Janis Joplin is as much of an icon of the 1960s eternal summer of love as the Michelin Man is of tires. Tousled locks, tie-dye garments and a freewheeling attitude were all part of her oeuvre, but the reason that David Crosby crown her the queen of rock is a voice that forever threatened to take sputnik out of orbit and end the space race in an explosion of earthly peace.
Her three-octave range might not be overly remarkable but her strength across it was so herculean that you could’ve measured it on the Richter scale. And with that voice, she extolled a message of blooming flower power with a few prickly thorns in the bunch as she put the bastards of this world on hold in a blitzkrieg of soulful fun.
In fact, one of her shows blossomed so riotously that the brave police officers present – fearing a knees-up en masse and the chaotic smiling hysteria that comes with it – did all they could to restore banal order. They clambered onto the stage and kindly asked the famed rock ‘n’ roll insouciant performer whether she would perhaps reverse her intent and try to assist them in subduing the happy crowd into a more manageable state of ennui. In short, her response was “f*ck off”.
However, before Joplin was an outspoken hero who inspired her: Bessie Smith. The heroine who earned the moniker ‘The Empress of the Blues’ bristled with the same glass-smashing voice and careless swagger that Joplin would go on to propagate some 30 years after her death.
As Joplin told Hit Parader in 1969: “Back in Port Arthur, I’d heard some Lead Belly records, and, well, if the blues syndrome is true, I guess it’s true about me,” she explained. “So I began listening to blues and folk music. I bought Bessie Smith and Odetta records, and one night, I was at this party, and I did an imitation of Odetta. I’d never sung before, and I came out with this huge voice.”
A year after that interview, when Joplin discovered that her hero lay in an unmarked grave, along with Juanita Green who had actually performed housework for Smith in the past, paid for a headstone to erected. The touching headstone read: “The greatest blues in the world will never stop singing—Bessie Smith 1895 – 1937.”
While some have argued that Joplin appropriated her style, she was always quick to eulogise her idol and saw her performance as more of a tribute than anything else, besides a lot of the debate overlooks the fact that both artists were very different in reality. As a self-professed “student” of the blues, Joplin merely saw Smith as an illuminating force to help her achieve her own individual voice and it would she certainly achieved this with rafter rattling aplomb.