Texan girl, blues queen and music pioneer: The iconic figure of the hippie and women’s liberation movement in the late 1960s was born 75 years ago, on January 19, 1943.June 25, 1970: Wearing a purple suit, countless bracelets and a pink feather boa in her hair, Janis Joplin had a chat with TV show host Dick Cavett. He asked if she often returned to her hometown, Port Arthur Arthur, Texas. No, Joplin said, excitedly adding that she was planning on going back for her 10th annual high school reunion. Asked about her former schoolmates, she said, “They laughed me out of class, out of town and out of the state. Now I’m gonna laugh.” It was a moment of triumph and of pain in the life of the megastar.
She would die less than four months after that Cavett interview.
The class reunion at the Thomas Jefferson High School in Port Arthur was filmed. She showed up in her typical eccentric hippie style — obviously a colorful foreign body among the rest of her former elegantly dressed classmates. Interviewed that day, she was asked who invited her to the prom back then: “No one,” she replied. It appeared to still hurt.
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Free from conventions
Born on January 19, 1943 in the oil refinery town of Port Arthur, Janis Lyn Joplin was able to read before she went to school.
As a 14-year-old chubby girl with severe acne, she was bullied in school. She was interested in art and literature, and wrote poetry. “I started singing when I was about 17. I could sing. It was a surprise — to say the least,” she later said. She hadn’t realized how powerful her voice was.
Her inner liberation from her conservative milieu would eventually be noticeable in her appearance: Janis dyed her hair orange, wore men’s clothes or shaggy dresses. The girl who had an inferiority complex decided to start attracting attention. Parents didn’t want their children to hang out with her; she was a bad influence.
Janis finished high school and trained as a secretary. She later studied art at the University of Texas in Austin. There, her provocative appearance led her to be named “the university’s ugliest man” in a frat boys’ satire magazine.
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San Francisco’s counter-culture
At the age of 18 she moved to San Francisco — culturally light years away from Port Arthur, Texas — and became the icon of the hippie movement. Her music felt like an earthquake in the music scene. The unpopular high school girl eventually landed on the cover of Newsweek magazine. The article titled “Rebirth of Blues,” described her as rock’s first female superstar, adding that at the 1967 Monterey International Pop Music Festival, “a volatile viol of nitroglycerine named Janis Joplin blew the rock world wide open.”
Joplin’s blitz careers lasted five year. She sold 15.5 million albums in the US alone and obtained international recognition — all while living a self-destructive lifestyle.
It was later revealed that she wrote many letters to her parents during that period, constantly craving for their recognition. As the singer would drink whisky and swear onstage, she wasn’t allowed to perform in Houston, Texas, and her parents found her provocative behavior appalling as well. Her family nevertheless stood by her until the end.