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How Janis Joplin was arrested in Tampa 50 years ago

Police let Joplin finish her set at Curtis Hixon Hall before arresting the singer in her dressing room.
Left: Janis Joplin performs (AP Photo). Right: Joplin's booking photo (Courtesy of Tampa History Center). [Tampa Bay Times]
Published Nov. 14
Updated Nov. 14

Curtis Hixon Hall saw a number of iconic musicians perform over the years, from Bob Dylan and Jimi Hendrix to Led Zeppelin and David Bowie. But one of the most notorious visits happened 50 years ago Saturday, when Janis Joplin was arrested.

The singer arrived at the venue on Sunday, Nov. 16, 1969. She played seven songs. Then police took her away in handcuffs.

Janis Joplin's booking photo after her 1969 arrest in downtown Tampa. She was booked after her performance at Curtis Hixon Hall, a music venue that was located at 600 Ashley Drive from 1965 to 1993. [COURTESY: TAMPA BAY HISTORY CENTER. | Tampa Tribune]

Joplin, then 26, took the stage after show opener B.B. King. Tickets to the show had ranged from $4 to $6.

The roughly 3,500-person crowd rushed forward as Joplin launched into a slow rendition of Summertime. About 500 young fans crammed into the aisles for a better view, while those with seats danced on top of their chairs.

Police, fearing a fire hazard, tried to guide people back to their seats and away from the stage. Officers claimed the Curtis Hixon Hall manager had even threatened to shut the set down if the aisles weren’t cleared.

Joplin, who later said she had been “trying to build up a sensuous mood,” grew furious after officers starting shouting at her fans mid-song.

“Don’t f--- with those people,” she yelled at them in her microphone.

That was enough for Tampa police Sgt. Ed Williams to get a warrant for her arrest. His reason? Joplin’s “vulgar and indecent language.”

But Joplin wasn’t done yet. Another officer, Detective L. F. Napoli, screamed at fans with a bullhorn while she sang. Joplin swore more, this time directly at the detective. This resulted in a second indecent language charge.

“Hey mister, why are you so uptight?" she asked at one point. “Did you buy a five dollar ticket?”

There were no incidents of violence documented at the concert. According to Tribune writer Bob Fiallo, only one person was injured that night: “an exuberant fan” who accidentally broke his leg trying to leap over a hedge after the show and fell from the second level of the parking garage onto the first floor ramp. Still, police took great offense at Joplin’s words.

“Miss Joplin had quite a variety of spicy, inappropriate, but crowd-pleasing unquotables,” Fiallo wrote.

She was able to finish her set before heading backstage. Then, Williams arrested her in her dressing room for two counts of using indecent language. A little after midnight, he took her to the Tampa jail.

“It was a case where we were trying to do our job and she began bad-mouthing the police,” said the arresting officer, according to Times archives. “Bad-mouthing is one thing, but we were forced to make the arrest when she began using indecent, actually vulgar, language.”

An hour after being booked, Joplin posted $504 bond. She emerged from the city jail in a fur jacket and fur hat and left Tampa later that day.

She later told reporters she would be “willing to do it again" if it meant being able to express herself.

“I’ve played just about everywhere in the country and this is the first time I’ve ever been arrested,” she said days after the show. “I say anything I want on stage.”

The Tampa Tribune Metropolitan section from the Nov. 18, 1969 issue. [Tampa Bay Times]

Joplin told reporters she spent the time between her arrest and the preliminary hearing fishing south of Tampa. She showed up at Municipal Court in Tampa on Nov. 20.

“Old people are running scared,” she said. “They’re going to lose their kids and they’re trying to get their kids back to them. All the people telling kids what to do, what to wear, where to go ... that’s not going to help. It just makes us (entertainers) more attractive.”

Rock singer Janis Joplin, 26, shows a victory sign as she leaves police headquarters with her attorney, Herbert Goldburg, in Tampa, Fla., in November 1969. [ASSOCIATED PRESS]

Tampa Mayor Dick Greco, meanwhile, spoke out in support of law enforcement.

“There are some things we ought to remain old-fashioned about," he said to reporters at the time. "Whenever it’s clearly and absolutely wrong, we have to do something about it.”

Joplin later said it was “strange that they had to drag out the mayor to justify the arrest.”

The trial was delayed multiple times. When Joplin’s municipal court date finally arrived in March 1970, she didn’t show up.

Janis Joplin in 1970. [ANONYMOUS | Associated Press]

Joplin was found guilty and fined $200 and the court cost. The judge called her conduct “very reprehensible.”

Less than a year after her Tampa visit, Joplin died of a drug overdose on Oct. 4, 1970, in a Hollywood hotel. She was 27.

Information from Times archives was used in this story.

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