STEVE INSKEEP, host:
We have another of our 50 Great Voices this morning. It's a woman who in her most famous recordings sings so passionately, so hard that her voice seems on the verge of breaking. Janis Joplin was rough and vulnerable and charismatic, and paved the way for many women in rock.
Here's the voice of NPR's Laura Sydell.
LAURA SYDELL: In the mid-1960s, San Francisco was a mecca for counterculture musicians. Many became megastars: Jimi Hendrix, The Grateful Dead, Santana. But when singer and songwriter Tracy Nelson arrived in 1966, it wasn't so open for her.
Ms. TRACY NELSON (Singing/Songwriter): I had I don't know how many musicians tell me, why you want to do this? This is no business for a woman. You know, why not just stay home, find a man, love. You know, just this kind of (BEEP) that I didn't even think I was ever going to hear again.
SYDELL: That same year, another woman artist was trying to bust through the paternalistic San Francisco culture.
(Soundbite of song "Women Is Losers")
Ms. JOPLIN (Singing): One, two, three, four...
SYDELL: Janis Joplin and Tracy Nelson shared a bill at the Avalon Ballroom.
Ms. NELSON: I had to follow Janis Joplin.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. NELSON: And I'm standing out there listening to her, and I was just thinking, man, this is a force of nature.
(Soundbite of song "Women Is Losers")
Ms. JOPLIN: (Singing) Now, women is the losers. Now, women is the losers. Women is the losers, aww. And then women is losers. Well, I know you must've heard it a lot, I said now, men always seem to end up on top...
SYDELL: Joplin was fronting a group called Big Brother and The Holding Company. They were pretty much a local San Francisco band until they played the Monterey Pop Festival in June of 1967.
(Soundbite of song "Ball and Chain")
Ms. JOPLIN: (Singing) Sitting down by my window, just looking out at the rain...
SYDELL: Among the 1,200 journalists covering the festival was critic Robert Christgau, who was then writing for "Esquire" magazine.
Mr. ROBERT CHRISTGAU (Music Journalist): I very much remember her playing in the sunshine, and everyone really not just excited but kind of flabbergasted at how intense it was.
SYDELL: Like a lot of white musicians at the time, Joplin was trying to sing like a black blues musician.
Mr. CHRISTGAU: Not too many of them were very convincing in that role. She was convincing in that role.
Ms. JOPLIN: (Singing) And I say, aww, whoa, whoa, honey, tell me why, why does everything go, go wrong? I say, honey, all gone wrong. I want to know. I want to know...
SYDELL: It's not how Joplin started out singing. She grew up in Port Arthur, Texas. She was a featured singer in the church choir. When she left for college in 1960, her models were folkies - singers like Joan Baez and Judy Collins. Initially, Joplin tried to imitate them.
Ms. JOPLIN: (Singing) It's sad, so sad to be alone. It's sad, so sad to be alone.
SYDELL: But the young singer didn't believe she could make it as a folkie, says Alice Echols, the author of a Joplin biography called "Scars of Sweet Paradise."
Ms. ALICE ECHOLS (Author, "Scars of Sweet Paradise"): Janis Joplin made a calculation, and the calculation was: You know what, I'm not pretty like Judy Collins or Maria Muldaur, and using that pretty voice is not going to get me very far.
SYDELL: In fact, Joplin had a hard time growing up in Texas. She didn't fit in to the conformist 1950s. She was a painter. She was chubby. She had bad skin and she wasn't conventionally pretty. In an appearance in 1970 on "The Dick Cavett Show" she spoke bitterly about her adolescence.
Mr. DICK CAVETT (Host, "The Dick Cavett Show"): Were you not surrounded by friends in high school?
Ms. JOPLIN: They laughed me out of class, out of town, and out of the state.
SYDELL: So, maybe it's not surprising that Joplin fell in love with the blues, especially Bessie Smith, Leadbelly and Big Mama Thornton. As she told Cavett, singing was the only way she could express how she felt.
Ms. JOPLIN: Playing is just about feeling. Playing isn't necessarily about misery. Playing isn't necessarily about happiness. But it's just about letting yourself feel all those things that you have already on the inside of you, but you're all the time trying to push them aside because they don't make for polite conversation or something. But that's the only reason I can sing is because I just close my eyes and let all those things that are inside just come out.
(Soundbite of song "All Is Loneliness")
Ms. JOPLIN with BIG BROTHER AND THE HOLDING COMPANY: (Singing) You know it can't be now. Oh, no. Can't be now. Oh, no. Can't be now. Oh, no. Can't be now. Oh, no. Can't be now. Oh, no. Can't be this loneliness, baby, surrounding me. No, no, no it just can't be...
SYDELL: Unfortunately, many of the artists of the 1960s who emulated the blues also emulated the drug habits of blues musicians. In early October of 1970, just a little over three years since she hit it big, Joplin was making an album with a new band. One night, she went back to her Los Angeles hotel room and shot up. She was found dead the next day.
Tracy Nelson remembers hearing the news.
Ms. NELSON: I was kind of pissed off, because she had gone beyond that. She was really beginning to be a really serious musician and singer. And it was just so dumb.
SYDELL: That winter, Joplin's record label released her last album, "Pearl." "Me and Bobby McGee" topped the charts.
(Soundbite of song "Me and Bobby McGee")
Ms. JOPLIN: (Singing) Busted flat in Baton Rouge, waiting for a train when I was 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...
SYDELL: Many critics say it was Joplin's best album. She began to take more control of her voice. She was the first woman to make it big in rock. Yet, biographer Alice Echols says she really has no imitators.
Ms. ECHOLS: Nobody has come close to capturing the way that that girl sang. And I don't think they ever will because there's something in her voice that can't be replicated.
SYDELL: Echols thinks it's no accident that they've been trying to make a movie about Joplin for years, but still haven't found anyone who can play the part.
Laura Sydell, NPR News, San Francisco.
Ms. JOPLIN: (Singing) You know feeling good was good enough for me, good enough for me and my Bobby McGee. From the Kentucky coal mine to the California sun, Bobby shared the secrets of my soul...
INSKEEP: You can hear some of Janis Joplin's most memorable work and hear other great voices at NPRMusic.org. It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.
DEBORAH AMOS, host:
And I'm Deborah Amos.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.