New Janis Joplin Biography Reveals The Hard Work Behind The Heart

Oct 21, 2019
Originally published on October 23, 2019 12:09 pm

In the 1960s, Janis Joplin was an icon of the counterculture, a female rock star at a time when rock was an all-boys' club.

"At that point in time there weren't too many women taking center stage," biographer Holly George-Warren says. "Janis created this incredible image that went along with her amazing vocal ability. ... [She] was very, very different than most of the women that came before."

On stage, Joplin oozed confidence, sexuality and exuberance. It all seemed so effortless, but George-Warren describes Joplin as a bookworm who worked hard to create her "blues feelin' mama" musical persona.

"She was a real scholar of music. ... She didn't want people to know how hard she worked," George-Warren says. "She wanted people to think she was just this vessel, or this megaphone, or something that was just up there on stage, and the music and emotions were just coming out of her."

George-Warren says she decided to write about Joplin after listening to tapes from the Columbia Records vault of the singer's recording session with producer Paul Rothchild for the album Pearl. (The album was released posthumously in 1971, following Joplin's fatal overdose in 1970.)

"Rothchild [is] known for being this very authoritarian producer, but ... Janis was just coming up with idea after idea," George-Warren says. "She was basically co-producing this record with him. And that turned my head around. ... I realized that that part of her story had not been told."

George-Warren's new biography is Janis.


Interview highlights

On Janis Joplin as a live performer

What made Janis really different as a live performer is that she connected with her audiences by tapping into her deepest feelings. - Holly George-Warren

What made Janis really different as a live performer is that she connected with her audiences by tapping into her deepest feelings. And there was this authenticity that came across. She wasn't just standing up there singing — she was basically emptying out her guts through that amazing voice of hers, and touching her audience members like they had never been touched before. I've talked to people who saw her back in 1966, '67 and they talk about it as if it was yesterday — especially women, I think, because she was able to express deep-down emotions, shame, disappointments, hurts that I think a lot of women in her audience couldn't express themselves. And Janis was not only just singing to them; she was singing for them. And I think that kind of deep connection was very, very unique at that time.

On the sexual energy she exuded onstage

You can look to two major influences that Janis had that I think affected her sexuality and the way she expressed it onstage. One was, of course, the great Bessie Smith, whose lyrics Janis knew by heart. ... She started performing Bessie Smith songs around 1963, and those kind of lyrics of sexuality, of sexual longing, sexual betrayal: Those very much informed Janis' own songwriting and the songs that she chose to sing.

The other major influence was Otis Redding. She was a huge Otis fan until the day she died, and she got to see him perform live three nights in a row at the Fillmore back in 1966, and it transformed her. He was a very sexual performer and he was able to emit this heat on stage that Janis herself was able to do through her own way of manifesting these feelings that she had while singing these songs. Janis ... compared singing on stage to having an orgasm. She blew some journalists' minds when she used that expression, but it was a very sexual experience for her.

On the black artists that influenced her sound

Janis took her own vocals for granted until she discovered Lead Belly. She just thought: Oh, anybody can sing soprano. She sang in the church choir and the glee club. But when she heard Lead Belly's voice, she wanted to experiment with roughing up her sound and making it more raw and she was a mimic. She discovered Odetta, who had kind of the round tones, and she started trying to sing like Odetta on her records. But she was mostly inspired by Lead Belly, until she discovered, of course, Bessie Smith, and then that was all she wrote.

On the sexism she faced in the music industry

Once she was a public figure, the press would, of course, be amazed by her vocals, and critics would be talking about what a great singer she was. But they were often singling out her body parts and talking about her physical appearance in a way that, of course, male singers, rock singers, were really not getting that kind of attention from the press.

Also, she really had to bust down barriers to be able to have control, to do what she wanted to do, because she loved being in Big Brother and the Holding Company, for example — the band with whom she catapulted to fame — but she was such a restless spirit as far as a musician goes. She wanted to keep exploring different sounds, different kinds of music, and when she did that, it was really awful in that the boys' club of music critics just kind of raked over the coals for dropping her band and going off on her own, and they tried to say she was selling out and going showbiz.

