Father of the Psychedelic Guitar


           And a Founder of Big Brother and the Holding Company


James Gurley was born just 3 days before 1939's Christmas in Detroit, Michigan. Sometimes as a lad he would help his father at the track for his performance. This show was highlighted by Dad's driving through an assortment of obstacles, the most stunning was a flaming board. This was all the while his son was riding atop the vehicle pretending to be a human hood ornament!  (Yes, he did wear a helmet.)

The teen-aged James loved Lightening Hopkins records, almost too much, since basically he wore them plum out.  But, before irreparable damage was done, starting when he was about 19, he had played along to the records to pretty much master the guitar.  He would even sequester in a closet with a stethoscope on his instrument to hone his skills, especially his unique finger-picking style.  He learned with what he coined the "emotional approach." Steven Cuevas of San Francisco Bay area radio station KPCC noted:  

The self-taught musician's untamed sound was patterned in part after the solos of jazz saxophonist John Coltrane. Gurley's propulsive style had more in common with bands that would soon emerge from Gurley’s native Detroit like the MC5, The Stooges and Ted Nugent’s Amboy Dukes.
For a young man who was someday going to be famous for some of the freakiest sounds that made his amplifier throb off the floor, he had harbored very serious ambitions to become a priest. He actually entered Brothers of the Holy Cross and studied four years. He hung out at the "Bagel Shop" at Grant and Green and there he learned guitar chords from Peter Walker, an eclectic folk guitarist who was influenced by Ravi Shankar. Meanwhile he was playing folk gigs at Detroit coffee houses like the Cup of Socrates. In 1957, at Wayne State University, he met and fell for Nancy, and he gave up on ministry. Shortly after their marriage they spent a bit of time traveling through the country and in Mexico, and around Big Sur.

He and Nancy in 1962 finally settled in the North Beach District of San Francisco for the "beat" scene.  An area that included an artists' colony, the Spaghetti Factory.  One might like to remember that the Kingston Trio came out of this region.  His hangout was the Coffee Gallery on Grant Street, where he jammed blues and folk music with David Meltzer, Peter Albin, (who loved the Lost City Ramblers), and (former Bookstore owner), Jean Paul Pickens.  With J.P. Pickens he played along with their Progressive Bluegrass Band, an early experimental music phenomenon.  But as Sam Andrew, whom we shall meet a little later, explained what scene was to happen next:

The psychedelic era started on 16 May 1962. Well, why not? It was started when someone looked at the Beatniks and said, "I'm not going to wear black anymore. I'm not going to be depressed and drink myself to death. I'm not going to look at my navel, I'm going to look at this beautiful world. And the world is going to be in color too, gorgeous color."

Funny, because Gurley was famous for wearing black, but it was his sound that had vibrant hues.  Nick Gravenites, (more about him later), recalls in his book seeing Gurley in those early days at the Coffee Gallery.  He evidently was one of the only area guitarists playing the blues then.  He met him when he was shaved bald, and was practically non-verbal -- except for talking to the frog he and a girl carried around.  (She did the ventriloquy for it).  There was a mention of a possible motorcycle accident. 

Historian Craig Morrison gives another reason why a change was taking place, sometimes also seen as a hippie, movement,  in his 2001 work, The Folk Roots of San Francisco Psychedelic Music:

Psychedelic music, as created and played in San Francisco in the 1960s, drew far more heavily from the folk revival that preceded it than has been previously acknowledged. The revival’s influence on San Francisco psychedelia can be seen in its ideology, repertoire, instrumental techniques, vocal harmonies, critique of politics and society, inclusion of female vocalists, penchant for play-acting, and its approach to learning music, rehearsing, and performing.

Interestingly, he demonstrates that all those musicians, including Gurley, in their latter years, returned to a folksier style with album reviews to back it up.  (I now notice the difference how others from a rock basis developed later.) Mister Andrew thought the psychedelic era ended in 1967.  Another big influence was after San Franciscan George Hunter formed a cultural counter to the Beatles (on the Ed Sullivan Show) and others from seen that year, 1964,  Mike Wilhelm and the Charlatans at the Red Dog Saloon in Virginia City, Nevada.  They deliberately wanted to be all-Americana facing the musical British invasion.  Importantly, and only because of the LSD they ingested, they would be known as the first psychedelic rock band (they lasted until 1969).  (Big Brother later also played at the Red Dog Saloon). 

