A Midnight Call from Janis Joplin: Ben Fong-Torres Tells All

Ben Fong-Torres on Janis' phone call: "She just gave me a very nice, quite happy round of summary of what she'd been up to recently." (Photo: Rick Gilbert)

It was the dead of night when the phone rang. Ben Fong-Torres, then a staffer at Rolling Stone, wasn't even at the magazine's offices, but rather in Chinatown, filling in part-time at a newspaper.

He picked up, surprised to hear the voice on the other end of the line: Janis Joplin.

"When you're working in a newspaper office in Chinatown after midnight, the last person you would expect to be calling you is Janis Joplin," Fong-Torres recalls. "She just said 'Hi, this is Janis here. Do you want to talk about some stuff?'"

Joplin was in an interesting place in life. It was the spring of 1970. She'd left her well-known band Big Brother & the Holding Company, traveled through South America, and had just started rehearsing in Larkspur, north of San Francisco. Rolling Stone wanted Fong-Torres to get the details on her new band.

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It marked a change of heart for the magazine that had treated its hometown hero somewhat dismissively. Joplin had made groundbreaking albums, but the magazine hadn't bothered to ever give her a cover feature. Her performances were the stuff of legend, and yet Rolling Stone ran a searing review by Paul Nelson of one of her New York shows titled 'Janis: The Judy Garland of Rock?'

David Getz and Janis Joplin playing live
David Getz and Janis Joplin playing live (Photo: Courtesy of © Fantality Corp.)

"I had reached out to her a couple of times hoping for comment, understanding that none might be forthcoming, because Janis and Rolling Stone had a pretty tough relationship," Fong-Torres says.

Instead, Joplin began talking about her new band, her new musical direction, and her plans for the future. She talked about her trip south of the border, a tattoo she'd recently gotten of a flower around her wrist, some criticism of the police in Brazil, and nothing of Rolling Stone's past treatment of her. "It was a very short chat -- very pleasant, amiable," Fong-Torres says. "I scratched out my notes there at the office in Chinatown, and then wrote it up the next day."

The headline? 'Hey, Janis is Feeling Great.'

Fong-Torres has talked about that midnight phone call over the years, and there's one question that comes up periodically: as someone making a call in the middle of the night, did Joplin seem wasted? Fong-Torres says he couldn't tell, and anyway, had no radar for such things back then.

"I wouldn't want to say, 'Hey, if she sounded that friendly, she must have been a little hammered,'" Fong-Torres explains.

Big Brother and the Holding Company drummer Dave Getz and Janis Joplin, circa 1967
Big Brother and the Holding Company drummer Dave Getz and Janis Joplin, circa 1967. (Photo: Courtesy of Bob Seidemann)

By 1970, Fong-Torres had seen Janis many times; the first, at San Francisco State, involved stumbling across one of her first rehearsals with Big Brother & the Holding Company in a small room off the campus quad.

But only months after calling Fong-Torres that night in Chinatown, Joplin would be found dead in a hotel room in Hollywood at the young age of 27.

At the Rolling Stone offices, staffers didn't have time to mourn, instead jumping into action for next week's issue -- reporting from the Haight-Ashbury, from Winterland, and, for Fong-Torres, from Larkspur, where Joplin had been rehearsing.

Once the issue was off to the printers, the weight set in.

"You feel a great sadness because, at that time, you yourself are only in your mid-twenties and you're dealing with the death of someone in her mid-twenties," says Fong-Torres. "You feel a connection from having known of her for a number of years in the scene, and admiring her and her band for what they did."

 

KQED will air the documentaries Janis: Little Girl Blue and Janis Joplin: San Francisco’s Pearl on Tuesday, May 3, starting at 8pm. This story is part of a series of articles and exclusive content being featured on KQED Arts, more of which an be found at American Masters: Janis Joplin.