Janis Joplin is widely regarded as one of the greatest rock singers of all time, following her stunning success in the 1960s. But considering the star died at the age of 27, it'll perhaps come as no surprise that her signature gutsy tones came from a place of pain and tragedy. And here’s a look at her heartbreaking journey, including failed relationships and fatal substance abuse.
A misfit from the start
Joplin was born in Port Arthur, Texas, in January 1943. She started performing in her teenage years — and was quickly outcast by her peers. The children at her high school called call her names such as "pig," "freak," or "creep." She later stated, "I was a misfit. I read, I painted, I thought."
In 1966 she moved to San Francisco (for the second time). Here, she became a member of Big Brother and the Holding Company. The psychedelic blues outfit had struggled to make any notable impression before Joplin’s appointment. But she soon elevated them to chart-topping fame.
Making moves in music
The band first caught national attention after Joplin’s mesmerizing performance at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967. After signing to Columbia Records, their album Cheap Thrills reached pole position on the Billboard 200 a year later. But Joplin had even bigger aspirations, so she left the band to forge a solo career.
By this point, though, Joplin had already picked up both a criminal record and a substantial drug problem. She had been arrested for shoplifting in San Francisco in 1965 and started regularly using all kinds of drugs.
Striking out on her own
Her career, however, went from good to great. The press started to see Joplin as the lead of Big Brother and the Holding Company, and so it was little surprise that in 1969 Joplin assembled her very own backing group. With the Kozmic Blues Band, she released her solo debut album, I Got Dem Ol’ Kozmic Blues Again Mama!
Featuring the popular tune “Try (Just a Little Bit Harder),” the album pursued a more polished soulful sound. But some reviews noted that Joplin’s new band lacked the freewheeling spirit that made Big Brother and the Holding Company so captivating.
"It's my band. Finally, it's my band!"
As a result, Joplin recruited another group of more versatile musicians, The Full Tilt Boogie Band, for her second and final solo album, Pearl. Produced by Paul Rothchild, the LP spawned several Joplin classics including “Get It While You Can” and “Mercedes Benz.” Sadly, she didn’t live long enough to see it hit the shelves.
She obviously would have been proud of it, though, as she had taken a much more prominent role in putting together The Full Tilt Boogie Band. "It's my band. Finally, it's my band!" she once said.
Gone far too soon
In 1970 Joplin became a member of the notorious 27 Club when she passed away in her hotel room in Hollywood. The star, who had battled alcohol and drug abuse throughout her career, died of a heroin overdose. She was found at the Landmark Motor Hotel by her road manager and friend, John Byrne Cooke.
Her cover version of Kris Kristofferson’s “Me and Bobby McGee” posthumously reached the top of the U.S. charts in 1971. Of course, though, Joplin had suffered hardships and heartache long before she rose to international fame.
She dares to be different
As early as 1962, her peers marked Joplin out as someone who was different from normal people. She briefly attended the University of Texas at Austin and a profile of her early life was printed in the campus newspaper, The Daily Texan. It was headlined "She Dares to be Different."
The article started, "She goes barefooted when she feels like it, wears Levi's to class because they're more comfortable, and carries her autoharp with her everywhere she goes so that in case she gets the urge to break into song, it will be handy. Her name is Janis Joplin."
Dark times started early
She left Texas for San Francisco in January 1963. She said she had to "get away" from Texas "because [her] head was in a much different place." But it was this first jaunt in San Francisco where, as we've heard, she had her first brush with the law.
And over the next two years, she developed a drug habit that included speed and heroin. Joplin also became dependent on alcohol, with Southern Comfort as her particular drink of choice.
Turning her life around
Joplin’s friends were shocked at the impact her hedonistic lifestyle was having on her. They arranged a party for her to pay for her trip back to her parents’ home in Texas to recover. This was despite Joplin later telling Rolling Stone, "I didn't have many friends and I didn't like the ones I had."
On her return, the singer gave up both alcohol and drugs completely and enrolled at Lamar University as an anthropology student. During her studies, she began performing at various bars in Austin.
Heartbreak and heartache
But any attempt at happiness was only short-lived. Joplin suffered heartbreak in 1965 when she was dumped by her fiancé Peter de Blanc. The couple had announced their engagement earlier that same year.
de Blanc even visited Jolpin’s father to ask for his permission, and Joplin apparently started to plan the wedding with her mother. Unfortunately, it was just one of many relationships that Joplin entered into over the next five years.
A life less ordinary
A year later Joplin joined Big Brother and the Holding Company despite her previous reservations about pursuing a rock and roll career. Indeed, the star had regularly visited a therapist to discuss her fears of relapsing if she continued to perform.
However, her therapist did his best to assure her that not every successful artist was addicted to drugs. Joplin was also encouraged to chase her dreams after being told that she would end up like every other woman in her hometown if she didn’t.