While still playing in clubs in North Beach, Gurley, just like Albin, around 1964, happened to hear a young newcomer, from Port Arthur, Texas -- Janis Joplin-- belting out songs like nobody else except maybe legendary Bessie Smith.  Also on another bit of coincidence, Helms knew her from his days at the University of Texas.  She sang at the student union and at Threadgills.  Also, songwriter musician Powell St. John knew her from the same university in Austin, playing with her at The Ghetto in 1962 in a trio inappropriately named the Waller Creek Boys.

But let's return to the year 1965, because this will be James' turning point: when he officially links with Chet Helms.  Also known as Family Dog, he was a Californian, Missourian, Texan, and then back as a Californian. He was another dropout beatnik, a wandering follower of Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. This long haired, long bearded entrepreneur also become father of the the light show.  He brought James to Chet's new pad, famous (or infamous--depending) Victorian boardinghouse on 1090 Page Street.  At this time this was a Haight Ashbury neglected piece of real estate like so many others, but with room.  Here he also could work with bassist, and main vocalist, Peter Albin, whose uncle owned the old house.  (Gurley had collaborated with him for a an electric folk band potentially to become Blue Yard Hill earlier in the year); and he would first meet another guitarist and singer, Sam Houston Andrew. Now they became Big Brother and the Holding Company adding Chuck Jones as drummer. Helms was kind of the "big brother".

They took advantage of the rather large basement, having Wednesday night jam sessions, where they could actually charge small (half a buck) admissions to hear them. Helms' connection with the Avalon made them that theater's "house band." Sam remembers that time:

He walked in with his great big dog and his very loud wife and baby and changed the band overnight.  He became the focus, the important thing. He was plugged into the early San Francisco scene before the rest of us were. At the time, it was real magic having him around.

 It would be the next year that would be even more pivotal: Albin and Gurley recalled that gal with the wonderful blues voice, they had to have her.  They knew how powerful Grace Slick was with the Jefferson Airplane.  Alas, when they searched for her, she'd gone back to Texas; fortunately Chet would go and retrieve her.  At this time, Gurley was the rising star: the main draw.  Chet had made some friends at a commune on 2125 Pine Street (Lagunitas) that also had live music playing; they were in what was called Family Dog house.   (Chet obviously was the Alpha male). In February of 1966, he wanted to get shows for any groups in larger settings like the Fillmore West (a former Black Muslim temple).  Helms naturally called his budding company Family Dog Productions, and he originally started out with one who would surpass and supplant him, Bill Graham.  This was in happier days before the almost cut throat competition became evident.  Bill Graham was originally an impoverished immigrant youth that made his way west from the Bronx.  But, in a parallel manner, Helms continued working putting on shows with his Avalon theater. This is where he showcased many of the area's, and else where's great talents. 

Big Brother and the Holding Company had their first truly big gig, their second after playng a week earlier; this would be on the second and last day, January 22-23, 1966, at the three day long Trips Festival with the music at the Fillmore.  (Originally it was going to be at the Longshoremen's Hall).  This event was started by Stewart Brand with a New Year's parade, and using the attention to get the word out about the phenomenon later in the month.  This featured the Open Theater, the Acid Test, and "tune in, turn on, and drop out" advocates Ken Kesey, (even though under a Judge's restraining order), with his Merry Pranksters, and "Bear" Owsley Stanley.  The latter handing out his famous concoction from a bag at the Fillmore.  The Grateful Dead were also featured, and as a matter of fact on one occasion they rushed BBHC off, though Gurley's group had just struggled getting their equipment set up.   Everyone else that played music at this Festival has since relatively faded with time.  The $4000 dollars they made was from mostly the live music, they discovered, not all the other things they had put on.  This lesson was an incentive for Graham's and Helm's careers.

Sam defined them in the "progressive-regressive hurricane blues style. " They used a studio on Henry Street, and there Janis certainly passed any auditions. 

Oh, the cuckoo, she's a pretty bird, and she warbles when she flies
But she never hollers cuckoo till the fourth day of July.
I'm a rambler, I'm a gambler and I lay my money down
But I never start gamblin' when the cuckoo bird's around, round.
Oh the cuckoo, she's a pretty bird, and she warbles when she flies
But she never hollers cuckoo till the fourth day of July.
Said Jack o'Diamonds, well Jack o'Diamonds, Lord, I know you of old,
Honey you robbed me of my silver and out of my gold.

