When Janis Joplin Rocked Forest Park
Remembering the Legend’s Free Forest Park Concert in August 1968
Music has been part of Forest Park for more than 140 years.
One of the first structures built in the Park was a music pavilion near the location of the bandstand in today’s Pagoda Circle. Visitors enjoyed a concert to test the wooden structure’s acoustics two weeks before Forest Park’s opening day in June 1876.
Music played an integral role during the 1904 World’s Fair, with a daily concert being performed on a massive pipe organ in Festival Hall on Art Hill while popular music of all types filled the World’s Fair streets.
Moreover, fifteen years later, the St. Louis Municipal Opera Theatre (commonly known as The Muny) was born, starting a legacy of musical theatre in Forest Park people enjoy to this day.
However, on August 10, 1968, a singer named Janis Joplin rocked the Park like it had never been rocked before — and she did it for free.
Charles Beard and Skip Goez were among the 300 or so young people who attended the historic show, held at the World’s Fair Pavilion. The two Webster High School students met Joplin briefly the night before.
Beard recalls that she played at Kiel Opera House the evening of August 9. Before the show, he and Goez snuck backstage and found their way to the legendary singer’s “dressing room.”
“There she was — just sitting there alone. No bodyguards, no security. Just Janis,” Beard says.
“Hey, honey, go get me some cigarettes,” she said to Goez.
Goez went in search of a cigarette machine, leaving Beard with Joplin, who was sitting on a wooden nail keg.
“There I was, a 16-year-old teenybopper with Janis Joplin,” Beard recalls. “I didn’t know what to say, so we just shared a few quiet moments until Skip got back with a pack of filtered Winston Cigarettes.”
“She was very approachable — just this woman sitting on a nail keg,” Goez says. “Being 17 at the time, she just seemed older to me, like this elder statesman there to play music. Finally, she said, ‘OK, I gotta go,’ and went out toward the stage. I kept the nail keg.”
Despite that breathtaking encounter, Joplin delivered “a very unnoteworthy performance,” in Beard’s view.
“It was nothing to write home about,” he says. “Kiel was more staid and restricted than the places she was used to performing, like The Fillmore in San Francisco. But we had our ears to the ground after that show, because we suspected it wasn’t all we were going to get from Janis. Something like a free concert was almost to be expected.”
Sure enough, the next day word spread that Joplin and her band, Big Brother and the Holding Company, would be performing at the World’s Fair Pavilion.
“It was a cold, rainy Sunday,” Goez says. “Charlie and I went there as quickly as we could and got right up in front of the stage. I had brought her a pint bottle of Southern Comfort, and when Janis got to the mic, I handed it to her. She said, ‘Hey, I remember you!’”
“I felt very fortunate to be there,” Beard says. “I was just an arm’s reach away from her throughout her performance. Most of the crowd was under the Pavilion, though it did spill out a little bit. It’s something I will always remember.”
For Beard, one of the show’s highlights was Joplin’s rendition of “Piece of My Heart,” from the album Cheap Thrills. The album was released two days after the Forest Park concert.
“That music was fresh, and it blew me away — especially the part of the song where she screams, ‘Take it!’” Beard says. “At that point, Sam Andrew, the guitarist, slid his fingers up the fretboard, three feet in front of me. Goosebumps went up the back of my neck. It was unforgettable.”
Peter Albin, one of the founding members of Big Brother and the Holding Company, doesn’t recall the Forest Park show specifically — it was just one of many for the young band — but he does remember that summer as a critical period in the band’s history.
“We formed in 1965, and Janis joined us in June of 1966,” he says. “We did some recording in Chicago that fall and more in Los Angeles later. Our self-titled first album was released after we played at the Monterey Pop Festival in June of 1967.”
In March 1968, Joplin and the group started recording Cheap Thrills, their second album for Columbia Records and Big Brother’s last featuring Janis Joplin on vocals. The album sold more than a million copies, but Joplin announced she would be leaving the group less than a month after the Forest Park concert.
“Initially, Janis was very funny and easy to get along with, but things changed somewhat after we started getting more notoriety,” Albin says.
It was a critical time for St. Louis and Forest Park, too. Photos from the concert show kids of different races enjoying the music together.
“That’s the nature of the Park — it’s a park for everyone,” Beard explains. “The kids heard something was going on, and they just came out for the joy of the music.”
Beard moved to Ladue sometime after the concert and graduated from Ladue High School. Janis Joplin died on October 4, 1970 — his 19th birthday.
While Beard pursued a career as a computer programmer, he never lost his love of music. Twenty-five years ago, he moved to Austin, Texas, partly for its culture and music scene.
For Goez, music became a career. Today, he owns Goez Instrument Repair in Maplewood.
“It was an entirely different experience from any concert I’d been to before or since,” Beard says. “All of those people, on their feet and dancing in the World’s Fair Pavilion, for free, with Janis Joplin and Big Brother and the Holding Company. It was just great!”
*Photo credit Jim Solomon