Janis Joplin didn’t have a long or prolific career. The freewheeling Texas blues-rock howler recorded just four albums between 1967 and her fatal drug overdose in October 1970. But in that short time, she left an indelible mark on rock ’n’ roll history. Joplin lives on through hits like "Piece of My Heart" and "Me and Bobby McGee" and the generations of musicians she inspired. Here are 11 facts about a one-of-a-kind talent who left the world too soon.
1. Janis Joplin had a naturally beautiful voice.
Fans love Joplin for her rough-hewn, whiskey-soaked, down-and-dirty vocals. But as a young girl in Port Arthur, Texas, Joplin actually had a “traditional, pretty soprano” she inherited from her mother. That’s according to Holly George-Warren, author of Janis: Her Life and Music. The future hard-living rebel even sang in the church choir and glee club.
2. Blues music saved Janis Joplin’s life.
By her teen years, Joplin had become an outsider. Her peers teased her for having acne and being overweight. She began hanging around with a group of local boys and listening to folk and blues artists like Bessie Smith, Lead Belly, and Odetta. One night at a party, she imitated Odetta and discovered a powerful voice she never knew she had.
3. Janis Joplin made her recording debut with a boozy, bluesy original.
During her brief stint at the University of Texas in 1962, Joplin made her very first recording. She sang on tape at a fellow UT student’s house, performing the original song “What Good Can Drinkin’ Do.” The tune ends with the telling line, “Well, I drink all night but the next day I still feel blue.”
4. Janis Joplin’s legendary Monterey Pop breakthrough almost didn’t happen.
Before taking the stage on Saturday afternoon at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival, Joplin’s band, Big Brother and the Holding Company, refused to sign a film release. As drummer Dave Getz told Billboard, they were under the impression everyone was playing for free, and a documentary seemed contradictory to the era’s hippie spirit. But after Janis and the boys turned in a phenomenal set, festival organizers urged them to come back on Sunday and work their magic for director D.A. Pennebaker's cameras.
There was disagreement within the band, but Joplin convinced everyone to return the next day. “She wanted to be successful," Getz said. "There was a lot of placating her at that point." Joplin was electric on Sunday, especially while singing Big Mama Thornton’s “Ball and Chain,” and within months of the star-making performance, Big Brother had a deal with Columbia Records.
5. Janis Joplin covered the Bee Gees on her first solo album.
After leaving Big Brother and the Holding Company in 1968, Joplin made her solo debut with 1969’s I Got Dem Ol' Kozmic Blues Again Mama! The album features "To Love Somebody," a song written and originally recorded by the Bee Gees. This may seem strange, but the late 1960s Bee Gees were a groovy pop-rock group years away from morphing into the white-suited disco mavens they’d become with the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack. Soul-jazz legend Nina Simone covered “To Love Somebody” that same year.
6. Janis Joplin bought a gravestone for her idol.
Joplin never forgot the power of Bessie Smith, the singer whose music changed her life as a teenager. In August 1970, Joplin teamed up with Juanita Green—who’d once worked in Smith’s house—to purchase a headstone for the late blues great’s previously unmarked grave. The epitaph reads: “The Greatest Blues Singer in the World Will Never Stop Singing.” Smith died in 1937, about six years before Joplin was born, so the two never met. But Joplin would sometimes tell people she was Bessie reincarnated.
7. Janis Joplin’s biggest chart hit came after her death.
Joplin died of an accidental heroin overdose on October 4, 1970. The posthumous album Pearl arrived three months later and spawned the hit “Me and Bobby McGee,” co-written by Kris Kristofferson and originally recorded by Roger Miller. Joplin’s cover version reached No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 on March 20, 1971, giving the late singer her first and only chart-topping single.
8. In her lifetime, Janis Joplin only had one real hit.
Prior to the posthumous “Me and Bobby McGee,” Joplin only managed one Top 40 hit on the Billboard Hot 100: “Piece of My Heart,” released by Big Brother and the Holding Company in 1968. The single reached No. 12, helping to propel the album Cheap Thrills—her second and final LP with Big Brother—to No. 1 on the Billboard 200.
9. Janis Joplin is a member of the “27 Club.”
Joplin died at 27, a sadly common age for brilliant musicians to shuffle off their mortal coils. Less than a month before Joplin’s overdose, Jimi Hendrix asphyxiated while under the influence of barbiturates. In July of 1971, fellow ’60s superstar Jim Morrison succumbed to heart failure, possibly as a result of drug use. Others to subsequently join the “27 Club” include Nirvana's Kurt Cobain and Amy Winehouse.
10. Janis Joplin never got her Mercedes-Benz.
On October 1, 1970, during what would be her final studio session, Joplin recorded “Mercedes Benz,” a sly commentary on consumerism in America. (Sample lyric: “Oh Lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedes-Benz.”) It would become one of her signature tunes, and in the mid-’90s, Mercedes actually used the song in a commercial. In real life, Joplin never owned a Mercedes, but she did have a pretty sweet ride: a 1964 Porsche, painted in psychedelic colors by her roadie Dave Richards.
11. Janis Joplin inspired her own biopic—sort of.
The 1979 film The Rose garnered four Oscar nominations, including a Best Actress nod for Bette Midler, who plays a self-destructive Texas-born rock star in the late ’60s. The story bears superficial similarities to Joplin’s life, but it’s not, strictly speaking, a biopic. Joplin’s family decided against selling the rights, and the working title, Pearl (Joplin’s nickname), had to be changed. In the decades since, numerous actresses have been linked to failed Joplin biopics, including Amy Adams, Courtney Love, Pink, Brittany Murphy, and Melissa Etheridge.