In 1969, Newsweek bestowed this honorific on Janis Joplin: "The first female superstar of rock music."
It's also a claim that Holly George-Warren sets out to prove in Janis, her new biography of the iconic Texan singer who rocketed to fame after becoming the frontwoman of the San Francisco blues-rock group Big Brother and the Holding Company—only to die four years later at the age of 27, a casualty of the freewheeling '60s, the decade she came to embody.
Joplin was born in 1943 in Port Arthur, Texas, where she would spend much of her brief life. As a child, her tomboy brusqueness and outspoken charm complemented her complexity of mind and spirit; Port Arthur was a segregated "cultural backwater," according to George-Warren, that only served to heighten Joplin's independence and curiosity. After falling under the sway of blues and rock music as a teenager, she leapt eagerly into the beatnik scene. Beat author Jack Kerouac's On the Road floored her in 1957, and its exploration of freedom and countercultural notions set her soul ablaze. From there, sex and drugs became staples of her life, a progression that often feels formulaic in accounts of Boomer coming-of-age. But George-Warren's deep research, eye for detail, illuminating contextualization, and clarity of delivery all make for a far more rounded and convincing image of Joplin's precocity in the heady decades of post-World War II America.
But it was Joplin's pilgrimage to San Francisco in 1966 to join the up-and-coming psychedelic band Big Brother and the Holding Company that catapulted her to the pop-culture pantheon. Her gritty, gutsy, godlike voice didn't mesh well with the group at first; they had to bend their more progressive tendencies in order to accommodate their new singer's far more direct and impactful sound. Big Brother's searing appearance at the Monterey Pop Festival in the summer of 1967 cemented her stardom, and their hit single "Piece of My Heart," an Erma Franklin cover, from their best-selling 1968 album Cheap Thrills became an anthem for hippies and feminists everywhere.