GREENSBORO — It’s hard to believe that Jan. 19 would have marked Janis Joplin’s 77th birthday, had the legendary rock and blues singer lived that long.
Joplin died on Oct. 4, 1970, from an accidental heroin overdose at age 27, stilling the voice and the stage presence of one of the most successful rock stars of her era.
This weekend, two local events will mark the anniversary of Joplin’s birth.
At 7 p.m. Saturday, well-known rock biographer Holly George-Warren will discuss her recently-released book, “Janis: Her Life and Music,” at Scuppernong Books, 304 S. Elm St.
George-Warren is a two-time Grammy nominee and the award-winning author of 16 books. They include the New York Times bestseller, “The Road to Woodstock” (with Michael Lang) and 2014’s “A Man Called Destruction: The Life and Music of Alex Chilton, From Box Tops to Big Star to Backdoor Man.”
She will be joined by tribute artist “Pearl,” who will sing a handful of Joplin hits.
Then on Sunday, Pearl & the Charlotte Holding Company will perform a concert of songs from Joplin’s short but immensely influential career.
“Pearl” is known on the local arts scene for another role.
The longtime Joplin tribute artist is Travis Laughlin. Laughlin serves as interim executive director at Elsewhere, the former thrift store turned living museum and artist residency at 606 S. Elm St.
“I never thought this would be a thing I did outside of my bedroom,” Laughlin said about his tribute performances.
Yet he has donned a wig, bangles and ‘60s clothing and performed as Pearl for nearly 25 years, paying homage to Joplin’s life and music.
Her hits included cover versions of “Me and Bobby McGee,” “Piece of My Heart,” “Cry Baby,” “Down on Me,” “Ball and Chain” and “Summertime,” and her original song “Mercedes Benz.”
“I have had numerous people who saw her in concert come up to me and say, ‘I’ve never seen anyone bring her to life like that,’” Laughlin said. “’I’ve never heard anyone or seen anyone do Janis in a way that did her justice or felt like it was really spot on.’”
The Charlotte Holding Company takes its name inspiration from Big Brother and the Holding Company, the band Joplin joined when she moved to San Francisco in June of 1966.
The core band consists of Jason Atkins (organist at Charlotte Checkers Hockey Club, Greazy Keyz), Brent Dunn (The Alternative Champs) on bass, Darrin Gray (It’s Snakes, The Eyebrows, The Chalkies, Snagglepuss) on drums, and Jay Garrigan (The Eyebrows, Poprocket, Violet Strange, Laburnum) on lead guitar.
At Sunday’s performance, local musician Kate Tobey will open for Pearl & the Charlotte Holding Company.
A native of Ossipee in Alamance County, Laughlin, now 46, spent 18 years in New York City. A former high school history teacher, he amassed credentials in arts administration before returning to North Carolina.
He came to Elsewhere a year ago from the Joan Mitchell Foundation in New York City. He had served there in director-level positions since 2008, most recently as senior program director.
Laughlin discovered Joplin in his early teens.
He had been digging through his parents’ record collection, searching mostly for Dolly Parton records.
He stumbled upon Joplin’s final studio album, “Pearl.” Her fourth album, it was released three months after her death.
“I was intrigued and probably a little freaked out by this person on a couch, with feathers in her hair,” he recalled.
Not long after, his half-brother, Ty, was killed in an auto accident in Greensboro. At the funeral, his friends talked about music that he liked, including Joplin’s.
“I just started listening to Janis as a way to remember Ty and try to connect with him,” Laughlin said.
He won second place in his high school talent contest, dressed as and lip-syncing to Joplin.
“It was very evident early on that I was really deeply connected with Janis and really wanted to understand her and her music,” Laughlin said.
But it wasn’t until the 1990s that the concept of being a Joplin tribute artist took hold, as Laughlin performed with the Charlotte sketch comedy group The Perch.
“We were putting together a show and needed another skit, and I happened to say, ‘I can kind of sing like Janis Joplin,’” Laughlin said.
A tribute artist was born.
He researched his character through biographies. He performed in various venues in Charlotte and New York City, in the Miss Fire Island Pageant and at the Wayne Newton Theater in Las Vegas.
In 2018, he performed at Elsewhere’s annual Extravaganza. Then in January 2019, he became interim executive director there, upon the departure of co-founder George Scheer from the post.
“Some staff people said, ‘Pearl is going to be our boss?’” Laughlin said. “It seemed very Elsewhere-ian, though.”
His interim directorship will last until the end of January. A new director has been hired, but the person’s name likely won’t be announced until February.
Laughlin already has read George-Warren’s book on Joplin.
“It’s incredibly well written and incredibly well researched,” he said. “I am super-excited that she is coming to speak.”