When forming Big Brother and the Holding Company in 1966, guitarist Sam Andrew and bassist Peter Albin quickly learned they were not lead-singer material. They knew it, their band mates knew it, everybody knew it.
Admitting it was half the battle.
Their manager, Chet Helms, had the perfect voice in mind. He remembered a friend from his days at the University of Texas, a folk singer named Janis Joplin. He contacted her in Austin, and she agreed to fly to San Francisco and join the jam-savvy band.
After only five days of rehearsals, her first gig was on June 10, 1966, at the Avalon Ballroom.
The rock world hasn’t been the same since.
“She was a folk singer,” Andrew said recently from his Northern California home, “so when she came to the band, we all said, ‘What can we do? What do you know, and what do we know?’ That kind of thing. We established early on that she knew ‘Summertime,’ but we didn’t do it that weekend. That got a more full treatment that required more time.
“She knew some folk songs, like ‘I Know You Rider,’ which was an old folk song the Grateful Dead used to do. She knew ‘Down On Me,’ and I think she performed those two songs in the first date at the Avalon.
“What I really remember is that she was real amazed, just as anyone would be when you go to your first rock concert. This was the first one she ever went to and here she was the queen of it. It was real unusual in that sense. She was amazed at the whole scene.”
After those two songs, Joplin spent the rest of the show perched atop an amplifier, wildly hitting a tambourine as the band went off on its freak-rock excursions. She didn’t blend in with the woodwork for long. By 1967, Joplin was the talk of the music industry, quickly overshadowing her band mates.
Big Brother’s self-titled debut album (on Mainstream Records), showcasing Joplin’s searing, soulful voice, led to a legendary performance at the Monterey Pop Festival in the Summer of Love. Manager Albert Grossman, who guided the careers of Bob Dylan, The Band, Peter, Paul & Mary and Paul Butterfield, was there with his new clients, the Electric Flag. Floored by Joplin’s overwhelming stage presence, Grossman corralled Big Brother and brought them to Columbia Records.
A year later, the group’s label debut, “Cheap Thrills,” spent eight weeks at No. 1 on Billboard’s album chart, while “Piece of My Heart” soared to No. 12 on the singles chart.
Big Brother seemingly had it all, but Andrew knew Joplin wanted something more.
“She had talked to me about leaving the group for months, after much soul-searching,” Andrew said. “It kind of grew. We were real close, we wrote a lot of songs together and sang a lot of duets together. I knew she was unhappy about the band for a long time.
“No one was leading her to that conclusion; it was just a natural conclusion. She saw Tina Turner and Aretha Franklin and they had these soul bands with horn sections and organ players, and she wanted that. She was real anxious to try that out.”
Andrew even made a few phone calls to help recruit players for Joplin’s new ensemble, the Kozmic Blues Band.
“Then she asked me if I would go with her,” he said. “I said yes, and I regret it. I’m sorry I left Big Brother; I don’t think I should have left Big Brother then and I don’t think Janis should have left. She should have given it some more time. We had a No. 1 record, and she should have just hung in there and seen that project through.
“She lost her moorings when she left; I know very well, because I was there. She found her way again, but that was right before she died (on Oct. 4, 1970, of a drug overdose). That was her tragedy. She had gotten back on a good foot with Full Tilt Boogie Band, which was a real good band. She definitely stumbled and wandered around for about a year there.”
Big Brother, unable to recapture the glory, finally ran out of gas in 1972.
Andrew, Albin and original drummer Dave Getz didn’t play together again until 1986 when a promoter looking to cash in on the 20th anniversary of the Summer of Love unwittingly reunited them.
“He wanted us to do this show, but we mistrusted him,” Andrew said, “but then we hung up the phone and said, ‘Hey, that’s not a bad idea. Let’s start playing again just for fun.’ ”
The fun hasn’t stopped since. The restored Big Brother has been together twice as long as the original act. The group, which also features singer Lisa Battle and guitarist Tom Finch, recently released its independent album “Do What You Love.” Among the highlights are reworkings of Joplin’s “Women Is Losers” and the Joplin-Andrew collaboration “I Need a Man to Love.”
And the Joplin epoch lives on. On June 2, Columbia/Legacy unearthed “Janis Joplin With Big Brother and the Holding Company Live at Winterland ’68.” The 14-track, 75-minute CD contains vintage performances of “Combination of the Two,” “Down On Me,” “Piece of My Heart” and “Ball and Chain,” as well as the rarely heard “Flower in the Sun,” “Farewell Song,” “Catch Me Daddy” and “Magic of Love.”
“First of all, I was astounded that they even had found the tapes,” Andrew said. “I had no idea it was taped that weekend, and especially that it was taped with such good equipment. The technical quality is amazing.
“It’s like looking at a snapshot of yourself that long ago, and you see this real naive, innocent thing, but at the same time, when you’re in your 20s, your muscles are really good, all your tendons, everything’s snappy and precise, so there’s that kind of feeling about the music. The drum rolls are real tight. It’s funny, we didn’t know as much as we know now, but everything was clean.”
“Combination of the Two,” the quintessential Joplin/Big Brother romp, also appears on the “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” film soundtrack.
Thirty years ago, critics were hard on Big Brother, saying they were too mediocre for Joplin’s unbridled talents, but Andrew says Big Brother was just what Joplin needed.
“People overlook that we created a family for Janis,” he said. “In a way, she was allowed to become who she was more than if she had been with some really good professional musicians. She would have been kind of channeled into backup singing or a precut role. She got to decide who she was with us.
“She was so strong, and she had a lot of good personal qualities. She was a professional. She showed up on time, she cared about people. There was always a tentative side of Janis, even maybe insecurity. Every gig that I ever played with her, she would go, ‘Was it okay? Was everything alright?’ It was a ploy to put everyone at ease, but she also meant it at the same time.”
Andrew is just glad he’s still around to talk about the early days.
“I’m very lucky,” he said, “and I’ve lived to tell about it and I’m halfway sane. And I got to know some great people. I’ve been blessed, and I’m aware of it.”
BWF (before we forget): Catch up with the latest on Big Brother and the Holding Company on the Web @ www.bbhc.com/BigBrother.htm. … The Big Brother album discography – “Big Brother and the Holding Company” (Mainstream, 1967); “Cheap Thrills” (Columbia, 1968); “Be a Brother” (1970); “How Hard It Is” (1971); “Cheaper Thrills” (Edsel, 1984); “Big Brother and the Holding Company Live” (Capitol, 1985); “Joseph’s Coat” (Edsel, 1986); “Can’t Go Home Again” (Legend, 1997); “Do What You Love” (independent, 1998); “Janis Joplin With Big Brother and the Holding Company Live at Winterland ’68” (Columbia/Legacy, 1998).