The #1 Albums: “Cheap Thrills” by Big Brother and the Holding Company

Written by Music, Popdose, The #1 Albums

Detail from the cover of “Cheap Thrills,” drawn by legendary underground cartoonist R. Crumb


You have undoubtedly heard DJs talking about “Piece of My Heart” by Janis Joplin. When they do that, they’re wrong. It’s properly billed to Big Brother and the Holding Company, the established San Francisco band Janis joined in 1966, and which continued on without her after she departed in 1968.

Joplin joined Big Brother at the behest of San Francisco promoter Chet Helms, who brought her up from Texas. The four members of the band—guitarists Sam Andrew and James Gurley, bass player Peter Albin, and drummer David Getz, did not welcome her at first, although she did her best to fit in. After the band’s appearance at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967, her star power was undeniable, and fans began to anticipate the band’s first major label album with Joplin in the lineup. Legal problems involving an old contract put the album on hold for several months, and live recordings made early in 1968 didn’t produce enough solid material for a whole album. So Big Brother spent three months working up a record that was originally supposed to be called Sex, Dope, and Cheap Thrills. Although the producer assigned to the project, John Simon, took his name off the finished product after conflicts with band members, the studio tracks on the album captured the live sound that made Big Brother so exciting to audiences at Monterey and elsewhere.

Three tracks recorded for the abortive live album made it onto Cheap Thrills. The original album contained only seven tracks and ran 37 minutes, although subsequent CD reissues have bumped it up. Among the classics on the original release are “Piece of My Heart,” “Ball and Chain” (one of the live tracks), and “Summertime,” a version of the Gershwin standard that so incensed Broadway songwriter Richard Rodgers when he heard it that he vowed never to write another song. Cheap Thrills reached #1 on the Billboard album chart for the week of October 12, 1968, and spent eight weeks there in two separate runs at the top.

In December 1968, Joplin announced she was leaving Big Brother for a solo career. Getz and Albin left too, although they rejoined with additional members a year later. Big Brother would release two more albums, Be a Brother and How Hard It Is, before splitting in 1972. The inevitable reunions took place beginning in 1987, although by then, Janis was long dead.

While Cheap Thrills was #1, the band appeared on the variety show Hollywood Palace, where they performed “Summertime” and “I Need a Man to Love.” The clip is introduced by Don “Get Smart” Adams. Also on the show that night: Barbara Eden, Arte Johnson, two Mexican singers and some acrobats from Russia. (Television in the 60s was awesome.) Be sure to stick around for Adams talking with Joplin at the end.

[youtube id=”8npK1q6LY9Q” width=”600″ height=”350″]