Last Thursday, Big Brother and the Holding Company kicked off the 2009 American Music Masters celebration, Kozmic Blues: The Life and Music of Janis Joplin. Sam Andrew, Dave Getz, and Peter Albin, three original members of the band, spent the day in Cleveland to help us tell the full story of Janis Joplin’s career. They filmed interviews for our Library and Archives, did an interview and performed in our new Foster Theater, and capped the night with a packed show at the Beachland Ballroom. Clevelanders Mary Bridget Davies and Ben Nieves joined them on vocals and guitar.
Big Brother played their first gig in January of 1966, six months before Janis Joplin joined them. When they decided that they wanted another vocalist in the band, Chet Helms suggested his friend from Austin, Texas, Janis Joplin. On paper, it seems like an odd match: Big Brother was known for their energy and power—in retrospect, they seem like a punk band—but Joplin had never sung with a rock band before. Yet they found common ground in their love of blues and folk music, and they quickly discovered that Joplin could “bring it,” as Dave Getz said last week in the interview we filmed. Her voice had the power that made her a perfect fit. Although we associate them with the psychedelic scene in San Francisco, the members of Big Brother all had experience in rock and roll bands in the late 1950s. In many ways, their story was similar to Dylan’s—they were hooked by the first generation rock and rollers like Little Richard but moved on to acoustic blues and folk music by the early 1960s. Those roots are reflected in their early shows with Joplin, which included everything from “Oh! My Soul” to “Coo Coo.”
In their onstage interview, the band described the whirlwind of changes they went through during the first year integrating Joplin into the band. Sam Andrew described the process as a real give and take–they knew when to lay back and let Janis do her own thing, and she learned when to step back and let the band do their thing. Sam, Dave, and Peter also spoke about Big Brother’s experiences in the recording studio and their attempts to capture the power and energy of their live sound. They only recorded two official albums with Janis: Big Brother and the Holding Company (released in August 1967) and Cheap Thrills (released August 1968). As they described on stage, they recorded the albums under very different circumstances—the first album was recorded almost entirely live in a studio designed for jazz recording, while the second album featured multitracking and overdubbing.
Big Brother and the Holding Company has released some terrific archival material in recent years including Live at Winterland ’68, a recording from April of that year, when the band was at their peak with Joplin, and The Lost Tapes, which features a live performance from the summer of 1966 and some studio outtakes. A fascinating documentary, 900 Nights, has also been released on DVD, and features great performance footage and interviews with Andrew, Getz, Albin and original guitarist James Gurley. You can read more about Big Brother’s career and current touring schedule here: www.bbhc.com.
Sam, Dave and Peter: thanks for a great day, and good luck on the European tour!