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Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Clementin Hall Remembers Janis Joplin

janis joplin
Janis Joplin
Ms. Clementine Hall recently sent the Texas Psych Blog this exclusive piece about her friend - Janis Joplin:

Clementine Hall on Janis Joplin:

As I recall, the first time the people who knew her in Austin heard her sing was when she was about 18.  We were at" the Ghetto" (a cheap, ramshackle housing development on the campus of the University of Texas), in the apartment of Wally and Tommy Stopher.  Powell St. John also had a room there (with a joke sign over the door that said "ball room" (meaning room in which to have sex!)  I was mostly hanging out with Wally Stopher (who to this day remains my oldest friend from the University of Texas). I remember Powell being there, and Wally and another friend Ramsey Wiggins (whose brother Lanny Wiggins was an exceptionally fine 12-string guitar player; he and Powell and Janis later formed a little hootenanny-type folk/blues group that called themselves the "Waller Creek Boys," after the creek than ran through our part of the campus).  Besides myself, I'm not sure who else was there at the time - there were always people drifiting through.  I cannot recall what we were talking about; usually we just sat around and listened to records and smoked cigarettes.  Anyway, Janis walked in, dragging a big old reel-to-reel tape recorder and asked us to wait until she left and then turn on the recorder and play a tape she'd made of herself singing.  She also made us promise that we would tell her the absolute truth about what we thought of her voice.  We promised, she left, we turned on the machine.

(At the time I had a light Joan Baez-type soprano voice and had sung a few solos in high school, but had had no exposure to blues or anything outside of classical, pop or folk singing.  I had never let anyone at the Ghetto hear me sing.  I was like a blank slate where most music was concerned.)  Through my ears, that tape was the most extraordinary thing I had ever heard in my life.  First of all, I had never heard Bessie Smith (and Janis had chosen mostly her songs); secondly, I had never heard a white female voice remotely like Janis' voice.  Despite the complete unexpectedness of the experience of hearing Janis sing for the first time, I was instantly converted.  I was absolutely thrilled by the sound, immediately and permanently.  As was everyone else in the room.  None of us could believe what we heard.  It was the same voice we know now, except that it lacked the screaming she later asked Roky if she could borrow.

Janis was gone for about 30 minutes and we kept re-winding and replaying the tape and finding ourselves at a loss for words.  The other people there were much more familiar with the music than I, but they were as flabbergasted as I was.  Every one of them.  We never stopped listening and waiting for her to return.  When she finally came back, we carried on and on and she kept saying, "Are you sure?  Are you shitting me?  Please don't say shit you don't mean."  I learned a bit later that the voice she grew up with was a light soprano (her family kept asking her to return to her "pretty voice" and give up her blues voice).  From that moment on, we kept urging her to get up and sing before others, and as soon as she sang at a campus "Hootenanny" she became famous on campus.

I have vivid memories of those Hootenannies on Wednesday night on campus.  She would sing, Powell would play guitar and harmonica and Lanny Wiggins would play 12-string guitar.  Janis turned me on to small, slender cigars called "Havatampa Jewels" and we would sit cross-legged on the carpeted floor and smoke them - they were absolutely delicious. At one point, I got up the nerve to stand up and sing a Sottish lullaby in my newly discovered mezzo soprano voice, and John Clay (a legend on campus, a songwriter extraordinaire and banjo player we all respected) actually praised me, telling me that I had sung it  authentically and asked me to come and sing that song with them on the radio.  I was overwhelmed but I did it.  I sang after Janis and the others had sung and played, but never again.

Janis, Powell and Lanny Wiggins then  started playing regularly at Threadgills in Austin (a beer  bar and restaurant combination that became much beloved by Austinites).  They could have free beer if they played music.  I can see and hear them so clearly in my mind.  They were so extraordinary, with their fusion of old country, old blues and a little Woody Guthrie protest music. I can still see Powell ratcheting his foot up and down, as if he were playing an old pedaled sewing machine, and absolutely wailing on his harmonica.   (Three harmonicas really stand out in my memory from those times:  Bob Dylan's, Roky Erickson's and Powell St. John's.  I could listen to those guys play harmonica all day (and often have), without ever tiring of it.  Janis was in her element at Threadgills:  only a few uptight frat types or hard-core cowboys made it out there, and those that did lightened up after a few beers and the music soaked in.  She was full of laughter and affection for people, while still maintaining her tough/hip girl defensive appearance. 

Janis often mentioned how moved she was by our acceptance of her tape-recorded singing. But she was terrified about singing before a real crowd and when the time came for he to sing at a fund raiser the Elevators were playing at, she had to be literally pushed onto the stage by friends.  She went on in her usual costume:  black dress, black hose, black sensible shoes and her hair pulled back in a bun.  Once she started singing, her talent was recognized.

I was present at only one other occasion when Janis was thrilled to pieces by something said to her.  Tommy and I were visiting Chet Helms (the proprietor of the Avalon Ballroom) in San Francisco at the time we we touring the Bay Area with the Elevators.  Before going out Chet had told us that B. B. King was in town and might be calling, and asked us to take a message.  He mentioned that B. B. King loved to come to Chet's place to play the slot machine Chet had installed for special guests.  This machine was programmed to pay out more than not.  Sure enough, that afternoon, when Janis was also visiting, the phone rang and she picked it up before we could tell her about the expected call.  We heard her end of the conversation but she was doing very little talking and she didn't sound like her usual self (which was usually full of laughter and wise-cracking when she was in a comfortable environment).  When she got off she was almost fainting with pleasure.  She had heard his message and then she said, "You probably don't know who I am, but my name is Janis Joplin and I am a great fan of yours."  After that she was completely silent, except to say good-bye.  It turned out he had said:  "I know who you are.  You are the best damn white blues singer in the world." 

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