How did Janis Joplin get her big break in music?

“They asked me, How did you learn to sing the blues like that?” Janis Joplin once said. “How did you learn to sing that heavy? I just opened my mouth and that’s what I sounded like. You can’t make up something that you don’t feel. I didn’t make it up. I just opened my mouth, and it existed”. Hers was a supreme skill, with a voice unlike any other in history as power and soul roared through her vocal cords. Surely, a talent like that was always bound to be discovered. But the story of Joplin’s breakout is one of near misses and sad endings.

In both sound and sight, Joplin is one of the most defining figures of the 1960s. Her songs soundtrack the world’s nostalgia for those long-lost days of free love, the Woodstock festival, hedonism and true rock, where feeling was everything. Along with figures like Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix or even Mick Jagger, Joplin sits at the dizzy highs of god-like figures, held up as golden examples of what an artist, and especially a singer, should be.

For women especially, Joplin is a vital figure. As she got up on stage and let her voice punch her audience in the face with her pipe, she made a clear statement that women can wail, too. Patti Smith was one of many who took notes as she wrote, “Janis laid the foundations for all of us. She redefined what it meant to be a woman in rock.”

However, it’s a devastating thought that someone so important in music and so beloved in history didn’t live to see their own glory. Despite being so insanely talented, Joplin had to claw her way into the music industry and then died all too soon to see the payoff of her hard work.

Maybe people were threatened? Maybe they weren’t ready to open up to a woman as talented and domineering as her. Maybe people didn’t want to share a stage and be overpowered by her presence. Whatever the reason, Joplin spent years of her life trying and failing to get a band to take a shot on her. Dipping back and forth between California, Texas, New York and San Fransisco, she would be found singing at any open mic nights or events that would have her, trying to make something stick or get a band to back her.

It wasn’t until 1966 that things began to fall into place. After feeling broken down by trying, she’d essentially given up on music and returned to Texas to live a quiet life. That’s precisely when Big Brother and the Holding Company coaxed her out of early retirement and brought her in for an audition. The band were already quite well known but wanted something to set them apart. That something would be Joplin’s distinctive voice.

When the stars aligned between Joplin and the group, they aligned perfectly. It was only after bringing her in that the group were signed by Columbia and put on a fast track to success. They climbed the ladder to the top and gained a strong reputation. Their record, Cheap Thrills, is one of the most defining releases of the decade. But even after Joplin split from the band in 1969, her voice had her future locked in as she performed at Woodstock and set about recording Pearl, her incredible solo record.

However, Joplin wouldn’t see its release. In 1970, the star’s light went out as she died of a heroin overdose at only 27. While going down in history as one of the most exciting performers to live, there was a distinct sadness in her as she tried so hard to get the brutal and cruel industry to love her or respect her. “I was working real hard / To show the world what I could do / Oh I guess I never dreamed / I’d have to,” Patti Smith wrote in a poem about Joplin’s life. There was a clear and devastating loneliness in her life as she poured everything into trying to find success, leaving her personal life by the wayside.

Joplin died in October of that year. In January of the following year, Pearl was released. Without her there to see it happen, the album hit number one and stayed there for weeks. It has gone quadruple platinum and is held up as one of the greatest rock albums ever made. Joplin never knew that everything she’d dreamed of became a reality. She never knew that, eventually, she would get all the love and respect she longed for.

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