On how Joplin's experience with the "kozmic blues" connected with her alcohol use

She was an introspective person deep down, and she didn't like her thoughts. She was a fatalist. She had learned this kind of existential, dark philosophy from her father, who called it the "Saturday night swindle," which was basically the idea that no matter how hard you work, how much you try to achieve your goals, you're never really going to be happy. There's always going to be a let-down. There's always going to be disappointments — which was [a] pretty dark attitude when you think about that whole '50s positivism etc., post-World War II America. Janis called this idea the "kozmic blues," and it really did dog her.

I think between that philosophy and all the pressures of leading a band, being in the spotlight, being a star, having to always live up to her image night after night on stage and, of course, in the recording studio, she wanted something that was going to numb those kind of feelings of anxiety and fear. ... She started drinking when she was a teenager. So early on, she realized that if something can kind of take you away from yourself, take you out of your head, it could be a good thing.

On Joplin's addiction to heroin

Janis started turning to heroin as a way to just kind of numb herself from all the pressures and the fear of what it was like being a solo artist at that point [in] time in her career. Again, she was still very much a focal point of media. There was articles about her all the time and she had developed this whole hard-drinking blues mama image that she had. So this was a secret vice of hers that she picked up. Unfortunately, heroin was pretty prevalent. No one really realized at the time, and so she gradually got addicted to heroin in 1969. ...

She tried to kick heroin a few times. She finally did almost for good in 1970, right about the time she had put together a new band which became called Full Tilt Boogie Band. And she got off heroin for a while actually by going to Brazil for Carnival, and I mean — it's so hard to believe that she was a massive rock star, but she was hitchhiking around in Brazil for a while, totally cleaned up, really loved the feeling of being clean and back to her old self again.

Sadly, she relapsed when she got back to California, and then finally she quit in the spring of 1970 and she stayed off of it for about four or five months, until tragically she relapsed again while recording Pearl in Los Angeles, got a very strong dose. ... It was much more pure than she had ever used before, and her tolerance was down. She was by herself, overdosed and died on Oct. 4, 1970. ... A lot of musicians were using that drug and people didn't realize it. But when Janis overdosed on heroin, I think it was a wake-up call — but soon sadly forgotten.

Lauren Krenzel and Seth Kelley produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Patrick Jarenwattananon adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2019 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest is the author of a new biography of Janis Joplin called "Janis: Her Life And Music." Holly George-Warren writes, quote, "Joplin's confident musicianship, brash sexuality and natural exuberance locked together to produce America's first female rock star. Janis never compromised her vision. She wasn't afraid to cross boundaries - musical, cultural and sexual. As we look back at pivotal moments in 1960s rock history, she is usually there - the Monterey Pop Festival; the vibrant Haight-Ashbury scene in San Francisco; the streets, the clubs and studios of gritty New York City; Woodstock," unquote. Joplin's brief life was ended by a heroin overdose in 1970, when she was only 27. Her final album, "Pearl," was released posthumously.

Holly George-Warren is also the author of "The Road To Woodstock" and biographies of Alex Chilton and Gene Autry. She's on the nominating committee of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and teaches at the State University of New York at New Paltz. Let's start with a track that was Joplin's commercial breakthrough with her band Big Brother and The Holding Company. This is "Piece Of My Heart," recorded in 1968.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PIECE OF MY HEART")

BIG BROTHER AND THE HOLDING COMPANY: (Singing) Oh, come on, come on, come on, come on. Didn't I make you feel like you were the only man? Yeah. Didn't I give you everything that a woman possibly can? Honey, you know I did. And each time I tell myself, well, I think I've had enough. But I'm going to show you, baby, that a woman can be tough. I want you to come on, come on, come on, come on, and take it - take another little piece of my heart now, baby. Oh, break it. Break another little bit of my heart now, darling. Yeah, yeah, yeah. Oh, have another little piece of my heart now, baby. You know you got it if it makes you feel good. Oh, yes indeed.

GROSS: Holly George-Warren, welcome back to FRESH AIR.

HOLLY GEORGE-WARREN: Thanks so much for having me again.

GROSS: So why do you - why do you and so many others consider Janis Joplin the first woman rock star? And I presume when we say rock star, we're eliminating - like, rock 'n' roll. (Laughter) We're eliminating, like, girl groups; we're talking about, like, rock-rock.

GEORGE-WARREN: Yes. Janis Joplin broke down a lot of barriers to become the woman that she was in the 1960s, when at that point in time there weren't too many women taking center stage, not only on stage, in the recording studio, but even as far as a point of media attention. And Janis created this incredible image that went along with her amazing vocal ability, her talent and also her live performance, which was very, very different than most of the women that came before.

