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James Gurley – Janis Joplin’s Guitarist 1939-2009

By: J.C. Juanis

James Gurley, the fiery guitarist from Big Brother & the Holding Company, the band that helped propel singer Janis Joplin to international prominence, passed away at his Palm Desert home on December 20th, 2009.

He was 69.

Hailed by Guitar Player magazine as “The Father of the Psychedelic Guitar,” Mr. Gurley was best known for his jaw dropping, frenzied guitar solos in such classics as: “Combination of The Two,” “Ball and Chain,” and “Piece of My Heart.”

Born James Martin Gurley, he grew up in Detroit, MI, and was a self taught musician originally inspired by the recordings of the seminal bluesman Lightning Hopkins. The son of a stunt car driver, Mr. Gurley was once featured as a human hood ornament while his father sped though a flaming plywood wall.

An extremely spiritual man, Mr. Gurley spent four years with the Brothers of the Holy Cross in Detroit studying for the priesthood. Mr. Gurley’s priestly ambitions ended when he met his first wife, Nancy at Wayne State University in 1957. By then, Mr. Gurley was playing in coffee houses around Detroit including The Cup of Socrates. The two married, then traveled to Mexico, and lived in Los Angeles and Big Sur, before settling in San Francisco’s North Beach District in 1962. Both immersed themselves in the flourishing Beatnik scene as Mr. Gurley performed in coffee houses playing country blues while his wife Nancy worked at the legendary jazz Mecca ~ Jimbo’s Bop City.

In Nick Gravenites biography Bad Talking Bluesman he recalled meeting Mr., Gurley on his first visit to San Francisco in 1963, “James Gurley was one of the few people in Beatnik San Francisco who was playing the blues, and I knew from personal experience that he was a strange character. We used to hang out together at a folk music bar in North Beach called The Coffee Gallery, and one day I saw him on the street and he had his head shaved bald and had stopped talking. I heard from friends that he had had a motorcycle accident while visiting his family in Detroit and had ceased communicating with words. The only way he would communicate was with facial expressions. He had a girlfriend who carried a beanbag frog everywhere she went, and they made an odd trio, James, his girlfriend, and the frog. Instead of talking to James, you'd talk to the frog. Somehow, the frog made it all make sense.”

It was while performing in North Beach that Mr. Gurley first heard a young blues singer from Port Arthur, Texas, named Janis Joplin. Like many, Mr. Gurley was impressed with her guitar and vocal styling reminiscent of Bessie Smith. In 1965, through the urging of Chet Helms, Mr. Gurley went to 1090 Page Street to meet with San Andrew and Peter Albin who were forming Big Brother & the Holding Company, and shortly thereafter, Mr. Gurley joined the band. When they needed a singer, both Mr. Albin and Mr. Gurley remembered hearing a young unbridled blues singer in North Beach, the only thing was, Janis Joplin had moved back to Texas. Chet Helms would eventually coax Ms. Joplin back to San Francisco to join Big Brother.

A staple at the Fillmore and Avalon Ballrooms, Big Brother and the Holding Company would go on to perform at the legendary Monterrey Pop Festival in 1966 bursting on the national music scene. With the success of their classic album, Cheap Thrills (Columbia), the band became superstars. However, the stardom was to be short lived as Ms. Joplin was enticed to leave Big Brother in 1969 by their manager Albert Grossman. With the loss of their lead singer, the band never really recovered, going through singers such as Kathi McDonald, and Nick Gravenites and recording a couple of more albums, before disbanding in 1972. The band would reunite in 1987 with the three original surviving members. Mr. Gurley left the band in 1997 to pursue other musical projects.

In recent years, Mr. Gurley spent his time between homes in Cupertino, CA and Palm Desert, CA painting and immersing himself in musical projects. He recorded several albums with New Age drummer Muruga Booker while also releasing solo albums, “Pipe Dreams,” and “Saint James.” Perhaps the most significant recording project was one that Mr. Gurley did called “This Is Janis Joplin,” in which Mr. Gurley took a recording that he made of Janis Joplin during her coffee house folk years and added instrumental backing tracks. This recording was the long lost link between Ms. Joplin’s early folk years and her accent to rock stardom. Mr. Gurley performed in Golden Gate Park in 2005 for the Chet Helms Tribal Stomp honoring the man who turned him on to Big Brother. Mr. Gurley’s last recordings were made during the last weeks of his life as he recorded with Muruga Booker while in Michigan.

News of James Gurley’s death brought out remembrances from his peers such as Country Joe and The Fish guitarist Barry “The Fish” Melton who recalled: “James Gurley was the Yuri Gagarin of rock & roll -- the first man in space! There was only handful of us that created our mini-genre of psychedelic guitar, and James was the avatar who blazed the path for the rest of us.”

Mr. Gurley was survived by wife Margaret Gurley, sons Adam Reisman (nee Hongo Gurley), Django Gurley, granddaughter of James and Nancy Gurley (deceased) Sierra Noel Reisman, sisters Ms. Darlene Grigg, Mrs. Georgee Jarvis, uncle Major Robert Pier, and many beloved nieces and nephews. Services are private.

Plans are in the works for memorial honoring James Gurley to be held in San Francisco in 2010.



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