Sam Andrew stood tall literally. He grew tall even greater figuratively. Sam Andrew had this gutsy vision that he was going to gather together some like-minded friends and go exploring the Blues in a way that hadn’t been done before as he found himself in the unique place that is known as San Francisco. When you add in the whole social and political progressive nature of the area and the daring of what Sam was going to attempt to undertake, you had a recipe for an explosive stew-no tabasco sauce needed. The explosion went off simultaneously with the entire ’60s taking off like a shot.
It was when Andrew discovered a female singing talent from Port Arthur, Texas, who was the living embodiment of the definition of “the next evolutionary leap in female Blues singers”, that Big Brother & The Holding Company went from being a Bay Area legend to an international phenomenon. What he had discovered in Janis Joplin was not only the next evolutionary leap in female Blues singers, he allowed a quantum leap, which traced its origins back to people like Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey, to take before the eyes of the audience. So, let’s put due credit where it belongs. Albert Grossman did not make Janis more famous. Sam Andrew was the the one to discover her and give her the proper vehicle which allowed her to become as big as she did. What Grossman did was expand her boundaries in working with other people.
Let us not forget something. Sam Andrew was a monster guitar player in the Bay Area music scene back in the ’60s. He stood on equal footing in importance with Jorma Kaukonen of The Jefferson Airplane, Carlos Santana in The Santana Blues Band, John Cipollina of Quicksilver Messenger Service and Jerry Garcia of The Grateful Dead. Add in the talent of his fellow guitarist and bandmate in Big Brother, James Gurley, and you can get a sense of just how fertile the Bay Area scene was. And since humor and playfulness was such a key ingredient to the music coming out from San Francisco, just what was it in the water that the Bay Area produced so many talented tall guitar players, eh?
There are many examples of great guitar tandems in bands that are too numerous to mention, but it bears saying as it is being said on various music boards on the news of Sam’s passing, it cannot be stressed enough that the guitar team of Sam Andrew and James Gurley was one of the most underrated in all of the Rock music scene of the ’60s. They pushed electric Blues to the limits by way of the progressive scene going on in San Francisco. They were one and the same with each other for musicians. And they both had a tremendous amount of fun doing so along the way. In my mind, they stand equally to other great guitar teams. To this day, I still start smiling and then break out into laughing whenever I listen to the out of print SACD version of Cheap Thrills and hear Sam and James stretch out the feedback frenzy they took part in for “Piece Of My Heart” that goes on for about 5 minutes after the song stops. Most people only know the original album edit that they grew up on for years and have not heard it before. It’s ridiculous, sublime, full of humor and so full of bravado-just like the times from which it came. This was another thing that Sam brought to the table that nobody seems to talk much about anymore. He allowed the whole band to have the ballsy nerve to just let it all hang out like that without a care in the world.
Sam had it all as a guitar player. He was a string-bender for notation. He played under or over James Gurley beautifully. He played power chords or he played subtle chords. He did fills. He was versatile. This is why Janis decided to take Sam with her when Grossman convinced her to leave Big Brother & The Holding Company to what would become the Kozmic Blues Band. Sadly, the Kozmic Blues Band never had a good internal chemistry and it fell apart. This would lead Sam back to Big Brother & The Holding Company while Janis would eventually end up with the Full Tilt Boogie Band (of which one half of Joplin’s fans make the case for being the best band she ever played with).
Speaking for myself, and listening to the albums in order when I was younger and having discovered Janis on my own, the biggest impact came to me by way of Cheap Thrills with Big Brother & The Holding Company. Janis was built for bombast. Even when Janis did acoustic material for Pearl, the bombast came in the form of being brave enough to show both strength and vulnerability to express herself the way she did. Sam Andrew was the one who gave her the platform to have the confidence to do this for the rest of her short but meteoric career. In the beginning, both had the same perfect timing for it to come together to create the lasting impact it did.
I am deeply saddened by this loss. As far as I was concerned, Sam Andrew and James Gurley stood as iconic in my mind as The Golden Gate Bridge and Coit Tower in my beloved San Francisco. They were two tall guys who towered over Janis, Peter, & Dave and created the perch from which Janis could look out from and observe San Francisco society (and, eventually, the world) moving forward. With his passing, I hope he has already taken part in the joyful reunion with James and Janis and that they are catching up with each other. Heaven gained a great one. Meanwhile, down here, the gaping hole has just been made that much wider.