Janis is back! With the current release of Love, Janis, an in-depth look at Janis’s life by sister Laura Joplin, and an up-coming Broadway play, the woman and her music are as exciting and compelling today as when Janis first hit the music scene in the late ’60s.
Relix recently spoke to Peter Albin, bassist for Big Brother and the Holding Company. During the interview, Albin talked about the origins of the band, their working relationship with Janis, and the aftermath of her eventual departure.
“There was a house that my brother ran; kind of a semi-boarding house for San Francisco State University students in the Haight-Ashbury,” Albin recalled of the early days. “The address was 1090 Page Street, and everyone called it 1090. The dorm rooms were upstairs. Downstairs there was a large ballroom which was not only used as breakfast, lunch and dinner, it was also used as a recreation room at night. We held events like movies, plays, comedies and concerts. It was a fascinating parade of experience that went on, and part of that was the musical creativity that existed in the house. There were several musicians that hung out there, including myself.
“When there was music we all went downstairs. It was like community time. Everyone just came down when they wanted to…it was very loose, but also very creative. Chet Helms was a friend of my brother’s, and Chet wanted to get something going in ‘The Ballroom’ that involved rock ‘n’ roll. The scene was starting to happen, the Matrix was starting to happen, the Jefferson Airplane was starting to get together, the Grateful Dead was around the area [and] they even came to 1090 a couple of times.
“The jam sessions started in the summer of 65. It cost 75 cents to come in. Myself on the bass, a guy named Chuck Jones, who lived there also, was the drummer, and Sam Andrew, who lived in the area…came and sat in, and a lot of people from the house sat in. Sam, myself and Chuck Jones were the basis of the jam sessions – the house band. We would lend other people our instruments and we got a lot of people from the Haight-Ashbury jamming. Probably at its height, we had 100 people attending jam sessions.
“During this period of time…a musician named Paul Beck advertised for a guitar player with one of the local newspapers, and tried to organize the jam sessions into a real bandevent. We started out with the name Blue Yard Hill. Chet Helms got very involved in the management thing and we sat down and wrote a bunch of names on a piece of paper. One of them was Big Brother and down at the bottom of the list was The Holding Company. We just joined the two names together and thought it was kind of funny. It had that kind of drug reference of The Holding Company, and the ‘Big Brother is watching you’ political reference, but we were never really drug band or a political band. It was an odd name for us, but it sounded right.”
Albin recalled when Janis joined the band. “Originally, she came to San Francisco in ’63,” he says. “She came to the North Beach area when the beatniks were on the way in. She played for about a year, had some problems, and went back to Texas to school. [She was] then persuaded by Chet Helms and his friends to come back to San Francisco and join Big Brother. She wasn’t really sure about coming back to San Francisco, but the guy who finally persuaded her was into a romantic thing with her.
“I don’t remember if we tried songs that we both knew or we taught each other some. I think we taught her some originally just to get through an audition. We knew we were gonna use her from the first time she opened her mouth and started singing those great ballsy tones with her raspy voice. We said, ‘This is the perfect person for our kind of band.’ She had done a lot of folk blues. I think she did ‘Going Down To Brownsville,’ and a song called ‘Horse’s Funky,’ which we changed to ‘Women is Losers.’ [‘Women Is Losers’] is on the first album, and was one of my favorite songs. She really made the song hers. The lyrics reflect how she felt about being put down by men.
“There were a couple of other songs that we did before she was familiar with them. As a matter of fact, with her input we even changed the words. One was ‘Down On Me,’ which was an old spiritual that we had originally gotten from listening to a John Lomax recording of slaves washing their clothes in a river in Mississippi in the early 1900s. She liked that sort of stuff, and she adapted the words to be her own and more contemporary.”
Even after adding Janis’s stunning vocals, fame did not come automatically for the band. According to Albin, “We had to start pursuing [the record companies] ourselves. We didn’t really do any demo tapes at that time because we were working a lot. Even before [Janis joined the band] we were working companies around here knew about us, but they weren’t too interested. The only one who was really interested was Mainstream Records from New York. They had come out to audition San Francisco bands, and so we did an audition in front of the owner, Bob Shad, [but] we didn’t really get a chance to talk to him. Chet, who was our manager at the time, talked to him, and I’m not sure exactly what went down, but he didn’t show that much interest in us.
“We had been approached by Paul Rothchild, but we found out later that he was just interested in Janis and not in the rest of the band. Janis was put in a corner – whether to continue with the band or to go with Rothchild and a group he was developing. So we had this offer to go to Chicago, and we got her to wait until we got back to make any decision. When we were in Chicago, Bob Shad happened to be there and he approached us again. He offered us another deal, so we went with his company. We thought that it might lock Janis into the group a little bit better, [but] it was definitely a mistake. It cost us a lot of money. We never got paid any of the revenues from that record.”
After that first Mainstream record, 1968’s Cheap Thrills was released and contained classic hits like “Ball and Chain,” “Piece Of My Heart,” “Combination Of The Two,” “I Need A Man To Love,” and “Summertime,” which Albin remembers fondly.
Of “Summertime,” he says, “I think it was one of our more creative arrangements and more studied. The arrangement was greatly helped by John Simon, who was doing the production on Cheap Thrills. The song was based on the ballad by Gershwin, but we took a little liberty. There’s a part of the [original] song that’s missing [in the Big Brother version, which we] turned into a blues type thing. We added all these kind of classical lines to it. We got some nice comments from some of the relatives of Ira Gershwin when we were in New York.”
Janis left Big Brother in ’69, shortly after the release of Cheap Thrills. Albin said, “It was difficult, from what we understand, for Janis. She wasn’t sure about this move and I think she had second thoughts about it after she started working to put together the Cosmic Blues Band. Sam went with her to be her guitar player. He said that she wasn’t sure she was doing the right thing. On one occasion after the change, Janis asked Sam, ‘If I had suggested that we added a horn section and maybe a keyboard player, do you think the band would have gone for that.’ And he said, ‘Probably.'”
With the Cosmic Blues Band, Janis released I Got ‘Dem Old Cosmic Blues Again Mama. She also released Pearl, probably her best known album. Unfortunately, she died before it was completed, and the song “Buried Alive In The Blues,” from How Hard It Is, remains an instrumental because Janis never returned to the studio to lay down the vocal track.
“She played hard and she worked hard,” Albin remembers. “She was very intense when it came to rehearsing. We all put a lot of energy and effort into writing the songs, into being creative. We rehearsed on Golden Gate Avenue in San Francisco in this warehouse which was later taken over by Bill Graham. We had this huge second floor all to ourselves, and as much time as we wanted. I loved to get into the creative process of developing a song. I had written songs, Sam wrote a lot of songs, and Janis wrote songs, but we all worked on them. The band loved performing. There were many times when we did more than a couple of encores. Early on we did shows that were two, maybe three sets a night. There’s a lot of material.”
After Janis’s departure, Big Brother went on to produce two other albums with various vocalists and musicians. The first album, Be A Brother, featured Nick Gravenites on vocals. He also produced the album. According to Albin, the LP didn’t do well commercially and CBS was hesitant about releasing the next album, How Hard It Is. How Hard It Is featured several vocalists, including Nick on one song, Kathy McDonald on several songs, and Mike Finnigan. Sam Andrew did a lot of the vocals, and Albin also added some vocal work.
Big Brother went through many incarnations over the years. At one time David Nelson became involved with the group, and David Torbert started playing bass. No recordings were made of these jam sessions, and although the remaining members of Big Brother continue to play (even touring Europe with Country Joe and the Fish), it was Janis and Big Brother who shared the blues that sparked a new generation.