The true story of Janis Joplin and Big Brother and the Holding Company

The band made the singer, not the other way around

Big Brother and the Holding Company’s decades-long drummer Dave Getz wants to set the record straight about the rock band that helped define the ‘60s San Francisco sound.

First and foremost, he wants everybody to know that the group known for “Piece of My Heart,” “Summertime,” “Down On Me” and “Ball and Chain” launched the career of Janis Joplin—not the other way around.

“The focus for a lot of people has been how Big Brother and the Holding Company got so much from Janis,” says Getz, set to perform with the group’s current lineup of bassist Peter Albin, guitarists Tom Finch and David Aguilar and singer Darby Gould at The Chapel’s Outdoor Stage on Friday. “That we wouldn’t have been famous without her, that we were just regular musicians or nobodies and she was the horse we rode in on, and after she left, we kind of disappeared. That’s not really true.”

Big Brother and the Holding Company’s pre-Joplin incarnation of Getz, Albin and guitarists Sam Andrew and James Gurley already started building their reputation in The City in the mid-’60s as the house band at the legendary Avalon Ballroom.

The group’s signature “freak rock” sound was rough, edgy and unrestrained, largely due to Gurley’s far-out guitar solos. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Gurley was inspired by jazz saxophonists like John Coltraine rather than traditional folk and blues. It was less about melodies or hitting the right notes, and more about using noise as a vehicle of expression.

Convinced that the band needed a stronger singer, then-manager Chet Helms hooked them up with Joplin—a Texas native who joined North Beach’s folk-blues scene in the early ‘60s.

Joplin would win praise for her tough-yet-vulnerable voice on Big Brother and the Holding Company’s 1967 self-titled album and at shows including that year’s Monterey Pop Festival.

But the band was getting flack for not being “like Eric Clapton or the masterful blues musicians.”

“What’s interesting to me, when I watched Janis’ [Monterey Pop Festival] performance of ‘Ball and Chain’ recently,” says Getz, “is that there’s always been so much criticism of Big Brother and the Holding Company, and if you actually listen to Janis’ performance, it’s not so good.”

What makes it memorable, he says, is her energy and emotion.

“So I think people are very kind to her because they know she’s Janis and what she became and they’re very critical of Big Brother and the Holding Company at that point,” says Getz. “But actually, we’re pretty good. When I listen to the band now, I think this is a pretty damn good blues band.”

Following the success of that performance, the band signed with Bob Dylan’s manager Albert Grossman and Columbia Records for 1968’s “Cheap Thrills.” The record, which hit No. 1, is still widely regarded as the quintessential psychedelic rock album.

While Joplin went on to international stardom as a solo artist before succumbing to heroin addiction in 1970, Big Brother and the Holding Company began working with vocalist Kathi McDonald, and released two more albums, before breaking up for 15 years. Since reforming in 1987, the group has performed in various incarnations.

“Cheap Thrills” has since been voted one of the greatest classic rock albums of all time by Rolling Stone and is in the Grammy Hall of Fame and the Library of Congress along with the band’s hit version of “Piece of My Heart.”

But while Joplin was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame as a solo artist in 1995, the band that gave her her start has never been admitted.

Getz, who lives in Fairfax, says that while the singer did some great work at the end of her career, he believes that her boundary-pushing work with Big Brother and the Holding Company—some of her best—is what ultimately shaped her as an artist.

“Maybe that’s what she got from Big Brother and the Holding Company,” says Getz, “and maybe eventually historians will get that.”

IF YOU GO: Big Brother and The Holding Company

Where: The Chapel, Outdoor Stage, 777 Valencia St., S.F.

When: 7 p.m. Friday, July 16

Tickets: $40


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