bought drinks for everyone on the plane. But some of those with her, like Big Brother guitarist James Gurley, thought she was a bit “too exuberant, trying to be the life of the party.” Joplin was still on an emotional roller coaster; high and then low. She was struggling to maintain her equilibrium.
In early August, Joplin again appeared on The Dick Cavett Show, and a few days later, on August 6, 1970, performed as a surprise guest at the Festival for Peace at Shea Stadium in Queens. Joplin was not on the original roster of performers for the concert, but since she was in New York and her former band, Big Brother, was on the bill, she agreed to do the concert. By some accounts, at least 50,000 fans attended Joplin’s performance, re- portedly aided by a bottle of Southern Comfort whiskey. This concert — also called the Summer Festival for Peace — followed a Winter Festival for Peace that had been staged earlier that year at Madison Square Garden. These concerts were among the first ever in the U.S. to be used for political fund raising and anti-war purposes. Such concerts were not generally seen prior to 1970, but became more common thereafter. The acts at the Peace Festivals generally donated their time and performances. Among the performers at Shea Stadium that August were Peter Yarrow, Pacific Gas & Electric, Tom Paxton, Dionne Warwick, Poco, Ten Wheel Drive, Al Kooper, Richie Havens, Sha-Na-Na, The Young Rascals, Paul Simon, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Steppenwolf, The James Gang, Miles Davis, Johnny Winter, Herbie Hancock and others. The show ran from 10:00 a.m. to midnight. And by some accounts, at least 50,000 fans attended. Joplin’s performance — reportedly aided by a bottle of Southern Comfort whiskey — included at least four of her songs: “Ball& Chain,” “Summertime,” “Turtle Blues” and “Piece of My Heart.”
Headstone for Bessie Smith’s grave site that Janis Joplin helped pay for. Inscription:‘The greatest blues singer in the world will never stop singing.’
One of Joplin’s idols growing up had been Bessie Smith, the famous blues and jazz singer of the 1920 and 1930s. Smith’s music had been an early influence on Joplin. But when Joplin learned that Smith’s grave site had no marker, she moved to help provide a major portion of the funds to obtain one. A few days following her concert at Shea Stadium, on August 8, 1970, Joplin provided at least part of the financing to provide a headstone for Smith’s unmarked grave at Philadelphia’s Mount Lawn Cemetery. An inscription on the installed headstone reads: ‘The greatest blues singer in the world will never stop singing.’
Joplin’s next scheduled appearance in 1970 was in Boston, at Harvard College, but her band’s equipment was stolen. The group managed to make their performance at Harvard Stadium on August 12 th before 40,000 fans using borrowed equipment. Still, they seemed to have delivered a decent concert, as a front-page story in Harvard Crimson newspaper gave the concert a positive review. It would be Joplin’s last public appearance with the Full Tilt Boogie Band and her last public performance. Her next stop was her former home town, Port Arthur, Texas for the tenth year reunion of her high school class.
Janis’ Texas Hurt 1956-1964
Joplin as she appeared in her 1960 high school photo.
Growing up in the conservative oil refining town of Port Arthur, Texas in the 1950s was not easy for young Janis Joplin. Although she was loved by her family while growing up there, her high school and local college experiences in Texas appeared to have scarred her deeply. As a teenager she had read the Beatniks, began to dress in her own style, and started singing folk and blues music locally. But in high school, she had gained weight and developed bad skin, and was called “pig” by some of the other kids. After graduating high school in 1960, she attended Lamar State College that summer, at nearby Beaumont Texas, and continued there in the fall. Ridiculed there as well, and not comfortable in class, she dropped out. In 1961, after passing a secretarial exam, Joplin’s parents sent her to Los Angeles to live with her aunts, but she soon found a place of her own in Venice Beach where drugs became part of her life. The visit home to Port Arthur for the reunion did not achieve what Joplin had hoped, and once again she left town feeling rejected and unloved. By the end of the year, she returned home to Port Arthur. In 1962, she enrolled in fine arts at the University of Texas in Austin and was also singing locally, blues mostly, but also with a blue grass band. Her experiences on the University of Texas campus, however, weren’t much better than in Port Arthur or Beaumont, as she was nominated for the “Ugliest Man on Campus” award at one point, a deep cut. After hearing about the post-Beat scene in San Francisco, Joplin made her way to North Beach in San Francisco and then Haight-Ashbury, then becoming more heavily involved with alcohol and drugs. After a near-death experience, and reportedly dropping to a weight of about 88 pounds at one point, she returned to Port Arthur in 1965. Back home, she tried college again at Lamar, this time enrolling as a sociology major. She kicked her drug habit, changed her look to a more conservative style, but still, her experiences at Lamar were no better. In Austin, meanwhile, she continued singing blues at a few clubs in late 1965 and early 1966. By mid-1966 she returned to California for good, pursuing her music career in San Francisco by joining Big Brother and the Holding Company. By late 1967, following her debut at the Monterey Festival, she was on her way to national stardom.
