Few rock & roll bands have been so transformed, so immediately, by a new voice. Even fewer are ready – and open – to such extreme renewal. Founded in late 1965 in a San Francisco just at the dawn of its own socio-chemical metamorphosis, Big Brother and the Holding Company – guitarists Sam Andrew and James Gurley, bassist Peter Albin and drummer David Getz (who joined in early ’66) – were a fearlessly improvising garage-blues quartet and already the house band at the Avalon Ballroom when their manager Chet Helms convinced an old friend from Texas, Janis Joplin – a compact phenomenon of bare, bawdy rapture – to be the group’s lead singer. She made her live debut with Big Brother in June of ’66 at the Avalon. That band, their hometown and female empowerment in American popular music were changed overnight.
Andrew later suggested it took a little longer. Joplin had come to Big Brother via pre-war blues and folk-coffeehouse gigs. “It took her about a year,” he said, “to really learn how to sing with an electric band.” It was a dynamic, reciprocal schooling: Joplin gave Big Brother a raw, star power; they framed and elevated her powerhouse singing with a gnarled-treble fury that many national critics, and ultimately Joplin, deemed limiting, even sloppy. They were wrong. She left Big Brother in 1968; Joplin, who died two years later, never led another band as recklessly visceral and intuitively supportive.
With Andrew’s death on February 12th of complications from a recent heart attack, Big Brother’s dual-guitar brotherhood is gone (Gurley died in 2009). Born into a military family on December 18th, 1941, Andrew was already a star in his own right, in his teens; while living in Okinawa, he had his own band and hosted a local rock & roll TV show. His early writing for Big Brother produced two of their live signatures,”Call on Me” in 1967’s Big Brother and the Holding Company and “Combination of the Two” on the 1968 best-seller, Cheap Thrills.
This memorial playlist inevitably focuses on Andrew’s ’66-’68 glory ride with Big Brother. He followed Joplin to her short-lived R&B-big-band experiment, 1969’s I Got Dem Ol’ Kozmic Blues Again Mama!, then returned to a revived Big Brother for two strong, under-valued records, 1970’s Be a Brother and ’71’s aptly-titled How Hard It Is, that would be represented here if they were on Spotify. In the Seventies, Andrew studied music theory and composition in New York while writing film scores and classical pieces. After an extended reunion of Big Brother’s original four, between 1987 and 1997, Andrew continued playing with Albin and Getz in versions of that band until his death.
I only saw Andrew live once – in 1998, when he appeared at the New York resurrection of San Francisco brethren Moby Grape at the club Wetlands, taking the vocal and guitar role of the errant Skip Spence. It was a great night, a huge, magical piece of the Bay Area I missed the first time around. And Andrew was a warm, welcoming gentleman backstage. He was actually the bigger star in the room, the one with a Number One album. But Andrew served the Grape that evening the same way he stood by Joplin for that brief, glorious season 30 years earlier – pushing the songs and soul toward the light, onto the dance floor.