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Big Brother & The Holding Company

Significant in the fact that they launched the career of one JANIS JOPLIN, San Francisco’s BIG BROTHER & THE HOLDING COMPANY were pivotal in the Haight-Ashbury scene which produced other SF outfits, JEFFERSON AIRPLANE, QUICKSILVER MESSENGER SERVICE and GRATEFUL DEAD. But at the peak of BB’s prowess (late in 1968), JOPLIN left the band for a somewhat shadowy solo career, only to die of a heroin overdose in the space of a few years.
Founded by guitarist Sam Andrew and bassist Peter Albin; Dave Eskerson (guitar) and Chuck Jones (drums) were superseded by fellow scribers James Gurley and David Getz between late ’65 and early ’66, the tight blues quartet were at first wary of promoter Chet Helms insistence on taking in passionate Texan belter Janis Joplin, who’d just turned down an opportunity to join The 13th FLOOR EVEVATORS.
Duly inking a deal with Chicago-based Mainstream Records in the fall of ‘66, the restructured quintet turned in an excellent Monterey Pop Festival performance just prior to releasing their eponymous debut album. BIG BROTHER & THE HOLDING COMPANY (1967) {*6} was marred somewhat by its poor production values, although it still managed to register a Top 60 position. Folk, psychedelia, R&B, country-blues and nostalgia played a huge part in the fabric of the set, respective genres finding their roots via `Easy Rider’, `Blindman’, `Women Is Losers’, `Call On Me’ and `Bye, Bye Baby’. Underachieving in the hit singles department, the set belatedly unearthed a couple by way of the year-old `Down On Me’ and trad-folk cue `Coo Coo’; Mainstream exploited the fact they’d moved on to Columbia Records.
It would be Janis’s gritty and cathartic live prowess that caught the attention of Columbia, who subsequently released the classy CHEAP THRILLS (1968) {*8} LP. Peaking at No.1 for a total of 7 weeks, this roughshod, and at times ramshackle affair (producer John Simon took his name off the credits), nevertheless captured the tremendous vocal talent of JJ. Soul-wrenching numbers such as Top 20 smash `Piece Of My Heart’ (rivalling ERMA FRANKLIN’s take), BIG MAMA THORNTON’s `Ball And Chain’ (all 9 minutes of it) and the mind-blowing acid-take of Gershwin’s `Summertime’ were top-drawer blues.
JOPLIN’s star rating outstripped her backing band at a rate of knots, and it was inevitable that she would take off for a solo career; taking with her Sam Andrew. This all but killed off any further success for the remaining band. However, BIG BROTHER AND THE HOLDING CO. re-grouped in August ’69; Getz and Albin enlisting the aid of singer Nick Gravenites, guitarist Mike Prendergast and pianist Ted Ashburton, before, yes, you guessed it, they split again; Getz choosing to back JOPLIN in the Nu Boogaloo Express.
To counter a new decade, Getz, Gurley, Albin, the returning Andrew and main songwriter Gravenites re-united with Nu Boogaloo Express accomplices David Schallock (on guitar) and Mike Finnegan (keyboards) – plus Kathi McDonald (guest vocals) – for a pair of funk-blues sets, BE A BROTHER (1970) {*4} and HOW HARD IT IS (1971) {*4}. The former was ill-advisedly issued in the same month as the death of Janis, but on reflection, it was hardly the band’s fault; check out `Heartache People’, `Joseph’s Coat’ and their homage to country giant MERLE HAGGARD via `I’ll Change Your Flat Tyre, Merle’. Sadly amiss in the tragic post-JOPLIN times, their second contractual set was equally straining.
While Getz, Andrew, Gurley and Albin found session work throughout their subsequent careers, they found time in ‘87 to recruit new singer Michelle Bastian for a series of low-key gigs. Fast-forward a decade or so, Albin, Andrew and Getz shook off their BIG BROTHER shackles again, nurturing fresh vocalist Lisa Battle for “comeback” set, DO WHAT YOU LOVE (1999) {*2}. It was hard to believe that this could be the same players who backed JOPLIN, then again, they were in a no-win/rock-and-a-hard-place situation.
Finding someone as soulful and raucous as JOPLIN was a hard task, but they came close (but no cigar) with Sophia Ramos. Recorded live at the Burg Herzberg Festival in 2006, HOLD ME: LIVE In Germany! (2007) {*5} – adding Chad Quist (guitar) – BIG BROTHER AND THE HOLDING COMPANY at least reverted to old nuggets from their first two LPs.
© MC Strong 1994-2004/GRD // rev-up MCS Aug2012

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