GROSS: For people who haven't seen her live or on film or video, how was her live performance different?

GEORGE-WARREN: What made Janis really different as a live performer is that she connected with her audiences by tapping into her deepest feelings. And there was this authenticity that came across. She wasn't just standing up there singing; she was basically emptying out her guts through that amazing voice of hers and touching her audience members like they had never been touched before.

I've talked to people who saw her back in 1966, '67, and they talk about it as if it was yesterday, especially women, I think, because she was able to express deep-down emotions - shame, disappointments, hurts - that I think a lot of women in her audience couldn't express themselves. And Janis was not only just singing to them; she was singing for them. And I think that kind of deep connection was very, very unique at that time.

GROSS: She was very sexual on stage, but it wasn't in the way that you would imagine. She wasn't wearing, like, sexy clothes. She wasn't, like, revealing a lot of her body, like, on stage. So what was it about her that had so much kind of sexual energy in her performances?

GEORGE-WARREN: You can look to two major influences that Janis had that I think affected her sexuality and the way she expressed it on stage. One was, of course, the great Bessie Smith, whose lyrics Janis knew by heart. She started out singing Bessie Smith songs way before we ever saw her, these images of her with Big Brother and the Holding Company. She started performing Bessie Smith songs around 1963. And those kind of lyrics of sexuality, of sexual longing, sexual betrayal, those very much informed Janis' own songwriting and the songs that she chose to sing.

The other major influence was Otis Redding. She was a huge Otis fan until the day she died. And she got to see him perform live three nights in a row at The Fillmore back in 1966, and it transformed her because he was a very sexual performer. And he was able to emit this heat on stage that Janis herself was able to do through her own way of manifesting these feelings that she had while singing these songs. And I mean, Janis herself, she compared singing on stage to having an orgasm. She blew some journalists' minds when she used that expression, but she - it was a very sexual experience for her.

GROSS: And the world of rock in the late '60s was very much a male-dominated world, in the studio and in the music world. Do you think that she faced a lot of sexism when she was a performer, in spite of - on her way to stardom or after she reached it?

GEORGE-WARREN: Janis was one of the boys. She considered herself one of the boys. And she kind of was outside that gender role-playing at the time that was pretty much dominant in our culture. But once she was a public figure, the press would, of course, be amazed by her vocals, and critics would be talking about what a great singer she was, but they were often singling out her body parts and talking about her physical appearance in a way that - of course, you know, male singers, rock singers, were really not getting that kind of attention from the press.

Also, she really had to bust down barriers to be able to have control to do what she wanted to do because she loved being in Big Brother and The Holding Company, for example - the band with whom she catapulted to fame - but she was such a restless spirit as far as a musician goes. She wanted to keep exploring different sounds, different kinds of music. And when she did that, it was really awful in that the boys club of music critics just kind of raked her over the coals for dropping her band and going off on her own. And they tried to say she was selling out and going showbiz. And I don't think other artists - like Eric Clapton, who left and plenty of bands to try different sounds - I don't think they got that kind of personal attack that Janis got.

GROSS: Janis Joplin's music idols included Bessie Smith and Big Mama Thornton, other blues and rhythm and blues singers. But she was born in Texas, in Port Arthur, Texas, at a time when it was still segregated. How was she exposed to black music, and how did she, like, find records that she might not have heard on the radio?

GEORGE-WARREN: Because Janis came of age in the mid '50s, fortunately, in that golden age of early rock 'n' roll, she went nuts over Chuck Berry, Little Richard. There were some great records that she could listen to driving around. They used to call it doing the triangle where she lived in Port Arthur, Texas. They would just drive every night from Port Arthur to Beaumont to Orange, Texas, listening to the radio. Also, Beaumont had some great R&B station that played black music, which Janis loved. I mean, the great Ivory Joe Hunter was from Beaumont. So she was fortunately exposed to music like that on the radio. And then she discovered Lead Belly. And Lead Belly just changed her head around - the lyrics, the sound of his voice. You know, Janis took her own vocals for granted until she discovered Lead Belly. She just thought, oh, anybody can sing soprano. Like, you know, she sang in the church choir and the glee club. But when she heard Lead Belly's voice, she wanted to experiment with roughing up her sound and making it more raw. And she was a mimic. She could - you know, she discovered Odetta, who had kind of the round tones. And she started trying to sing like Odetta on her records. But she was mostly inspired by Lead Belly until she discovered, of course, Bessie Smith. And then that was all she wrote.

