JANIS AND ME
As told by Steve Mann, 2004 and 2005
I met Janis in Los Angeles in 1963. I was just twenty years old and a student at Valley State College. I used to play at hootenannies and sometimes gigs at the Ash Grove, the Troubadour--various Los Angeles clubs. Folk music was very big then and I used to just sort of hang out at the Ash Grove--I could get in for free, and sometimes sit around in the dressing rooms and just play my guitar and shmooz with other performers.
I made some pretty good connections there; people looking for accompanists; Gail Garnett, Judy Henske and others. I had lots of musician friends.
We'd have a solid bowl, play music all night. Everybody was learning stuff off of records, and I especially liked to hear recordings of the old blues players. Hoyt Axton had turned me on to a recording of Robert Johnson while I was in my sophomore year at college, and that music just went through me like electricity -that evening at Hoyt's was a turning point in my life. From that point on, I couldn't get enough of the guitar; listening to records, learning blues and folk material and arranging it for six and twelve string. I sort of dropped out of school eventually because my life had turned all the way toward music.
A lot of my friends were just as gung ho as I was. We'd go over to Jim Rubin's house and he'd play harmonica and I'd play guitar, sometimes we taped those sessions and parties, but not real formally. Bruce Engelhardt, he'd play guitar too, and he sang a lot of songs.... especiall y John Lee Hooker stuff.
And I was hanging out with a guy named Terry Wadsworth. Later he joined Randy Sparks and the New Christy Minstrels, and he would do Furry Louis songs, which I thought was terrific. He wrote a lot of songs, too.
While me and Mike Kramer were hanging out he turned me on to Terry Wadsworth. He was a real good singer. He worked the Boodeye In Oklahoma City and I thought he was real good. He played a little banjo too, Terry Wadsworth. I mostly learned songs and then worked up arrangements for them, didn't write many myself. I'm not too strong on the lyrics. Give me a set of lyrics and I can set them to music, but I believe I love the old blues the best.
One night Nancy Jones and Linda Godferd called me on the telephone. They were these two girls I had met at a Fred Gerlach concert-we saw Bud and Travis there the same night. They thought that was the greatest thing since bottled Coke, or sliced bread. Anyway, they came by and picked me up this one night and we went to the Troubadour. This gal named Janis Joplin was in the car with them.
We'd go to the Troubadour and Janis Joplin, she'd sing. Let's see, what she would sing --a song called "Mary Jane, " and a song called "The Middle Road...I'm Lookin' for that Middle Road" --she could really sing! It was just an open mike, and after I was introduced to her and we ran through a couple of tunes in the back, she asked me to back her up on guitar for a couple of numbers in the open mike. Yeah, that worked out real nicely.
She had no place to go when I first met her, and I invited her home to stay at my folks' house. I even had a music party at my folks' house and invited a whole bunch of friends. My sister Devorah and her twin Jimmie are six years younger than me; they were just kids, but Devie remembers that visit from Janis in detail.
Anyway, at the open mikes Janis and I worked real well together. She was fun to work with. Never a dull moment. She didn't crack that many jokes, but she was a real serious student of the blues. She could write her own songs, and she'd be singing like Ma Rainy, and singing like Bessie Smith. She sure was real talented. I really appreciated how she could really get her body and soul into that deep down black blues sound with her voice.
We played at open mikes and stuff, but fairly soon after that I had to go up to the San Francisco Bay Area for a gig of some kind and we lost touch. I stayed up there in San Francisco and didn't see her again until about a year later, when I was twenty-one, which would have been some time in 1963 or 64. She was twenty-one also. (I turned twenty-two on May 2nd, 1963).
Up in San Francisco I shared a big house with my current girl friend Joan, and Jorma Kaukonen and his wife Margaretta. One day the phone rang and it was Janis Joplin, come to town. She'd gotten my number at Jorma's and she was up in San Francisco in some apartment with her boyfriend. She'd been hired to sing at a CORE benefit (Congress On Racial Equality) and she needed an accompanist, so she called me up.
Well, I actually owned a portable tape recorder (reel to reel) at that time, and thought it would be good for us to use it when we practiced so we could listen back and see how we sounded. So I packed up my recorder, with a reel of tape and a microphone, and went over to her place on the bus.
Now besides singing blues, Janis was an artist at rolling joints. I mean she made these neat little tokes for me from a mayonnaise jar full of weed, (I kid you not) and I'd smoke one and I'd be THERE. It was good stuff. But when she sang, she didn't smoke pot. She pulled out a bottle of Southern Comfort, which was her favorite drink, and we had a grand old time playing and singing.
When she was ready to record, I turned on the tape recorder. I just set the mike on the floor between us and we started making music. I'd smoke another joint, she'd take another swig or two, and we played all night. We recorded about eight or nine songs, all blues.
All the songs were from her repertoire, not mine, but anything Janis sang, I just found her key and we started in, because it was just the best old down-home blues singing possible, and I couldn't help but know what to do with that. She just belted out those blues and gave all her energy to the music. Her voice just poured through me and came out my fingers. We hardly needed to even practice her songs first, because I'd heard a lot of old records, probably many of the same ones she'd studied, and besides she was really good at taking cues and feeling when it was time for a guitar break--all that stuff. We both knew when the song was going to end, and it all came out great on the tape. She was a pro. She was very talented. A great voice. I was very impressed. I'm very impressed now at the old age of sixty-one, just thinking about that scene and remembering how it went down.
So I stayed over at her place and went home on the bus with my recorder and tape the next morning, thinking she would let me know when the CORE benefit was, since this was supposed to be a rehearsal for it. Unfortunately, I had to leave for Los Angeles before she got back to me. Anyway, I had to take off, leaving everything behind at the Kaukonen's place, including the Joplin tape and the recorder. Janis and I never did do the gig, but I think Jorma filled in for me.
I didn't see Jorma much after I went back to L.A. Next time I heard from him, he came to town with somebody named Matthew Kates, I believe. He came to visit me in a Board and Care place to play some tunes and hang out a little. Jorma Kaukonen told me he was playing electric harmonica with a group called Jefferson Airplane at that time.
I hadn't thought about the Janis Joplin tape for years until recently in Berkeley, when I was teaching guitar at Janet Smith's place, Bella Roma Music. I had a student who handed me a CD copy of my "Live at the Ash Grove" album, (issued in 1967 by my friend Rick Smith from a taped live performance at the Ash Grove) and he (the student) had added on at the end three songs with Janis Joplin singing, from that exact session in San Francisco, plus some other old stuff by Jorma Kaukenan and Tom Hobson. Wow, was that a blast from the past! We never did locate the rest of the Joplin tape, but I sure enjoy listening to these three songs.
That gal Janis, she could really sing the blues.