Memorial plans are in the works for an influential California musician who left an indelible mark on music as a member of Janis Joplin’s band. Guitarist James Gurley died of heart failure over the Christmas holiday.
To many fans, Big Brother and the Holding Company actually had two voices: Joplin and her guitar-slinging foil Gurley.
Gurley joined the band first, in 1965, and became the undisputed star. He’d peel off snorting, feedback-drenched solos far removed from the clean finger-picking of other "psychedelic" guitarists that helped define the “San Francisco Sound” like the Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia or John Cipollina of Quicksilver Messenger Service.
Gurley never studied music or took formal guitar lesions. The self-taught musician's untamed sound was patterned in part after the solos of jazz saxophonist John Coltrane. Gurley's propulsive style had more in common with bands that would soon emerge from Gurley’s native Detroit like the MC5, The Stooges and Ted Nugent’s Amboy Dukes.
When Janis Joplin joined Big Brother in 1966, some fans and band members grumbled as volubly as Gurley's amplifiers. Gurley and bassist Sam Andrew talked about that in a documentary about the band called Nine Hundred Nights.
“James definitely always had very ambivalent feelings about Janis because James was the star,” says Andrew. “He was the focal point of Big Brother before Janis came.”
James Gurley says some people thought the band should get rid of Joplin. ”A lot of people didn’t like her. A lot of people said, “Get rid of her!” And there are still folks who tell me that’s where we went wrong, was taking her on.” In hindsight, Gurley laughed at the idea.
Despite his initial ambivalence about Joplin, Gurley left his wife for a brief affair with his band’s new singer. It didn’t last. Joplin quit Big Brother in 1968 — and over the next two years, soared to stardom on her own.
Joplin died in 1970 from a heroin overdose. That same year, James Gurley faced murder charges after he injected his wife Nancy with a lethal dose of heroin. He fought the charge for 2 years and was ultimately sentenced to probation.
Gurley sobered up and moved to the Coachella Valley. He remarried, raised a family and continued to make music. He also briefly played with the reformed Big Brother and the Holding Company. The band carries on without him. Gurley died of heart failure on December 20th, just a few days short of his 70th birthday.
In a statement, Big Brother bassist Sam Andrew said, “James was the real 1960s, the real exemplar of the counter culture. James was the essence of the band in the early days. He showed us the way as a Zen master would, without sermon, with as little talk but as much humor as possible. Goodbye old friend.”
Surviving members of Big Brother and the Holding Company will hold a public memorial for James Gurley in San Francisco after the New Year. It’s unclear if Gurley’s family has plans for a public memorial at the guitarist's longtime home near Palm Springs.