After bringing the one, who also called herself Pearl, on board, it was June when they all eventually moved into their communal house in Lagunitas.   Even though it was said there was some intial enthusiasm, Sam Andrews remembered in a documentary, Nine Hundred Nights that it was not all totally cozy at first,  “James definitely always had very ambivalent feelings about Janis because James was the star. He was the focal point of Big Brother before Janis came.”  In interviews, others shared their anxiety over the new singer taking front and center stage.  Reality was, she brought some order to the chaos.

Well, down on me, oh, down on me,
I said it looks like everybody in this whole round world
They're down on me.

One of these mornings proud and fair
Get on my wings, I'm gonna fly the air.
I said it looks like everybody in this whole round world
Lord, they're down on me.
You know they're down on me, Lord, down on me, oh, oh,
And it looks like everybody in this whole round world
Down on me.

Now now now look at your door,
Can't find me 'cause today I'm gone.
And it looks like everybody in this whole round world
Are all down on me.
You know, they're down on me, now down on me, oh, oh!
And it looks like everybody in this whole round world
Is down on me.

Oh now I've never been to Heaven, no, but I've been told,
Streets up there are lined with gold.
I said it looks like everybody in this whole round world
Are all down on me.
You know they're down on me, oh, down on me, oh, oh!
And it looks like everybody in this whole round world
Down on me!!

Heart is gone, rain is rain
You know I got a man and he don't never mean
Because it looks like everybody in this whole round world
Is down on me.
You know they're down on me,
Down down down on me baby
Down on me,
I said down!
oh, oh!
And it looks like everybody in this whole round world
Down on me!!

Thank you very much. We're Big Brother and the Holding Company!

Their first show with Janis was at the Avalon on June 10, 1966. The Avalon  was famous for the labor intensive intricate and colorful posters, like ones made by the Mouse studios, that today are expensive collector's items. That August they played in Chicago's Mother Blues.   After this they replaced Jones who had left with a New Yorker and jazz drummer, David Getz. He had left New York to go to get a Master's degree from the San Francisco Art Institute, a Fulbright scholar, to boot.  He was with them for the remaining two and a half years and he mentioned:

The Monterey Pop thing came along. I have a lot of ambiguous feelings about that. Generally '67 was a nice year. It started to unravel. After Monterey Pop, that's when Big brother started to unravel. It's when Albert Grossman came into the picture. It's when Janis started to become a superstar. It's when the separation of Janis and the band aspect of things. It's when Bill Graham started to hire us, which he wouldn't before that time because we had been previously managed by Chet (Helms), who was his arch rival, at least in his mind, Bill's mind. After Monterey we started to work at the Fillmore a lot. Toward the end of the year, we started to travel.

Their unpopulated concert at the Stockton Memorial Civic Auditorium in 1967 was just before the tremendous success at the June 16-18 Monterey Pop Festival, (which Helms had arranged and was onstage to introduce them).  There were eventually 200,000 in the audience, (a forerunner of Woodstock 1969). They used this notoriety to release their first album that was actually recorded in December 12 through the 14th, 1966 at Mainstream Records, Chicago, Illinois.  Produced by Bob Shad, it was named simply Big Brother and the Holding Company. There was one single release that got some pretty fair airplay, that was "Down on Me."  Now, this solar solstice time of 1967 would become known as the "Summer of Love", and Chet Helms would later be known as its father. (On a fascinating note, the site,  Counter Cultural Festivals of the 1960's, they claim the year 1964 for a "Summer of Love," though I believe the year was wrong, they have a posted a rather significant poem by Abbie Hoffman :

We are here to make a better world.
No amount of rationalization or blaming can preempt the moment of choice each of us brings to our situation here on this planet.
The lesson of the 60's is that people who cared enough to do right could change history.

We didn't end racism but we ended legal segregation.
We ended the idea that you could send half-a-million soldiers around the world to fight a war that people do not support.
We ended the idea that women are second-class citizens.

We made the environment an issue that couldn't be avoided.
The big battles that we won cannot be reversed. We were young, self-righteous, reckless, hypocritical, brave, silly, headstrong and scared half to death.

And we were right.

It was a year later, it took time to get out of their Mainstream label contract and go with Columbia) that exuded a better example of their raucousness loaded psychedelic Frisco sound.  This time would also have Albert Grossman behind it,  Cheap Thrills.  Producer and sometimes piano player, John Simon let it be known that working with this loose bunch was taxing, but fortunately the strengths outweighed the weaknesses. (The Robert Crumb artwork on the cover was actually originally intended for the back.) These guitar solos that screech and scream and twist are praised by The Grateful Dead Mickey Hart (who heard him at the Matrix) and Barry Melton of Country Joe and the Fish. The latter gushed:

James Gurley's was the first man in space!  He was Yuri Gagarin of psychedelic guitar. There was only handful of us that created our mini-genre of psychedelic guitar, and James was the avatar who blazed the path for the rest of us.