GROSS: Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Holly George-Warren. She's written a new biography of Janis Joplin called "Janis." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF JANIS JOPLIN SONG, "HALF MOON")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, I'm talking to Holly George-Warren about her new book "Janis." It's a biography of Janis Joplin.

One of Janis Joplin's most famous recordings is "Ball And Chain." And that was a cover of a song that was written by and originally recorded by Big Mama Thornton. So what's the story behind how Janis Joplin first heard that song or how someone in her band first heard that song and how she decided to record it?

GEORGE-WARREN: It is so poetic that Janis's breakthrough song would be written by Big Mama Thornton, "Ball And Chain," because as a teenager, of course, like many who saw Elvis on "Ed Sullivan Show," Janis loved Elvis, loved "Hound Dog." But then she went to the lengths - and we don't even know how she did it, but somehow she found Big Mama Thornton's original version on Duke Records out of nearby Houston, Texas, of "Hound Dog," which was very different from Elvis's. It was - it had a lot more heat to it. And, you know, fast forward - what? - 10 years later, 1966 or so. Janis was with Big Brother and The Holding Company. Big Mama, lo and behold, was living in the Bay Area, performing at a little club. So Janis and her bandmates went down to see her perform. And she does this self-penned song "Ball And Chain." They were blown away. Janis started writing down the lyrics to the song on a piece of paper there sitting in the club. They went backstage, got to meet Big Mama, and literally asked her permission for them to start covering that song. And she said, sure, as long as you don't mess it up, you know? And they did. David Getz, the drummer, used to say they Big Brother-ized the song.

GROSS: So I think Big Mama Thornton and Janis Joplin recorded "Ball And Chain" at about the same time because if I'm not mistaken, when Janis heard Big Mama Thornton perform it, Thornton hadn't recorded the song yet.

GEORGE-WARREN: That's correct. It was not available on record. And when it, I think, first did come out, it was on a very tiny label. I mean, at this point, Big Mama Thornton - her star had kind of fallen as far as the record industry goes. So the version that most people heard became the version that Big Brother and The Holding Company did at the Monterey Pop Festival in June of 1967, which was really their breakthrough performance. But they started doing that song - I guess they'd been doing it for probably about eight or nine months before they did it at Monterey Pop. And it kind of gradually evolved as they did it. You can hear it on some bootlegs and things like that and hear it, you know, a little bit different. But Janis just dug into the phrasing of that song. They slowed it way down. And it just had this heavy intensity to it that was the perfect vehicle for Janis's vocal abilities and also her ability to tap into those deep emotions and let them come through her voice.

GROSS: So I thought it would be interesting to hear the Big Mama Thornton recording and the Janis Joplin recording back to back so we can hear something of, you know, what influenced Janis Joplin and how she made it her own. So here's Big Mama Thornton followed by Janis Joplin. And both of these recordings were made in 1968.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BALL AND CHAIN")

BIG MAMA THORNTON: (Singing) Sitting by my window, Big Mama was sitting down looking at the rain. Hey, hey, sitting by my window, baby. Oh, I was looking out at the rain. You know, something struck me, honey, clamped onto me like a ball and chain.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BALL AND CHAIN")

JANIS JOPLIN: (Singing) Sitting down by my window, honey, looking out at the rain. Sitting down by my window, looking out at the rain. Something came along, grabbed a hold of me. And it felt just like a ball and chain. Honey, that's exactly what it felt like, honey, just dragging me down. And I said oh, whoa, whoa, now, honey, tell me why, what is every single little tiny thing I hold on goes wrong? It goes wrong, yeah. And I say oh, whoa, whoa, now, babe, tell me why was I...

GROSS: That was Big Mama Thornton followed by Janis Joplin and Big Brother and The Holding Company. All that recorded in 1968. And my guest is Holly George-Warren, author of a new biography of Janis Joplin called "Janis." Janis Joplin had a very unconventional, a very rebellious life. But she grew up in a very - you know, I think we can say conventional family in Port Arthur, Texas. Her father worked in the oil industry. Her mother taught Sunday school, sang in the church choir. Tell us a little bit about her family life before she struck out on her own.

