The Many Musical Influences of Janis Joplin

18 May The Many Musical Influences of Janis Joplin

Portland Center Stage Blog
By Kinsley Suer
May 17, 2011

Janis Joplin was an extraordinary musical performer, influenced by other extraordinary musicians. From a young age, before she even knew she wanted to pursue music, Janis loved to listen to the blues. Her early influences included blues singers like Bessie Smith, Odetta, Big Mama Thornton, Billie Holiday and Leadbelly. As her career progressed, she would be influenced by other music greats like Aretha Franklin, Tina Turner and Otis Redding. Almost every part of Janis' musical, vocal and performance style would be shaped by her love of the blues and these legendary performers who could sing it.

In addition to featuring Janis Joplin’s greatest hits, such as “Ball and Chain” and “Me and Bobby McGee, One Night with Janis Joplin will explore some of Janis’s musical influences through an additional character/performer: The Blues Singer. Throughout the show, this singer will be performing alongside Janis, channeling many of the iconic blues greats who helped shape Janis into the performer she became. Today, let's take a closer look at these legendary performers – the musical influences of Janis Joplin.

Of all of Janis’ influences, Bessie Smith was probably her greatest. After all, Janis credited Bessie for leading her to singing in the first place. In high school, Janis’ friend, writer Grant Lyons, loaned her his Bessie Smith and Leadbelly records. Something struck a chord, and Janis learned to sing the blues by listening to Bessie for hours on end and imitating her vocal style. “She showed me the air and taught me how to fill it," said Janis. "She's the reason I started singing, really." In fact, Janis Joplin identified so strongly with Bessie Smith that she sometimes told friends that she felt she was Bessie Smith reincarnated.

Born in 1894 in Tennessee, Bessie Smith began singing the blues in honky-tonks and cabarets. Columbia Records discovered her in a club in Alabama, and by the end of the following year Bessie had sold two million records. In addition to being one of the most popular female blues singers of the 1920s and 1930s, Bessie is often regarded as a major influence, along with Louis Armstrong, on subsequent jazz vocalists. She was famously known for keeping a burning cigarette between her lips during performances. Unfortunately, just like Janis, her life was cut short. She died in 1937 from injuries sustained in a major car accident. Her grave remained unmarked from 1937-1970. Janis Joplin was shocked when she learned this. In 1970, Janis joined Juanita Green – the daughter of an old domestic employee of Bessie’s and the president of the North Philadelphia chapter of the NAACP – in donating money to buy a proper headstone for Bessie. The epitaph they chose reads: "The Greatest Blues Singer in the World Will Never Stop Singing."

Bessie Smith

Grant Lyons also introduced Janis Joplin to Leadbelly. An iconic American folk and blues musician, Leadbelly was famous for his strong vocals and virtuosity on the twelve-string guitar. Janis later said that his music was "like a flash. It mattered to me." She also claimed that the first record she ever bought was a Leadbelly performance.


Odetta Holmes was an American singer, actress, guitarist, songwriter and human rights activist, often referred to as “The Voice of the Civil Rights Movement.” Known for her blending of blues, jazz and spirituals, Odetta was an important figure in the American folk music revival of the 1950s and 1960s. Janis spent much of her adolescence listening to Odetta, and she was one of the first singers that Janis imitated when she started singing. Legend has it that Janis discovered she could sing when she spontaneously started belting out an Odetta song. One night, tired of listening to her friends butcher one of Odetta’s songs, Janis suddenly broke out in a voice that sounded exactly like the famous singer. “We used to sing folk songs on our way driving anywhere. Well, after that, we still did, but it wasn't the same. We weren't all in the same class anymore,” one of her friends recalled.


Willie Mae "Big Mama" Thornton was an American rhythm and blues singer. In 1960, she wrote and recorded the soulful lament, "Ball and Chain.” However, her record company retained the copyright and allowed Janis Joplin to cover it; Janis' version became a huge hit and helped to launch her career. Big Mama Thornton, however, received no compensation. Luckily, Joplin herself acknowledged Thornton's authorship and brought her to the attention of blues revival audiences. It appears that there were no hard feelings, as Thornton applauded Janis' version of "Ball and Chain," saying, "That girl feels like I do."

Big Mama Thornton

In 1966, Janis saw Otis Redding, a talented soul singer, perform for the first time in San Francisco. While he sang, she watched, transfixed. She absorbed his motions, dwelled on his shouts, and imagined herself singing the songs. "I started singing rhythmically," she once said, "and now I'm learning from Otis Redding to push a song instead of just sliding over it." The two would both perform at the Monterey International Pop Music Festival in 1967. Later in her career, on tour with the Kozmic Blues band, Janis regularly performed Otis' tune "I Can't Turn You Loose.”

Otis Redding

Janis also loved Billie Holiday and Aretha Franklin. She once said, "Aretha Franklin, Billie Holiday….They are so subtle, they can milk you with two notes. They can go no farther than from A to B, and they can make you feel like they told you the whole universe.” One of the two books that Janis took with her from Texas to San Francisco was Billie Holiday’s autobiography, Lady Sings the Blues. Richard Hundgen, a friend of Janis', believes that it was like a bible to her and that she kept it throughout her life.

Billie Holiday

Aretha Franklin

Janis first heard of Tina Turner after Ike & Tina Turner released their 1960 hit, "A Fool in Love." Immediately, Janis saw in Tina a fellow female artist who wasn't afraid to scream and shout to get the soul of a song. Ultimately, Tina and Janis would mutually influence each other. Tina attributed her performance style to Janis, and Janis raved about Tina when she appeared on The Dick Cavett Show in 1969. When asked who she likes to go see in concert, Janis replied, “Tina Turner. Fantastic singer, fantastic dancer, fantastic show.” When Dick Cavett admitted to not knowing who Tina Turner was, Janis replied, “No, not many people know who she is, but that's too bad. She tours with The Ike & Tina Turner Revue. Ike is the bandleader and her husband, but Tina's the show.” You can watch a video clip of this interview below:

In 1969, The Ike & Tina Turner Revue was on tour, opening around the country for The Rolling Stones. On November 27, Janis appeared with them at Madison Square Garden in New York City, to perform a duet with Tina. The performance was captured in several iconic photos.

Janis Joplin was in a league all her own, and these other legendary music greats helped to ultimately shape her into the person and performer that she became.