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Published: 2009/12/24

Big Brother & the Holding Company Guitarist James Gurley Passes Away

Big Brother & the Holding Company guitarist James Gurley died of a heart attack in Palm Springs, CA on December 20. He was 69.

One of the primary architects of the psychedelic sound, Gurley left his imprint on songs like “Combination of The Two,” “Ball and Chain” and “Piece of My Heart.” He appeared at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967 and helped bring Janis Joplin to national fame.

Born James Martin Gurley, the self-taught guitarist grew up in Detroit, Michigan the son of a stunt car driver. He also spent four years with the Brothers of the Holy Cross in Detroit studying for the priesthood. Gurley relocated to San Francisco in the early 1960s and quickly became a key part of the city’s small, underground blues scene. Through this close-knit community Gurley met Janis Joplin for the first. He also met San Andrew and Peter Albin and joined their new group Big Brother & the Holding Company. Gurley and Albin both remembered hearing Joplin sing and band manager Chet Helms eventually coaxed Joplin—who had since moved home to Texas—back to the Bay Area to join the band.

Big Brother & the Holding Company was a staple on the San Francisco circuit for a few years, regularly packing the Fillmore and Avalon Ballrooms. The group also caught the ears of fans across the country through a standout performance at 1967’s Monterrey Pop Festival and became an overnight attraction. Big Brother derailed in 1969 after Joplin left the band to focus on her solo work and, after trying several replacement singers, the band parted ways in 1972.

The members of Big Brother reunited in 1987 and have toured nationally over the past few decades. Gurley left the group in 1997 and to focus on his painting and solo work. In addition to some albums under his own name and a few New Age recordings, Gurley took a recording he made of Joplin during her coffee house folk years and added instrumental backing tracks. He also appeared at a 2005 tribute to Helms that was held in Golden Gate Park. His last recordings were made a few weeks ago with Muruga Booker while in Michigan.

“James Gurley was the Yuri Gagarin of rock & roll—the first man in space!,” Country Joe and The Fish guitarist Barry “The Fish” Melton said in a statement. “There was only handful of us that created our mini-genre of psychedelic guitar, and James was the avatar who blazed the path for the rest of us.”

A public memorial is being planned in the guitarist’s honor.

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