GEORGE-WARREN: Janis came from a very close-knit family growing up in Port Arthur, Texas. But her parents were quite different from one another. Her mom was pretty much a traditionalist who wanted Janis to grow up with those '50s kind of values - the white picket fence and all that kind of thing - and made Janis' beautiful crinoline, you know, petticoated dresses and all that. The dad, however, was - Janis called him a secret intellectual. Though he was a mid-level management job at Texaco, when he came home at night, he listened to Bach. He read hefty tomes on philosophy and history. And most unusual in Port Arthur, Texas, he was an atheist - never went to church. And you know, Janis was - you know, they went to a evangelical Christian church. She was baptized by immersion, sang in the choir. And her mother was quite religious, came from a religious family. Her family was from Nebraska.

But there were these two kinds of messages coming to Janis - to think outside the box but then also to follow society's norms. She was a tomboy. She - her dad apparently really wanted a son, and Janis was an only child until she was 6. She, I think, was most influenced by her father.

GROSS: So artistically, Janis Joplin thought of herself early on as a visual artist who also enjoyed singing. But she didn't think of herself as a Singer with a capital S or, you know, as a performer. So what was her early experience singing? What got her to actually start singing in front of people and starting to take it seriously?

GEORGE-WARREN: In 1962, she moved to Austin, Texas, enrolled at UT and found this cool little combo called The Waller Creek Boys, who were mostly doing folk and bluegrass kind of tunes, an acoustic little group. They heard her voice and were blown away.

Now, Janis, believe it or not, was quite shy about singing publicly. And like I said, she did the glee club and the church choir. But with this bluesy voice and these records that she had gone to great lengths to find and learn obscure blues songs, which she taught to the Waller Creek Boys, she found a vehicle to actually begin performing and build an audience. And that's just what happened, first on campus there at these folk sings in Austin, Texas, and then at a place that still exists called Threadgill's, where the gentleman named Kenneth Threadgill, who was a big Jimmie Rodgers fan - had Jimmie Rodgers records and hillbilly records on the jukebox, just went ballistic over Janis.

And the place started getting packed when the Waller Creek Boys would perform, and Janis loved that feeling of people applauding her, yelling out, you know, song requests and things like that. And it totally changed her head around, and she dove headfirst into being a musician.

GROSS: My guest is Holly George-Warren, author of a new biography of Janis Joplin. We'll talk more after a break. But first, let's hear how Joplin sounded in the early '60s, when she was starting out. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOPLIN: This is a song a lot of blues singers sing. It's "Careless Love." The version I do was recorded by Lonnie Johnson back in the '20s. He's an old time blues singer who never achieved much prominence, but he's still very good.

(Singing) Oh, love - oh, love - oh, careless love. Oh, love - oh, love - oh, careless love. Well, love - oh, love - oh, careless love, now lord don't you see what that love has done to me. You worried my mother till she died. And you caused my father to lose his mind. Now, damn you, I'm going to shoot you. Lord, I'll shoot you four, five times. And I'll stand over you until you finish dying.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Holly George-Warren, author of a new biography of Janis Joplin. George-Warren writes about how Joplin grew up in segregated Texas but was able to cross musical, cultural and sexual boundaries and become an icon of the counterculture. She was there at pivotal moments in '60s rock history - the Monterey Pop Festival, the vibrant Haight-Ashbury scene in San Francisco, Woodstock. Joplin's brief life was ended by a heroin overdose in 1970 when she was 27.

When we left off, we were talking about how, early in her career, Joplin started building an audience in Texas clubs, singing folk music, bluegrass and blues. Then she moved West.

She goes to San Francisco and becomes part of Big Brother and the Holding Company, the band. How do they all get together?

GEORGE-WARREN: Well, interestingly, Terry, a lot of people don't realize that the time she joined Big Brother and the Holding Company was in June 1966. That was actually the third time she had been out there to San Francisco. So in January 1963, a week after - the week that Janis turned 20 years old, she hitchhiked to San Francisco and started a career - so-called career - I mean, sleeping in basements and living off $5 a day or whatever, singing Bessie Smith songs and some originals that she had started writing in folk clubs in the Bay Area. In North Beach, she first met Jorma Kaukonen, Jerry Garcia. They were doing the same kind of thing at little open mic nights and tiny little folk clubs, so she did that for about three years.

