Classic Tracks: Big Brother & The Holding Company's "Piece of My Heart"

Jul 1, 2009 12:00 PM, By Blair Jackson


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Like so many of the people who became part of the bedrock of San Francisco's colorful music scene in the mid- to late '60s, Janis Joplin got her start in folk music. A couple of years after graduating from high school in the small town of Port Arthur, Texas, where she was an outsider who hung with Bohemian types and was castigated for her support of civil rights, she moved to the University of Texas in Austin and joined a folk/old-time/blues group called the Waller Creek Boys, impressing everyone with her gritty and soulful voice. It was an Austin friend named Chet Helms who convinced Joplin to hitchhike with him to the Bay Area in January 1963 and try to break into the folk scene there. She amazed people everywhere she performed with her heartfelt mixture of blues, folk, gospel and R&B numbers, and she even attracted the interest of various record company types, but her hard-partying lifestyle made her unreliable and unhealthy. By mid-'65, Joplin had returned to Port Arthur to clean up.

Meanwhile, in San Francisco, a lot of the people who had been folkies (including many of Joplin's friends from her time there) were following the lead of both The Beatles and Bob Dylan, and plugging in and forming bands. Jefferson Airplane, which included guitarist Jorma Kaukonen, who had played folk-blues with Joplin, was one of the first bands to make a splash on the scene in August 1965. By year's end, there were a number of new bands making waves in what was becoming an increasingly wild and exciting scene, fueled by a combination of youthful enthusiasm and popular “head” drugs of the time, pot and LSD (which was still legal at the time). The Charlatans, the Grateful Dead, the Great Society and Quicksilver Messenger Service were a few of the first wave of bands that played in dancehalls like the Fillmore Auditorium, operated by Bill Graham, and the Avalon Ballroom, which was run by Joplin's friend Chet Helms.

Helms also served as manager for a group called Big Brother & The Holding Company, which formed in late '65, and by early '66 had a solid lineup with two lead guitarists — Sam Andrew and James Gurley — bassist Peter Albin and drummer David Getz. Like most of the first S.F. bands, they played an amalgam of electrified folk tunes, blues and noisy, guitar-driven rock. They were sloppy but spirited — Gurley's vision was that he wanted to translate some of the raw urgency of John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman onto electric guitar, but he didn't really have the chops to pull it off. After Big Brother had played the local ballrooms (and other venues) for half a year, Helms dispatched a friend to Texas to talk Joplin into returning to San Francisco and joining the band.

Joplin caused an immediate sensation around town, and her presence vaulted Big Brother to the top echelon of local groups almost overnight. Her spine-tingling performance of Big Mama Thornton's “Ball and Chain” at the Monterey Pop Festival in June 1967 is widely viewed as the watershed moment in her career — when the music industry first saw what an incredible raw talent she was. But the truth is, the group struggled to make ends meet, and when they signed a very bad deal with Chicago-based Mainstream Records that fall, it was because they were broke and desperate. They cut an album that showed little of her or the band's feral power, but in a matter of months, they had acquired high-powered manager Albert Grossman to represent them, and Clive Davis and Columbia Records came a-courtin', signed them to a lucrative deal and brought them to New York to make the classic album Cheap Thrills.

From the outset of her involvement with Big Brother, Joplin had people on the outside telling her that she was better than the band, that she should go solo, etc., but Joplin was fiercely loyal to the group. The dilemma facing Columbia was, how can we take this ragged, trashy, but occasionally glorious band and make an album that will get played on the radio? Rising staff producer John Simon was assigned to work with the band, and the first step, suggested by Albert Grossman, was to try to capture their live energy at the Grande Ballroom in Detroit. Simon, live recording specialist Elliot Mazer and Columbia staff engineer Fred Catero “flew out there along with the portable recording equipment — a recorder [a Scully 4-track] and this large rotary pot board they used when they'd do the Mormon Tabernacle Choir or whatever,” Catero says.

Mazer remembers, “We probably had guitars on one track, drums on the second track, voices on another, maybe bass on the last one. That wasn't viewed as an impossible thing to do back then. Remotes in those days were ‘get it and get out of there.’ We had some setup and no soundcheck, if I recall. The MC5 [from Detroit] opened the show and [MC5 leader] John Sinclair introduced Janis. I think we did two nights. Originally, when Albert figured that a live album was the way to go with that band, it was set that John [Simon] and I would co-produce everything. But the Grande stuff was only pretty good — and not as good as one needed to make a really good record. Like, the ‘Piece of My Heart’ was okay, but it wasn't like a produced record, which it needed to be to make a real hit.”

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