Janis Joplin made her mark by giving 100 percent every time she took the microphone.
The Texas blues singer who burst out of San Francisco in 1967 with Big Brother and the Holding Company didn’t just sing songs. She created raw, metallic arias that rose and fell in performances that qualified as high theater.
So maybe it’s appropriate that the theater is where we find the most empathetic evocation of the singer who died of a heroin overdose in 1970 at the age of 27 and instantly become a “legend.”
“Love, Janis” a bio-musical created by director Randal Myler and based on a book by the singer’s sister, began performances this weekend at Kansas City Repertory Theatre’s new downtown performance space, Copaken Stage.
But Sam Andrew doesn’t remember Joplin as a legend.
He remembers her as someone he liked and admired, someone whose life was intertwined with his, someone whose image was in some ways at odds with the reality.
“She was this hot blues mama, definitely, but maybe even more she was this very serious, articulate, intelligent, quiet, really well-read person at the same time,” Andrew said recently. “And that’s probably not that startling. That’s probably true of a lot of performers, you know, that they have this whole other life. I hope they do, just to stay sane.”
Andrew, a founding member of Big Brother and the Holding Company, is in town to ensure that the music sounds right in “Love, Janis.” He’s the musical director for the show that began in New York in 2001.
Andrew, 65, is a tall, bearish man whose face seems permanently frozen in a half smile. He’s happily married, clean and sober, and lives in Marin County, just north of San Francisco. He rises at 5:30 a.m. and spends the early part of the day painting. The original members of Big Brother, including Andrew, still perform, often touring Europe.
But the 1960s — well, that was a different time. It was the age of sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll. And Andrew was in the thick of it.
“I was definitely there,” he said. “Very much so. Janis was probably the most there. But I was really close behind her.”
It all began, Andrew said, one day in 1965 as the graduate linguistics student walked down a street in Frisco and heard guitar music emanating from the basement of a Victorian house.
“It was Peter Albin, the bass player,” he said. “He played guitar a lot then and … he had this really nice, loose, natural, blues style, and I said, ‘Hey, do you wanna form a band?’ And he said, ‘Absolutely not.’ And that’s been our relationship ever since. I always propose things and he says, ‘No.'”
Within a matter of months they were holding weekly jam sessions with drummer David Getz. Later guitarist James Gurley joined the group. People from across the city began showing up. Some were musicians. Others just wanted to listen.
One of the habitués was Chet Helms, a music promoter who founded the Avalon Ballroom and the man often credited as the “father” of the Summer of Love in 1967.
“He said, ‘You know, there’s too much riff-raff coming in,’ as opposed to the riff-raff playing the instruments,” Andrew recalled. “And he said, ‘I’m gonna charge 50 cents and keep the numbers down.’ And guess what happened? When he charged money more people came.”
Before Joplin joined the group, Andrew said, Big Brother wasn’t trying to be a blues band. It didn’t even want to play rock ‘n’ roll. The band members listened to the most avant-garde music and cutting-edge jazz of the day. They tried to emulate Cecil Taylor, John Coltrane and Pharoah Sanders. But they weren’t skilled enough to pull it off.
“We couldn’t play it,” he said. “We listened to a lot of John Cage. We did a thing called ‘Bacon.’ We’d put a hot plate on the amplifier and cook bacon and play till the bacon was cooked and then we’d stop and eat it. Goofy things. Surreal.”
Helms turned out to be a big influence on the band’s direction.
“He was the big brother in Big Brother and the Holding Company,” Andrew said. “He brought us our lead guitar player. He brought us Janis Joplin, ’cause he had gone to school with her at the University of Texas. He was just a visionary.”
Needless to say, when Joplin joined the band in 1966 the music changed. She wanted structured songs. She wanted a tight band.
“We were this wild, experimental thing, and then she came in and we played songs,” he said. “She straightened us out, in other words.”
With Joplin, Big Brother became a very well-known band in the Bay Area. But in 1967 two things happened: The band performed at the Monterey Pop Festival, and Albert Grossman — who managed such high-profile acts as Bob Dylan and Peter, Paul and Mary — signed on as the band’s manager and got it a deal with Columbia Records. “Cheap Thrills,” a “live” album that benefited from a good deal of doctoring in the studio, went to No. 1.
The band was a national presence whose profile became even higher after D.A. Pennebaker’s documentary “Monterey Pop” was released in 1968. But Joplin announced that she would be leaving Big Brother to form a new band before the end of the year. Big Brother broke up, and Andrew joined her in the new group, the Kozmic Blues Band. But at one point she asked him to leave.
“I was fired,” he said. “Probably because we were…both using heroin and stuff, and she might have thought, well, this will be easier to kick if Sam’s not around, which was a reasonable thing to think.”
It was only after that, Andrew said, that he and Joplin shared an intimate relationship.
“I’ve never had an office romance,” he said. “I never thought it was a good idea. And probably something inside me said, ‘Well, now she’s fired me so we can have this relationship.’ It was very brief but very sweet. I always really liked Janis. She was really feminine, surprisingly so, I think, to people who think about her image today. She was fundamentally a good person. So yeah, we did that and had lots of fun.”
Andrew was able to kick his drug habit. Joplin was not. He was at home one day in October of 1970 when he got the call: Janis was dead of an overdose. Jimi Hendrix had died of an overdose just two weeks earlier.
As it turned out, Joplin’s posthumously released “Pearl” went to No. 1 for nine weeks in 1971, and the single “Me and Bobby McGee” became a major radio hit. It was a kind of coda to a decade that surged with idealism but ultimately lost its way.
Andrew is in a unique position as a musical director. As he rehearses the band, watches a run-through or sits in the audience on opening night, he’s watching a version of his own life.
“It’s really strange,” he said. “It’s like watching an episode of ‘Twilight Zone.’ Watching scenes that are really emotional and having actors play them, sometimes I feel like Woody Allen. You know how he’ll do in his movies, you’ll see him putting on a play and it’s really his life.
“Also, what I think when I’m watching this show is how would Janis feel if she were watching? What would she say if she knew we were standing here in Kansas City almost 40 years later doing this play? What would her reaction be?”
The Kansas City Repertory Theatre production of “Love, Janis” runs through March 18 at the theater’s Copaken Stage, 13th and Walnut. Tickets cost $12-$50. (816) 235-5700; kcrep.org