Things started to take a bad turn as far as some self-destructive habits that she picked up while there, so she ended back up - back in Texas for a year in 1965, started singing again on the circuit in Houston with Guy Clark, Townes Van Zandt. And then Chet Helms, who had stayed in San Francisco, was managing this band of musicians called Big Brother and the Holding Company. They called their music freak rock because it was lots of feedback and super loud electric guitars, etc. And they decided they wanted a female singer in the band.

Now, Janis had never, ever performed with electric instruments before. She went to San Francisco to give it a try, and just - it completely changed her head around, performing and singing with these roaring electric guitars, bass and drums and just the whole ballroom vibe of - that was going on in San Francisco in the summer of '66 at places like the Avalon Ballroom, the Fillmore, which was so different from anything she had ever done before musically.

GROSS: A really difficult decision for her is - after the Monterey Pop Festival, when she was onscreen and people could really see - she is a star - everyone in the music industry who she worked with was trying to talk her out of leaving Big Brother and the Holding Company and just going solo. And Big Brother and the Holding Company had just - they'd all just moved in together. They were happy with the arrangement they had. And she seemed to, like, know that the band wasn't up to her standards musically, but she didn't want to leave them. Can you talk about how painful it was for her to figure out what to do?

GEORGE-WARREN: Janis had two sides. One was she loved having that community, that family of Big Brother and the Holding Company, who really gave her the underpinnings to work out her musicianship, to climb the ladder. You know, she was very ambitious from the beginning. Big Brother was kind of this cool, you know, freaky, you know, hanging out, improvisational band, but they were not - it was all about feel with them. They were not these precise musicians that tried to play every part perfectly every time.

Janis, on the other hand - she had that perfectionist mindset when it came to her music. She wanted to be the best singer. She wanted to be perfect. She was the first one in the recording studio and the last one to leave. She worked really hard to be as good as she possibly could, and she was also a restless soul when it came to her music. She didn't want to stay with just one style, one sound of music.

And also belting the way she was, the banshee wail that she developed with Big Brother and the Holding Company - that really was not sustainable. That was going to wreck her voice, so she wanted to sing with more nuance. And she liked jazz. She liked Broadway show tunes. You know, she wanted to try lots of soul music, R&B. There were a lot of things that she wanted to do that she was worried that Big Brother and the Holding Company either couldn't or wouldn't want to do, so it became just a matter of time before she finally did leave the band.

GROSS: So she gets a new band, The Kozmic Blues Band, and records with them. That album doesn't do very well, and the group disbands.

GEORGE-WARREN: There was such a backlash against Janis when she had the audacity to leave her band and go out on her own. Janis had no period between Big Brother and the Holding Company and her new role as band leader to even kind of warm up to that role, which was really different for her. And there was so much pressure on her, too, because the critics started just ripping her to shreds about her - a new style that she was doing, the fact that she had a horn section. She was very influenced by the music coming out of Stax Records and recorded at Muscle Shoals. She loved that first Atlantic Record that Aretha did, so she aspired to that kind of sound.

She started doing shows just a couple of months later in New York City at the Fillmore East. There really wasn't time - you know, this was back in the '60s, when you had to follow up the hit, follow up the hit. And "Piece Of My Heart" had been a big hit. "Cheap Thrills" had been a big hit. So they were trying to immediately capitalize on that, whereas the band itself needed a little time to just kind of get their harmonizing together, get the sound right, work out the horn section, so it didn't overpower her vocals - you know, those kind of things. But it turned out she did her biggest shows ever with that band, everything from Woodstock to touring Europe, selling out Royal Albert Hall in London, "Ed Sullivan Show" - really a lot of high-profile gigs during that period.

GROSS: So her career really starts taking off, but her personal life has problems. You know, she is on and off shooting meth. She ends up doing other drugs. And so during this period when she's recording with The Kozmic Blues Band and she's separated from the band that she knew so well, that she was so close to, Big Brother and the Holding Company, what's happening in her personal life?

GEORGE-WARREN: When she was out on the road constantly backed up by what became known as The Kozmic Blues Band, Janis started turning to heroin as a way to just kind of numb herself from all the pressures and the fear of what it was like being a solo artist at that point in time in her career. Again, she was still very much a focal point of media. There was articles about her all the time, and she had developed this whole, you know, hard-drinking blues mama image that she had. So this was a secret vice of hers that she picked up. Unfortunately, it was - the heroin was pretty prevalent. No one really realized it at the time, and so she gradually got addicted to heroin in 1969.