Janis Joplin on the cover of "Rolling Stone," August 6, 1970.
In mid-August 1970, when Joplin returned to Port Arthur for her 10th year high school reunion, she was coming back, in part, to make a statement about her success, and specifically for those who had treated her badly as a teenager. But during the visit, Joplin was drinking hard and she did not attempt to “tone down” her dress or her style. She had also previously made negative remarks about Port Arthur in the national press — or as one New York Times writer put it — “never missed a chance to dismiss her blue-collar hometown as a bastion of small-town intolerance.” On August 14th, Joplin attended her high school reunion at Thomas Jefferson High School. She was accompanied by fellow musician and friend Bob Neuwirth, road manager John Cooke, and her younger sister, Laura. Dressed in the popular San Francisco hippie fashion of the day with feathers and beads and her trademark purple-tinted glasses, Joplin answered questions at a press conference, during which some of her more painful high school days came up again. All in all, it wasn’t a pleasant visit for Joplin. Generally, this visit home to Port Arthur for the reunion did not achieve what she had hoped, and once again she left town feeling rejected and unloved. She soon returned to California to work on her music.
During late August, Joplin arrived in Los Angeles to begin work on a new album. Sessions were planned for the Sunset Sound Studio with producer Paul Rothchild. Joplin checked into the nearby Landmark Motel. She had been seeing a steady new boyfriend, a younger and wealthy easterner named Seth Morgan, and they were rumored to be engaged. But Joplin at the time threw herself into her recording sessions and the work on her new album.When he entered her motel room, Cooke found Joplin dead on the floor. She also had a bit of fun at the session, at one point recording a birthday greeting for John Lennon that would later be sent to him — “Happy Trails,” the Roy Rogers / Dale Evens tune.
On Saturday, October 3, 1970, Joplin visited the Sunset Studios to listen to the instrumental track for the song “Buried Alive in the Blues” prior to recording her vocal track with it, scheduled for the next day. But on Sunday afternoon, she failed to show up at the studio. Producer Rothchild and road manager John Cooke became concerned. Cooke drove to the Landmark Motel where he found Joplin’s psychedelically painted Porsche still in the parking lot. When he entered her motel room, Cooke found Joplin dead on the floor. The official cause of death was later determined as an overdose of heroin, possibly combined with the effects of alcohol. Janis Joplin was 27 years old. Her ashes were later scattered into the Pacific Ocean along Stinson Beach north of San Francisco.
Cover of Janis Joplin's "Me & Bobby McGee" single from her posthumous 'Pearl' album, 1971.
Joplin’s newly recorded material from her Los Angeles studio sessions, meanwhile, had not gone to market. Four months after her death, in February 1971, the new material was released under the album name, Pearl, a nickname sometimes used for Joplin. The album included the songs “Mercedes Benz,” “Get It While You Can,” and “Me and Bobby McGee.” Pearl topped the album charts for nine weeks, and “Me and Bobby McGee” became a No. 1 single in 1971 and one of her biggest hits. But the one song on that album without Joplin’s lyrics — the performance she never showed up for the weekend of her death — was left as an instrumental, “Buried Alive in The Blues.” Part of its verse would have gone: “All caught up in a landslide / Bad luck pressing in from all sides / Just got knocked off my easy ride / Buried alive in the blues.” And as Joplin herself once said: “People, whether they know it or not, like their blues singer’s miserable. They like their blues singers to die afterwards.”
Cover photo of a young Janis Joplin from boxed set of 3 CDs.
