Big Brother & the Holding Company weren't known for their precision as performers — the band was notoriously sloppy on-stage and in the studio, and the one album they ever did with Janis Joplin was so chaotic to record that it was like pulling teeth for producer John Simon to get it out of them. They made up for it with sheer bravado, however, and a wild instrumental style that could carry them past any rough spots. At the center of that style was James Gurley, their resident guitar virtuoso, who was playing with Peter Albin before the latter ever thought of getting Big Brother together with Sam Andrew.
Gurley was the son of a Detroit-based stunt car driver, and one of the highlights of his childhood was serving as a live "hood ornament" during his father's events, riding the front of cars driven by the elder Gurley as they plunged through walls of fire and other obstructions. Somewhere in the midst of that adventurous youth, Gurley took up guitar — he wore out Lightnin' Hopkins discs listening to them to learn how to play, and he learned how to coax new, strange sounds out of the electric guitar during the early '60s, when he ended up in San Francisco and began establishing himself as part of that city's booming folk music "underground." He was already known to Albin for his strange, proto-psychedelic sound on his instrument when the latter started putting together an electric folk band to have been called Blue Yard Hill in 1965. The latter group never quite solidified, but with guitarist Sam Andrew coming aboard during its formative stages, it became the core for Big Brother & the Holding Company, with Gurley greatly enhancing the band's range.
His presence ensured that the group would stand out in concert, his guitar responsible for wilder solo flights during live performances. He was overshadowed by the presence of singer Janis Joplin once she joined Big Brother in June of 1966, but he can be heard out in front on most of the extant live recordings of Joplin with the group, and comes off very well in a restrained manner on the band's album for Mainstream Records, cut in 1966. As with the other founding members, Gurley reunited with Big Brother & the Holding Company in various latter-day incarnations, playing nostalgia shows into the '90s. He died on December 20, 2009, after suffering a heart attack at his Palm Desert, CA, home. He was just two days shy of his 70th birthday. ~ Bruce Eder