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Woodstock Performers: Janis Joplin

Rockin’ before she could walk, Kaili is a vinyl hound who knows the words to every post-1960 song.

Janis Joplin onstage at Woodstock in the wee hours of the morning, August 17, 1969.

Janis Joplin onstage at Woodstock in the wee hours of the morning, August 17, 1969.

This series of articles—32 in all—covers each of the artists who performed at the original Woodstock festival August 15-18, 1969. Appearing before Janis on Day 2 was Creedence Clearwater Revival, who trotted out all their fabulous swamp-rock hits. After Janis came Sly and the Family Stone... and the day still wasn't over yet.

This lady needed no introduction, then or now. She was arguably one of the acts that most folks had come to Woodstock to see. And so, at about 2:00 a.m. on Sunday, August 17th, Janis finally took the stage.

Janis' Kozmic Blues

In 1962, Janis and her buddy Chet Helms (who would go on to be one of San Francisco's biggest concert promoters) hitchhiked to California, a trip that would change Janis forever. She hung out with beatniks and musicians in San Francisco and Venice, and experienced things that were otherwise pretty foreign to a white, middle-class kid from Port Arthur, Texas. She continued to hone her singing style and became known for being a total wild child, into hard drugs like heroin and speed, and heavy drinking to boot. But that voice...everyone loved her voice.

In early 1965, her friends, among them Jorma Kaukonen (who later became the lead guitarist for Jefferson Airplane), were so worried that she was going to end up a casualty from drugs, that they urged her to go home to Texas. So, unannounced, Janis returned to her parents' home in Port Arthur. She went back to school, quit drugs, and began playing small clubs in Beaumont and Austin as a solo act, accompanying herself on guitar.

That quiet interlude wasn't to last. When San Francisco Bay area band Big Brother and the Holding Company went looking for a singer, Janis' old school buddy Chet Helms reached out to her. Janis went back to California and became the lead singer for Big Brother in June 1966. But the gig didn't last. In late summer of 1968, Janis announced she was leaving Big Brother and the Holding Company. She had only been with them for two years and two albums, and her official reason for wanting to leave was that she felt she was ready to embark on a solo career. But, there was a little more to the story. Besides her own increasing drug use, the guys in Big Brother were also going down that awful road. Janis felt trapped by the band's repertoire and their refusal to change their sound. She wanted to bust things open and add some horns. The guys, on the other hand, were all quite happy with the status quo. All, that is, except Sam Andrew, half of Big Brother's psychedelic guitar duo. Janis' last performance with Big Brother was on December 1, 1968.

Three weeks later, Janis and Andrew performed together in Memphis as the yet-to-be-named Kozmic Blues Band. Janis was now a solo act, with a new sound that was more soul and blues oriented and took her away from the rock/psychedelic sound that had defined her time with Big Brother.

Music’s for grooving man, and music’s not for puttin’ yourself through bad changes, y’know? I mean, you don’t have to go take anybody’s shit, man, just to like music, y’know what I mean? You don’t. So... so if you’re getting’ more shit than you deserve, you know what to do about it man. Y’know, it’s just music. Music’s... music's s’posed to be different than that.

— Janis to the Woodstock audience before "Try (Just a Little Bit Harder)"

Janis Joplin's Woodstock

By early 1969, Janis was reportedly hitting up with about $200 worth of heroin every day. Her old beau Joe McDonald had left her Woodstock hotel room in disgust when she wanted him to watch her shoot up. And the helicopter ride to the site had totally freaked her out when she saw the size of the crowd. Consequently, she used the ten-hour wait backstage while other bands performed to hit up again and drink heavily through the evening. By the time she and her band hit the stage at 2:00 a.m. on Sunday the 17th, Janis was in fine form and her voice was pretty rough.

Janis was accompanied by Terry Clements (tenor sax), Cornelius “Snooky” Flowers (baritone sax), Luis Gasca (trumpet), John Till (guitar), Richard Kermode (keyboards), Brad Campbell (bass), and Maury Baker (drums). They mostly played material from Janis' yet-to-be-released solo album, and the funkier sound was unlike what Janis' fans were used to.

The eight-song set included some hits and some misses. They started off with a cover of soul singer Eddie Floyd's "Raise Your Hand," and then moved into the horn-heavy "As Good As You've Been to This World" from the new album. They followed this up with a respectable cover of the Bee Gees' tune "To Love Somebody," with Janis putting a whole new spin on that song, showcasing the vocal chops the crowd was expecting.

