About the Show
Like a comet that burns far too brightly to last, Janis Joplin exploded onto the music scene in 1967 and, almost overnight, became the queen of rock & roll. The unmistakable voice, filled with raw emotion and tinged with Southern Comfort, made her a must-see headliner from Monterey to Woodstock.
From Broadway to your city, now you’re invited to share an evening with the woman and her influences in the musical, A NIGHT WITH JANIS JOPLIN.
Fueled by such unforgettable songs as “Me and Bobby McGee,” “Piece of My Heart,” “Mercedes Benz,” “Cry Baby” and “Summertime,” a remarkable cast and breakout performances, A NIGHT WITH JANIS JOPLIN, written and directed by Randy Johnson, is a musical journey celebrating Janis and her biggest musical influences—icons like Aretha Franklin, Etta James, Odetta, Nina Simone and Bessie Smith, who inspired one of rock & roll’s greatest legends.
About Janis Joplin
That voice—high, husky, earthy, explosive—remains among the most distinctive and galvanizing in pop history. But Janis Joplin didn’t merely possess a great instrument; she threw herself into every syllable, testifying from the very core of her being. She claimed the blues, soul, gospel and rock with unquestionable authority and verve, fearlessly inhabiting psychedelic guitar jams, back-porch roots and everything in between. Her volcanic performances left audiences stunned and speechless, while her sexual magnetism, world-wise demeanor and flamboyant style shattered every stereotype about female artists—and essentially invented the “rock mama” paradigm.
Born in Port Arthur, Texas on January 19, 1943, Joplin fell under the sway of Leadbelly, Bessie Smith and Big Mama Thornton in her teens, and the authenticity of these voices strongly influenced Janis’ decision to become a singer. A self-described “misfit” in high school, she suffered virtual ostracism, but dabbled in folk music with her friends and painted. She briefly attended college in Beaumont and Austin but was more drawn to blues legends and beat poetry than her studies; soon she dropped out and, in 1963, headed for San Francisco, eventually finding herself in the notoriously drug-fueled Haight Ashbury neighborhood.
She returned to Texas to escape the excesses of the Haight, enrolling as a sociology student at Lamar University, adopting a beehive hairdo and living a generally “straight” life despite occasional forays to perform in Austin. But California drew her back into its glittering embrace in 1966, when Janis joined the Haight-based psychedelic-rock band Big Brother and the Holding Company. Her adoption of a wild sartorial style—with frizzed-out hair, bangles, and extravagant attire that winked, hippie-style, at the burlesque era—further spiked her burgeoning reputation.
The band’s increasingly high-profile shows earned them a devoted fan base and serious industry attention; they signed with Columbia Records and released their major-label debut in 1967. Of course, it was Joplin’s seismic presence that caused all the commotion, as evidenced by her shattering performance in June of that year at the Monterey Pop Festival, which was captured for posterity by filmmaker D.A. Pennebaker; in the film, fellow pop star Mama Cass Elliot can be seen mouthing the word, “Wow,” as Joplin tears her way through “Ball And Chain.”
Big Brother’s “Piece of My Heart,” on 1968’s Cheap Thrills LP, shot to the #1 spot, the album sold a million copies in a month, and Joplin became a sensation—earning rapturous praise from Time and Vogue, appearing on The Dick Cavett Show and capturing the imagination of audiences that had never experienced such fiery intensity in a female rock singer. Her departure from Big Brother and emergence as a solo star were inevitable; she put together her own outfit, the Kozmic Blues Band, and in 1969 released I Got Dem Ol' Kozmic Blues Again Mama!, which immediately went gold. That year also saw her give a historic performance at Woodstock.
Joplin assembled a new backup group, the Full Tilt Boogie Band, in 1970; she also joined the Grateful Dead, the Band and other artists for the “Festival Express” railroad tour through Canada. Her musical evolution followed the earthier, rootsier direction of the new decade, as reflected in her final studio album, the landmark Pearl. Embracing material such as Kris Kristofferson’s gorgeous ballad “Me and Bobby McGee” and her own a cappella plaint, “Mercedes Benz,” the disc showcased Joplin’s mastery of virtually all pop genres. The latter song was, along with a phone-message birthday greeting for John Lennon, the last thing she recorded; she died in October of 1970, and Pearl was released posthumously the following year. The quadruple-platinum set became the top-selling release of Joplin’s career and, in 2003, was ranked #122 on Rolling Stone’s “500 Greatest Albums of All Time.”
In the years since, Janis Joplin’s recordings and filmed performances have cemented her status as an icon, inspiring countless imitators and musical devotees. Myriad hit collections, live anthologies and other releases have kept her legend alive, as have shows such as the hit Love, Janis (which Joplin’s sister, Laura, helped create) and 2009’s Edinburgh Festival Fringe “Best Solo Performance” nominee Janis. A documentary film, produced by Alex Gibney and Jeff Jampol and directed by Oscar nominee Amy Berg, is currently in production. In 1988, the Janis Joplin Memorial, featuring a bronze sculpture by artist Douglas Clark, was unveiled in Port Arthur.
Joplin was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1995 and posthumously given a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2005. But such honors only made official what rock fans already knew: that she was among the greatest, most powerful singers the form had ever known—and that she’d opened the door for countless artists across the musical spectrum.
Learn more at www.janisjoplin.com.
The Who’s Who of the Joplinaires
All artists take their inspiration from people, places and things that surround them and that came before them. Here is a look into a few of the amazing women who inspired Janis Joplin and are represented in the musical.
