Life in San Francisco in the mid 1960s was the stuff of legends. Ground zero for the counter culture movement, the corner of Haight and Ashbury came to signify the arrival of everything from free love, flower power and rampant drug use to war protests and serious rock and roll. It was a time that forever changed the way young people perceived the world and their role in it.Â
Among those who left a mark on the world as a result of those days in San Francisco was Janis Joplin, the soulful young singer from Texas with heart, passion and a taste for Southern Comfort. Joplin rose to stardom backed by the band Big Brother & The Holding Company and this Saturday, three of the five original members of Big Brother— Sam Andrew, David Getz and Peter Albin —will appear at the Bay Street Theatre in Sag Harbor.
Joplin and the band were known for songs like “Piece of my heart,” “Down on Me” and “Ball and Chain” and providing vocals for Big Brother this weekend will be Sophia Ramos, a singer from the Bronx. Sam Andrew, founder and lead guitarist for Big Brother and later, a member of Joplin’s Kozmic Blues Band, notes that despite the fact she is filling some big shoes, Ramos is an amazing talent in her own right.
“She is beautiful and she can sing incredible types of music,” says Andrew. “It takes a real strong woman to sing the set. She’s a real artist and we are the real thing. So we didn’t want someone to do a Janis replacement.”Â
Even before Joplin joined Big Brother, making them a household name, the band, which formed in 1966, was doing pretty good for themselves playing alongside the likes of San Francisco based bands such as Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead.
“It was going great. It was an amazing time,” recalls Andrew. “We weren’t seasoned musicians. We were really young and barely knew how to play. We listened to Ravi Shankar and world music and were trying to do that. Mostly we were instrumentalists because none of us really sang.”But all that changed with the arrival of Joplin, who came to the group on the recommendation of Chet Helms, the band’s manager at the time.
“Just the fact she was a woman and we were four men, it really changed the dynamic,” says Andrew. “It just brought in a lot of things we hadn’t thought of. We were like the guys at the garage, then this woman comes in.”“We all collaborated, everyone was equal,” recalls Andrew. “Even the drummer and usually the drummer is left out.”
Andrew notes that pre-Joplin, Big Brother would often play those long and rambling instrumental tunes that were typical of the time which sometimes stretched out for a half hour or more. Joplin’s arrival made the band a more buttoned up operation.
“Audiences danced so it took the pressure off the thought of ‘When is this gonna be over?’” says Andrew. “But when she came in it was like, ‘Then what are we going to do? When do I come in again?”“She was really game,” he says. “She’d play a tambourine or maracas. She’d stand there and play and enjoy the songs. She was not just waiting. She was a real musician — she also played guitar.”
For Andrew, who co-wrote most of Big Brother’s songs with Joplin, her addition was most welcome. But he recalls that not all of his fellow Big Brother members were as thrilled.
“Peter the bass player was the leader,” says Andrew. “Janis displaced him and he wasn’t happy. James Gurley, the other guitar player and the icon of the band, was also displaced since she became the icon of the band. Those two were unhappy — all the while understanding that they needed her.”“I was thrilled to be writing with her and it was working,” says Andrew. “The best singer I ever heard was singing the songs.”
“Her fame was immediate and even pre Big Brother,” adds Andrew. “As soon as she opened her mouth you knew she had done her homework. But it took her a year to learn how to play in a rock band.”
The Monterey Pop Festival in June of 1967 marked the first major public performance of Joplin and Big Brother (as well as other musicians like Jimi Hendrix) and catapulted them onto the national stage.Â
By all accounts, it was a meteoric rise and just as stunning a fall. By the fall of 1970, two months after her 10 year high school reunion, Joplin was dead from a heroin overdose.
“Her entire career was four years,” reminds Andrew. “Two-and-a-half years with Big Brother, another year with the Kozmic Blues Band, and six months with the Full Tilt Boogie Band.”Though Andrew and Joplin parted company professionally during the Kozmic Blues Band days, they remained friends till the end.Â
“We weren’t doing any song writing in those days. There were too many drugs,” admits Andrew. “It didn’t make sense for me to be there. The ship was sinking.”With her rampant and well known drug and alcohol use, many on the outside might assume that fellow Big Brother band members had a tough time keeping Joplin focused on the business of making music. But Andrew notes that was never the case.
“She was totally professional,” says Andrew. “She was never even late.”And when Joplin overdosed, though the band was stunned, they were not surprised.
“It was something we were sure might happen,” says Andrew. “It was inevitable and a big shock at the same time. It was happening to a lot of our friends. She was one of them.”“I think [drugs] changed attitudes for a whole generation,” explains Andrew. “The generation behind us were Republicans and accountants. They’re probably the ones who voted for Reagan.”
“Many people saw 1968 as the flower of the time, but it had already changed by then,”adds Andrew.Â
And by 1972, Big Brother & The Holding Company had effectively died as well as a band.Â
“I think we just ran out ofÂ gas,” explains Andrew. “Drugs really took their toll. That’s why we stopped.”Then in 1986, Andrew recalls that there was a summer of love reunion.Â
“We said we don’t want to do that. But then we thought, ‘Hey, let’s get together and see if we can still play these songs.”And that’s how three of the five original members of Big Brother came back together. Andrew notes the secret of the band’s success lies in knowing their strengths.
“The main thing we did is hire Sophia and the guitar player,” notes Andrew. “We’re three old guys who have been through the wars and frankly, don’t play that well. But we’re pioneers and innovators. Then we hire those who are not pioneers and not innovators but who can play.”And Andrew is finding a whole new group of fans for Big Brother’s music.
“The generation that is now 18 is into that retro thing,” he says. “Someday that may pass. When that passes, probably that will be it for us.”In the meantime, Andrew is still writing new songs, but he admits that convincing the band to record them is much tougher than it was in the old days.Â
“People figured out that whoever writes the song gets the money and the resentment comes up,” says Andrew. “I’ve said, ‘I wrote this song, but everyone can put their name on it.’”There is one new song that Andrew has written which he is itching to record called “Shining Glory.”
“I think it’s truly great, not that I’m prejudice,” he says. “But to do that, I’ll have to say ‘I know you have a song you want to do.’”
“Big Brother & The Holding Company”performs at 8 p.m. this Saturday, November 1 at Bay Street Theatre on Long Wharf, Sag Harbor. Tickets are $65 and available by calling the box office at 725-9500.Â
Top photo: Janis Joplin and band members in a photograph that was considered for Big Brother & The Holding Company’s “Cheap Thrills” album cover. The final design featured illustrations by cartoonist R. Crumb. At far left is Peter Albin, James Gurley sits behind Joplin. To her left is Sam Andrew and David Getz.Â
Above: Albin, Andrew and Getz today