Joplin as Icon
Joplin’s death was a blow to her fans and the music world, especially since only weeks earlier, Jimi Hendrix had also died. Joplin was remembered as a musical force and an icon for her own times as well as the ages. Many thought Joplin was just hitting her stride with Pearl, and might have gone on to much greater things had she overcome her demons. Tom Moon, writing in his book, 1,000 Recordings to Hear Before You Die, calls Pearl, “the pre- cious last testament of a belter.” By her last year, Moon says, Joplin had grown into “a devastatingly original voice, the rare white interpreter of African American music who resisted the ready cliche. She treated old Delta songs and ’50s R&B ballads as theatrical platforms, ripe for large-scale rethinking. Her blues woe was never typical blues woe. …[S]he could turn out a plea that made listeners feel like they were part of a fateful make-or-break moment happening right then.”
Media Player “Me & Bobby McGee”
Jon Pareles of the New York Times wrote that Joplin was: “overpowering and deeply vulnerable, brassy and shy, stylized and direct, indomitable and masochistic. She took the tough rasp of old blues shouters and made it her own by bringing out pain and tension to match the bravado. With magnificent timing Joplin made it seem as if she was pouring out unvarnished emotion.” The Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame, writing in her 1995 induction description, adds: “Janis Joplin has passed into the realm of legend: an outwardly brash yet inwardly vulnerable and troubled personality who possessed one of the most passionate voices in rock history.”
Janis Joplin, undated photo.
Megan Terry, writing among other authors in the book, Notable American Women, observes that “Joplin brought to her music a distinctive sound and look, passion and an honest interpretive ability. Her hold over an audience was as great as that of Elvis Presley and her success was an extraordinary and unprecedented feat in the male- dominated rock and music world.” In fact, along with Grace Slick of The Jefferson Airplane, Joplin is credited with opening doors for women who would follow her in the rock ‘n roll business. And finally, music journalist Ellen Wills noted that “Joplin belonged to that select group of pop figures who mattered as much for themselves as for their music. Among American rock performers, she was second only to Bob Dylan in importance as a creator-recorder-embodiment of her generation’s mythology.” Joplin was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1995, and was given a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2005. Musicologists and historians continue to revisit her work. In November 2009, Case Western Reserve University and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum celebrated the music of Janis Joplin during the 14th annual American Music Masters series, calling her one of rock ‘n roll’s most passionate and influential artists.
Janis Joplin photograph, undated.
Back in Port Arthur, Texas, meanwhile, and nearly two decades after her death, some of the love and recognition Janis Joplin had sought from her hometown began coming her way in after-the-fact fashion. In 1988, Joplin’s life and achievements were showcased and recognized at a January Convention Center gathering — an event, wrote Peter Applebome of the New York Times, “that perhaps had as much to do with economics as with affection.” Some 5,000 people came out for the ceremony, a major turn out for Port Arthur. There was a dedication of a Janis Joplin Memorial, which included a multi-image bronze sculpture of Joplin. The sculpture, along with momentos of Joplin’s career, as well as that of other local musicians including the Big Bopper (Jiles Perry Richardson, Jr.) and Johnny Winter, would eventually become part of the Museum of the Gulf Coast, housing a permanent Joplin exhibit on the second floor. In January 2008, Port Arthur celebrated Joplin’s 65th birthday by putting a historical marker in front of her childhood home. The town now proclaims its link to Joplin with billboards, brochures, an annual concert, and local tours of various Joplin landmarks. “She was a very popular figure in the ’60s, and she had a lot to do with the style of music that evolved at that time,” said Yvonne Sutherlin of Jefferson County Historical Commission in January 2008. “We just want people to know that she’s from here.”
See also, at this website, “Selling Janis Joplin, 1995,” the story of how Mercedes-Benz used her song by that name in one of its TV ads. Additional stories at this website on notable women and their careers can be found at the topics page, “Noteworthy Ladies,” offering 36 story choices on women who have made their mark in various fields. Thanks for visiting – and if you like what you see here, please make a donation to support this website. Thank you. — Jack Doyle
Article Citation: Jack Doyle, “Joplin’s Shooting Star,” PopHistoryDig.com, December 7, 2009.
Sources, Links & Additional Information
Cover photo of Janis Joplin on a 1972 album.
Janis Joplin, 1960s; Michael Ochs Archives.
