2009 – James Gurley was born on December 22, 1939 in Detroit Michigan, the son of a stunt-car driver, and attended the city’s Cooley high school. His father would sometimes enlist his son’s support, strapping him to the bonnet of a car and driving through walls of fire. Gurley had his first encounter with a guitar at the age of 16 when an uncle brought one to his home, but initially he showed no interest. He took up the instrument seriously three years later, at age 19, initially teaching himself the rudiments by listening to recordings of the bluesman Lightnin’ Hopkins. In 1962 he moved with his wife Nancy and son to the Bay area in San Francisco.
Gurley was drawn to San Francisco’s aura of artistic free-thinking, and was playing the acoustic guitar in a coffee house in 1965 when he was spotted by a local music promoter, Chet Helms. Helms introduced Gurley to the other members of what became Big Brother & the Holding Company, namely the bassist Peter Albin, drummer David Getz and second guitarist Sam Andrew.
The band were never known for their songwriting prowess, instead developing spacey, open-ended improvisations that could be inspired or merely self-indulgent. It was Helms, in his role as their first manager, who proposed adding Texas-born singer Janis Joplin to the lineup in 1966. This was not greeted with unanimous enthusiasm, and originally Joplin was merely a featured vocalist sharing the microphone with other band members, but it rapidly dawned on everyone that the force and emotional depth of her singing made her special. Besides: a few weeks after Janis Joplin joined the band, Gurley began having an affair with her.
Once Gurley and Joplin became involved, he moved out of the apartment he shared with his wife and moved in with Joplin. According to Joplin, that arrangement ended the day James’ wife Nancy Gurley came barging through the front door of Joplin’s apartment. “What an embarrassing situation,” Joplin told her friend Jim Langdon later. “His old lady comes marching into my bedroom with the kid and the dog and confronts us.” Gurley continued his affair with Joplin for a while, but eventually returned to Nancy, who forgave both him and Joplin, with whom she had a close friendship. In 1966, the members of Big Brother, along with their wives and children, all moved into a single house in Lagunitas, California.
The combination with Janis made Big Brother a major success of the 1967 Monterey Pop festival, and Gurley’s intense, overdriven guitar was an audible trademark of their sound. His use of fingerpicks instead of the more common flat pick was a notable aspect of his playing style. The group’s performance of Ball and Chain was a highlight of DA Pennebaker’s film documentary of the event, though ironically they were filmed on a night when they performed a shortened version which omitted Gurley’s solo.
Big Brother’s eponymous first LP appeared on the small Mainstream label, to which they had signed when desperately in need of cash, but help arrived in the form of an intimidating new manager, Albert Grossman, who also handled Bob Dylan and Peter, Paul and Mary. He briskly extricated them from Mainstream and arranged a new deal with Columbia, which released Cheap Thrills in 1968. This was the only Big Brother album for Columbia featuring Joplin. It remains one of the musical nuggets of its era, capturing Joplin at full blast, backed by Big Brother’s tumultuous, albeit less than slick, sound. Gurley later claimed of Joplin that “We transformed her. We put her on steroids – blues on steroids.”
The album topped the Billboard charts in 1968, and made the band stars, but their triumph was short-lived, since by the end of the year, Joplin had decided to go solo. “There were some bitter feelings,” Gurley commented later. “Some people haven’t gotten over it yet.” He believed Joplin had been urged to leave Big Brother by the Columbia boss Clive Davis, who wanted her to use more technically proficient studio musicians. Joplin’s departure knocked the band sideways, with some members touring with Country Joe & the Fish. before reconvening to record a new Big Brother album, Be a Brother (1970). However, Gurley had moved to bass for the recordings, while David Schallock came in on guitar. This lineup lasted until 1972 before disintegrating. During this period Gurley spent two years fighting murder charges, when his wife Nancy was found dead from a heroin overdose. He was sentenced to probation.
In 1981, Gurley started a New Wave band, Red Robin and The Worms. James Gurley played bass with Robin Reed on vocals, Mitch McKendry “aka” Mitch Master on lead guitar, Jerome Jim Holt on Sax, and Gurley’s son Hongo Gurley (from first wife Nancy) on drums. He recorded with New Age drummer Muruga Booker and was actively involved in writing and recording solo work.
The original band members re-formed in 1987. Gurley remained on board until 1996, then left because he opposed plans to hire a new female vocalist, ostensibly an idea born after Big Brother’s playing at the induction ceremony for Joplin at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1995, although he regretted that the band members were not inducted themselves. The band continued with a rotating cast of singers, while guitarists including Ben Nieves and Chad Quist occupied Gurley’s vacant slot at different times.
In 2000 James Gurley released a solo album, Pipe Dreams, which included For Nancy (Elegy), a song about his first wife.
In 2007 the Cheap Thrills album was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame, but Gurley’s unhappiness about the past surfaced in an interview with Rolling Stone, where he complained that he and Big Brother had never been given enough credit for their musical arrangements and studio work. However, a kinder verdict was delivered by Guitar Player magazine, which dubbed Gurley the father of psychedelic guitar. Country Joe & the Fish’s guitarist, Barry Melton, claimed: “James Gurley was the first man in space! He’s the Yuri Gagarin of psychedelic guitar.”
James Gurley died on December 20, 2009 from a heart attack at his home in Palm Desert, California, just two days before his 70th birthday.