Though Janis' physical state during her performance was pretty unsteady, she worked really hard to connect with the audience throughout the set, even asking them if they had enough water to drink and a place to sleep.

Up next was the Gershwin tune "Summertime," a song she had performed with Big Brother, who had come up with the arrangement. That was followed by "Try (Just a Little Bit Harder)" and "Kozmic Blues," both from the new album.

Janis Joplin Performing "Try (Just a Little Bit Harder)" at Woodstock

By this time, Janis' voice had had it, and Cornelius Flowers took over main vocal duty on "Can't Turn You Loose," allowing Janis to rest her pipes a bit. Their final number was "Work Me Lord" from the new album. If Janis had been saving up whatever was left of her voice so she could ace this song, she succeeded beautifully. Though her voice cracked here and there, it seemed intentional, and only added to the heartfelt delivery. It was a masterpiece.

Janis and the band were coaxed back to the stage by wild applause for two encore numbers, "Piece of My Heart" and a cover of Big Mama Thornton's "Ball and Chain."

Some fans, who had been expecting the heavier, more psychedelic sound of her time with Big Brother, were disappointed with the new sound, especially the horns. But Janis had given it her all, as can be seen below in the clip of "Ball and Chain."

Janis was unhappy with her performance that night, so none of her set was included in the original release of the 1970 Woodstock LP or film, and the later director's cut only includes "Work Me Lord." As a result, there are still people who don't recall that Janis was even at Woodstock.

Janis Performing "Ball & Chain" at Woodstock

Life After Woodstock

Folks around Janis had tried valiantly to keep her clean during the recording of her solo album. Recording took place in New York over a ten-day period beginning on June 16, 1969, and the album was finally released September 11th, not quite a month after Woodstock. I Got Dem Ol' Kozmic Blues Again Mama!.received mixed reviews and, though it went gold later in the year, it didn't do nearly as well on the charts as Cheap Thrills had, only reaching the #5 spot on the album charts in November 1969. The album ultimately went platinum in the US, and the 1999 reissue of I Got Dem Ol' Kozmic Blues Again Mama! is a must-have for any Janis fan. It even includes two of her Woodstock tunes, "Summertime" and "Piece of My Heart."

Many critics were scathing in their reviews of her new sound, suggesting she should go back to Big Brother, if they would even have her. Janis continued to experiment with music and with drugs. And whether some of the criticism of her new sound had anything to do with it or not, she soon formed a new band, Full Tilt Boogie Band.

Beginning in late August 1970 through to early October, Janis and Full Tilt rehearsed and started laying down tracks for an album. But, Janis wouldn't live to see the album released. Her demons and heroin addiction finally caught up with her and she died of an accidental overdose on October 4, 1970. Her second and final solo album, Pearl, was released posthumously on January 11, 1971. It was her best-selling album, and included the hit cover of Kris Kristofferson’s “Me And Bobby McGee.”

Five Musical Facts

  1. Janis, Melanie, and Joan Baez were the only women to perform solo at Woodstock. Janis was one of the first people that Melanie saw when she finally reached the motel where the artists were staying. Joan and her mother were passengers on the helicopter that Janis took to the site.
  2. On the very last day of the festival, which turned out to be Monday August 18th, Janis joined Joan Baez in Joe Cocker's rental van to watch Jimi Hendrix perform his legendary set.
  3. Janis died just 16 days after Jimi Hendrix. Both became members of the "27 Club." After Janis died, her family received thousands of letters from fans, each pouring out their own grief and profound sense of loss.
  4. In 1995, Janis was posthumously inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Janis is ranked #28 on Rolling Stone's 2008 list of the 100 Greatest Singers of All Time.
  5. In 2018, Janis' one-time lover Peggy Caserta published a book in which she theorizes that Janis didn't die from an OD, but instead tripped and broke her nose on a nightstand, causing her to asphyxiate on her own blood.

© 2019 Kaili Bisson


Kaili Bisson (author) from Canada on May 29, 2019:

Hi Flourish,

Janis sure knew how to groove, man. She was one of a kind, and there will never be another one like her. She was still evolving when she died. Such a loss.

FlourishAnyway from USA on May 28, 2019:

I love that clip of her explaining how music is for groovin' man. Janis Joplin, Amy Winehart and George Jones are my all-time favorite singers. I can't imagine people would have been disappointed with her sound, but you can't make everyone happy. Her death is such a great loss. We can only imagine what could have been.