They were the best of bands, they were the worst of bands . . . Okay, lame, sorry.
While digging through my extensive collection of ancient relics, I came across two albums I've always liked. They feature the same singer, and share a lot of other similarities, but are still strikingly different.
Janis Joplin left her hometown of Port Arthur, Texas in 1963, at the age of 19, for San Francisco. While there, she found herself slipping into serious drug abuse and, in 1965, returned home. She attended college, and was even briefly engaged to be married. She had left her mark, however, in the Bay Area. A friend of hers out there, who also knew an up-and-coming local band, came to Texas and convinced her to return to San Fran and join this band. Their name was Big Brother and the Holding Company.
BBHC was already pretty well established in their home town, but it was clear that they needed a good singer if they wanted to take the next step. In June of 1966, Janis joined, and history records the rest. They made one album for a small independent label called Mainstream not long after, which went nowhere. But, on the strength of that and their reputation as a live band, they were approached and signed by Columbia records. Columbia re-released their first album, adding two songs Mainstream had left off and putting “featuring Janis Joplin” on the cover.
Apparently, one thing that people remember about Big Brother was how loud they were. It was a point in time where amplifiers were making a leap in technological advancement. The original purpose of guitar amps was to help the guitarist, a member of the rhythm section, be heard alongside the horns in a big band. When rock and roll came along, the guitar took a more central role and the horns largely disappeared.
Guitarist Steve Vai once observed that “volume is tone.” The spirit of “Vai's Dictum” was being discovered by pickers along the way, from Charlie Christian to Chuck Berry to Jimi Hendrix. By the mid 1960's, Marshall, Fender, Vox, Ampeg, Kustom, and many other companies were producing guitar amps with increasing power and volume. The guitarists in Big Brother used them to their fullest effect. And, of course, the drums and bass had to keep up.
Getting Janis Joplin to sing over this, and help write new songs, was a giant step forward. But at no point, despite the widely held view, were they her back-up band. The other members have made this abundantly clear in any public statements they've made since then. They were a five piece band, and she was the singer. And she didn't even sing lead on all the songs. Still, she attracted a lot of attention, and to their frustration the perception grew.
Sam Andrew was more or less the band's leader. He was a good guitarist and fair singer, and usually took the lead vocal on songs Janis didn't. The main lead guitarist was James Gurley. He once stated that his main influence was saxophonist John Coltrane and his 'sheets of sound' style of soloing. This can be heard on the first cut from Cheap Thrills.
Sam Andrew is actually credited with the lead vocal on this song. He and Peter Albin would swap off playing bass and guitar, although Albin usually handled bass. Dave Getz played drums. A lot of people think that Cheap Thrills was recorded live, and the cover even states that the live recordings were done at the Fillmore. Actually, only the last song on the album, “Ball and Chain,” was recorded live. Any crowd noise on the rest of the album was dubbed in.
Big Brother was part of a Bay Area scene that included Jefferson Airplane, the Grateful Dead, Country Joe and the Fish, Quicksilver Messenger Service, and others. Some people have called 1967's Monterrey Pop Festival “The Battle of California.” The festival was organized by music industry insiders from Los Angeles, including John Phillips of the Mamas & the Papas, and producer Lou Adler. One result of the show was to make clear the stark differences between rock music from LA and SF.
There were acts from all over the world, including The Who and Jimi Hendrix from England (yes, Jimi was from Seattle, but was based in Britain at the time), and Ravi Shankar from India, as well as R&B great Otis Redding. But most of the attention fell on the groups from San Francisco, and few if any made a bigger impression than Janis. Many people's favorite moment in the documentary about the festival is Cass Elliott, no slouch herself as a singer, gaping at Janis from her seat in the audience and mouthing “Wow.”
At some point in 1968, they began to be billed as “Janis Joplin and Big Brother,” which annoyed the rest of the band. Twenty years later, the same thing would happen to an up-and-coming group known as the New Bohemians, when their lead singer, Edie Brickell, started to draw attention. In both cases, the singers went along with it, and the result was the end of the band.
