Developing a love for music at an early age, I sang in my church choir as a child and showed some promise as a performer. I was an only child until the age of 6 when my sister Laura was born. Four years later, my brother Michael arrived. I was a good student and fairly popular until around the age of 14 when some side effects of puberty started to kick in. I got acne and gained some weight.
At Thomas Jefferson High School, I started to rebel. My friends and I eschewed the popular girls' fashions of the late 1950s, often choosing to wear men's shirts and tights or short skirts. While I liked to stand out from the crowd, I also found myself the target of some teasing and a popular subject in the school's rumor mill. I was called a "pig" by some while others said that I was sexually promiscuous.
I eventually developed a group of guy friends who shared the same interest in music and the Beat Generation as me, which rejected the standard norms and emphasized creative expression.
Musically, my friends and I gravitated toward blues and jazz music, admiring such artists as Leadbelly. I also was inspired by legendary blues vocalists Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey and Odetta, an early leading figure in the folk music movement. The group also frequented local working-class bars in the nearby Louisiana of Vinton. By my senior year of high school, I had developed a persona of sorts — a ballsy, tough-talking girl who like to drink and be outrageous.
After graduating high school, I enrolled at Lamar State College of Technology in the neighboring town of Beaumont. There I spent more time hanging out and drinking than on my studies. At the end of the semester, I left school. I took some secretarial courses at Port Arthur College and moved to Los Angeles in the summer of 1961. This first effort to break away from home failed, and I returned to Port Arthur and my studies at Lamar for a time.
In 1962, I left again to study at the University of Texas at Austin. There I started performing at folk sings — casual musical gatherings where anyone can perform — on campus and at a local club with the Waller Creek Boys, a musical trio I was friends with. With my forceful, gutsy singing style, I amazed many audience members. In January 1963, I ditched school to check out the emerging music scene in San Francisco with my friend Chet Helms.
During this first stint in San Francisco, I struggled to make it as a singer. I played some gigs — even a side stage at the 1963 Monterey Folk Festival — but my career never really got off the ground. I went to New York City for a time, hoping to have better luck there, but my drinking and drug use got in the way. I eventually developed a nasty speed habit and left San Francisco to return home in 1965 to get myself together again.
Terrified from my ordeal, I took a break from my music and hard partying lifestyle. I dressed conservatively, put my long, often messy hair into a bun, and did everything else I could to appear straight-laced. But the conventional life was not for me, and my desire to pursue my musical dreams could not stay submerged for long. I slowly returned to performing and was recruited by friend Travis Rivers to join a San Francisco psychedelic rock band called Big Brother and the Holding Company, which was managed by another longtime friend Chet Helms at the time.
In 1966, I returned to San Francisco