Things got out of hand quickly
Joplin initially stayed clean after moving back to San Francisco. She had banned the encouragement of her bandmates from Big Brother and the Holding Company to help her. And she made sure no needles were used in her apartment.
Sadly, she eventually succumbed to her temptations. Three years after joining the group, Joplin reportedly developed a $200-a-day heroin habit, approximately $1,665 in today’s money.
People started to notice
Inevitably Joplin’s drug abuse began to affect her performances on stage. She was visibly high during a duet with Tina Turner at a 1969 Rolling Stones gig at Madison Square Garden.
Some observers believe she also tried to incite a riot during another show at the same venue that same year. Meanwhile, at a performance at Woodstock in 1969, Joplin went on a ten-hour alcohol and heroin binge.
Back to high school
In 1970 Joplin revealed she would attempt to put her high school demons to rest by attending a ten-year class reunion. She told TV host Dick Cavett that her fellow students had previously “laughed me out of class, out of town, and out of the state.”
However, despite support from her sister and road manager, the experience proved to be a mixed bag. She had to sign a lot of autographs and pose for pictures. But she didn't exactly get the revenge she may have been hoping for.
The final days
In August that same year, 1970, Joplin booked a room at Hollywood’s Landmark Motor Hotel while recording her last studio album. Sadly, she spent much of her stint there pleading with her on/off lover Peggy Caserta.
Caserta was also a fellow drug user staying at the same place for using the same drug. The pair had previously vowed to keep their distance. This was to prevent each other from sinking even deeper into their addictions.
A sad turn of events
Caserta refused to give Joplin the heroin she craved. But the star managed to get her hands on the drug through Caserta’s dealer. Myra Friedman and Albert Grossman, Joplin’s publicist and her manager, respectively, later claimed they had no idea that the Landmark Motor Hotel Joplin was staying at was a drug haven.
In fact, Myra Friedman later claimed that she spoke to Joplin many times on the phone during this period and that Joplin had failed to mention Caserta. Friedman said she was unaware Jolpin was still in touch with the woman.
Her fiancé made her mad
Joplin also discovered during this period that her fiancé Seth Morgan had been spending time with other women. The star had met the 21-year-old, a student at UC Berkeley and cocaine dealer, just a few months previously.
Joplin reportedly became angry after learning that Morgan had taken several women to play pool in her very own home in California. She was, though, apparently pleased that her next album was coming along.
Finding the body
Joplin was also left saddened by the fact that both Caserta and Morgan stood her up for a pre-arranged visit at the Landmark Hotel. Just two days later, John Cooke, the road manager for the Full Tilt Boogie Band, drove to the hotel to see Joplin.
She had failed to arrive for a recording session. He subsequently discovered the star’s lifeless body next to her bed. The coroner later determined the cause of death to be a heroin overdose, possibly compounded by alcohol.
Laments from a friend
Joplin’s death came just over two weeks after the passing of another same-aged rock idol, Jimi Hendrix. And four years later Caserta published a book, Going Down with Janis, detailing her experiences with the star.
Despite the tragic death of her friend and lover, Caserta herself took a long time to get clean. In fact, she nearly suffered a fatal overdose herself in 1995. Joplin was cremated and her ashes were scattered over the Pacific Ocean.
Surviving long after she was gone
Joplin’s life story formed the basis of 1979’s Bette Midler-starring The Rose. The star was also the subject of the late 1990s musical Love, Janis and the 2015 documentary biopic, Janis: Little Girl Blue. The singer posthumously received an induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1995 and a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Grammys ten years later.
The iconic '60s singer had a tumultuous life — but this was seemingly nothing new for the time. Joni Mitchell, for example, was one of the first artists to soar in various genres. Be it folk, pop, rock, or jazz, Joni’s influence draws from and informs just about every style under the sun. Of course, her upbringing was just as eclectic and difficult as Janis's.
Just another military brat
For some songwriters, the music industry can be divided into two eras: BJ ("before Joni") and AF ("after Joni"). It's true that songwriters were forced to up their game the moment Joni hit the ground running.
Her first album was, after all, the iconic Song to a Seagull. But before she was dazzling audiences with her unique singing voice and lyrics, she was a military brat from Canada.
Everything changed after World War II
Joni’s mother was Scottish and Irish, and her dad was both white and indigenous Norwegian. In any case, Joni’s family was mostly just Canadian, and her dad proved his dedication to Canada.
He was a flight lieutenant with the Royal Canadian Air Force. William’s job took the family to several military bases in western Canada, but World War II changed his livelihood forever.
Finally leaving roots
After the war, Joni — who was born Roberta Joan Anderson — moved with her family to Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, which is where the family finally settled down. Joni got her first taste of an "ordinary" family life.
