Sam Andrew Interview
An interview with Sam Andrew of Big Brother and the Holding Company
This past year around Mother’s Day Big Brother and the Holding Company played two sold out shows in Saint Cloud and one in Zumbrota. After talking to many promoters and venues around town I haven’t found anyone yet who can help to bring them up to Duluth, but they do play again in Saint Cloud this October 14th and 15th.
Those are much smaller venues than the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967, where Janis Joplin was unveiled to the world, or being the house band of the Avalon Ballroom in the mid-sixties.
There are very few people who don’t know who Janis Joplin was, but do you know Sam Andrew? He was and still is the lead guitarist for the band Joplin was in called Big Brother and the Holding Company. He also continued to play with her when she left the band and still carries on a great legacy of what they created together.
“Suffice it to say,” Sam Andrew said. “That we still play, some years more than ever, all over the world and I have about ten singers and five to ten guitar players… And all of them are better than we ever were.”
Big Brother and the Holding Company or BBHC wrote one of the greatest rock songs ever in “Combination of the Two”. Most people remember it for the scene in Fear & Loathing when they are speeding through the desert early in the film. I asked Sam, the song’s writer, about his inspiration in writing it and if the guitar parts in the song played into his and fellow BBHC guitarist James Gurley’s strengths.
“There is a book somewhere of Beatles’ songs and they explain how they came to write them,” Sam said. “Sometimes I think, “How did they ever get there by starting there.” When I tell you that the primary inspiration for “Combination of the Two” was “Ain’t That Peculiar” by Marvin Gaye and Tami Terrell, you might have the same impression. Most works of art start with a tiny germ, spark, idea, what have you, and then they are worked out, and become original. Those chord changes are truly loopy, but they work, and the A part (James’ solo) I originally heard as a kind of flamenco riff. I still play a very “Arab, Hebrew, Greek, Mediterranean” scale over those changes. A Bb C C# D E F G A.
On the album Cheap Thrills there is a pause during the intro of "Ball and Chain". It reminded me of Otis Redding stopping the music and letting the crowd’s enthusiasm build in his song, “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long”.
“(The pause) was because the guitar player at first did not have the courage to jump into the song,” Sam said. “Then, later, as a kind of joke, James would hold back and make the audience wonder what was going to happen. Talk about a pregnant pause. I still try to get our guitar players to do this, and most of them are afraid to prolong the suspense for more than a few seconds. They don’t understand how powerful that is. At our last show in St. Cloud, a guitar player did not realize that he was supposed to start the song, and so that pause was extended to THREE MINUTES. The suspense was at first unbearable, then it was hilarious. What a great piece of theatre. Do you think I could get him to do that same thing the next night? No way. As soon as he knew that he was supposed to play the next note, it was all I could do to restrain him from playing it immediately. And people wonder why I withhold information sometimes!”
Everyone knows BBHC’s mega hit song "Piece of my Heart". I asked Sam about how the song entered into the band’s repertoire.
“Classic Hollywood story of Jack Cassidy coming to the band and saying, “Hey, you have to do this song by Erma Franklin. It’s perfect for Janis’ voice and you can really do something with this.” Scenes like this are all too rare in real life, but this one really happened,” Sam said.
One DVD that has been released about BBHC with lots of live footage is titled Nine Hundred Nights. In the video Sam talked about his relationship with Janis when she left Big Brother as being associated with drugs. I asked Sam how he got through that difficult point in his life.
“Jimmy Page recommended a book to me: Diary of a Drug Fiend by Aleister Crowley,” Sam said. “Wonderful book… You could tell when he described his ascent into narcotic paradise that he had really been there, so when he went on to describe his descent into the infernal maelstrom of addiction and then recovery, I was with him all the way. The book saved my life, and people wonder why I love books so much.”
There was a big change when the 1970s came around for popular music and the whole hippie culture. For someone who saw the times through the eyes of a famous guitar player in a popular band Sam described the change in detail.
“Every thing was running out of gas,” Sam said. “Cutting our hair. Needing a new paradigm and not finding one. Disco. Contracts. Specialization. Professionalism. The need to return to the academic womb. Small concert venues in “groovy” places changed to stadium shows in concrete and steel. Lawyers take over the world.”