A lot of people say that was a good thing, arguing that Big Brother was never very good to begin win. I think they have to be seen in context. Yes, I suppose it's true that they could never get signed today. Their sound is rough and raw, but that doesn't mean they can't play. You get past the looseness and you begin to notice just how sophisticated the arrangements are, and how skilled the playing is.
Now, tell me, who else has the sheer balls to tackle a Gershwin tune? This is from the opera, Porgy and Bess. Here's the original, just to compare:
That clip is from a television production of Porgy and Bess, with Harolyn Blackwell singing and the London Philharmonic providing the music. The opera is from 1935, though this film is obviously much later. Even so, what made Big Brother pick this to cover?
Sam Andrews came up with the arrangement, which is pretty striking. Twin guitars playing contrapuntally, while Janis does the lyric in her bluesy growl. I don't care, this is not a mediocre band. Rough, maybe. Raw. Unschooled, probably, but not unskilled. Cheap Thrills shows a dynamic range that is galaxies wide and deep. They express the kind of passion you can't write on a page of sheet music.
Upon leaving Big Brother, Columbia Records put together a back-up band for their star. Sam Andrews was invited to join and be the musical director. The Kosmic Blues Band included numerous studio musicians that the big wheels at the label liked and trusted, including a horn section that made them more R&B, as opposed to the psychedelic rock Big Brother was known for. Among the musicians was a Canadian guitarist named John Till.
He was the leader of his own band, known as the Full Tillt Boogie Band. (The “Tillt” was in reference to his name, of course.) Janis' first solo album got mixed reviews, and she had conflicts with some of the members, so they were scrapped.
Till was the one person retained from the project. He convinced Janis to use his band, (dropping the second L in “Tillt”) to which she agreed. She famously stated that “finally, this is MY band.” It seems unusual today, but they had two keyboard players; Richard Bell on piano, and organist Ken Pearson. Now, you'd have one guy on keys, and they could do it all from a single instrument, but Bell and Pearson work together beautifully. Till was also a brilliant guitarist.
Brad Campbell (bass) and Clark Pierson (drums) might at first seem weaker than their counterparts from Big Brother, but it's strictly a matter of style. While not as wild as Albin and Getz, neither are they mild. The same can be said for the entire band. They were tighter and more disciplined, but still energetic.
I chose this clip because it preserves the best parts of John Till's guitar solo from the album; that descending figure from high up that comes in the middle of his break. If James Gurley is John Coltrane, Till is Cannonball Adderley. (Get a copy of “Kind of Blue” by Miles Davis and see what I mean.) Plus, being live, it shows the interplay between the musicians. Like Big Brother, they had been around for some time. Unlike BB, they were clearly and intentionally Janis' band.
And, also like Big Brother, they had a wide dynamic range. Backing up Janis Joplin, they had to.
This song shows how well Bell and Pierson work together, and why having both is just right. Full Tilt Boogie was as tight as Big Brother was loose. And yet, both bands burned with passion. Which, of course, was a requirement, considering the singer.
If you are of a mind to continue the investigation, I would recommend checking out “Buried Alive in the Blues” from Pearl. It was the last session Janis ever did, but they did not get the vocal down before she died. So, the band went back in and finished it as an instrumental. The song, written by Nick Gravanites, actually does have words, and it's been recorded several times since.
This is the late, great Paul Butterfield's 1973 version. You can also easily find a version by the composer, joined by Mike Bloomfield on guitar. Many other versions have been done as well, by James Cotton, the Chicago Blues Reunion, and even Big Brother eventually did a take on it. But to me, they don't touch FTB's version.
We'll just have to imagine Janis wringing out the lyrics. In the meantime . . . there is a way to enjoy these two great bands back to back. If you get a copy of “Joplin In Concert,” the first half is her with Big Brother, and the second, with Full Tilt Boogie. It's actually quite a good album, and still in print.