James Gurley: Guitarist foil to Janis Joplin in Big Brother and the Holding Company
Monday 08 March 2010
Best remembered for the two albums they made featuring Janis Joplin in the late 1960s, Big Brother & the Holding Company were one of the great psychedelic groups from San Francisco, alongside the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Moby Grape and Quicksilver Messenger Service. Their lead guitarist, James Gurley, was Joplin's foil, his wild playing an ideal if shortlived match for her bluesy, soulful vocals. Joplin left the group in December 1968, a few months after the release of Cheap Thrills, their No 1 album containing the hit single "Piece Of My Heart" as well as tour de force versions of "Summertime" and "Ball And Chain", featuring blistering solos by Gurley. Big Brother soldiered on for two more albums but never recaptured the magic of their Joplin-fronted concerts and recordings.
Born in Detroit, Michigan in 1939, Gurley had a colourful childhood, occasionally helping his father perform car stunts which involved him being driven through flames while sitting on top of a car hood with only a helmet for protection. The young James lost two front teeth and had his hair singed a few times, though the act drew appreciative crowds rather than the intervention of social workers. At the end of the 1950s he took up the guitar and started playing along to blues records by Lightnin' Hopkins. Gurley, who became known as the Father of the Psychedelic Guitar, was self-taught and favoured finger-picks rather than a plectrum, while his jazzy, experimental, "screaming" sound owed a huge debt to John Coltrane. "I heard a lone saxophone raging like a madman and that's what developed my style," he said. "Play it like crazy."
After moving to San Francisco in 1962 he began performing in coffee houses, either solo or with the electifried banjo-player J.P. Pickens. This brought Gurley to the attention of a local promoter, Chet Helms, who in turn introduced him to the bassist Peter Albin and the guitarist Sam Andrew in the summer of 1965.
With the addition of drummer David Getz, they formed Big Brother & the Holding Company and built a local following with their free-flowing, mostly instrumental sets. Helms felt they needed to add a vocalist and remembered hearing Joplin in Texas a couple of years before. She joined in June 1966 and grew into a charismatic frontwoman – after, Gurley claimed, the group "transformed her. We put her on steroids – blues on steroids."
Joplin and Gurley embarked on a brief affair which ended when his wife showed up at the singer's apartment with their son. The band recorded their eponymous debut for the Chicago independent Mainstream Records, though they came of age at the Monterey Pop Festival in June 1967, where they appeared on the Saturday and again on the Sunday so they could be filmed for D.A. Pennebaker's documentary of the event.
They signed to Columbia and made Cheap Thrills but Joplin soon embarked on a solo career masterminded by Bob Dylan's manager, Albert Grossman, and became an icon of the counterculture movement before dying in October 1970. Recruiting David Schallock and Nick Gravenites to bolster the ranks, the group struggled on through the albums Be A Brother (1970) and How Hard It Is (1971) and broke up in 1972.
Gurley's first wife, Nancy, died of a heroin overdose in 1970 and he was charged with murder for injecting the drugs into her, eventually receiving a probational sentence. He remarried and later played bass in Red Robin and the Worms, a new wave band featuring his son Hongo on drums. In 1987 the four founder-members of Big Brother reunited, though Gurley left in 1996 when the others decided to recruit a new female singer. He issued two solo albums, Pipe Dreams and St. James – his nickname after the four years he spent studying to be a priest at the Catholic Brothers of the Holy Cross school in Detroit, and the reason the underground artist Robert Crumb depicted him with a halo on the cover of Cheap Thrills.
James Gurley, guitarist and songwriter: born Detroit, Michigan 22 December 1939; twice married (two sons); died Palm Desert, California 20 December 2009.
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