James Gurley

James Gurley, King of the Psychedelic Guitar

Andrew Olson

Reader Weekly

On December 20th James Gurley of Janis Joplin’s band Big Brother and the Holding Company passed away.

Gurley, one of the founders of Big Brother, was known in most circles as the King of the Psychedelic Guitar. This was due to his unique style that was mastered in the ballroom scene and acid tests ofSan Francisco. He retired from the band a few times over the years and struggled with addiction and life after Big Brother.

“It is with heavy heart that the original remaining members of Big Brother & the Holding Company announce the passing of James Gurley,” Peter Albin (Bass) of Big Brother said. “He died at home of a heart attack on Sunday, December 20th. Our hearts go out to his dear wife, Margaret Nelson Gurley, his sons, Hongo Ishi Gurley, Django Gurley, and his sisters. There will be a memorial for James in San Francisco sometime in January. We will dearly miss this gentle person who was one of the most unique guitarists of our time.”

Sam Andrew, the other guitar player and songwriter of Big Brother and Kosmic Blues Band had some kind memories to share.

“I wrote about James just this last week that at The Maritime Hall in San Francisco, sixteen years ago, he played such great solos at our benefit for Chet Helms. He was on fire that night, and we have that on video tape so there will be no doubt about it. When conditions were right, the man could really play. James was the most unusual person I ever met, a pioneer, a real original, a very funny man and truly alive with an energy that not many people have. When James was around, life seemed to be magnified. Everything was more interesting, had more meaning, and was more vital. He kept that energy right up to now, really. He and I did a set of interviews together in San Diego at the beginning of last summer and he was as wry and spry as ever.”

Sam continued.

”When Big Brother lived at our Lagunitas house a few miles from where I am sitting, we all had our first Christmas together, I think it was it 1967. We both had birthdays right around this time and James handed me a small present and growled, “Let’s put the X back in X-mas.” It was a bah-humbug moment that I know he would truly appreciate now. James has gone to the great X two days shy of his birthday, and two days after mine,” Sam added. “For me and for many people, James was the real 1960s, the real exemplar of that counterculture, the forerunner. Peter Albin, Chet Helms and I founded Big Brother and the Holding Company, but James was the spirit and the essence of the band in its early days. He showed us the way as a Zen master would show the way, without sermons, without lectures, with as little talk, but with as much humor as possible.”

While the band reunited in the 1990s for a ten year span, Big Brother never had the opportunity to join each other on stage for one last show. It is an injustice that Gurley was never inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of fame with the band he helped create, Big Brother and the Holding Company. It doesn’t seem right that Janis Joplin is in there, but the people who created and cultivated her talent are not.

”When I met James in 1965, he was going to die in two weeks,” Sam said. “Of pleurisy… It was always something. James was such a hypochondriac that I was sure he was going to outlive all of us. Now he is gone.”