Legend has it that 10,000 tickets were made available and sold. But when Janis Joplin and the Full Tilt Boogie Band played Harvard Stadium on Aug. 12, 1970, nearly 40,000 people showed up. With some of them scaling the walls, they swarmed the football stadium for a chance to worship the rock singer just as her star was at full shine.
That Cambridge crowd likely couldn’t have predicted they were witnessing Joplin’s final concert. She died not even two months later, on Oct. 4, snuffed out by an overdose at age 27.
As the 45th anniversary of that historic performance approaches, a Danvers company is sharing with the world a trove of important artifacts from that event. House of Roulx, a new boutique online retailer of cultural wares, has unearthed previously unseen and unpublished photographs of Joplin’s Harvard Stadium concert. They were taken by a local photographer who had stored them in his archives for decades at his South End home.
Jared and Trevor Gendron, the brothers who cofounded House of Roulx, discovered them in a batch of some 15,000 photos by the late Peter Warrack. The black-and-white images show Joplin in various states of Janis-ness: bits of a feather boa in her hair, arms lined with bangles and jewelry, a sparkle from sequins on her blouse, a blur of motion as she tore into the songs. Sometimes her face is pressed into a rock ’n’ roll sneer, other times she’s smiling and maybe even laughing.
The Gendrons have created fine-art prints of the Joplin photos directly from Warrack’s negatives and are selling enlargements through their online store (www.houseofroulx.com). They’re also offering a limited-edition box set that features all 24 of Warrack’s photos in 8-by-10 prints housed in an embossed box with a linen cover.
The handcrafted package includes a contact sheet of the images, a reproduction of an acrylic painting of Joplin they commissioned from artist Jace McTier, and a remembrance of that Cambridge concert written by Kevin McElroy, Warrack’s partner. That set, in an edition of 45, will cost $350. (A single artist-edition box set, which will include the original McTier painting, will retail for $2,500.)
The Warrack archives are among the many new acquisitions for House of Roulx (pronounced “ROO”), a newly launched offshoot of JG Autographs, a memorabilia and collectibles company Jared Gendron founded in the mid 1990s. Its new boutique imprint has also collected archives from other photographers, plus an autographed Dita Von Teese photo series.
“As everything has gone digital to the fullest extreme, it’s nice to have real things still,” Jared Gendron says, “and the further things go digital, it makes the tangible stuff more special.”
Born in England and based in Boston for most of his life, Warrack was an avid amateur photographer who was immersed in celebrity culture. He snapped thousands of pictures, often in Boston, of stars such as Katharine Hepburn, Jack Nicholson, Diana Ross, Elizabeth Taylor, Jackie O, and many more, whom he typically befriended.
When Warrack died in 2008 from a rare blood cancer, McElroy, his partner of 37 years, reached out to the Gendrons to see if they’d like to purchase his entire photo collection. They did, to the tune of nearly $10,000, thereby assuming all ownership of the images.
“I had originally thought about leaving the photos to a college library, but didn’t think they would be seen by the people who should see them,” McElroy says. “When I saw the photos of Janis again after so many years, it was like being zapped right back to that day and watching her sing. Janis was just Janis back then, and we didn’t know she’d be dead soon.”
McElroy will not receive any additional money from sales of the photos. And Trevor Gendron, House of Roulx’s creative director, says the company will not run afoul of Joplin’s estate by selling prints of the singer.
“We purchased the negatives and all rights to print and repurpose from the estate of the original photographer. Prints are treated as fine art and fall into the ‘free and clear’ category as far as we are using them,” Trevor Gendron writes in an e-mail. “If we were to press up T-shirts, coffee mugs, or any apparel or merchandise, then we would need the estate’s blessing. But to reproduce from original negatives that we own outright, there is no issue. We also are not printing her name on them.”
At least online, not many visual documents of Joplin’s Harvard Stadium show exist. (A Google image search for that gig leads to photos on a website by Gwendolyn Stewart, another Boston-area photographer.)
‘When I saw the photos of Janis again after so many years, it was like being zapped right back to that day and watching her sing.’
A 31-minute bootleg recording of shoddy quality captured the concert in its brittle intensity. Joplin was in blistering form, opening with “Tell Mama,” the Etta James classic, and featuring an explosive rendition of “Summertime.” She gave a sneak preview of “Mercedes Benz,” which would later appear on “Pearl,” her posthumously released last solo studio album. “It’s called ‘Oh, Lord, Won’t You Buy Me a Mercedes Benz,’” she introduced the song, eliciting a laugh from the audience.
John Byrne Cooke, the Harvard-educated musician, photographer, and writer, was Joplin’s road manager at the time. He was at that Cambridge show, but doesn’t remember much beyond the fact that the sound equipment had been stolen earlier in the day and they scrambled to find replacement gear.
They had a nice time, he says, until the Cambridge police harassed him and some of the long-haired band members while they were searching for late-night grub after the show. (They stayed at the Sheraton Commander Hotel in Harvard Square that night.)
Cooke was told beforehand that the police had dealt with vandalism and public disturbances after the other rock concerts the stadium was hosting that summer. Joplin was made aware of that, and even instructed the audience not to make any trouble afterward. Instead, she said, go home and work off your energy with each other.
“In other words, rather than go rampaging through the streets, the indication was [to] go home and make love,” says Cooke, who chronicled that day in his memoir last year, “On the Road With Janis Joplin.”
Cooke had strong ties to Cambridge, where he joined the bluegrass band the Charles River Valley Boys while attending Harvard, but says Joplin didn’t have a particularly deep connection to the Boston area. She first played here in 1968, at a long-gone club called the Psychedelic Supermarket (at 590 Commonwealth Ave.), as part of Big Brother and the Holding Company’s first tour of the East Coast.
Cooke, of course, had no idea her Harvard Stadium gig would be her last public performance, but he says Joplin was in a good place around then.
“In the spring of ’70, Janis had kicked her drug habit, and she was exalting in being straight and on top of everything,” Cooke says. “She had a better relationship with Albert Grossman [her manager] than ever before. They had put together this band, the Full Tilt Boogie Band, and musically she was very happy. She loved being onstage. She was correctly quoted as saying, ‘Man, I put up with 23 hours of the day for that hour onstage.’”
McElroy attended that Harvard Stadium concert, when he was 19 and had just started dating Warrack, and recalls they were probably in the second or third row. That explains the intimate, zoomed-in nature of Warrack’s photos.
“After a delay, she finally appeared on the stage, and the audience and Janis got in to something that I can only describe as being almost sexual — chanting back and forth, giving and taking: ‘We want you, we want you,’ ” McElroy says. “But it was just a concert, and all of sudden it was over. And she was gone.”