During her Austin days, Janis wasn’t comfortable singing in public. She was shy and without any particular style. She sang the blues like Bessie Smith and also imitated Jean Richie and Rosie Maddox. There was something special about Bessie Smith, though. Janis identified with her to the point of feeling that she was Smith reincarnated. Janis once said that she became a singer because Grant Lyons loaned her his Bessie Smith and Leadbelly records. She learned to sing the blues by listening to Bessie for hours and imitating her.
Born April 15, 1894, in Chattanooga, Tennessee, Bessie Smith began singing in honky-tonks, minstral shows, carnivals, and cabarets. Columbia Records discovered her in a club in Selma, Alabama, and by the end of the following year, Bessie had sold 2 million records. Before singing, Bessie always demanded a drink, and she would empty a pint of straight gin, taking it in one gulp. During her set, she kept a burning cigarette between her lips. Offstage, Bessie would continue her drinking, partying until she passed out. Drunk, she’d do anything to get attention, including fighting, throwing her money around, and screaming. She died September 26, 1937 from injuries sustained in a car accident. Refused admission to a white southern hospital, she bled to death while being transported to another facility. The critic George Avakian called Bessie the “mistress of vocal infection,” citing her “huge sweeping voice which combined strength and even harshness with irresistible natural beauty.” She became for Janis Joplin not only a musical inspiration but a personal role model. “She showed me the air and taught me how to fill it,” said Janis. “She’s the reason I started singing, really.”
In 1970 Janis and Juanita Green, the child of a former domestic employee of Bessie’s, paid for a proper tombstone for Smith’s grave.