On June 10th 1966, the imperious Janis Joplin would make her live debut with Big Brother and The Holding Company in her adopted hometown of San Francisco. It was there where she would take to the stage at the famed Avalon Ballroom and would set the foundations for history to be made.
The original line-up of the group consisted of guitarists James Gurley and Sam Andrew, bassist Peter Albin and drummer Dave Getz alongside Joplin. Joplin and the band were not, of course, operating in a vacuum. Beginning in 1965, San Francisco had become a hub for disenfranchised young who wanted to build a brighter future that was much more liberal than what Americans had previously been accustomed to.
Big Brother’s formation came from the brain of bassist Peter Albin who had a country and blues background who had even played with future Grateful Dead founders Jerry Garcia and Ron McKernan on occasion. Albin went on met Sam Andrew, a professional rock guitarist with a jazz and classical background. After playing together at Albin’s home, Andrew suggested they form a band.
The pair then approached guitarist James Gurley which resulted in the three young and hungry musicians playing open jam sessions hosted by entrepreneur Chet Helms in 1965. Helms the recruited Chuck Jones on drums who was on hand for their first gig at the Trips Festival in January 1966. However, audience member David Getz who was a painter and jazz drummer later displaced Jones.
Joplin, who had previously performed as a folk artist and made a name for herself in the local coffee houses in the area, would fully kickstart her career after joining Big Brother and the Holding Company. With her voice being the perfect accompaniment for her newfound bandmates’ sound, their name quickly garnered immense attention following the genius addition of their lead singer.
Albin later said this about the clever acquisition of Joplin to the group and how this would go on to change their destiny: “We were the established rock and roll band. We were heavy. We were like: all right, out of three or four bands in this city, we are one of them. We’re in the newspapers all the time. We’re working out. We are doing this woman a favour to even let her come and sing with us. She came in and she was dressed like a little Texan. She didn’t look like a hippie, she looked like my mother, who is also from Texas. She sang real well but it wasn’t like, ‘Oh we’re bowled over’. It was probably more like, our sound was really loud. It was probably bowling her over.”
He went on to add: “I am sure we didn’t turn down enough for her. She wrote letters home about how exotic all of us were. The names of the bands. That kind of thing. In other words, we weren’t flattened by her and she wasn’t flattened by us. It was probably a pretty equal meeting.” It’s a difficulty many bands following Big Brother would have to deal with, a powerhouse singer like Janis often overshadows bands.
If that wasn’t enough, Joplin was also famed for her razor-sharp wit: “She was a real intelligent, Janis was, and she always rose to the occasion. She sang the songs,” he explained. But Albin also revealed that it wasn’t exactly the Hollywood meeting may hope it to have been: “It wasn’t like this moment of revelation like you would like it to be. Like in a movie or something. It wasn’t like, ‘Oh my God, now we have gone to heaven. We have got Janis Joplin.’ I mean she was good but she had to learn how to do that. It took her about a year to really learn how to sing with an electric band.”
It would only be a few months down the line before Big Brother found themselves in the studio recording their debut, self-titled album which would end up being released the following year via the independent Mainstream Records label. Joplin transformed into a different being once she stepped upon the stage which soon caught the attention of Columbia Records head Clive Davis who had heard her and the band at the Monterey Pop Festival in June 1967 he signed them to the label.
They would then go on to release their second album, Cheap Thrills, in August of the next year but Joplin had become a star in her own right and made the bold decision to leave the group to pursue a short but iconic solo career at the end of ’68, which sadly was cut way too short when she tragically died on October 4, 1970, when it felt she had the world at her feet.