Sunday, December 20, 2009

Guitarist James Gurley, Formerly Of 60's San Francisco Acid Rockers Big Brother And The Holding Company Passes Away Aged 69

James Gurley, former guitarist of Big Brother and the Holding Company, the psychedelic blues acid rock band from San Francisco who assisted Janis Joplin on her meteoric rise to fame in the late 60's has passed away from a heart attack December 20th at the age of 69. He was two days shy of his 70th birthday.

Born in Detroit, Michigan on December 22, 1939, Gurley took up the guitar at the age of nineteen, practicing long hours listening to blues, particularly fond of bluesman Lightnin' Hopkins. In 1962, he moved to San Francisco and became part of the coffee-house circuit, playing in the folk and country blues tradition.

In the summer of 1965, legendary promoter Chet Helms brought James to 1090 Page Street to meet Peter Albin and Sam Andrew of Big Brother and the Holding Company, and shortly thereafter, he joined the band. In June of 1966, Joplin joined the band, and shortly thereafter she and Gurley began a short lived affair.

At the end of 1966, Big Brother signed a contract with Mainstream Records, with their debut album, 'Big Brother & the Holding Company' released the following year. Initially not garnering much national attention, following the band's historic performance at the Monterey Pop Festival in June 1967, it finally debuted on Billboard's album charts in September, peaking at #43.

Signing with Columbia Records in November 1967, the resulting album 'Cheap Thrills' , released in the summer of 1968, one year after their debut album reached number one on the Billboard charts in its eighth week in October. It held the number one spot for eight (nonconsecutive) weeks. Considered one of the masterpieces of the psychedelic sound of San Francisco, it was ranked number 338 in Rolling Stone's 500 greatest albums of all time.

At the end of the summer of 1968, just after appearing at the Palace of Fine Arts Festival in San Francisco, Joplin announced that she was leaving Big Brother in the fall of that year. After breaking up, the band got back together in the fall of 1969, with Kathi McDonald and Nick Gravenites on lead vocals, albeit with Gurley on bass, not guitar. After releasing two more studio albums the band called it a day in 1972.

Reuniting in 1987, Gurley left the band in 1996 due to not supporting his colleagues idea to hire a female singer to replace Joplin, and to concentrate on solo projects. An album 'Pipe Dreams' was released in January 2000.


beachdog67 said...

Former BBHC bandmate Sam Andrew posted the following remembrance on line this afternoon:

James Gurley died of a heart attack today 20 December 2009 in a hospital in Palm Springs, California.

I wrote about him just this last week that at The Maritime Hall in San Francisco, sixteen years ago, he played such great solos at our benefit for Chet Helms. He was on fire that night, and we have that on video tape so... there will be no doubt about it. When conditions were right, the man could really play.

James was the most unusual person I ever met, a pioneer, a real original, a very funny man and truly alive with an energy that not many people have. When James was around, life seemed to be magnified. Everything was more interesting, had more meaning, was more vital. He kept that energy right up to now, really. He and I did a set of interviews together in San Diego at the beginning of last summer and he was as wry and spry as ever.

When Big Brother lived at our Lagunitas house a few miles from where I am sitting, we all had our first Christmas together, was it 1967? We both had birthdays right around this time and James handed me a small present and growled, “Let’s put the X back in X-mas.” It was a bah, humbug moment that I know he would truly appreciate now. James has gone to the great X two days shy of his birthday, and two days after mine.

For me and for many people, James was the real 1960s, the real exemplar of that counterculture, the forerunner. Peter Albin, Chet Helms, and I founded Big Brother and the Holding Company, but James was the spirit and the essence of the band in its early days. He showed us the way as a Zen master would show the way, without sermons, without lectures, with as little talk but with as much humor as possible.

When I met James in 1965, he was going to die in two weeks. Of pleurisy. It was always something. James was such a hypochondriac that I was sure he was going to outlive all of us. Now he is gone.

Goodbye, old friend. Ave atque Vale.

Sam Andrew
Big Brother and the Holding Company

beachdog67 said...

These comments were posted by Barry Melton, former lead guitarist for Country Joe and the Fish:

Today is another sad day in what's turned out to be a pretty devastating year. I learned just about an hour ago of the death of James Gurley this afternoon. James was, of course, the lead guitarist with Big Brother and the Holding Company. I believe James Gurley was the Yuri Gagarin of rock & roll -- the first man space! There was only handful of us that created our mini-genre of psychedelic guitar, and James was the avitar who blazed the path for the rest of us. Go in peace, James...

sheila jones said...

last time i saw james was at peter albins house in sonoma county. peter was moving out and james was helping him. he had his long beautiful hair and his military sargent peppers jacket on. he was kind quiet and beautiful. it is a loss and i feel like all of us were there and here just now and yesterday. he will live on thru his music. many great times together in new york city in 1967 from sheila darla the group image band

SanFranciscoStories said...

James was the oldest member of Big Brother. He was eight years my senior in 1968 when I became his young East Coast agent at 20. I remember admiring him greatly. I thought he was very wise and one of the few musicians I worked for at the time who was always polite, calm and even tempered.

I remember one very sad afternoon when my boss at the agency (APA) David Baumgarten informed me that Janis was leaving Big Brother. I left the office, jumped in a cab and drove directly to the Chelsea Hotel to see James.

The band had been making the then astounding $10,000 per gig fee for less that six months (top $$$ at the time) and nobody had seen any record royalties yet. He met me at the door, sadly pointed to a fishing rod he had bought that day and told me that it was the most expensive thing he owned from all his time in Big Brother. . .

In addition to his haunting guitar work I will always remember James as a total gentleman and valued lifelong friend to my late great pal Chet Helms. . .

Lee Houskeeper

Adam said...

James is now in that great gig in the sky. He was a great musical artist and part of the greatest phenomena of the '60s.

George Kerby said...

I never met James, but have long admired his work. Friends who knew him describe him as a spiritual, kind, and humble person. His talent spoke volumes.

RIP St. James.

Vittala said...

Wow... James had just visited my dad Muruga in Ann Arbor the other month and they recorded a new record together and we had such a wonderful time and he really enjoyed playing music after not doing it so much the past year or two. He was in very good spirits and having a lot of fun during his visit that it was completely shocking to hear he passed away. God Bless you St. James .

Anonymous said...

Just wanted to express my deepest feelings to the loss of the man who possessed the greatest genius guitar method which I consider Janis Joplin's success as well as Big Brother and The Holding Company as a band unique and very much a united unit as one, which most likely would not have taken off if not for the talent and personalities. My heart cries, I adore this band and was influenced into lead guitar playing at a very young age. My heart goes to his worderful family. So very Sorry!

LisazLighting MySpace

Anonymous said...

A huge Big Brother fan here. Thanks for the awesome music, man - we were blessed to have you with us.

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