James Gurley, R.I.P.: Remembering the Big Brother and the Holding Company guitarist

Guitarist James Gurley of Big Brother and the Holding Company died Dec. 20 of a heart attack at age 69 in Palm Springs, Calif., band manager Tim Murphy tells the Music Mix. Big Brother, a central act in the legendary San Francisco music scene of the 1960s, will always be remembered primarily as the band that launched Janis Joplin’s career with two classic albums. As the band’s guitarist, Gurley, too, was an undeniably key part of that legacy.

Head over to Big Brother and the Holding Company’s official site to read moving tributes to Gurley by surviving bandmates Sam Andrew, Dave Getz, and Peter Albin. Writes Getz: “James was the star of Big Brother and then Janis came along…His guitar playing was original and there is no question that his approach to life and music had a profound effect on me, on Janis, on Sam and on Peter, as well as on everyone in the San Francisco music scene of the 60s.”

You can see Gurley’s handiwork in a 1968 Big Brother recording session (below), where he and the rest of the band backed Joplin on a raw cover of “Summertime.” Then let us know in the comments section how you’ll remember him.

(Follow the Music Mix on Twitter: @EWMusicMix.)

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Comments (15 total) Add your comment
  • Brandy

    Mitch Master was the lead guitarist for James Gurley after the Janis yrs.also was best friends with him for almost 30years.Mitch played lead guitar in there band Red Robin and The Worms (1981) and all the way to James Gurley’s most recent CD “Pipe Dreams”(2000).I like to share with you all what he wrote on his myspace blog about there time together.

    James Gurley RIP.
    (My best friend and band mate)

    Today I am heartbroken, a Father to my music and best friend for almost 30 years passed away from a heart attack Dec 20 a few days before his 70th birthday. His name was James Gurley known as “The Father of Psychedelic Guitar” he was Janis Joplin mate and lead guitarist in Big Brother and The Holding Co.

    I first meet James in 1981 when I audition for his new band Red Robin and The Worms, a new wave punk mix original band. I wasn’t really into that music but I went to the studio any ways when I heard James Gurley was looking for a lead guitarist , he wanted to play bass in this band, I passed the audition and I became the lead guitarist. James was so underrated, he was really a great musician , he received a lot of bad press from his playing days with BBHC from some critics and at the same time to others folks he was there God. When I meet James he was so far past what he had done, all he wanted to do was to be in the now, never the past , never wanted to play his old songs over and over in like a touring county fair band , he was fresh. James taught me so much about the music biz and music in general. The best thing about James and I ? we were best of friends for almost 30 years, we have lived together , liked the same foods , same stupid TV shows , politics, amp tubes, guitar cables ,lol, etc. Yes best friends, now we had are fall outs but always came back stronger . I knew he was good friends with Jimi Hendrix so I always tried to work my *** off on my guitar to make him happy , not easy, he was never happy, well not really, he just wanted me not to give up and get content, give my all and never get an ugly ego , James wasn’t into that . James would stay all hours in his studio in Palm Desert Ca. so much that most of the music would not get out, always wanted it perfect.

    James new music ? Oh so many different styles, nothing like Big Brother music, it was James Gurley, from Punk to Rasta to even some funny hillbilly cowboy songs etc., pure emotions and some added comedy, he was a very funny man.

    In the Janis days James had his problem with the drink and drugs but when I met him in 1981 he was sober from drink and hard drugs , he stayed that way until the end. We were Rastafarian Buddhist , lol, that was our religion.

    James died in a peaceful way with his beautiful wonderful wife Margaret Nelson Gurley by his side, James and Margaret had a wonderful marriage, one of the only marriages I looked up to, they had marriage perfected.

    Oh I am going to miss James Gurley

    I love you James , you know that , you took me in when I was 20 yrs old and I thank you .

    RIP James Gurley ,

    Peace from Thailand ,

    Mitch Master .

    PS My real name is Mitch McKendry James gave me the name Mitch Master in 1981.



  • Rob

    Rest in Peace James. I played “air guitar” with him in the early 70’s when I BBHC were on my turntable in my Brooklyn apartment.
    Joyous moments he gave me….

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  • Paula

    James was a strange,sweet,talented,interesting guy. Brings back lots of memories from back in the day.

  • Randy

    They were an amazing band. Gurley under-rated. Thank you Big Brother…

  • Bill Andrew

    WOW! Sad news. I just checked my email after 3 days of family in the house and loss of practicle use of the internet.

    Sorry to hear about James. He sure provided us with some fantastic moments and more. He was so unforgetable. I remember California Hall, and the Fillmores, but it’s always the Avalon where I remember him the most, shaking the amps and playing so fantastic with the rest of the band. I really missed Hall of the Mountain King when they stopped doing it as much. It was amazing to think about the band and how they all kind of had the stamp of James, Sam, Peter, Dave & Janis and wonder why they were not the run away mega success we thought they were. But to be great innovators also meant they were not ready for tried and true people expected.

    Funny, I had just been hearing more about how unique he was. I read the M. Spoerke book several months ago, last summer. Heard about some of his life after the band. I think there were some real possibilities of reunions etc. .

    Makes me feel all the more mortal to see the greats we have known pass on. Bill Andrew

  • Elaine Trotter

    Check out James Gurley on YouTube – from an interview shot just last September.

  • Bil

    “Cheap Thrills” was the first album I bought. It remains a favorite to this day. Requiescat In Pace, James Gurley. Your music continues to provide great joy.

  • Richard Scott

    Sorry to hear this, he was a big part of the music movement of his time and it sounds like he kept it fresh all the way. Condolences to his family, friends and fans. Try to take comfort that it sounds like he had a good run and knew he was beloved by his own.

  • Bob Hanks

    James was Big Brother. He was an angel already on this earth.

  • Ish Kabibble

    Big Brother was so underrated. I thought they were great and still do. Janis made a huge mistake leaving them.

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