Bessie Smith (April 15, 1894 — September 26, 1937) Jazz and blues vocalist Bessie Smith had a powerfully soulful voice that won her countless fans and earned her the title of Empress of the Blues.
Smith began singing at a young age, was discovered by blues vocalist Ma Rainey in 1912, and signed with Columbia Records in 1923. Her wildly popular song, “Downhearted Blues,” propelled her first record to sell an estimated 800,000 copies. Before long Smith was among the highest paid black performers of her time.
Smith spent her career working alongside important jazz performers, including saxophonist Sidney Bechet, pianists Fletcher Henderson and James P. Johnson — with whom she recorded one of her most famous songs, “Backwater Blues” — and legendary jazz artist Louis Armstrong. Smith, and her music, was a major influence for countless female vocalists including Billie Holliday, Aretha Franklin and Janis Joplin.
Odetta (December 31, 1930 — December 2, 2008) Credited with supplying the soundtrack of the civil rights movement and inspiring musicians from Bob Dylan to Joan Baez and Janis Joplin, Odetta used music to work on the hate and fury she felt, without being antisocial.
In 1956 Odetta released her first solo album, “Odetta Sings Ballads and Blues”, which became an instant classic in American folk music, followed by the highly acclaimed folk albums “At the Gate of Horn”, in 1957 and “My Eyes Have Seen,” in 1959.
During the 1960s, Odetta lent her powerful voice to the cause of black equality, performing at political rallies, demonstrations and benefits. In 1963 she gave the most iconic performance of her life, singing from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, during the March on Washington. Odetta was awarded the National Medal of Arts, made a Kennedy Center honoree, and awarded the Living Legend Award by the Library of Congress. Her final album, a live recording performed at 74-years-old, “Gonna Let It Shine” was released in 2005.
Nina Simone (February 21, 1933 — April 21, 2003) An icon of American music, Nina Simone (born Eunice Kathleen Waymon), was one of the most extraordinary artists of the twentieth century. The classically trained pianist reigned over the 1950s and ‘60s, singing a mixture of jazz, blues and folk music, and was coined the High Priestess of Soul.
In 1957 Simone released her first album, scoring a Top 20 hit with I Loves You Porgy. She released a bevy of albums from the ‘50s — ‘70s, putting her own spin on songs like Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changin’” and the Beatles’ “Here Comes the Sun.”
A staunch civil rights activist, Simone became known as the voice of the civil rights movement. With songs like “Mississippi Goddam,” written in response to the 1963 assassination of Medgar Evers and the Birmingham church bombing that killed four young African-American girls, Simone left a lasting impression on the world of music, art and activism. She sang to share her truth, and inspired an array of performers, including Aretha Franklin, Joni Mitchell, Janis Joplin and Lauryn Hill while doing so.
Etta James (January 25, 1938 — January 20, 2012) Queen of Soul Jamesetta Hawkins, later known as Etta James, was a Gospel singing prodigy by age five, and grew to be a Grammy award-winning singer known for hit songs like “I’d Rather Go Blind” and “At Last.”
As a teenager, she formed vocal trio The Creolettes, and auditioned for Rhythm & Blues bandleader Johnny Otis. Otis took Hawkins under his wing, renamed his protégé, recorded her number one hit R&B song “Roll With Me Henry,” and took her on to tour with Johnny ‘Guitar’ Watson, Ike and Tina Turner and Little Richard.
In 1968 Chess Records sent her to Alabama to record at Fame Studios, resulting in her next top 10 R&B hit, “Tell Mama” — a song that Janis Joplin would later cover. However it was the B-side song, “I’d Rather Go Blind,” a brooding and agonized ballad of loss and jealousy, which would become one of her most celebrated recordings, and one of the classic ‘sides’ of soul music.
Her 1973 album “Etta James” earned a Grammy nomination for its creative combination of rock and funk sounds, and she won the Grammy for Best Contemporary Blues Album for “Let’s Roll” in 2003. She performed during the opening ceremony of the Los Angeles Olympics, and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1993.
Aretha Franklin (March 25, 1942 — ) Multiple Grammy award-winning Aretha Franklin is due the R-E-S-P-E-C-T she sings about.
A gifted pianist with a powerful voice, Franklin started singing in front of her father’s congregation, and released her first album, “Songs of Faith” in 1956. She signed with Columbia Records in 1960 and released “Aretha” in 1961 — which garnered two top 10 R&B hits.
At the Florence Alabama Musical Emporium—backed by session guitarists Eric Clapton and Duane Allman—Franklin recorded her massive top 10 hit “I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You).” Franklin churned out a string of singles that would become enduring classics, showcasing her powerful voice and gospel roots in a pop framework.
In 1967 she released “I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You)” with the first track, “Respect” reaching No. 1 on both the R&B and pop charts, and winning Franklin her first two Grammy awards. Franklin’s chart dominance made her a symbol of black empowerment, and in 1968 she performed at Dr. King’s funeral.
Her success has continued to this day: taking home a total of 18 Grammys, with eight consecutive wins for best R&B female vocal performance in the ‘70s. In 1987 Franklin became the first female artist to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and the second woman to be inducted into the UK Music Hall of Fame in 2005. She was awarded an honorary doctorate from the University of Detroit, and has received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, the Kennedy Center Honors, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Additionally, Franklin sang at both Bill Clinton and Barack Obama’s presidential inaugurations.
Like those before her, she paved the way and provided inspiration for Janis Joplin, helping to shape the amazing musician she became.