Strong Women: The Women Who Influenced Janis Joplin Part One

By Allie Moss

During A.C.T.’s 50th-anniversary season, strong women are navigating their way through traditionally male-oriented spaces. In A Night with Janis Joplin, running through July 9 at The Geary Theater, legendary singer Janis Joplin is joined onstage by five women who inspired her iconic voice: Bessie Smith, Odetta, Nina Simone, Etta James, and Aretha Franklin. Here is a look at the first three.

Bessie Smith in 1936.
Photo by Carl Van Vechten. 
Courtesy Library of Congress.
Bessie Smith’s (1894–1937) distinctive throaty and full-bodied voice, knack for improvisation, and penchant for unexpected rhythms stand out as a clear precursor to the work of Billie Holiday, Aretha Franklin, and Janis Joplin. Joplin was so inspired by Smith that in 1970, she had a headstone made for Smith’s unmarked grave which reads “The Greatest Blues Singer in the World Will Never Stop Singing.”

Odetta, 1961.
Photo by Jac de Nijs. 
Courtesy Wikimedia Commons. 
Janis Joplin first realized she could sing after expertly belting out a song by folk singer Odetta (1930–2008). Odetta studied opera and performed in the touring productions of Finian's Rainbow (1949) and Guys and Dolls (1950) before being introduced to folk music while on tour in San Francisco. She never looked back. Odetta’s most famous songs include “Down on Me,” “I’m On My Way,” and “Oh, Freedom.”

Nina Simone.
Photo by Ron Kroon. 
Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
Nina Simone (1933–2003) studied at Juilliard before becoming one of the voices of the Civil Rights movement. Her rasping high notes, gravelly low notes, and unstable pitch and timbre challenged industry ideas about how a female pop singer—especially a black female singer—should sound. She is remembered for her song “Mississippi Goddam,” which she wrote in reaction to the assassination of Medgar Evers in 1963 and the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing later that year.

A Night with Janis Joplin runs through July 9 at The Geary Theater. Click here to purchase tickets through our website. Want to learn more about these five incredible women? Click here to purchase Words on Plays, A.C.T.’s in-depth performance guide series.

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