Notable deaths elsewhere

December 26, 2009

JAMES GURLEY, 69

Guitarist helped make Janis Joplin a star

James Gurley, a virtuoso guitarist with Big Brother & the Holding Company, the psychedelic rock band that launched Janis Joplin to stardom, died Sunday, two days before his 70th birthday. Mr. Gurley was pronounced dead at a Palm Springs, Calif., hospital after having a heart attack at his Palm Desert home, according to the band.

"James was the spirit and the essence of the band in its early days," Sam Andrew, a Big Brother singer-guitarist, wrote on the band's Web site. "James was the most unusual person I ever met, a pioneer, a real original...."

In 1965, he was playing guitar on San Francisco's coffeehouse circuit when Chet Helms, Big Brother's manager, invited Mr. Gurley to jam with the nascent band.

Mr. Gurley's spellbinding finger-picking on the electric guitar "proved to be the missing component," according to a biography on the band's Web site, and he became the center of Big Brother's free-form style.

Many of his peers consider Mr. Gurley the fountainhead of psychedelic guitar-playing, which "gets improvisational and goes out to this place where the beat is assumed," Barry Melton, lead guitarist for Country Joe & the Fish, told Guitar Player magazine in 1997.

"The music is kind of out there in space, and James Gurley was the first man in space! He's the Yuri Gagarin of psychedelic guitar," Mr. Melton said.

Mr. Gurley "was the star of Big Brother," the group's drummer, Dave Getz, said on the band's Web site, "and then Janis came along."

As they played informal concerts in a basement ballroom of a San Francisco boardinghouse, Mr. Helms told the band, "You need this chick I know in Austin," Dennis McNally, a historian for the Grateful Dead, said in a 2005 interview with the Los Angeles Times.

"The band went, 'Right, right.' He sent a friend of his to Austin to bring Janis out here, and the rest is history," Mr. McNally said.

With Ms. Joplin joining the group from Texas as lead singer in 1966, Big Brother soon turned into one of the San Francisco Bay Area's leading attractions. Her fierce "blues-soaked delivery provided the perfect foil to the unit's instrumental power," according to The Encyclopedia of Popular Music.

Big Brother became a sensation with its 1968 "Cheap Thrills" album, which featured Mr. Gurley's intense, raw sound on such hits as "Piece of My Heart" and "Ball and Chain."

After Ms. Joplin left the band in 1968 for a solo career, the group disbanded. She died of a heroin overdose in 1970.

Big Brother regrouped in 1969, with Mr. Gurley and Mr. Andrew in the lineup, but after releasing two more albums, it broke up again in 1972.

In 1987, the early members of Big Brother reunited. Mr. Gurley toured with them for a decade but left after a falling out.


COL. ROBERT LEWIS HOWARD, 70

Country's most decorated soldier

A man considered to be the country's most decorated soldier has died. Oak Crest Funeral Home in Waco, Texas, said retired Col. Robert Lewis Howard died Wednesday.

Colonel Howard served in the Army from 1956 to 1992. He was nominated three times for the Medal of Honor, the nation's most prestigious award for combat veterans. He was awarded it once, for his bravery in Vietnam during a mission to rescue a missing soldier in enemy territory.

He was wounded 14 times in Vietnam and was awarded eight Purple Hearts.

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