Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Avalon Ballroom June 24-25, 1966: Big Brother and The Holding Company/Quicksilver Messenger Service

This post is part of a series analyzing every show at the Avalon Ballroom. Above is the Kelly/Mouse poster, FD-014 (h/t Ross for the scan)

June 24-25 Big Brother and The Holding Company/Quickilver Messenger Service

Big Brother and Quicksilver were both popular local bands, but they were still essentially underground bands. On June 24, this changed. This weekend was Janis Joplin's debut as a member of Big Brother and The Holding Company. While Janis's mark was instantaneous, it still took some time for the group to reach beyond underground San Francisco. Still, the magical combination of Janis's emotionally charged vocals and Big Brother's feedback driven madness was one of San Francisco's principal musical exports, and it began this weekend.

Over the years, there has been some confusion over which night Janis debuted with Big Brother. For many years it was assumed to be on June 10, but that date makes little sense. Not only was Big Brother not even on the bill--although they very well could have just dropped in, since their manager ran the venue--but Janis had only arrived in San Francisco on June 4. Chet Helms had sent a lieutenant, Travis Rivers, to Austin and they had hitchhiked back. Its extremely unlikely that she would have met the band, rehearsed and performed in less than a week. In any case, since the group was on the bill June 24-25, it makes perfect sense that this would be her debut.

Janis had moved to San Francisco in the early 1960s, hoping to make it as a folksinger, and hung out with Chet Helms at the time. Although she was locally known, acoustic folk music and Janis weren't quite ready for each other, and Janis ended up getting too involved with speed, and she returned to Austin. While she laid low, Big Brother seemed to have hit a plateau in San Francisco. They were a creative live band, but no one was a really good singer, and there was no visual focus to the group. The Jefferson Airplane and Great Society both had "chick singers", and that seemed to be the way to go. Various names were tossed about, and its not clear if any of those singers actually rehearsed with Big Brother. In any case, Helms sent Rivers to Austin to retrieve Janis, and introduced her to the band.

It was not even certain that the ambitious Joplin would even join Big Brother.  Ritchie Unterburger wrote that Paul Holzmann of Elektra tried to form a group around Janis Joplin at this time, immediately after she moved to San Francisco.  Supposedly, Janis, Taj Mahal and guitarists Stefan Grossman and Steve Mann actually rehearsed at least once.  Grossman said that Holzmann said some months later that “the contracts made it impossible.” Regardless of the reality quotient of any of this story, it is a clear sign that record companies are hovering around San Francisco ready to jump on the next big thing.

In any case, Janis's appearance at the Avalon was a suprise to many or most of the people at the show. I know someone who attended the show, and she said that Janis's voice "sounded like tape being rewound." Since Janis and the members of Big Brother's had all been folk musicians, they knew a similar set of songs, like "I Know You Rider" and "The Cuckoo," so they had a base of material to put their stamp on immediately. The earliest Big Brother tape is from just a month later (July 28 at The Fillmore) and the band's sound is fully formed, so its clear that Janis and the band knew it was a perfect match.

Although to most of the crowd at the Avalon this must have seemed like another fun summer night at the Avalon with some hot local bands, in fact San Francisco rock was taking a huge step towards going National. Appropriately, the Kelly/Mouse "Zig Zag Man" poster for the show became an iconic poster as well. Now, of course, we see the poster and think about people rolling joints, but at the time pot was still underground enough that this reference would have been lost on all but the few longhairs who would have wanted to attend the show.

Next: July 1-2-3, 1966 Grass Roots/Daily Flash/Sopwith Camel


  1. The blog post reads: "Supposedly, Janis, Taj Mahal and guitarists Stefan Grossman and Steve Mann actually rehearsed at least once."

    I'm told by guitarist Stefan Grossman that this is the case. The story has been told that Alan Wilson, later of Canned Heat, was part of this rehearsal (one source is the book "Love, Janis"). However, according to Grossman, Wilson was not involved. The lineup was as you've stated.

    Thanks for this comprehensive blog!

    - Rebecca Davis

  2. On janisjoplin.net website the concert with Big Brother and Holding Co. is listed as June24/25 1967. There seems to be a discrepancy with the date of the poster that always states it was 1966.

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