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US Rock Singer Janis Joplin Remembered in NY City Tribute - 2003-08-04

Legendary U.S. singer Janis Joplin died tragically of a heroin overdose in 1970, yet her albums still sell briskly today, when she would be sixty years old.

A musical tribute to Ms. Joplin was held recently in New York City's Central Park and featured a reunion of former band-mates and several well known female singers performing her songs.

Thirty-three years after her untimely death, no one can doubt the enduring power of Janis Joplin's voice.

Sam Andrew was, and still is, the lead guitarist and musical director for "Big Brother and the Holding Company" and "The Kozmic Blues Band," Joplin's best-known rock ensembles.

Near a makeshift memorial altar backstage just before the Janis Joplin Tribute began, Mr. Andrew shared his delight that members of both groups gathered for the first time in decades.

"It's like a super high school reunion," he said. "And today, I'm going to think a lot about Janis and what she meant to all of us. We keep telling each other stories and she was just a great person. She was really funny and she was great to be around. So we're going to remember that today."

Ms. Joplin is considered a pioneer for many reasons. She was a self-made female star at a time when almost all rock stars were men. Also, in an era when counter-culture fashion dictated a certain drab uniformity, Janis showed a flair for high fashion. She loved being a star and wanted to dress the part. And most important, at least in Sam Andrew's opinion, Joplin was one of the first mainstream white entertainers to actively affirm the pure black roots of her act.

"She was raised in the South and so she always confronted that race question that was really opening up in the sixties," he said. "When I first met her, she sounded like Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey. She had really studied them carefully. And when you sing something like that, you understand from the inside a lot of things that maybe someone else wouldn't understand. So in that American cultural lineage, she represents…another step forward in the real understanding by the white race of black people. And also abetting people who were black who were singing and encouraged them and helped other people to realize what a treasure they are."

But it was Joplin's masterly fusion of blues and psychedelic rock and roll that continues to impress singer-songwriter Phoebe Snow, one of five divas who came to the tribute to sing Joplin's songs. In a dressing room moments before going onstage, Ms. Snow remembered her awe of Janis Joplin at concert she attended in New York as a young hippie during the late 1960s.

"And the bill was Iron Butterfly, the Chambers Brothers, Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix closed the show. It was one of the most remarkable shows I have ever see or will ever see in this lifetime," she said. "So I am experiencing a little stage fright, a little panic. I think I'll be okay though. It's very surreal."

Five minutes later, Ms. Snow seemed reassured by a crowd electrified by her rendition of "Piece of My Heart," one of Joplin's biggest hits.

"You know, Janis, when she performed, it wasn't just a performance," said ne gyrating audience member named "Clay" as he explained his own personal rapture. "It was feeling. She just went out and went out there and sweat it and got it on stage. So when I hear something in homage to her, I have to feel it. For me it's paying tribute to her as best we can here in New York City - the greatest city in the world - with some amazing vocalists that are going up there and performing her songs in her name and making it their own."

Another fan, Mel Brady, said he enjoyed the frank sexiness in Joplin's music, no matter who sings it. "I'm having a wonderful time. This is the music I grew up on. I know all the parts of the songs," he said. "...she was the only person that I had to relate to in terms of expressing a part of female excitement. We had Mae West and Janis Joplin!

Sophia Ramos, 23, belted out her version of Joplin song Ball and Chain as a concert finale. Ms. Ramos has had the song memorized ever since she was a young girl. That's when her aunt made her a gift of Janis Joplin records along with other 1960s musical treasures. "When I was really young, about twelve years old, I used to woodshed [practice] with them and learn every nuance," she said. "And being a Puerto Rican from the South Bronx, that was kind of unheard of. I wasn't into hip-hop and I was heavily into this music that was way before my time. So when they asked me [to sing], it was a last minute thing, I got choked up because I couldn't believe it that here I was being part of a tribute to this woman who was a legend and who was responsible for making me the singer that I am." When asked how she got into the mood to sing Ball and Chain, she said, "Well, we've all had our hearts broken. So it's not hard to be in that place where you are just absolutely miserable.

No doubt Janis Joplin would have understood Ms. Ramos perfectly and loudly offered her signature good-natured cackle in reply.