KQED/PBS photo of Janis Joplin performing at the Monterey Folk Festival 1967 with Big Brother & the Holding Co.
Janis Joplin & ‘Southern Comfort’ photo by Jim Marshall, shot backstage at San Francisco’s Winterland in 1968. “Janis was a great subject to photograph,” observed Marshall, “ because she was not afraid of the camera and came alive on stage... She was very real and still a little girl when she died, a very famous little girl.”
Janis Joplin with Columbia Records president Clive Davis at a 1968 party celebrating Joplin's record deal. Davis had seen Joplin perform at the Monterey Pop Festival with Big Brother, later telling ‘Rolling Stone’ magazine that her performance was “mezmerizing...”
November 2009 poster from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Case Western Reserve University featuring the life and music of Janis Joplin in their American Music Masters series.
Janis Joplin shares cover of Time magazine’s January 1988 issue reviewing the key events of 1968 – ‘the year that shaped a generation.’
Robert Shelton, “Janis Joplin Is Climbing Fast In the Heady Rock Firmament; Singer Makes Her New York Debut With Big Brother and the Holding Company,” New York Times, Monday, February 19, 1968, p.51.
Paul Nelson,“A Report on Janis Joplin: The Judy Garland of Rock?,” Rolling Stone, March 15, 1969.
Peter Barnes, “Rebirth of the Blues,” Newsweek, May 26, 1969.
Mike Jahn, “Janis Joplin Gives A Rousing Display Of Blues and Rock,” New York Times, Saturday, December 20, 1969, p. 36.
Mike Jahn, “Janis Joplin and Her New Group Give Rousing Forest Hills Show,” New York Times, Tuesday, August 4, 1970, p. 22.
“Rock Singer Janis Joplin, 27, Found Dead in Hollywood Motel,” Los Angeles Times, October 5, 1970, p. 3.
Reuters, “Janis Joplin Dies; Rock Star Was 27,” New York Times, Monday, October 5, 1970, p. 1.
George Gent, “Death of Janis Joplin Attributed To Accidental Heroin Overdose,” New York Times, Tuesday, October 6, 1970, p. 50.
Robert Hilburn, “Janis Joplin’s Lifetime: ‘A Rush’,” Los Angeles Times, October 7, 1970, p. E-1.
Don Heckman, “Janis Joplin 1943-1970,” New York Times, Sunday, October 11, 1970, Arts & Leisure, p. 135.
“Music: Blues for Janis,” Time, Monday, October 19, 1970.
“Janis Joplin Estate Left to Parents,” Los Angeles Times, October 21, 1970, p. D-8.
“Janis Joplin: 1943-1970,” Rolling Stone, October 29, 1970.
“Janis Joplin Death Ruled Accidental,” Los Angeles Times, October 29, 1970, p. A-3.
“CBS Wins Ruling on Joplin Concert Disc,” Los Angeles Times, December 22, 1970, p. IV-14.
John Byrne Cooke (ed.), Janis Joplin: A Performance Diary 1966-1970,First Glance Books, 1997.
Mike Jahn, “Pearl, Last Album Janis Joplin Made, May Be Her Finest,” New York Times, Saturday, January 16, 1971, p. 19.
Robert Hilburn, “Janis Joplin’s ‘Pearl’ Album Released,” Los Angeles Times, January 19, 1971, p. H-8.
Don Heckman, “Janis: She Was Reaching for Musical Maturity,” New York Times, Sunday, May 21, 1972, Arts & Leisure, p. D-30.
“Janis: A Look at a Jet Age Red Hot Mama on the Second Anniversary of Her Death,” International Times, October 1, 1972.
Myra Friedman. Buried Alive: The Biography of Janis Joplin, New York: William Morrow, 1973.
Midge Decter, “The Earth Mother Was No More Than The Dearest Daughter Of The Angel of Death,” New York Times Book Review, August 12, 1973.
Megan Terry, “Janis Joplin,” in Barbara Sicherman & Carol Hurd Green (eds.), Notable American Women: A Biographical Dictionary, Boston, Harvard University Press, 6th Edition, 1980, pp. 385-387.
Pop culture and the history & businesses of pop culture, with emphasis on media & entertainment, including sports, politics, advertising & marketing as these relate to media, entertainment & popular culture.