When Janis Joplin Brought Down the House at the Monterey Pop Festival

More than 50 years later, the legend of the Monterey Pop Festival (June ’67) is alive and well. Considering the three-day event jumpstarted the careers of Jimi Hendrix (recommended by Paul McCartney), The Who, Otis Redding, and Janis Joplin, you can’t overestimate Monterey’s significance in pop music history.

Thanks to the D.A. Pennebaker documentary film Monterey Pop (1968), modern audiences can still feel the magic of that weekend in Monterey. (It has streamed on The Criterion Channel through 2020). And, as you might expect, the backstage drama was just as interesting as the performances.

If the duel between Hendrix and Pete Townshend of The Who (over who’d perform first) doesn’t grab you, there’s the matter of Big Brother and the Holding Company (for whom Joplin sang) refusing to be filmed during their performance on Saturday of the festival.

Thankfully, Joplin and Big Brother returned on Sunday to perform a few more songs. And Pennebaker’s crew recorded their performance for posterity. On “Ball and Chain,” Janis showed why she remains a household name six decades later.

Janis Joplin stopped time with her performance of ‘Ball and Chain’ at the Monterey Pop Festival

Janis Joplin closeup, Monterey Pop
Janis Joplin performs with Big Brother and the Holding Company performs at the Monterey Pop Festival. | Paul Ryan/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

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When Joplin got a hold of “Ball and Chain,” songwriter Big Mama Thornton hadn’t even released her own version of the track. (Airhoolie Records issued a single with it as the A-side in 1968.) But Joplin and Big Brother had already made their version of Thornton’s blues famous.

As one of the first acts on Saturday afternoon at Monterey, the band clearly made an impression with “Ball and Chain.” The song gives Joplin the opportunity to build slowly and summon her powers at various points along the way. When Pennebaker’s crew had a second shot at filming it, they didn’t miss.

Janis also didn’t miss her chance. Everything modern audiences associate her with — passion, vulnerability, explosiveness, raw emotion — is on full display here. And sound engineers got an excellent recording of the moment.

The look on the face of Mama Cass (of The Mamas and The Papas) seems to speak for all of us. However, you’ll notice that Cass is sitting bathed in sunlight. If she was reacting to Joplin’s performance, it would have been the previous day’s set.

Joplin and Big Brother and the Holding Company got signed by CBS after Clive Davis saw them at Monterey

Janis Joplin performing at Monterey
Janis Joplin with her band Big Brother and the Holding Company at Monterey Pop | Paul Ryan/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

By Monterey, Hendrix and The Who had already released classic albums on major labels. That wasn’t the case for Big Brother and the Holding Company, whose independent debut wouldn’t appear until months later. For CBS Records’ Clive Davis, it represented an opportunity he couldn’t pass up.

Eventually, after Bob Dylan’s manager took charge of the group, Davis signed Joplin and her bandmates to a deal worth a small fortune. Joplin was thrilled, and went so far as to suggest to Davis that they sleep together to make it official.

“Janis – who never wanted to do anything formulaic, typical or predictable – was starting out in her career and it was a very important moment for her,” Davis told The Guardian in 2014. “I think it was a little too formal and maybe corporate just to sign a document […]. So she asked to sleep with me to make it more personal.”

Davis recalled being flattered by Joplin’s proposition. However, he decided the contract was just formal enough for him. “I took it as a big compliment,” he said in the same Guardian interview. “[But] I turned it down.”