Janis Joplin's stand-in reaches the big time
NEW YORK -- I am sitting in a backstairs basement stairwell on the premises of a now defunct but sacred hip cultural venue called the Village Gate. I'm talking to a nervously laughing, long-haired Chicagoan named Cathy Richardson about what it's like to be the late Janis Joplin.
You may recall a popular stage show about Joplin called "Love, Janis" that played Chicago's Royal George Theatre in the summer of '99. Covering the last four years of Joplin's brief but incandescent life, the production had dramatic actress Catherine Curtin portraying Janis by reading her often heart-rending letters home, while Cathy Richardson and Andra Mitrovich traded off in the singing role because the high-explosive 18 musical numbers were so exhausting to perform.
Well, the show is opening here this week with Cathy, Catherine and Andra in what even Chicago musical performers will concede is the Very Big Time.
"I thought, if it ever came to New York, I would want to go with it," says Richardson. "It's taken a couple of years, but we're here!"
The Cathy Richardson Band works as many as 150 gigs a year, playing mostly Chicago-area joints along the lines of Jimmy's on Sheffield Avenue and the Cubby Bear North on Milwaukee.
Though the space is now called The Village Theatre, the Village Gate was where Bob Dylan and Joan Baez first came to prominence--a cultural landmark in every sense of the term. And it's being reopened just for this show.
"One of the things about Chicago that's pretty cool is that you can actually make a living playing in the clubs," Richardson says. "And I also have a pretty successful career singing at recording sessions in Chicago. But, coming to New York, I'll have this great showcase, and get some exposure before some of those big record companies. They can put me out on the road."
From 1966 on, Joplin more or less lived on the road--and died there, in a Los Angeles hotel, in 1970, at age 27.
Richardson has always been a fan, but since she started "Love, Janis," she has come to identify herself with Joplin intensely.
"I relate to Janis in so many ways," she says. "How she felt--like many teenagers do growing up--a little like an outcast. A little different. And how she kind of found a home on stage, getting that love and acceptance from people. I experienced that growing up. I was lonely. People teased me, and made fun of me. I definitely used music to get people to like me, to try to make friends. I was pretty much born to do this."
Richardson grew up in west suburban Burr Ridge. Her father operated a gas station and she helped out.
"I used to pump gas," she says. "I used to drive the tow truck. I used to be a mechanic for all intents and purposes."
She now has a house in Elmhurst and no longer pumps gas.
"Chicago will always be my home," she says. "It's been my goal to be an internationally famous rock star for some time, so I hope I'll live around the world in my life, but my family's in Chicago. I'm not putting my house on the market."
At the moment, Richardson is living in a sublet apartment in the East Village. If "Love, Janis" clicks, she'll look for something more permanent.
The show's been wandering around the heartland a bit--Chicago, Cleveland, Denver. Last summer, it played the Bay Street Theatre in Sag Harbor, N.Y., out by the fabled Hamptons.
"Most of the audience were seniors," says Richardson, "and they loved it. You wouldn't believe it but at the end of every show, we got a standing ovation. People think that Janis was this tragic figure, a space-out hippie. But she was a really talented person and she was very real, very human. I think everybody can relate to her in some way now. I hope that young people come to the show here. The music today is so corporate and so pre-fabbed."
She says she really isn't too concerned about the always intimidating New York critics, and what they'll have to say about the show.
"I'm not really," she says. "I haven't really thought about it. I'm a singer, and I'm here to sing. I just hope it will be appreciated."
She returns to the stage to do a number. I grew up in the 1940s and 1950s, and never had much interest in rock, which I thought soundly mostly like something going terribly wrong with a amplifier. Pop music to me was Peggy Lee, Louis Armstrong, the Kingston Trio, Frank Sinatra.
But I stand there raptly, as Richardson throws every inch and pound and breath of herself into her number. The effect on me is just as uplifting, electrifying and overpowering as a space launch.
I tell Richardson I'm glad she switched jobs from driving a tow truck.
"Me, too," she says.
© 2001 Chicago Tribune
© Cash Rich Records