Holly George-Warren was a Janis Joplin fan from the moment she encountered “Pearl,” the 1971 album released just months after the singer’s death in 1970. But it wasn’t until she listened to the full recording sessions that became “Pearl” that George-Warren, a music journalist who serves on the nominating board of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, grasped the full range of Joplin’s genius.
“This was a time when women really did not get to call the shots in the studio,” George-Warren said. But what she heard was a veteran producer deferring to the musical direction of Joplin, still only in her mid-twenties. Despite her let-it-all-hang-out persona, she added, Joplin was fueled by “hard work, deep knowledge, and the ambition to be a great singer. I felt like that part of her had really not been exposed in other books about her.”
In “Janis: Her Life and Music,” George-Warren chronicles Joplin’s life from childhood in Port Arthur, Texas, to musical triumph in San Francisco and New York, to her fatal heroin overdose at the age of 27. Her task was aided by the trove of letters Joplin, a prolific correspondent, left behind. “I loved reading her letters, because they were so articulate and expressive about where she was,” George-Warren said. “She wrote letters about the recording process, about being a performer — Janis’s own words in unguarded moments. Those letters really were spectacular."
If Joplin hadn’t died so young, her biographer said, she might have kicked her addictions — “she prided herself on trying to recover from her vices,” George-Warren said — and certainly would have made more music. “Janis was very restless artistically. She never wanted to stay in one sound or vocal style,” she added. “I think she would have continued to create music that would have been an expression of herself, the emotion that she was able to tap into.”
Holly George-Warren will read on Wednesday at 7 p.m. at Porter Square Books.
Kate Tuttle, a freelance writer and critic, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.