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Virtual Museum: Janis Joplin’s First Record Contract / Big Brother and the Holding Company Sign With Mainstream Records

Here’s a true piece of music history we’ve just listed: Janis Joplin’s first recording contract, with Mainstream Records, signed by Janis and her Big Brother and the Holding Company bandmates on September 13 1966.

Signature page of Big Brother’s contract with Mainstream Records

From On the Road With Janis Joplin by John Byrne Cooke:

Big Brother was first approached by Bobby Shad, the owner of Mainstream, in the summer of 1966…Shad was in San Francisco to check out the new rock groups. He expressed interest in recording Big Brother, but he triggered all of [band manager and Avalon Ballroom promoter Chet] Helms’s distrust of outsiders from the music business, and Chet rebuffed the offer. Chet’s out-of-hand dismissal of Shad’s interest proved to be the catalyst that led Big Brother to dissolve their informal management agreement.

Soon after parting with Chet, the band took a month-long booking at a club in Chicago called Mother Blues, but Janis wasn’t sure she would go.  ‘I have a problem,’ she wrote to her parents… She told them what she had not yet told the boys in the band: she been approached by a record producer named Paul Rothchild… In the summer of 1966, Paul had sold Elektra [Records] president Jac Holzman on an idea: he would assemble a group of young urban interpreters of the blues, pay their expenses for six months, and see if the effort produced a viable band… Paul gathered several musicians in a living room in Berkeley [including future Canned Heat singer] Al Wilson, Taj Mahal and Janis…They traded songs back-and-forth for a while, and it was beginning to click… Janis was having a good time, but the Mother Blues gig was looming. She had to decide whether she was going to stick with Big Brother or take a chance that Paul Rothchild’s idea would pan out.

Janis wasn’t sure she and Big Brother were going to pan out. She had never sung rock ‘n’ roll before…But Janis liked the feeling Big Brother gave her, the power of it, and she loved the interplay between the bands and the dancers of the Avalon and the Fillmore.  In the letter to her parents, Janis expressed another doubt. ‘I’m not sure yet whether the rest of the band (Big Brother) will, indeed want to work hard enough to be good enough to make it. We’re not now I don’t think. Oh God, I’m just fraught with indecision!’

Janis and the guys in Big Brother had moved to a house in Lagunitas, in Marin County, north of San Francisco. The shift to communal living was intended to strengthen the bonds within the group and make them a true family band in the San Francisco style. One morning when everyone was up and about, Janis told the boys about Paul Rothchild’s offer, and she that she was considering it. Her announcement provoked a shocked response. To [bandmates] Peter and Sam and Dave and James, joining a band was a sacred trust. It wasn’t just a business, it was a commitment. You didn’t just back out after a couple of months when something that looked like a better offer came along. Peter Albin was the one who reacted most indignantly. He went at Janis hammer and tongs, demanding that she commit to the Chicago gig right then and there. Taken aback by Peter’s onslaught, Janis gave in.

In Chicago, Bobby Shad approached the band again, renewing his offer of a record contract. This time there was no Chet to blow him off. Peter and David and Sam and James wanted to go for it. Janis’s uncertainty about staying with the band had shaken them all. They recognized that her vocals were a vital addition to the group’s unique sound. Some of Big Brother’s San Francisco partisans had objected at first to the addition of a chick singer, but as the band’s music adapted to embrace Janis, her lead vocals had become the high points of their performances. A record deal would hold the band together, at least for a time.

The boys argued for accepting Shad‘s offer, and Janis gave her consent. Mainstream wasn’t Elektra by a long shot, but the record would be made now, not six months or more down the road, if the prospective blues band panned out. A more important consideration for Janis was proving herself to her parents. Growing up in Port Arthur [Texas], a Gulf coast oil town, and during her brief stab at college in Austin, she had always felt like a misfit. In San Francisco she found a band and a community that welcomed her, and made her feel like she belonged.  She wanted her parents to approve of her unconventional life. She had written to them enthusiastically about Big Brother in her first weeks with the group. Making a record would prove her contribution to the band was real. It would prove she could take a job and stick to it,

Big Brother’s music proved too out there for Bobby Shad. He wouldn’t allow the band in the control room during the final mix. Still, for all the hassles, the Mainstream deal and the Mother Blues gig did what the boys hoped they would do – they kept Janis in the group. After Mother Blues, she didn’t raise the subject of leaving the band again.

Big Brother recorded some songs at a studio in Chicago and more, later in the year, in Los Angeles. While they were in LA Mainstream put out two songs from Chicago sessions as a single that sank without a whimper. In May 67, Mainstream issued another single; the A-side, ‘Down on Me’, aroused some notice. All of this was before Monterey. After the band’s success at the Pop Festival, Mainstream scrambled to get out an album to capitalize on the publicity.

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This historic agreement—Janis Joplin’s first-ever record contract—is hand signed by Joplin, Peter Albin, Sam Andrew, James Gurley and David Getz of Big Brother, and countersigned by Mainstream owner Bob Shad.

While the seven-page contract, dated September 12, 1966, achieved the desired result of binding Janis Joplin to Big Brother, its terms were onerous, even by mid-sixties standards.  The group agreed to record enough masters (songs) for an album, and granted the label two additional one-year options if desired.  However, unusually, the group was paid no advance on royalties—they were merely promised “Union scale”—the minimum amount the union mandated musicians receive for each recording session.  And they received that only after each master was “accepted” by the label, and had to pay this back out of their royalties.

The contract comes from the archive of early Big Brother manager Julius Karpen.  In 1967, Karpen was fired and replaced by the far more experienced Albert Grossman, manager of Bob Dylan.  Grossman was soon negotiating with Columbia Records president Clive Davis, one of those greatly impressed by Big Brother’s Monterey Pop performances, to buy the group out of their Mainstream contract and sign Big Brother to the much bigger and more successful label.

It cost Columbia a fortune to get Joplin and Big Brother, but the band was fed up with Mainstream and Davis was desperate. As John Byrne Cooke recollected, “Shad demanded $250,000 to let Big Brother out of the contract and he is sitting in the catbird seat.  Columbia and Big Brother have no choice but to swallow their pride and pay him…Following the signing, Columbia throws a press reception for the band…The minions of the Fourth Estate buzz around Janis like flies on honey, ignoring the boys.  They feel left out, but…they sense that the next phase of their career is truly launched.”

Offered for sale with a telegram from Bob Shad to Julius Karpen regarding scheduling more recording sessions and the photographs used on Big Brother’s debut album, and an original Mainstream Records publicity photo of Big Brother.

 

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