Janis Joplin in 1970 | Creative Commons
By Joe Livernois
If Lou Adler says that Janis Joplin’s performance at the Monterey Pop Festival was “one of the great concert performances of all time,” who are we to argue?
Adler was one of the creators of the festival, so he had a front-row seat to Joplin’s storied performance on June 17. The story is rock legend and lore. In summary, Joplin blew up the stage with that soulful and outsized voice. At a festival in which virtually every performer was introducing themselves to the New Rock-World Order, that tough-talking, tough-drinking blues vocalist from Texas redefined performance art.
Adler might have witnessed her Saturday magic, but D.A. Pennebaker’s crew wasn’t there.
Pennebaker, as we know, recorded (most) of the festival; his seminal documentary about the weekend is a treasure that has survived the test of time. But he missed Big Brother and the Holding Company on Saturday afternoon. He couldn’t really be blamed. Nobody had ever heard of the band and its first album wouldn’t be released for another two months. She did five songs that afternoon, ending the set with Big Mama Thornton’s “Down on Me.”
Recognizing that Pennebaker had whiffed on the performance, Big Brother and Joplin were summoned back onstage Sunday evening so that Pennebaker’s cameras could catch The Voice. On stage that day Joplin belted out the Big Mama Thornton classic, “Ball & Chain” with a tragic fury.
Witnesses may not have understood the origins of Joplin’s sorrows, but they certainly felt it with every note. The cameras also caught Mama Cass Elliot’s magnificent reaction to Joplin in one of my favorite clips in the film. She is transfixed, in wonder, until the final note, when she is seen mouthing ‘WOW’ and Janis skips off the stage.
Janis Joplin was not an overnight success, even if that one transcendent performance in Monterey launched her headlong into superstardom. She fled Texas as a 20-year-old to sing in California and had been kicking around the San Francisco beat scene for a while. In fact, she had failed to make a career-changing impression when she sang at the fairgrounds four years before Monterey Pop, when she performed on a side stage during Joan Baez’s Monterey Folk Festival in 1963.
But after her electrifying performance at Monterey Pop, Clive Davis of Columbia Records wanted to record the band, which had already signed with a smaller label. Her manager got her out of the earlier deal and Big Brother’s breakthrough album, “Cheap Thrills,” was released in 1968.
Joplin was dead three years later, succumbing to the excesses of her addictions. The Monterey Pop performance wasn’t the last time she appeared on the Monterey Fairgrounds stage. Soon after Monterey Pop, the folks from the Monterey Jazz Festival invited the band back. Bob Danziger, a jazz festival historian, said the Joplin appearance was “particularly intriguing. In that one she famously went to the side of the stage and sneezed on the drapes while carrying a bottle of Jack Daniel’s.”
Have something to say about this story? Send us a letter or leave a comment below.