Ball and Chain
Big Brother and the Holding Company
Monterey Pop Festival
Sunday, June 18th, 1967
If you are reading these pages you already know that the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival, held at the Monterey Fair Grounds in – you guessed it – Monterey, California, was one of the first of the big, multi-act rock festivals of the late 1960s. Held a full two years before Woodstock, Monterey Pop has since become known for historic, show-stopping by The Who, Jimi Hendrix, Otis Redding and Big Brother and the Holding Company.
Right here we have to point out that in saying Big Brother and the Holding Company we really mean Janis Joplin, who fronted the band before she became a household name. Although Janis had been performing and recording for a number of years, Monterey was her debut on the national scene. It was her “coming out party” and introduced her as a tour-de-force among rock vocalists.
At the time of Monterey Janis was simply the vocalist for Big Brother, a San Francisco band riding the wave of psychedelic music emanating from that city. The band had not yet released its debut album and was still more than a year away from releasing its breakthrough album, Cheap Thrills, but had developed a solid West Coast following.
Janis was from Texas and migrated to San Francisco where she lived in Haight-Ashbury and played and sang in local clubs. She joined Big Brother in June 1966 and had been performing with the band one year when they hit the stage at Monterey.
The rest of the Big Brother lineup consisted of band leader Sam Houston Andrew and James Gurley on guitars, Peter S. Albin on bass and Dave Getz on drums. On studio and live recordings it is apparent that this was not one of the musically-great bands in the history of rock. Without Janis they almost certainly would never have been heard on a national scale. James Gurley is often credited as one of the early pioneers of the psychedelic guitar, and rightly so – but at times his experimentation pushed through the limits of listenability, as it did on Ball and Chain at Monterey.
The band’s original slot at Monterey was as the second act of the day and following Canned Heat. The festival was being filmed by D.A. Pennebaker’s crew for the making of a possible movie but Big Brother refused to be filmed without being paid for it. So with the camera’s turned off the band delivered a dynamic five-song set with the climax being Janis’ astounding rendition of Big Mama Thornton’s Ball and Chain. Their set was so powerful that the festival organizers persuaded Big Brother to return the following evening to be filmed performing. They did, but played only two songs: Combination of the Two and Ball and Chain. But that was enough for history.
With established rock stars and other celebrities sitting in the front rows near the stage, Janis Joplin took her place at the forefront of rock singers with her performance of Ball & Chain. The song begins with a glass-shattering, eardrum-puncturing, gut-wrenching solo by Gurley in a previously unknown key. Albin, on bass, seems to be searching the skies for UFOs while wearing the snazziest outfit at the festival. Janis, decked out in a tasteful suit and flats, steps to the microphone for the first stanza which is delivered low and slow as the band thumps along in a bluesy riff. At 1:43 Janis and the band rev up and then at 1:50 Janis stomps on the accelerator. With one piercing scream she serves notice to all that it is she to whom all must now bow down.
Richard Goldstein, writing for Vogue in 1968, said that Janis was, “the most staggering leading woman in rock … clutching the knees of a final stanza … begging it not to leave.” There is no more better description of her performance of Ball and Chain at Monterey.
At the end of the clip, Mama Cass Elliott, sitting in the audience, speaks for all in attendance when she simply says, “Wow …”