Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music



(b 19 January 1943, Port Arthur TX; d 4 October 1970, Hollywood) Singer, the most successful white blues singer of the '60s. From a middle-class background, she was a loner as a teenager, taking refuge in poetry and painting; apart from becoming a good singer she was a '60s icon for the way she kicked over the traces after growing up in the '50s, but vulnerability was never far beneath her racy image. She left home '60, sang in bars and clubs in Houston and Austin; by '65 on West Coast; back in Austin '66 (she is remembered in Jan Reid's The Improbable Rise Of Redneck Rock '77 for connection with the gas-station-turned-beer-bar run by Kenneth Threadgill, a hangout for country music 'outlaws'); back to San Francisco to sing with Big Brother and the Holding Company: lineup Sam Andrew, guitar (b Sam Houston Andrew III, 18 December 1941, Taft CA; d 12 January 2015, San Rafael CA); Peter Albin, bass, guitar, vocals (b 6 June 1944, San Francisco); guitarist James Gurley (b 23 December 1939, Detroit; d 20 December 2009, Palm Springs CA), and David Getz on drums, piano, vocals. They became a Bay Area sensation; the eponymous Big Brother LP on Mainstream was minimally produced, but with their appearance at Monterey Pop Festival '67 Columbia bought them from Mainstream, and Cheap Thrills '68 was a no. 1 LP for eight weeks with a no. 12 hit (cover of Erma Franklin's top ten R&B hit '67, 'Piece Of My Heart'); with its cover art by Robert Crumb it is still a potent '60s souvenir. It lives in the memory as a live album, which it wasn't, because of 'Turtle Blues', with Joplin singing and producer John Simon on piano, including the sound of a glass breaking (see Simon's entry).

As a band, precision was not Big Brother's strong point; she took Andrew with her and formed the Kosmik Blues Band for I Got Dem Ol' Kosmik Blues Again, Mama '69 (no. 5 LP with top 50 single 'Kozmic Blues'), formed a new Full Tilt Boogie Band for Pearl '71, which was issued unfinished: she killed herself with heroin, no doubt accidentally. Both the album and a fine cover of Kris Kristofferson's 'Me And Bobby McGee' were no. 1. As a blues singer she did not go over big with blacks: she flopped in Memphis late '68 at Stax Records Review concert; the audience had watched some of the hardest-working people in showbiz, then had to wait for her to stroll on clutching her bottle of Southern Comfort. But there was no gainsaying her inspired use of her voice: she was warned that her full-tilt style meant that her voice would not last long, but took the attitude that she didn't want to be an inferior performer so that she could be inferior longer, and in the end it didn't matter.

Big Brother had disbanded; then Andrew came back and with changing lineups issued Be A Brother '70 (including some uncredited Joplin vocals) and How Hard It Is '71, and disbanded again '72. In Concert '72 featured Joplin with Big Brother on one side, Full Tilt on the other; the soundtrack from a TV documentary '74 was issued as two-disc Janis; compilations included Anthology '80 and Farewell Song '82. Film The Rose '79 with Bette Midler was based loosely on her life. There was a new 2-CD edition of Pearl in 2012, including alternate takes and studio chatter as the band builds the tracks. Big Brother reunited once again in 1987 and was still playing in 2014. Andrew was music director of Love, Janis, a stage show at the Village Theatre in Manhattan in 2001.