One of the major bands in the San Francisco rock scene of the mid- to late '60s, Big Brother & the Holding Company are best remembered as the group that introduced Janis Joplin to the world. However, the band existed before Joplin joined and moved forward after she departed, continuing to deliver their powerful fusion of hard rock, blues, and psychedelia. Formed in 1965, Big Brother had begun making a name for themselves on the burgeoning SF music scene when, in search of a powerful lead vocalist, they were introduced to a blues singer who had recently relocated to Northern California from Texas. With Janis Joplin at the microphone, Big Brother & the Holding Company's profile soared, and after a misbegotten debut album for Mainstream Records, they scored a smash with their second LP, 1968's Cheap Thrills, which went to number one on the album charts and spawned the hit single "Piece of my Heart." Cheap Thrills made Big Brother stars, but Joplin left the group only a few months after it came out, and a revamped version returned with Be a Brother in 1970. The group folded in 1972, but in 1987, the original line-up returned to the stage, and cut a studio album, Do What You Love, in 1998 that demonstrated they maintained the sound and style of their early work while adding a few modern touches.
The story of Big Brother & the Holding Company begins in 1965, when Peter Albin, a guitarist with a background in folk and blues, met Sam Andrew, a fellow guitar player who was well-versed in jazz and classical as well as rock. Albin invited Andrew to his house to jam, and they decided to form a band. They soon teamed with James Gurley, another guitarist who had recently arrived in the Bay Area from Detroit. Chet Helms, a music fan and concert promoter who had been part of the burgeoning rock scene in Austin, Texas, became their manager and they were soon playing open-mike jam sessions in San Francisco. With Albin moving to bass guitar and Chuck Jones on drums, Big Brother & the Holding Company became a regular attraction at the Avalon Ballroom, a venue that was featuring fellow adventurous bands such as the Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead. Before 1966 was out, Jones left the group and Dave Getz took over on drums, and BBHC began looking for a female lead singer. Helms was friends with Janis Joplin, whom he had known from his days in Texas, and persuaded her to come to San Francisco and audition. Joplin's previous experience had largely been in acoustic music, and the musicians were not initially bowled over by her vocals, but they decided to give her a chance, and she first appeared on-stage with Big Brother in June 1966.
Big Brother & the Holding Company hit the road, and after playing a residency at a club in Chicago in September 1966, the band discovered they didn't have enough money to get home to San Francisco. Needing to raise cash fast, they struck a deal with Mainstream, a Chicago-based label that primarily released jazz material. The group hastily recorded an album that largely focused on their low-key acoustic material rather than the heavier electric sound that was becoming their hallmark. By the time the self-titled album came out, the band had appeared at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival, where Big Brother's performance -- and Joplin's powerhouse vocals in particular -- became the talk of fans and music journalists. While the album Big Brother & the Holding Company was widely regarded as a disappointment, their Monterey set (which became a highlight of the documentary Monterey Pop) brought them to the attention of Albert Grossman, a manager whose clients included Bob Dylan, Peter, Paul & Mary, and Ian & Sylvia. Grossman took over management of Big Brother & the Holding Company, extricated them from their contract with Mainstream, and negotiated a more lucrative deal with Columbia Records. Having impressed audiences on the road (they were chosen to be the first headliners when Bill Graham opened the Fillmore East in March 1968), their second album was highly anticipated, and when Cheap Thrills (originally titled Sex, Dope and Cheap Thrills before Columbia got cold feet) arrived in August 1968, it was an immediate hit and would spend eight weeks at the number one spot on the national album charts, while "Piece of My Heart" was a major Top 40 hit.
As Big Brother & the Holding Company's fame grew, Janis Joplin increasingly received far more attention than her bandmates, and after the group finished a summer tour, Joplin informed them that she was quitting BBHC to go solo. On December 1, 1968, Joplin played her final show with Big Brother; fittingly, the concert was a benefit for Chet Helms' commune the Family Dog. Sam Andrew also left Big Brother to join Joplin in her new group, the Kozmic Blues Band, while Dave Getz and Peter Albin joined another venerable San Francisco outfit, Country Joe & the Fish. Getz and Albin's time with Country Joe was short-lived, and in 1970 Big Brother & the Holding Company returned with Albin, Andrew, Getz, and Gurley joined by guitarist Dave Schallock and vocalists Nick Gravenites and Kathi McDonald. They released an album, Be a Brother, in October 1970, the same month Joplin died of a drug overdose (she made a brief vocal appearance on the album). Big Brother toured in support, and How Hard It Is followed in 1971, with the band expanding again with the addition of Mike Finnigan on keyboards and vocals. Sales of the two post-Joplin albums were not impressive, and in 1972, Big Brother & the Holding Company disbanded.
Thanks to the continuing interest in Joplin's work, occasional reissues and archival releases such as Cheaper Thrills (drawn from a live recording of one of Joplin's first shows with the band) kept the legacy of Big Brother & the Holding Company alive. In 1987, 20 years after the release of their first album, Albin, Andrew, Getz, and Gurley re-formed Big Brother for live work, with a succession of guest vocalists standing in for Janis. In 1997, BBHC named Lisa Battle as their official lead vocalist; the decision did not please Gurley, who left the group, while Tom Finch took his place. 1998 saw the release of Do What You Love, Big Brother's first studio album since How Hard It Is in 1971. In 2006, they dropped a live album, Hold Me, which documented a 2005 performance at Germany's Burg Herzberg Festival. By this time, Chad Quist had taken over for Tom Finch, and Sophia Ramos replaced Lisa Battle. In 2008, Ben Nieves took the spot left by departing Chad Quist, and Sophia Ramos dropped out, with the combo going back to using a rotating series of guest singers. From this point on, Big Brother & the Holding Company experienced frequent personnel changes, but Peter Albin and Dave Getz remained constants, holding the group together and providing the link to their earliest days. In December 2009, James Gurley lost his life after a heart attack, only two days before he was to turn 70 years old, while Sam Andrew died during open heart surgery in February 2015. In November 2018, Columbia/Legacy Records celebrated the 50th anniversary of the release of Cheap Thrills with Sex, Dope & Cheap Thrills, a 30-track collection that included 29 outtakes from the Cheap Thrills recording sessions (25 of them previously unreleased), along with a version of "Ball and Chain" recorded during a concert in San Francisco in April 1968. ~ Mark Deming