Remembering, and recapturing, the real Janis Joplin


An undated photo of singer Janis Joplin.

Sony Legacy

(CBS News) No one could ever match Janis Joplin's performance of "Mercedes Benz." Still, there's a singer right now who comes pretty close. Anthony Mason found her ... ON BROADWAY:

The prime of her career would last just three years. But Janis Joplin became one of the biggest stars of her time, the greatest white female blues singer of the rock era, with a voice that could both blow your mind and break your heart.

Interviewer: "Did your parents encourage you to sing at all?"
Janis Joplin: "Oh no, no, no. They wanted me to be a school teacher, you know, like all parents. But I just started singing when I was about 17. I listened to a lot of music first. One day I started singin', and I could sing. It was like, it was a surprise, to say the least."

She'd record only four albums of original material, but they've become classics. And 43 years after her death, "A Night With Janis Joplin," a Broadway show celebrating her music, is packing the house.

The 35-year-old actress from Ohio who plays Janis, Mary Bridget Davies, has been preparing for the role much of her life. In high school she actually dressed as Joplin for Halloween. "My friends thought I was Elton John!" she laughed.

"Did anybody know who you were?" Mason asked.

"The teachers," Davies replied.

Davies spent six years touring with Joplin's original band, Big Brother & the Holding Company, after impressing them at an audition.

"It was at a biker bar out in kind of Nowhere, Ohio. Tough room," she said. "The bass player, Peter Albin, turned to me and I said, 'How's that?' He goes, 'It was eerily familiar."

"A Night With Janis Joplin" is more than a tribute show; it's supported by Laura and Michael Joplin, who manage their sister's estate.

"We want you to remember why she became who she was," said Laura.

"She was an idol for a lot of people. But she was a sister for you," said Mason.

"She bossed me around," said Michael. "You know, there wasn't a rock star in the house. She was an older sister."

Michael was 10 years younger, and Laura six years younger, than their sister.

Laura recalled her big sister reading her bedtime stories, like "Alice In Wonderland."

The Joplins grew up in Port Arthur, Texas; their father was an engineer at Texaco, their mother a school registrar. But Janis would describe herself as a misfit at school. At 20 she ran off to San Francisco.

From a 1969 interview:

Joplin: "I went to California 'cause it's a lot freer. You know, you can do what you want and nobody bugs you."
Interviewer: "Did you ever go back to Port Arthur?"
Joplin: "I went back once and it was a bummer! I never went back again."

When she'd come to New York, Janis would often stay at the Chelsea Hotel. That's where Michael and Laura showed Mason their sister's scrapbook.

"Volume One" is dated April 1966 to June 1968. She put everything in herself.

The scrapbook, never seen publicly before, includes a letter from her father, expressing concern about her leaving. It reads: "As you have studiously avoided the topic we are assuming that you feel your present venture promises success and that you will not be back here for college next month. Love, Father."

She collected souvenirs from her early gigs, such as the Trips Festival. "If you know anything about that, it must have been an interesting night," said Michael.

There are press clippings, photographs and records, such as her first 45.

Throughout the scrapbook, you can see the Port Arthur girl transform into a rock goddess.

"When you see all this laid out like this, what does it say to you?" Mason asked.

"She was on a journey and was excited, proud of it, wanted to remember it," said Laura. "I really treasure the fact that she was showing us what she thought was important."

In 1967, she included a clipping about an upcoming music festival and wrote, "Going to Monterey."

Life changed the following week.

The Monterey Pop Festival, and the documentary made during it, would be the turning point in Janis' career. In the crowd that day was Clive Davis, then the head of Columbia Records.

"This group came on stage, Big Brother and the Holding Company," Davis recalled, "and this whirling dervish, this electrifying white soul singer was so riveting. And I'm seeing this and I said, 'My God, this is a musical revolution.' "

Davis signed Big Brother. Their first album for Columbia, "Cheap Thrills," would shoot to #1 the next year and give Janis her first hit, "Piece of My Heart."

WEB EXTRA: Click on the audio player below to stream or download Janis Joplin performing "Piece of My Heart." From the Sony Legacy recording, "A Night With Janis Joplin."

But Joplin had developed a weakness for Southern Comfort and heroin. Just two years later, while recording "Pearl," the solo album that would include "Me & Bobby McGee," she was found dead of an accidental heroin overdose. She was just 27.

Laura found out by telephone. "My father called when I was asleep in bed at graduate school," she told Mason. "And he said, very simply, 'Janis died.' When I came home for Christmas break, we didn't talk about it. And it was just this heavy, heavy silence."

The Joplins say that silence lingered for years before the family finally started talking through Janis' death.

"And where did you get to in the end?" asked Mason.

"We got to Broadway,' Laura laughed. "We got to a good time. We got to where it's all about the joy."

On Broadway now, Mary Bridget Davies is bringing back the spirit of Janis six nights a week.

"There's a lotta mojo in this house," Davies said. "And it feels so intimate. Saturday night, this woman was standing here in the front row. And I finished 'Ball and Chain,' and got a standing ovation. And I just nodded to her like, 'Thanks.' And I just grabbed her hand and she lost her mind."

"What's the most difficult part about doing this every night?" Mason asked.

"Being as believable to the audience as possible," she replied.

"It's a pretty big goal."

"It's huge. But she was, too. And I have to honor her that way."

Actress Mary Bridget Davies performs as Janis Joplin in the Broadway musical, "A Night With Janis Joplin." Courtesy "A Night With Janis Joplin"

When asked how it feels to be in charge of Janis' legacy, Laura said, "Janis means a lot of things to a lot of people. And it's important to allow her to have her own identity."

"How do you do that?"

"By not defining her," Laura Joplin said.

Even Janis herself couldn't define it:

Interviewer: "Do you have any explanation why you're so popular?"
Janis Joplin: "(roars with laughter)"

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