This page has been archived and is no longer updated.Find out more about page archiving.
7 things you possibly didn't know about Janis Joplin

Amy Berg’s excellent feature-length documentary, Janis Joplin: Little Girl Blue (broadcast on BBC Four, 25 March) really helps you to truly understand the celebrated and rock/soul singer who died in 1970, aged just 27, even if you think you already knew everything about her and her short career.

Berg’s tact is to not only consider biography, but, through exhaustive research and incredible access to family members, friends and former band-mates, paint an almost psychological portrait of Janis Joplin, an intensely complex and brilliant person.

Here, then, are a few things you may not know about her, some taken from the film, and some we dug up from elsewhere:

1. She was driven by a constant need to please her parents

Perhaps Berg's biggest scoop with Little Girl Blue was being given permission to use Janis's letters as source material for the film, and particularly revelatory are the many she sent back to her family in Port Arthur, Texas, where she grew up. At every point in her career, you sense this desperate need to impress her parents, and justify her choices in life. "Weak as it is, I apologise for being just so plain bad in the family," she wrote after leaving for San Francisco to follow her dreams. And yet her parents were largely supportive, although worried, especially about her drug use. In the film, Janis's sister reveals that their parents once considered whether their failings as parents had "caused a calamity".

2. She (probably) had a thing with US talk show host Dick Cavett

People loved Janis - men and women. She was the embodiment of the freewheeling spirit of the 60s - wild, sexy, clever and extraordinarily funny - and she had many lovers. History has a record of some of them - Ron 'Pigpen' McKernan from the Grateful Dead; Country Joe McDonald from Country Joe and the Fish; Leonard Cohen, whose song Chelsea Hotel #2 is about Janis. More incongruous, perhaps, is the suggestion in the film that she had something going on with US talk show host Dick Cavett, who interviewed her many times. He adored Janis and they became great friends. Asked in the film whether they were ever romantically involved, he says: "I would hope so!"

3. She paid for a tombstone to be erected at the grave of her hero, Bessie Smith

Janis had plenty of heroes from the history of music - Odetta, Billie Holiday, Otis Redding - but perhaps her key influence was Bessie Smith (above), The Empress of the Blues, who died on 26 September 1937. She was buried in an unmarked grave in Philadelphia, which clearly bothered Janis. In August 1970, along with Juanita Green, who as a child had done housework for Smith, she paid for a tombstone to be erected. Singer-songwriter Dory Previn even penned a song about it, Stone for Bessie Smith, on her 1971 album Mythical Kings and Iguanas.

4. Her road manager was the son of famed BBC broadcaster Alistair Cooke

British-born journalist Alistair Cooke (above) was one of the greats, who presented, among many other things, the long-running and highly regarded Radio 4 series, Letter from America. His first wife was Ruth Emerson, a great-grandniece of the writer Ralph Waldo Emerson, and they had a son, John Byrne Cooke, born in 1940. From 1967 onwards, John was Janis's road manager and is interviewed in Janis Joplin: Little Girl Blue. He recently wrote a book about his experiences, On The Road with Janis Joplin, which he told BBC News about last year.

5. Cat Power is a Janis Joplin vocal doppelgänger

Not as a singer, obviously, but Chan Marshall (Cat Power) reads the letters in the film, and she sounds uncannily like Janis. As Berg told Rolling Stone: "I was listening to an interview with Chan and I couldn't believe how much she sounded like Janis. It blew me away. I knew the minute I heard her speak that she was the person [to read the letters]. Her personality is so sweet and vulnerable, and she understands what Janis was going through. She got it so quickly."

6. Her only solo British performance was at the Royal Albert Hall

Should Janis have left her first band, Big Brother and the Holding Company, and gone solo with the Kozmic Blues Band in 1969? Many fans - then and now - think not, and not just because her first solo album, I Got Dem Ol' Kozmic Blues Again Mama!, isn't as good as Cheap Thrills, her album with Big Brother and the Holding Company. Her drug use increased dramatically after she went solo, and it was affecting her work. Her first solo gigs were reviewed badly in the US, and her team arrived in Europe in spring with much to prove. Shows in Germany and Sweden were better, then they played their only UK gig at the Royal Albert Hall on 21 April - and were superb. "No one's ever got up and danced there before!" an ecstatic Janis said after the show. "No one's ever done anything there before, and they did it!"

7. A loving telegram sent by her ex-boyfriend turned up the day after she died

In February 1970, Janis went to Brazil to try and get off heroin. While there, she met a middle-class American tourist/traveller called David Niehaus. He helped Janis kick her habit and they fell in love. Back in the US, however, Janis started using again and their relationship suffered. Niehaus continued his travels, but he never fell out of love. On the morning after Joplin’s death a telegram was found at the Landmark Motor Hotel, where Janis was staying while recording a new album. It read: "Love you Mama, more than you know…" And Berg has always wondered whether things would have turned out differently if Janis had received it.

Related links

Added item image
Added, go to My Music to see full list.
More from