LOS ANGELES – James Gurley, the innovative guitarist who helped shape psychedelic rock’s multilayered, sometimes thundering sounds as a member of Big Brother and the Holding Company, the band that propelled Janis Joplin to fame, has died of a heart attack. He was 69.
Gurley was pronounced dead Sunday at a Palm Springs hospital, two days before his 70th birthday, the band announced on its website.
One of many prominent guitarists to emerge from San Francisco’s psychedelic music scene in the mid-1960s – others included the Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia, Jefferson Airplane’s Jorma Kaukonen and Barry Melton of Country Joe and the Fish – Gurley was hailed by many as the original innovator of the sound.
“I would say all of my guitar-playing contemporaries strived to have their own sound, but I think James was a huge influence on all of us because he wasn’t afraid to break the boundaries of conventional music,” Melton said Thursday.
“What one thinks of that genre of music is that place that it takes you to where the beat is just assumed and the whole thing is transported to another place, and James is the guy who started that.”
Doing things like using an electric vibrator as a slide on his guitar, and picking up amplifiers and shaking them during performances, Gurley created a loud, esoteric sound that was the driving force behind Joplin’s voice on such classic songs as “Ball and Chain,” “Piece of My Heart” and “Summertime.”
“Some of the innovations were the result of the fact he came from kind of a progressive bluegrass school of music where weirdness was encouraged,” said Peter Albin, the group’s bass player.
One of the few rock guitarists to use finger picks rather than a flat pick, Gurley had taught himself to play by listening to old Lightnin’ Hopkins blues records as a teenager.
He was playing acoustic guitar in a coffee house in San Francisco in 1965 when legendary counterculture figure Chet Helms, founder of the Family Dog commune, introduced him to the other band members.
Although Joplin would become the public face of the band when she joined in 1966, Albin recalled Gurley as being the true force of nature who introduced the other members to alternative lifestyles, psychedelic drugs and musical innovation.
“He was very influential to the whole band early on and even later, just by being a guy who had strange tastes and played guitar in a very bizarre manner,” Albin told The Associated Press.
When he first met Gurley, Albin said, the guitarist was living in a walk-in closet with his wife and young son and told him that before that he’d lived in a cardboard house along the California coast and with indigenous people in the mountains of Mexico, where he had taken part in hallucinogenic religious ceremonies.
After Joplin left Big Brother in 1968, the group disbanded but has since reformed and continues to perform to this day. Gurley, however, left for good in the late 1990s after a falling out with the other members.
Born in Detroit in 1939, Gurley was the son of a stunt-car driver and, according to the band’s website, would sometimes perform as a “human hood ornament” when his father drove a car through a flaming plywood wall.
After leaving Big Brother, he lived quietly in Palm Desert, occasionally working on solo projects. He released the album “Pipe Dreams” in 2000.
He is survived by his wife, Margaret, and sons Hongo and Django.
Band members plan to hold a memorial sometime next month in San Francisco.