But she had a hard time getting through classes at school. She was talented and smart, but it didn’t translate to the required courses. There was one thing she was great at, though — painting.
"A painter derailed by circumstance"
You can see Joni's lifelong love for painting by taking an extra look at some of her album covers, which the star painted herself. She called herself a "painter derailed by circumstance."
The "circumstance" was her undeniable talent for singing and songwriting. The first time she put pen to paper, it was thanks to a particularly supportive teacher called Arthur Kratzmann.
Always spoke her mind
Not all of Joni's teachers were so supportive. A piano teacher once “hit me across the knuckles with a ruler and said, 'Why would you want to play by ear when you could have the masters under your fingers?’” Mitchell once recalled.
She continued, “So I said to her, 'Look, the masters had to play by ear to come up with that stuff.' And she just treated me like a bad child, and I quit piano lessons then."
A powerful strain of polio
Kratzmann, though, encouraged Joni to express her pent-up emotions on paper. And she had some complicated emotions to work through in addition to being the well-traveled child of a military man.
Joni had also contended with a debilitating case of polio. Young Joni was hospitalized for weeks as she fought against the powerful strain of polio that infected her body. It was then that she decided to focus on what truly mattered to her.
Trying to make ends meet
As she grew, Joni became more enamored with music. She started out by performing in nightclubs in her late teens, which is where she was first introduced to genres such as folk and jazz.
She wanted to make it big, but the trip to the top wasn't an easy climb; for years, Joni performed solely in clubs, church basements, and on sidewalks to make ends meet.
A life-changing decision
The years Joni spent as a struggling musician are the subject of many of Joni's songs, but it's the story behind the song "Little Green" that caught many fans off guard decades after she first wrote it.
Written in the mid-'60s, the inspiration behind the song was Joni's experience putting her baby daughter up for adoption. Up until that point, hardly anyone knew that Joni had ever been pregnant.
A chance meeting
Joni knew what she wanted, and it wasn't motherhood. And although performing in smoky nightclubs and busy coffeeshops wasn't ideal, it gave Joni the chance to test out some of her new material. Her songwriting was raw, personal, and unique. One man was particularly struck by Joni's unusual talents.
When Chuck Mitchell first heard Joni perform at a folk club in Toronto, he knew he was witnessing something special. He was also a folk singer, and he had an idea.
She didn't want to be a duo
Before long, he and Joni were scouring the U.S. together in search of gigs, first as partners and then as husband and wife. But Joni's star was on the rise, and she wasn't satisfied being part of a duo.
Chuck and Joni got divorced, and Joni decided to keep the name "Mitchell." Or maybe she just didn't have time to change it: not long after her divorce, Joni was performing at another club when another man walked in. It would be the chance encounter that officially put Joni on the map.
His first big breaks
The man was successful musician and songwriter David Crosby from Crosby, Stills & Nash. Putting his connections in the music industry to good use, he helped Joni put together her first album.
This was the classic Song to a Seagull that set Joni on the path to stardom. This was quickly followed by the 1969 album Clouds, for which Joni painted the self-portrait that became the album cover.
Behind "Both Sides, Now"
"Both Sides, Now", one of Joni's most famous songs, appeared on Clouds. She later explained the inspiration behind the song, saying, "I was up in a plane. I was reading a book (by Saul Bellow) called Henderson the Rain King.
And in the book, he was up on a plane flying to Africa, and he mused that he'd looked up at clouds, but he'd never looked down on them before. So that was where the germ of the idea for the song came from."
Running towards the horizon
For Clouds, Joni earned her first Grammy Award. After Clouds came Ladies of the Canyon and then Blue, the album many consider to be Joni's best. "By the time she did Blue, she was past me and running towards the horizon," Crosby said.
And he clearly wasn't the only one in awe of Joni's talent. By the mid-'70s, Joni's songs "The Circle Game", "Big Yellow Taxi", and "River" had already taken the world by storm. But her success came at a price.
"I had absolutely no secrets"
"At that period of my life, I had no personal defenses," Joni once said. "I felt like a cellophane wrapper on a pack of cigarettes. I felt like I had absolutely no secrets from the world and I couldn't pretend in my life to be strong."
Blue was, indeed, an incredibly vulnerable collection of music from Joni, as it detailed the end of her passionate relationship with Graham Nash. It proved to be something of a turning point in Joni's personal life, too.
Breaking up with Graham Nash
"I thought with Graham and I, our relationship was very strong. I thought that it was the last one I'd have, and so I disappointed myself when that wasn't so, and that's why I was so sad at that time," Joni once told filmmaker Cameron Crowe in an interview.
Joni may have struggled to be vulnerable, but her music touched the lives of countless people. And we don't just mean people in the general public. One group particularly saw something special in Joni.