GROSS: And did she kick heroin before going back to it?

GEORGE-WARREN: She tried to kick heroin a few times. She finally did almost for good in 1970, right about the time she had put together a new band, which became called Full Tilt Boogie Band. And she got off heroin for a while, actually, by going to Brazil for Carnaval. And, I mean, it's so hard to believe that - I mean, she was a massive rock star - she was hitchhiking around in Brazil for a while, totally cleaned up, really loved the feeling of being clean and back to her old self again.

Sadly, she relapsed when she got back to California. And then, finally, she quit in the spring of 1970, and she stayed off of it for about four, five months until, tragically, she relapsed again while recording "Pearl" in Los Angeles, got a very strong dose, very pure, kind of like what's happened horribly in recent times with fentanyl and things like that. It was much more pure than she had ever used before, and her tolerance was down. She was by herself, overdosed and died on October 4, 1970.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Holly George-Warren, and her new book is a biography of Janis Joplin called "Janis." We're going to take a short break, then we'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Holly George-Warren. She's written a new biography of Janis Joplin called "Janis."

One of her best and most famous songs was recorded right before she died for her final album, "Pearl," that was released posthumously. And I'm thinking of "Me & Bobby McGee." So before we hear that, tell us about how she came to record that Kris Kristofferson song.

GEORGE-WARREN: Kris Kristofferson, what an amazing songwriter, and also from Texas, just like Janis. She learned that song actually from the great Bobby Neuwirth, who had been Dylan's aide-de-camp and did - had the same role with Janis. He actually heard it in her manager Albert Grossman's office played by Gordon Lightfoot, who had heard it. No one knew "Me & Bobby McGee." No one knew who Kris Kristofferson was at that point. He learned the song, raced over to the Chelsea Hotel and said, Janis, you got to hear this song.

She went nuts over the song. She immediately learned to play it on acoustic guitar and sing it. And she actually did it for the first time in December 1969 with the Kozmic Blues Band backing her up in Nashville. She also - I got to hear a bootleg of her doing "Sunday Morning Coming Down," another great Kris Kristofferson song.

She finally did meet him in 1970, again, introduced by Bobby Neuwirth. They totally hit it off, and she just loved his songwriting. And my theory is that she would have continued doing more of that kind of style, at least maybe for her next record with that kind of, you know, poetic country, cosmic country, if you will, kind of sound.

GROSS: Yeah. And it's just so interesting to hear the instrumentation on this because it is very country and it is very - you know, it's - the band sounds great. They also sound like real pros. And it's such a contrast to the really, like, raunchy, like, feedback noise kind of sound that she starts with Big Brother.

GEORGE-WARREN: Yeah. Full Tilt Boogie was a very cool band, and it really worked well Janis' voice, and I think she would have pursued that sound. She had checked out Linda Ronstadt at The Troubadour. She loved the Flying Burrito Brothers and Gram Parsons. So - and, you know, she started out, like I said, playing at Threadgill's in Austin doing Rose Maddox hillbilly boogie songs. I mean, she definitely knew some country songs. She even knew Carter Family songs. So she had a vast encyclopedic knowledge of music, so I think that would have been a phase, at least for a while, she would have pursued before probably trying, you know, more - another genre of music.

GROSS: So this is Janis Joplin and her posthumously released album "Pearl" - "Me And Bobby McGee."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ME AND BOBBY MCGEE")

JOPLIN: (Singing) Busted flat in Baton Rouge, waiting for a train, and I's feeling near as faded as my jeans. Bobby thumbed a diesel down just before it rained. It rode us all the way to New Orleans. I pulled my harpoon out of my dirty red bandana. I was playing soft while Bobby sang the blues. Windshield wipers slapping time, I was holding Bobby's hand in mine. We sang every song that driver knew. Freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose. Nothing - it don't mean nothing, honey, if it ain't free. And feeling good was easy, Lord, when he sang the blues. You know, feeling good was good enough for me, good enough for me and my Bobby McGee.

GROSS: That was Janis Joplin from her last album, and that was "Me And Bobby McGee." And my guest is Holly George-Warren, the author of a new biography of Janis Joplin called "Janis." I mean, that's such a great track.

GEORGE-WARREN: Can I say something about it?

GROSS: Yeah, please.

