We are thrilled to get an exclusive interview with Rock and Roll Hall of Famer, James
Gurley of Big Brother And The Holding Company - the band that both found and honed the
talent of a then obscure singer named Janus Joplin
|Recently when James Gurley was in Ann Arbor, I had the opportunity to
hook up with him at our old buddy percussionist Muruga Bookers house. Some of
younger readers may not know who James is. Hes a musician originally from Detroit
who ironically helped define the San Francisco sound.
|It was an era just beyond the Beat Generation who had brought hipness,
poetry, and jazz to the forefront of an intellectual movement in the 50s and early
60s. The year was 1965 when James and fellow musicians formed the group Big
Brother and the Holding Company in the bay area. They would come to world prominence
a few years later after they hired Texas blues singer Janis Joplin. The album Cheap
Thrills made a superstar of Janis and became a huge seller and beacon of the then
newly started hippie movement born from the beatniks who dominated the counter culture
scene. Americas youth wanted their own identity laced with mind bending LSD and the
freedom to explore and develop a new kind of music
|The 60s in San Francisco was the place to be. Partys with
vats of psychedelic Kool-Aid served as a catalyst for what really was a predecessor to
present day raves. The major difference being all the music was live with real musicians.
Guitar Player magazine has named James the father of psychedelic guitar. James now goes by
the moniker St James which his classmates used to call him back in Catholic
school. The now famous cover of Cheap Thrills was created by none other then underground
comic book artist R. Crumb of Zap comics who painted a halo over the head of James
depiction in the cartoon. Jamesguitar work is now familiar because of its
bluesy sustain and has been emulated by countless subsequent wannabe rock gods hoping to
capture that same kind of magic, many of them not even knowing who they sound like. James
Gurley isnt exactly a household word like Hendrix or Clapton but his influence is
there just the same.
|When I first met James it was in the late 80s in Oakland California
at Murugas place. Muruga had been living there with his family and was working on
some projects with James. The impression one has of James is that hes really out
there. A space cadet who happens to be a genius. When I sat down for this interview at
Murugas kitchen table, James seemed a little evasive but accommodating. I
hadnt seen him in 12 years and wasnt even sure if he would remember me. I
dont think he did. He has a silly sense of humor thats totally disarming.
Thats the way James likes to be. Good natured and keeping you guessing. His 35 years
in music has honed him into an example of how San Francisco musicians were in the
||He and Muruga still play together and did a gig in Ypsilanti [Michigan]
with old friend and Ann Arbor legend harmonica bluesman Madcat Ruth. Even though I was ill
and couldnt make it, I heard from outside sources that the show was incredible. When
you get musicians of their caliber together, its gotta be a happening. Anyway, this
is what James had to say
|PT: When did you first pick a guitar up? James: I
ha ha ha. I was probably 16 I think. One of my uncles had one. I
brought it home for the summer and nothing happened, I didnt even know how to tune
|PT: How old were you when you got serious about
playing? James: Oh
later when I was 19 or 20.
|PT: In San Francisco? James: No, that was
|PT: Detroit? James: Yeah, I went to Cooley
High School on the northwest side.
|PT: How did Big Brother come about? James: Sometime
late in 65.
|PT: Did you know you were going to become world
famous? James: No, we were just so into doing it. That was making it,
just doing it
the fact that we would have a gig the next day.
|PT: The first time you met Janis, what was your impression
of her? James: Well, you would never had thought that she would become
the icon that she became from that first meeting. Not very impressive. She was dressed in
a torn tee-shirt and torn levis and Mexican harachis. Her hair was all pinned
up and she had bad acne. You never would have thought she would become the superstar that
|PT: What transformed her? James: WE
|PT: In what way? James: You know we put
her on steroids..ha-ha. Blues on steroids.
|PT: When she left the group, was there any bitter
feelings? James: Well sure. Ha-ha
yeah right. There was some
bitter feelings. Some people havent gotten over it yet. It was sick morass of
|PT: Big Brother continues to tour to this very day even
though you left them a few years ago. What do you have going with Muruga? James:
Ive done all kinds of stuff with Muruga. New age, rock, techno-space.
Murugas all over the map. Every time I see him he has something going. Hes got
a hundred damn tapes in his drawer. I dont know whats going to become of this
stuff. Well hell, I just do it to play.
|PT: What of your current album? James:
Big Brother was just the one thing. There was all kind of things I wanted to do. I
didnt want people to come hear me play and want (Big Brother song) Ball and Chain.
My new album St. James is me now.
|PT: Are you going to tour to support your record? James:
Id like to. Also Ive been playing with a girl from Detroit named Karen
Monster. Shes out in the desert by me now in Palm Springs. (California) We played a
gig recently with Eric Burdon and his new Animals. She writes good songs and sings nice. I
also have my son Hongo on drums. It was the first time we played in public so it was
really special. We were doing mostly stuff Karen wrote. She got the gig and I thought it
would be fun to do something. It had been a while Id been on stage. I had been in
|PT: Whats next? James: Im not sure
as far as performing. Im working on another album right now, another after that, and
another after that. Im a studio slave right now.
|PT: What advice would you give to a young guitar
player? James: Dont listen to anybody.
|PT: If you could change something about yourself, what would
that be? James: Less procrastination. Its a bad habit. I do it
|PT: Doesnt sound like it to me!
|A final note: James gave me a copy of his current CD St.
James. A lot of timess older musicians lose their freshness. Not so with this
record. With modern sounding songs like Its a beautiful World with
its electronically enhanced choral background, and hip tunes like The Future
isnt what it used to be, James fertile creativity shows no sign of