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Cheap Thrills

An Interview With James Gurley


EDITORS COMMENTS:  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 Booker’s house.  Some of you
younger readers may not know who James is. He’s 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 50’s and early 60’s. 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. America’s youth wanted their own identity laced with mind bending LSD and the freedom to explore and develop a new kind of music…acid rock. 
The 60’s in San Francisco was the place to be. Party’s 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. James’guitar work is now familiar because of it’s 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 isn’t 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 80’s in Oakland California at Muruga’s 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 he’s really out there. A space cadet who happens to be a genius. When I sat down for this interview at Muruga’s kitchen table, James seemed a little evasive but accommodating. I hadn’t seen him in 12 years and wasn’t even sure if he would remember me. I don’t think he did. He has a silly sense of humor that’s totally disarming. That’s 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 60’s. 

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 couldn’t make it, I heard from outside sources that the show was incredible. When you get musicians of their caliber together, it’s gotta be a happening. Anyway, this is what James had to say….. 
PT:  When did you first pick a guitar up?  James: I don’t know…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 didn’t even know how to tune it. 
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 in Detroit.
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 harachi’s.  Her hair was all pinned up and she had bad acne. You never would have thought she would become the superstar that she did.
PT:  What transformed her?  James:  WE transformed her.
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 haven’t gotten over it yet. It was sick morass of disgusting slime.
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:  I’ve done all kinds of stuff with Muruga. New age, rock, techno-space. Muruga’s all over the map. Every time I see him he has something going. He’s got a hundred damn tapes in his drawer. I don’t know what’s 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 didn’t 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:  I’d like to. Also I’ve been playing with a girl from Detroit named Karen Monster. She’s 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 I’d been on stage. I had been in the studio.
PT:  What’s next?  James: I’m not sure as far as performing. I’m working on another album right now, another after that, and another after that. I’m a studio slave right now.
PT:  What advice would you give to a young guitar player?  James:  Don’t listen to anybody.
PT:  If you could change something about yourself, what would that be?  James:  Less procrastination. It’s a bad habit. I do it too much.
PT:  Doesn’t 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 “It’s a beautiful World” with it’s electronically enhanced choral background, and hip tunes like “The Future isn’t what it used to be”, James’ fertile creativity shows no sign of letting up.

Copyright 2000, by PT Quinn, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

Published in Recording Engineer's Quarterly and Alexander magazines with permission