Standing on the shoulders of giants: The influences of Janis Joplin

Janis Joplin had one of the greatest voices in rock & roll. But she would be the first to say that she stood on the shoulders of giants. As a teenager who was often bullied, Janis took solace in the healing power of the blues. The art form and its characters set Janis on the road to becoming a star. 

The recent Broadway musical “A Night with Janis Joplin”--now traveling the U.S. and beyond--obviously focuses on the shooting star that was Janis Joplin but also does well in highlighting the female artists who influenced her. Here at AXS, we thought we’d take a look at these artists and how they shaped Janis into the powerhouse she would become. Here are the voices behind the legend.

Bessie Smith

Bessie Smith is widely considered one of the greatest blues singers of all time. But Janis thought she was the best. In August of 1970 just months before her death, Janis Joplin and NAACP North Philadelphia chapter president Juanita Green paid to have a headstone placed at Smith’s grave, which had remained unmarked for 33 years. It read: “The Greatest Blues Singer in the World Will Never Stop Singing." Listen to Bessie Smith doing “Black Mountain Blues,” a song Janis used to cover, above.


A towering figure of the the Civil Rights Movement with a voice to match, Odetta sang from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial just before Martin Luther King delivered his “I Have a Dream Speech.” Odetta not only influenced Joplin but also other 60s legends like Bob Dylan and Joan Baez. Check out the Odetta staple “Careless Love” above, a song young Janis Joplin used to sing.

Nina Simone

Also a civil right activist and a classically trained pianist, Nina Simone was one of the most remarkable artists this country has ever seen. Nina was powerful, outspoken and extremely talented. So it’s no wonder she was an idol of Joplin’s. Janis covered Simone’s “Trouble In Mind,” you can listen to Nina’s version above.

Etta James

Although they were only five years apart, Etta James was a gospel prodigy by the time Janis was born. Already a seasoned veteran, the legendary Chess Records sent James to record at Alabama’s Fame Studios in 1968. James would emerge from the studio with the Top 10 R&B hit “Tell Mama,” which would later become a staple for Joplin. Listen to Etta doing “Tell Mama” above then check out Janis doing the song at the top of the article.

Aretha Franklin

The incomparable Aretha Franklin. Believe it or not, that is a complete sentence. Aretha and Janis were born the same year, but like James, Aretha got her start early singing in church. Janis notes their seeming age gap and her deep admiration for Aretha in in a letter she sent home in 1968. “Thanks for the article on Aretha, she is by far & away the best thing in music right now. (Although, a review in Rolling Stone, a national rock & roll newspaper, called me 'possibly the best female voice of her generation'. But I suppose she & I are of different generations.)" The letter shows how Janis looked up to Aretha as well as the deep respect Janis had for The Queen of Soul, a respect she had for all of her many influences.