She gained a strong female following
Although folk artists like Bob Dylan and Cat Stevens were beloved by many, women in particular felt pulled to Joni's music. Her vulnerable lyrics and passionate vocals struck a chord with female music lovers, too.
After all, many hadn't felt represented by the stereotypical "male rock star." Best of all, Joni made it a priority early on in her career to exert control over her own music.
"I'm not a feminist"
Joni stills owns all of her music, which is a feat considering how often her songs have been covered by other artists, especially at the beginning of her career.
But even though Joni has made it a priority to have independence and control as a female artist, she ruffled feathers when she strongly claimed that she wasn't actually a feminist.
A controversial statement
In 2013, Joni controversially stated that she didn't "want to get a posse against men. I'd rather go toe-to-toe; work it out." Although some people claimed that Joni's definition of feminism was based on stereotypes, others noted how it came from a career spent battling for recognition in a male-dominated industry.
"When I started scraping my own soul more and getting more humanity in it, it scared the singer-songwriters around me. The men seemed to be nervous about it,” Mitchell said.
Her differences weren't praised
She joked, “Like Dylan plugging in and going electric. Like, 'Does this mean we have to do this now?'" Mitchell recognized that the personal nature of her work left a large impact, but it took a while for her to see it.
It helped that Joni was always willing to explore new genres and musical styles in order to grow as an artist, even if her experimentation didn't always pay off.
Her experimentations didn't always pan out with fans
Although Joni's next few albums — which included For the Roses, Court and Spark, and Hejira — were successful, her experimentations with jazz fusion didn't always go over well with critics or fans.
It didn't help when the album cover of her experimental album Don Juan's Reckless Daughter showed Joni in blackface as a self-created character Art Nouveau, whom she based off of a pimp she once encountered in L.A.
A prolific songwriter
To make matters worse, her next album, Mingus, became her worst-performing album since her career began in the 1960s. Although Joni's fans respected her for her ability to grow and change as an artist, the jazz album was too strong a departure.
After all, people just couldn't get enough of the folk sensibilities her fans originally fell in love with. But Joni refused to back down, and by the late 1980s, she'd created three more albums, all of which deftly combined folk, jazz, and pop.
Didn't consider herself a folk singer
Still, Joni resented the lasting dislike people had for her more experimental albums. She said, “I always thought that folk music wasn't a good title for me, except it was a girl with a guitar, and therefore a folk singer, right?"
"The only people that could play my music were jazz musicians because it was so strange. And they could write it out and look at the strangeness and get in on it," Mitchell later told Clive Davis in an interview.
Her voice started to change
By the '90s, Joni's music had somewhat returned to its original folk roots with the album Turbulent Indigo. But by that point, fans started to notice a change in Joni's style that had nothing to do with jazz or pop music. Her once bird-like singing voice, which could hit notes some singers could only dream of, started to sound deep and gravelly.
"I'd go to hit a note, and there was nothing there," Joni once said of the change in her voice. Some people blamed Joni's lifelong cigarette habit for the change, but Joni herself suggested that vocal nodes were the culprit.
Joni's shocking health issue
Regardless, by the 2010s, Joni had more pressing health issues to contend with. Although she'd announced her retirement back in 2002, she'd still spent the 2000s writing music. So when news broke of a major health issue in 2015, her fans were understandably shocked.
In 2015, Joni had a brain aneurysm. She miraculously survived the ordeal, but she retreated from the spotlight in order to recover. And according to friends, Joni's recovery wasn't instantaneous.
A surprise to everyone
David Crosby said that Joni even had to learn how to walk again. Of course, fans couldn't help but wonder if Joni would ever be able to pick up a guitar or write a lyric ever again. So imagine people's surprise when Joni arrived as a surprise guest and performer at the Newport Folk Festival in 2022.
It was her first time back at the festival since 1969, and fans waited eagerly to see if the legendary singer-songwriter would — or could — pick up a guitar. To their delight, she sat down with an electric guitar and started to play.
"The spirit moved me"
"I wasn't sure I would be able to sing. I have no soprano left, just a low alto. The spirit moved me. I forgave myself for my lack of talent," Joni later said, as published by Rolling Stone. A hush fell over the audience as Joni started to perform live for the first time in nine years. The audience knew they were witnessing something special, not to mention incredibly rare.
Little did they know, the performance was years in the making; Joni had been hosting 'Joni Jams' at her home for years where musicians like Elton John, Paul McCartney, Brandi Carlile, and Harry Styles would join Joni in a jam session. The Newport performance left Joni feeling exhilarated.
"It gave me the bug for it"
"I was delighted and honored. It gave me the bug for it," Joni said of her Newport performance, and she later told Brandi Carlile, "I want to do another show. I want to play again."
After decades of staying true to herself despite doubt from critics and fans, Joni was welcomed back with open arms — a fitting response to a music legend who finally found her way back home.