So how does Sam carry on Janis’ legacy after she passed away in 1970?
“By being sincere about music,” Sam said. “Trying to do her (our) songs with feeling and increasing competence.”
Most people are familiar with the mythic figure that Janis Joplin is known as today. I asked Sam his opinion of how Joplin is seen today as opposed what he knew.
“Janis was the most talented person to come out of that San Francisco scene. Big Brother had a wild, experimental, eclectic streak that was very prominent before Janis came to the band, and continued after she left. We made two, I think, very good albums without Janis. Now Janis has become a cultural icon… Far more famous now than when she was alive.”
Listening to BBHC’s music one thing that stands out are the different styles of guitar that Sam plays as opposed to James Gurley.
“James was Dionysius, and I was Apollo,” Sam said. “He was madness, and I was reason. He was intuitive. I was learned. He was Romantic. I was Classic. But, hey, there was a lot of overlap. Sometimes I can’t tell who is playing. We were both crazy, that’s for sure. James was more into pure sound, sound without context, just pure sound, than anyone else in the scene except serious classical atonal composers. Jimi Hendrix had done his homework. He knew his scales, chords, songs, structures and had put in a loooong time learning them. I loved Jimi. I can’t say enough about him. Jimi was the culmination of a long tradition, where James was a complete individual, alone, on his own path. It’s amazing he was ever in a band, really. He's like one of those hermit nature boys from the 1950s.”
During my years attending St. Cloud State University one band that really stood out was a Led Zeppelin coverband called Blimp. The lead singer, Stacy Bauer, had dread locks and was more like Robert Plant than even he was. When BBHC come to town she is now their singer.
“I love Stacy,” Sam said. “She has the special kindness of Minnesota, the humor, the courage, the warmth. I love lead singers in general. They are all funny, loud and full of life.”
The era I find most fascinating is from 1965 to 1967 in San Francisco. I asked Sam what made it that way and why the ballroom scene was so successful at that time.
“Well, I could write a novel, a play, a song, or even a couple of inadequate sentences,” Sam said. “It was messy. We were stumbling in the dark, unsure where things were supposed to go. Unsure what was right and what was wrong. What was essential and what was trivial. There was a big feeling of promise and possibility. With the ballroom scene it came because people had been listening to jazz at its cerebral stage. It was time to stand up and move around. Everyone danced. A lot of people making very silly movements will make you laugh and have a very good time.”
One thing that made the ballroom shows at the Fillmore West and Avalon so uniquely spectacular were their liquid light shows. So how did those shows compare to the giant electronic backdrops of modern bands?
“Computers. Digital. Beautiful stuff now,” Sam said. “The original light shows were slow, analog, brand new, with a lot of character and individuality. If you get a chance to see any of Bill Ham’s shows from then, and I don’t even know if they are on film, you can compare the speed with now. Bill moved very slowly. It was like a kaleidoscope slowly shifting, revealing, and morphing.”
One thing you may have read if you follow my columns is that I collect and love Fillmore and Avalon concert posters from the 60s. I have a large collection that includes the concert poster from Janis Joplin’s first show with BBHC in 1966. I asked what Sam thought about the art work and the posters of that era.
”Which one,” Sam asked? “They were extremely diverse. There was no school, no trend. Anything you can say in general about the poster art then will be foolish, because immediately ten exceptions to what you just adumbrated will appear. Complete freedom. The entire canon of world art was ransacked to create these amazing works. They will be important long after the music has become quaint. Think of Toulouse-Lautrec. Have you listened to the music that he was listening to when he did his amazing work? It's great music, but what is more alive and vital today, the music or the art?”
The Avalon Ballroom was run by a friend of Joplin’s and fellow Texan named Chet Helms. He led a group of hippies known as The Family Dog and Sam remembers him fondly.
“I have written voluminously on this subject,” Sam said. “I loved Chet. He was the Big Brother in Big Brother. He brought us James, he brought us Janis, he brought us our first gigs, he named us, and he was our manager. He and I were roommates through a lot of this period. We talked about God and the Universe a lot.”
So who still tours with Big Brother and the Holding Company?
“One member is dead. Another member lives in the desert. Peter Albin, bass, Dave Getz, drums, and I, voice, guitar, composer are still trundling along having a good time, and trying to make everyone else have a good time.”