Janis Joplin – Patti Smith, Seasick Steve and her bandmates look behind the myth

Friends, admirers and collaborators remember the late singer

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A few months later, in November 1968, Janis announced that she was leaving Big Brother. “We were devastated,” says Sam Andrew, “but I guess we could see it coming. She was a pretty materialistic person who felt, quite rightly, that instead of us splitting everything equally five ways, she should have got a bigger slice of the pie. But there were also artistic differences – she wanted to move into R’n’B and always suggested getting in a horn section or a keyboard player. She was frustrated when people said no.”

Sam Andrew was the only Big Brother member to stay with Janis after the split, helping to assemble her first solo outfit, the Kozmic Blues Band, which featured a Stax-style horn section: “In some ways, it was closer to what she’d always wanted to do, that old Victorola sound we heard at that first rehearsal,” Andrew explains.

The Kozmic Blues Band’s debut, I Got Dem Ol’ Kozmic Blues Again Mama, was a fair stab at R’n’B but it lacked the manic urgency of her earlier work. It was dismissed by the rock cognoscenti loyal to Big Brother and suspicious of her “poppier” ambitions. Janis consciously turned her back on the underworld and embraced mainstream culture. She appeared on prime-time chat shows and in the pages of Time, Life and Newsweek. The latter even had her lined up as a cover star in April 1969, but she was bumped off the front by the death of General Eisenhower (“14 heart attacks and he had to die in my week,” she quipped. “In my week!”)

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By the time she was touring with the Kozmic Blues Band – at venues like the Royal Albert Hall, Madison Square Garden and the Hollywood Bowl – her earnings had increased massively, and she was spending huge amounts on drink and drugs. A doctor who examined her in 1969 was shocked to find such a swollen, alcohol-ravaged liver on a twentysomething woman. She was also having trouble controlling her 12-piece ensemble.

“Although she was an amazing frontwoman, she wasn’t a natural leader,” says Sam Andrew. “I think she went through three drummers and tried at least two musicians on each instrument. She sacked everybody eventually! I don’t think she had the skills to put a band together.”

In November 1969, she fired most of her Kozmic Blues Band – including Sam Andrew, the one professional constant in her career – and replaced them with The Full Tilt Boogie Band. This lineup removed the unwieldy horn section, instead stripping everything down to five musicians recommended by Albert Grossman. They included guitarist John Till (the only survivor from the last incarnation of Kozmic Blues) and pianist Richard Bell, who had both played in Ronnie Hawkins And The Hawks (replacing Robbie Robertson and Richard Manuel after they joined Dylan’s band). “We had exactly the same configuration as The Band,” says John Till. “Piano, bass, guitar, drums, organ – and like The Band we had four Canadians and one American on drums!”

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