The distinctive guitarist was one of the original members of Big Brother and the Holding Company
Remembering the Psychedelic Rock guitar legend James Gurley
He was one of the San Francisco Psychedelic Rock scene most distinctive guitarists, and with Big Brother and the Holding Company he recorded enduring 1960’s Rock classics such as “Summertime” or “Piece of my Heart”. But the experimental Detroit guitarist had a different life orientation and goal shortly before he moved to San Francisco in the 1960’s
James Gurley was one of the San Francisco Psychedelic Rock scene most distinctive guitarists. Born on December 22, 1939 in Detroit, Michigan, Gurley learned guitar self-taught, without never having a guitar lesson. He would jam while listening to his favorite records while developing a style of it’s own. What may come as a surprise to many is that Gurley spent four years at Detroit’s Catholic Brothers of the Holy Cross, studying to be a priest, but dropped out, moving to San Francisco in 1962 with his wife Nancy, becoming part of the coffee-house circuit, playing folk and country blues, a scene that would originate the 1960’s Psychedelic Rock revolution. In 1965 he met Sam Andrew and Peter Albim who had just formed Big Brother and The Holding Company. The pair was impressed by Gurley’s guitar skills and technique and invited him to join the band. His fearlessly wild guitar playing, developed from his admiration of John Coltrane’s barrier-breaking saxophone solos, made the band’s reputation for “far-out” psychedelic experimentation, and was solidified when singer Janis Joplin joined in. James Gurley and Janis Joplin had an affair, and so much they were in love that he moved out of the apartment he shared with his wife Nancy. However, according to Joplin, that arrangement ended the day James’ wife Nancy Gurley came barging through the front door of Joplin’s apartment. “What an embarrassing situation,” Joplin told later, “His old lady comes marching into my bedroom with the kid and the dog and confronts us.” Gurley eventually returned to Nancy, who became good friends with Janis after that. In 1966, at the best Hippie tradition, the members of Big Brother, along with their wives and children, all moved into a single house in Lagunitas, California, forming a community.
Big Brother and The Holding Company broke into the mainstream Rock scene in 1967 with their self-titled debut album, featuring Psychedelic Rock enduring classics uch as “Bye, Bye Baby” and “Down on Me”, but it was their second album that brought them worldwide fame and turned them into one of the most respected bands of the late 1960’s, “Cheap Thrills”, released in 1968 featured among others “Piece of my Heart”, “Summertime” and “Ball and Chain”, three songs where Gurley’s guitar technique with his fuzzy, dirty and heavy guitar solos are at it’s best. Despite the big success the band was riding, they briefly disbanded in 1968 after Janis Joplin was offered a solo record contract and departed from the band. A new lineup including Gurley and the other three original members (Sam Andrew, Peter Albin and Dave Getz) reunited from 1969 to 1972, without the same visibility or success of their first two albums. It was during that period that Gurley’s life went through the most disturbing period when in 1969, his wife Nancy, who was also the mother to his first son Hongo, died of a heroin overdose. The guitarist was charged with murder for injecting the drugs, and spent two years fighting the charges before being sentenced to probation. He remarried again in 1972 and had another child, Django with wife Margaret Gurley.In 1969, Nancy Gurley died of a heroin overdose. Gurley was charged with murder for injecting the drugs, and spent two years fighting the charges before being sentenced to probation. He remarried and had another child in 1972. In 1978 Gurley started an experimental Psychedelic band with his son Hongo on drums and in 1987 Big Brother and the Holding Company reunited again with original members. In 1995 Big Brother and The Holding Company original line up, including Gurley, played at the induction ceremony for Joplin at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, although the guitarist stated that he regretted that the band members were not inducted themselves. Gurley remained in the band until 1997, departing to focus his full attention to other collaborative and solo projects. James Gurley died on December 20, 2009, from a heart attack at his home in Palm Desert, California, two days before his 70th birthday. His guitar playing, style and technique have influenced several guitarists, his legacy, despite all the controversy that he went through in his life, remains untouched.
Watch the Big Brother and The Holding Company live with Janis Joplin and James Gurley on guitar in 1968
Also watch James Gurley performing his memorable solo of “Ball and Chain” live at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival with Big Brother and the Holding Company
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