30 Days Out Exclusive Interview: Sam Andrew of Big Brother & the Holding Company
This year is, of course, the 40th anniversary of the Woodstock Music and Arts Festival and there is promise of many celebrations to mark the occasion. One of the most auspicious will be August 15 in Bethel, New York, on the site of the original festival: the “Heroes of Woodstock,” featuring Mountain, Canned Heat, Ten Years After, Country Joe McDonald, the Levon Helm Band, Jefferson Starship and Big Brother and the Holding Company. This lineup is also touring the country; check tour dates here.
Big Brother was one of the iconic rock bands of the late 1960s, and with the Grateful Dead and the Jefferson Airplane they defined the “San Francisco sound. ” The band made its biggest splash live in 1967 at the Monterey Pop Festival, and on record a year later with the giant hit Cheap Thrills.
Guitarists Sam Andrew and Peter Albin founded Big Brother in 1965 and the band had some success playing around the Bay Area. Then one day they were introduced to a singer from Texas who would become the group’s frontwoman – Janis Joplin. She wasn’t yet the force of nature singer she would later become, but it didn’t take long.
Today, Big Brother and the Holding Company is comprised of original members Andrew, Dave Getz and Peter Albin, along with guitarist Ben Nieves and different female singers; Sophia Ramos is the most recent singer.
Even as Cheap Thrills topped the charts and was selling millions, Joplin and Andrew left Big Brother to form the Kozmic Blues Band. The Kosmic Blues Band – not Big Brother – are the group backing Joplin at Woodstock, and in this exclusive interview with Sam Andrew, he reminds us this will be his first appearance onstage at Woodstock.
30 Days Out: Can you tell me a little about this new tour? Are you going to do full sets or because you are on a large bill do you have to present an abbreviated set?
Sam Andrew: There will be a lot of bands on this tour, so we will do the hits, tunes like “Combination of the Two,” “Down On Me,” “Summertime,” “Ball & Chain,” “Piece Of My Heart. ” I’m not sure how much time we will have.
30 Days Out: So much of your reputation is built upon the one monster album, Cheap Thrills … in your experience, is that the extent of audiences’ knowledge of you guys or have you found they know some of your other stuff? How do you open the door to the new things, and what is the typical response?
Sam Andrew: Music is a very immediate art form, so if you play something exciting and rhythmic, they are going to like it, no matter what it is. I would say the strongest response to a new tune that I have written is when we play “Hold Me, “a love ballad that shows off Sophia Ramos’ voice.
30 Days Out: I gather that the date in Bethel is going to be a special one … how do you approach something that momentous? I have seen some things that said you didn’t play at Woodstock, others that say you did. Which is the real story?
Sam Andrews: I did not play the original Woodstock. Janis asked me to. I had been training her new guitar player in The Kozmic Blues Band, and she was grateful that I stayed long enough to do that. But I thought, “No, that’s enough, I had better go home to California.” Now, of course, I would have said yes, but, you know, I don’t miss not having done Woodstock. What I miss is not having been on the Festival Express (a train tour across Canada). That looked like a lot of fun.
30 Days Out: Why didn’t they ever put out a live album on the Kozmic Blues Band? I heard you guys were phenomenal live.
Sam Andrew: There are a couple of bootlegs out on the Kozmic Blues Band, one in Amsterdam, and, I think, one at Albert Hall. Both were fantastic gigs. Everyone playing at the top of their form, and Janis singing best ever. At Albert Hall, Eric Clapton was good enough to approach and praise my playing. I thought, “Yeah, we were cooking,” but of course I really appreciated his doing that and we had lunch together the next day.
30 Days Out: What do you think was the thing that made Janis such a great artist?
Sam Andrew: Well, for one thing, she could sing. The “Summertime” she sang at Konzertgebuow in Amsterdam was as good as anyone ever sang that song, and there have been many, many versions. I once played 251 different versions of “Summertime” on a radio show and our arrangement was easily the most original. That’s saying something.
Janis had that natural gift, that naturally great voice. She was born with that, but, then, she was also highly intelliigent and very creative. She had the courage to sing “Summertime” differently every time she did it. Not a lot of singers will do that. They get lazy and they tend to go with what works. Not Janis. She was tough, strong and knowledgeable.
30 Days Out: Over the years, especially in the shows you guys are doing now, how much of the “old” sound do you try to recreate, and how much do you try to sound current? Do you think audiences just want to hear the old sound and the old songs, or do you try to mix it up a little for them?
Sam Andrew: We give the audiences what they want. Smokey Robinson said, “You say it, we play it,” and I take that as a good direction for Big Brother too. But we evolve and change and over time, the tunes alter more than you might think. Plus, we generally have a different singer and a different guitar player who shares leads with me, and usually these people are around 30 years old, so that makes a big difference. Guitar players now are operating at a whole different level from where we pioneers were when we were creating this sound.
30 Days Out: What was the scene like in San Francisco when you guys were playing in the late 1960s? I see albums where you guys, members of the Dead, the Airplane and many others showed up and played … is it still like that now?
Sam Andrew: Yes, all the bands you mention, we knew each other before we were known anywhere else. (Jerry) Garcia and I used to teach music and we talked about that a lot. I was in an art show with Marty Balin long before we had made it. We all knew each other. When we play together now, it’s like having a high school reunion because we have known each other since we were so young.
Now we are in our late sixties, and we have been professional musicians for a long time. We are specialists. There is not that goofy “hey, anything can happen” feeling that there was then. Now we concentrate on our music and work towards giving the audience a good show.
30 Days Out: What do you think the future of rock music is going to be? Will there always be a place for this kind of music?
Sam Andrew: The future? Everything has changed so radically already. Seeing a guitar player do exercises on a DVD is something we could not have envisioned. Electric tuners that cost $ 20 and fit in your pocket? When we began, the tuner, if you could afford it, was as big as a shoebox. That change, seemingly minor to a non-musician, has had a huge effect on the sound. Hey, we’re all in tune now! That wasn’t the case then, believe me.
The Guitar Institute of Technology? We would have laughed at that name then. I think there was ONE jazz book out, and nothing about rock and roll on any bookshelf or college curriculum. We were making it up on the spot, so how could there have been?
Eddie, Yngvie, Jimi, Steve Vai, Paul Gilbert, and let’s not forget the magnificent Joel Hoekstra – these people are all playing in a way that we could not have imagined then. So, ten years from now, whew!
Everything is moving very quickly. Who knows what’s going to happen. So far, I’m loving it, and will probably be loving it then. Will there be a place for psychedelic music of the counter revolution in San Francisco from 1965 to 1970 ?
Is there a place for the music of New Orleans from 1910 to 1925 or so? How about stride piano? Is there a place for that? Is there a place for the bop stylings of the 1940s, or the birth of the cool in the 1950s? How about Errol Garner’s miraculously beautiful playing? Is there a place for that?
Or why stick to recent developments? Is there a place for Scriabin, Salieri, Scarlatti, Beethoven or Mozart? I am a painter. Albrecht Durer still does it for me. Botticelli, Egon Schiele, Vermeer, van Eyck, Rembrandt, all for their various reasons are still so much alive for me. If it’s good, it’s good.
Psychedelic music always sounded silly to me, so I assume it always will.
YouTube: “Summertime”/”I Need A Man To Love”
Bethel Woods Center For The Arts (site of Woodstock festival)