GEORGE-WARREN: When Janis heard that song "Me And Bobby McGee," I think she so identified with those lyrics. I mean, she had done that. She'd hitchhiked around, you know? She'd hitchhiked to California, and she knew those feelings expressed so beautifully by Kris Kristofferson in that song. You know, freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose. I mean, that's Janis Joplin.

GROSS: So why did you want to write a biography of Janis Joplin? You've written biographies of Gene Autry - you know, a country singer I love - and Alex Chilton, who is a great songwriter and singer. So why did you want to write about Janis?

GEORGE-WARREN: Well, like Gene Autry and Alex Chilton, Janis Joplin was a game-changer and created a new kind of music, a new kind of musical persona. But what really got me going to want to, you know, go down the rabbit hole and learn everything I could about Janis was I felt that her musicianship had not been explored, and again, I, like everybody else, was bamboozled. I thought she was just this blues feeling mama that was all about the feel, and it was after I got to listen to some tapes from Columbia's vaults of Janis in the studio with Paul Rothchild, known for being this very authoritarian producer - but here he was in the studio, working on "Pearl." And Janis was just coming up with idea after idea, you know? Let's do this guitar part. No, let's change the tempo. No, wait.

You know, she was basically, you know, co-producing this record with him, and that turned my head around. Like, wait a minute. She knows what she's talking about. I realized that that part of her story had not been told, and I wanted to find out how she started her journey and what she did to get to where she was, from Port Arthur teenager in the '50s to Janis Joplin, the queen, you know, of the whole San Francisco sound. How did she do that? So that's what started me on my quest.

GROSS: How old were you when you first started listening to Janis Joplin, and when was that?

GEORGE-WARREN: My first clear, clear memory of Janis was seeing her on "The Dick Cavett Show," which she was on a few times. And just seeing her, the image - and, you know, she was clearly really smart. And then her whole look, her whole sound just blew me away, although, of course, I didn't say that at the time. But my first album that I got was when I joined the Columbia House Record Club and I got 12 albums for a penny, and I got "Pearl," and I still have my original copy of "Pearl" from back in 1971 when it came out. And I just played that record all the time.

GROSS: How does Janis Joplin's music sound different to you now that you're decades older than you were then and you've heard so much more music since then?

GEORGE-WARREN: What's really struck me as I drove into Janis' music was all the different styles and different sounds that she could make with her voice. I guess I just thought she just kind of started singing and she was this full-blown singer and it just came out that way, but what I've realized from working on the book and doing all the research and listening to tons of music is how she worked with her voice, how she would purposefully evolve and change her style and how she could sound so different depending on what the songs were, what the genre was and, you know, also just technically what she could do - just, you know, things like being able to hit, like, three notes at once. You know, just her technical prowess I've learned about, and it just didn't - wasn't just a natural talent that she had. She worked really hard to become that good of a singer.

GROSS: That's one of the points that you make in your book about the difference between how Janis Joplin sometimes presented herself to the public and to the press and what she was really like because in real life, she worked really hard on her singing, and she tried many things, and she - you know, she worked hard to become great. But, you know, it sounds like if journalists asked her about it, it was like, well, it's all about feeling. And it was...

GEORGE-WARREN: Yeah. She tried to hide it.

GROSS: ...Way more than that for her. Yeah.

GEORGE-WARREN: She really tried to hide that side of her. She didn't want people to know how hard she worked, just like she tried to hide the fact that she was a total bookworm and read all - read books all the time. I mean, when I read the letters that she wrote to her parents, that's when I learned so much about the real Janis that we didn't know about from just her persona and the image that she created. She would write her parents with these descriptions of what it's like, you know, overdubbing or double-tracking her vocals or what the mixing process was like. I mean, she was getting all technical on all that kind of stuff. She was fascinated by the recording process. She loved it.

And then, again, I realized that she was a real scholar of music. She worked hard to find records, to analyze the records, and that was a big surprise for me to learn how much work she put into it and how long she's spent working on this to become the singer that she was.

GROSS: Holly George-Warren, thank you so much for talking with us.

GEORGE-WARREN: Wow. This has been so much fun. Thank you, Terry.

GROSS: Holly George-Warren's new biography of Janis Joplin is called "Janis: Her Life And Music." After we take a short break, TV critic David Bianculli will review the new HBO miniseries "Catherine The Great." This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.