The mythology that surrounds Janis Joplin is one of the headiest in rock history. There’s her mane of red hair and feathers, ribbons and jewels; her bell-bottom jeans and round glasses. Her name seems synonymous with rock star drug and alcohol abuse, and her appetite for Southern Comfort is legendary. In the annals of 1960s counterculture, she’s part of the great trifecta — Janis, Jimi and Jim — who died long before their time, all at the weirdly coincidental age of 27.
But it’s her voice that’s truly immortal; that unique instrument that could unleash a wild, soulful scream as well as an intimate whisper, combining a blues yell with a jazz singer’s inflection, wrapped up in rock ‘n’ roll. It reflected huge personal pain as much as it did happiness and it influences countless vocalists, right up to the present day.
Liberty resident Carlene Thornton gets that. For years she’s been singing songs from Joplin and other big-voiced female vocalists at karaoke nights all over Waldo County. That’s why Aynne Ames of the Belfast Maskers Theater Company singled her out when she decided she wanted to do a theatrical staging of Joplin’s life, featuring her music. “Piece of My Heart,” featuring a band of local musicians and Thornton in full Janis Joplin mode, will be performed for one night only at 7 p.m. Friday at the American Legion Hall in Belfast.
Thornton, by day a corrections officer at the Waldo County Jail, has been singing all her life. The 50-year-old has been a guest singer now and again with a handful of local Belfast bands. Aside from that, though, her singing career has mainly revolved around karaoke, at the now-defunct Club 132 in Belfast and now at Rollies in Searsport.
“I’m a karaoke queen. Way back in the 70s I sang with bands, but I’m an old lady now,” said Thornton, with a laugh. “I just love singing. Always have.”
Thornton’s reputation as a vocalist grew, based on the strength of her karaoke interpretations of songs from Joplin, Joss Stone, Heart and Melissa Etheridge. One day she walked into her workplace and discovered a note from Ames of the Belfast Maskers waiting for her.
“There, with this little note saying, ‘Call this lady. It’s about singing,’” said Thornton. “I was like, ‘What is that about?’”
Ames wanted Thornton to play Joplin in “Love, Janis,” a musical based on Joplin’s life that has been produced by companies all over the country since the late 1990s. The rights for “Love, Janis” weren’t available for this year, however, so in lieu of that particular show, Ames got the rights to her songs and put together her own show. Belfast area writer Neal Harkness wrote short spoken word pieces to tie the songs together, and longtime Maskers actor and volunteer Erik Perkins will narrate.
They then went about assembling a crack band that could be both Big Brother and the Holding Company and Joplin’s various backing bands. Drummer Jason Dean, guitarist Ian Maddocks, keyboard player Tom Luther and bassist Phil Kaiser filled those big shoes perfectly. All four members play in a variety of groups; both Dean and Maddocks perform in the Belfast rock band the 220s; Luther performs with jazz group Luna Madidas and Kaiser plays with Deja Blues, a blues group.
“They’re just awesome. We’re having so much fun playing together,” said Thornton.
Thornton is getting more into character with each rehearsal. Joplin’s sensitive but huge personality is part and parcel with her musical career. Joplin put all of herself into every performance she gave.
“I’m trying to get into it like she did,” said Thornton. “She always gave it her all. She had such a passion. She changed music for women. She was so strong and she laid it all out, all her feelings. I’ve never seen anyone hurt like she did. She was incredible. I’m trying to do that, just without all the Southern Comfort and heroin.”
When Thornton and company take the stage this evening, they’ll play all the hits — “Me and Bobby McGee,” “Ball and Chain,” “Summertime” and, of course, “Piece of My Heart.” If this show goes well, they hope to reprise it on the Belfast Waterfront later this summer.
“I can’t stand it. I’m so excited. I can’t wait,” said Thornton. “I’m so ready to perform. I’m nervous, but excited.”
Tickets for “Piece of My Heart” are $10 and are available at Yo Mamma’s Home, 96 Main St. in Belfast, by calling 338-9668, or at the Legion Hall one hour before the show. Other Belfast Maskers tickets for this summer’s shows, including “Picnic,” opening July 1, and Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Cinderella,” opening July 22, also are available. For information, visit www.belfastmaskers.com.