Shortly before she died, rock legend Janis Joplin played her last concert in the Chicago area 50 years ago at the Ravinia Festival in Highland Park — with the place crawling with police and the FBI monitoring things.
Authorities were worried there would be violence at the Aug. 5, 1970, show, according to her FBI file, now part of the Chicago Sun-Times’ “The FBI Files” database.
The concert featuring Joplin and her band, The Full Tilt Boogie Band, was reminiscent of recent Lollapalooza festivals. Fans stormed the venue, knocking down fences and climbing trees to get in for free. About 18,000 people attended.
Days before, Sly and the Family Stone was scheduled to perform a free concert at Grant Park to make up for recent last-minute no-shows in Chicago. Waiting for the band to appear, people in the crowd grew agitated and threw rocks and bottles at the empty stage, damaged the venue and left some police officers injured.
After that, a “reliable source” passed along “unconfirmed reports” that people might try to “disrupt” Joplin’s concert and “cause violence,” possibly including some of the same people who started the trouble in Grant Park, according to the FBI records.
Joplin — who once had been charged with obscenity after yelling at police officers trying to control her audience at a concert in Tampa, Florida — was escorted into Ravinia through a back entrance so she wouldn’t see the heavy police presence, according to an Aug. 6, 1970, Sun-Times report.
The Ravinia appearance was one of the last concerts by Joplin, who was among the performers at Woodstock and was best known for the songs “Me and Bobby McGee” and “Piece of My Heart.”
She died two months later from what was found to have been an accidental heroin overdose.
David Dolkart of Winnetka says he and a friend from high school saw her at Ravinia, getting in for free because the fences had been knocked down.
“We saw all the policemen there, and they were from I don’t know how many different suburbs,” says Dolkart, now 69.
Still, Dolkart says, “It was really peaceful. Even though the fences were trampled over, and there were a lot of people there, everyone was behaving themselves.”
Told that the FBI had Joplin’s show on its radar, her brother Michael Joplin, 67, says: “I think it’s cool that the FBI was up to check her out for that. She was pretty damn cool for an older sister.”
The opening act that night was Mason Proffit, a country-rock band led by brothers Terry Talbot and John Michael Talbot. They didn’t notice the huge police presence and say the show was “pretty mellow.”
“I remember it being a beautiful venue,” says John Michael Talbot, 66. “I thought, well, rock ’n’ roll is a little rough for this venue.”
The brothers remember hanging out with Joplin backstage and during soundchecks.
“The impression I had of Janis was that she was a lot more like the girl next door than the rowdy biker mama that her publicity portrayed,” says Terry Talbot, 72.
He says that after Mason Proffit’s soundcheck, Joplin stopped him while coming offstage. She had a bottle of Southern Comfort and Dixie cups and offered him a drink, he remembers.
John Michael Talbot says Joplin hung out in Mason Proffit’s dressing room that night and that “what I remember about Janis was that she was very much just one of the band. She didn’t come off like a star, at least with us.”
While the band was performing, Terry Talbot says Joplin sat about 10 feet in front of him, crosslegged on the stage, wearing a pair of jeans, a gray sweatshirt and Birkenstocks, with her hair in a bun — probably unrecognizable to the crowd.
After its performance, Mason Proffit went backstage before its encore. Terry Talbot says she told them she needed to put on her “Janis clothes” for her set and headed to her dressing room.
“We went back out and did a 15-minute encore, and we came off the stage, and there she was with her, you know, the boa, the sequins and the shoes and the hat and the sunglasses and all that Janis stuff that she wore,” Terry Talbot says.
He says the “sad side” of that night was that the band had to head off for another show and couldn’t stick around after its set.
When she heard that, he says, “She folded her hands, put her hands on my chest and looked up at me and said, ‘You’re not gonna hear me sing.’ I said, ‘I’ll tell you what, maybe next time.’ We exchanged phone numbers. And two months later, she was gone.”