  The two guitarists work in "Summertime" made Guitar Player magazine's top Ten of that genre, the same publication that gave him the moniker, "Father of the Psychedelic Guitar."  Unfortunately at Monterery, that big producer, Albert Grossman known for the first to bring Bob Dylan to the big-time, saw Janis.  He would also produce Peter, Paul and Mary, the Band, the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, and Helms was not in his league.  So next was a change for Gurley and the rest, they promised to follow a no intravenous drug policy.  (Later, Grossman had to take out an accidental death insurance policy on Janis because of her failure to abide: to the tune of $100 grand. He fought for the settlement and won.)

When Grossman, who lost the Dylan contract in 1970 over a flap about the Beatles performing with Bob, finally pulled Janis out of Big Brother and the Holding Company. Big Brother et al foundered without the superstar.  Some even grumbled they would not have been in this predicament if they had not brought Janis into their fold in the first place.  And to add some insult to injury, Sam Andrew went with Janis' new entourage. Gurley had already been supposedly having an affair with Janis, who o'd in '70; and to add to James' troubles, as not only did his wife die of an Heroin overdose in 1969, but in the next year Gurley had to fight, albeit successfully, the charge in Sonoma County that he had murdered her.  These traumas helped him eventually get "clean", and settle down in Coachella Valley to remarry (Margaret Nelson) and raise a family

He and a combination of other members continued until 1972.  In 1969 they featured vocalist Kathi McDonald, and vocalist and songwriter Nick Gravenites. (He did great work on the Blood Sweat and Tears first album, Child is Father to the Man, and he sounded awesome on Electric Flag's Long Time Comin'). They even recorded a couple of albums:  Be a Brother in 1970, and the next year, How Hard It Is until they finally disbanded. A bit later Albin and Getz went to join Country Joe and the Fish

The next time they re-gathered was for a one-time show put on at the Greek Theater in Berkeley by their old mentor, Chet Helms in 1978.   The original three reunited again in 1987, and they had one album, Do What You Love.  They featured a vocalist, Michael Bastion.

Gurley left this new BBHC in 1996 to pursue his own individual projects that included stuff with New Age drummer Muruga Booker.  In 2009 back in Michigan Gurley made some of his last recordings with Maruga.  He had a solo album released in 2000 aptly named Saint James: Pipe Dreams, as the former druggie had been straight for years.  In this album he has strange yodels and sounds to make it quite unique even featuring his son Hongo on drums.  He played at one of the Tribal Stomps in 2005, this one a memorial to his first big helper, Chet Helms, who had passed from a stroke that year's summer. 

Some of Big Brother and the Holding Company's later incarnations, like a 2008 return to Stockton, CA, this time at the Empire Theater fronted a vocalist, Cathy Richardson, and she, like other female singers, did not try to duplicate Janis.  Other singers that had worked with BBHC were a couple of Lisas, Ms. Battle, and Ms. Mills,  and last but not least, Sophia Ramos. They had a violinist Kate Russo for some sessions.   Other guitarists have been Tom Finch, Chad Quist, and Joel Hoekstra.  

There was another album released for the UK titled, Cheaper Thrills, around 1983, that had some of the work they did in the early days, like "Hall of Mountain King", and "Coo-Coo" and a Big Brother and the Holding Company Live as well. He also released old coffee house recordings with additional musical accompaniment, This Is Janis Joplin.

One of James Gurley's last big gigs was for the August 15, 2009 40th anniversary of the original 1969 Woodstock concert.  This "Heros of Woodstock" concert was held at the Bethel Woods Center for the Arts] in upstate New York.  Happily for all, it reunited his old original friends and Big brother and the Holding Company players, Albin, Andrews, and Getz.

 In December, 2009, at his Palm Desert, CA, home just two days before he would be 70, he had a fatal heart attack: his second wife Margaret was by his side.  He leaves two sons behind, Hongo (Adam Reisman) and Django; and a granddaughter, Sierra Noel Reisman.  There were plans made to have Big Brother and the Holding Company have a memorial concert in San Francisco during the following year.


Everybody's dying,
They're all trying to feel it, I know they are.
Everybody's dancing, they're singing romance
And they want to feel more, it's sure 'nuff.

                               (from "Combination of the Two")





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