Spirit - Biography
By Oliver Hall
Spirit, from Los Angeles, California, was an adventurous psychedelic rock band that ranked with the best of L.A.’s 1960s groups. Many of the band’s musical ideas anticipated those of progressive rock, though Spirit generally handled jazz and blues idioms more soulfully and inventively than their prog followers did. Though the band is best known for the four albums plus singles the original lineup released between 1968 and 1970, guitarist and singer Randy California and drummer Ed Cassidy kept the band going in various incarnations through 1997, when California tragically drowned in the Pacific Ocean.
California was born in Los Angeles on February 20, 1951, named Randy Wolfe. His uncle, Ed Pearl, opened the great Los Angeles folk and blues club the Ash Grove in 1958, and his mother, Bernice Pearl, married jazz and blues drummer Ed Cassidy in 1965, having divorced Wolfe’s biological father. Cassidy was connected to the Ash Grove as well, having played there in his band with Ry Cooder and Taj Mahal, the Rising Sons. Wolfe’s mother began teaching him how to play guitar when he was eight, and he received more instruction from blues and folk guitarists booked at the Ash Grove: Sleepy John Estes, Mance Lipscomb, and eventual Byrd Clarence White. Wolfe started his first band, the Red Roosters, at the age of 13, with his stepfather Ed Cassidy on drums, Jay Ferguson singing and Mark Andes on bass. In 1966, Pearl and Cassidy moved the family to the Forest Hills neighborhood of Queens in New York City, ending the Red Roosters.
Jimi Hendrix gave Randy California his name in 1966, when then 15-year-old Randy Wolfe joined Hendrix’s New York band, Jimmy James and the Blue Flames. Wolfe was Californian, and the Blue Flames’ other Randy (Palmer) was Texan, so on stage Hendrix introduced his guitarist as “Randy California” and his bassist as “Randy Texas.” While living in Forest Hills, California gave neighbor Walter Becker his first guitar lessons, a few years before Becker formed Steely Dan with Donald Fagen. The Blue Flames split when Hendrix left for England to form the Jimi Hendrix Experience, and Cassidy, Pearl and California soon moved back to Los Angeles.
In L.A., California and Cassidy reconvened with ex-Red Roosters Ferguson and Andes as Spirits Rebellious, later shortened to Spirit, with California singing lead vocals on some songs. Keyboardist John Locke also joined the band. The members of Spirit and their families lived communally in a yellow house in Topanga Canyon also shared by Barry Hansen, later known as Dr. Demento, and his enviable record collection. California described Hansen as “Spirit’s musical mentor.” Spirit rehearsed five days a week in the upstairs living room of the Topanga house, and cut a 1967 demo produced by Hansen, on the strength of which they were signed to Lou Adler’s Ode Records. Adler produced the debut album Spirit (Ode 1968), released in January in mono and stereo editions and #31 on the Billboard chart that September. “Mechanical World” was a small radio hit, as “Fresh Garbage,” “Uncle Jack” and “Girl in Your Eye” should have been, but the gem is “Taurus,” often identified as the musical inspiration for Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven.”
Spirit’s next release was the great “I Got A Line On You” (Ode 1968), released in October, which reached #25 in the US Top 40. The single was the first track on Spirit’s second album The Family That Plays Together (Ode 1968), also produced by Adler and released in December. The album’s title refers to the group’s communal kinship, and puns on the slogan of the nationwide religious billboard campaign that began in Los Angeles in the late 1940s: “The Family That Prays Together Stays Together.” The album’s noirish black-and-white cover photograph depicts Spirit’s five freaky members standing on the steps of a $6-a-night motel, and must have looked menacing to those supporters of Spiro T. Agnew who glimpsed it in record bins. “Jewish” is notable for being probably the only song on a US acid rock album sung entirely in Hebrew.
Spirit scored the dramatic feature Model Shop (1969). Adler produced Clear (Ode 1969), Spirit’s third album, which included the rocker “Dark Eyed Woman” and the unjustly obscure small masterpiece “Cold Wind.” Toward the end of the year they released “1984” b/w “Sweet Stella Baby” (Ode 1969), the idea of turning Orwell’s novel into a strident hard rock warning having occurred to California several years before it did to David Bowie. On Twelve Dreams of Dr. Sardonicus (Epic 1970), Spirit worked with producer David Briggs, who produced many of fellow Topangan Neil Young’s best albums and continued to work with Young until he died of lung cancer in 1995.
Ferguson and Andes quit Spirit in 1971 after touring in support of Sardonicus and formed the band Jo Jo Gunne, and California subsequently left the group to pursue a solo career. Cassidy and Locke soldiered on as Spirit with bass-playing singer-songwriter Al Staheley, a recent graduate of the University of Texas Law School, and his brother, guitarist John Staheley. This lineup of Spirit recorded Feedback (Epic 1972) with Briggs producing. Meanwhile, California produced his first solo album, Kapt. Kopter and the (Fabulous) Twirly Birds (Epic 1972), featuring Noel Redding of the Jimi Hendrix Experience on bass, and Jo Jo Gunne released Jo Jo Gunne (Asylum 1972).
Cassidy quit Spirit after Feedback and joined California’s touring band, and Locke followed Cassidy through the exit door in 1972. California and Cassidy collaborated on the concept album Potatoland, which was to have been California’s second solo LP, but the label passed. The Staheley brothers recruited drummer Stu Perry and continued to perform as Spirit; California and Cassidy then asserted their right to the name by also touring as Spirit, with bassist Larry “Fuzzy” Knight. After that 1973 tour, California quit the band again and left for the Hawaiian island of Molokai. Cassidy and Knight put together a new lineup of Spirit that lasted through 1974.
Cassidy persuaded California to get the band back together later that year with original bassist Mark Andes. John Locke also briefly rejoined the band, but both he and Andes left early in 1975. Cassidy, California and bassist Barry Keene recorded two albums for a new label that year: the double-LP Spirit of ’76 (Mercury 1975) and Son of Spirit (Mercury 1975). John Locke, Mark Andes and his brother Matt Andes joined Spirit for the next album, Farther Along (Mercury 1976), though Ferguson did not participate.
The five original members of Spirit reunited in the summer of 1976 for several California dates, though the next LP credited to Spirit—Future Games (A Magical-Kahauna Dream) (Mercury 1977)—was essentially a California solo project. California, Cassidy and bassist Larry “Fuzzy” Knight kept Spirit going through 1979, when California left to resume his solo career.
California and Cassidy reunited to finish the unreleased early-70s Potatoland project in 1980. This partially re-recorded version of the album was issued under Spirit’s name as The Adventures of Kaptain Kopter & Commander Cassidy in Potatoland (Rhino 1981). The original lineup of Spirit reunited in 1982 and lasted through the release of the reunion album Spirit of ’84 (Mercury 1984), which consists mostly of re-recorded hits and was released in Europe as The Thirteenth Dream. After that reunion dissolved, Cassidy and California kept Spirit going through the 1980s with various bassists and keyboardists, most consistently Scott Monahan, who could play the bass line with his left hand on keyboard if needed. Jay Ferguson joined the band for a 1985 tour, and John Locke rejoined Spirit in the studio for Rapture in the Chambers (I.R.S. 1989).
California, Cassidy and bassist Mike Nile recorded Tent of Miracles (Dolphin 1990). Around the time the retrospective collections Chronicles 1967-1992 (Line 1991) and Time Circle (1968-1972) (Epic 1991) were released, the original lineup of Spirit reunited for the third and final time to open for the Doobie Brothers in California. After the reunion, Cassidy and California continued to tour as Spirit, alternating and combining past collaborators Mike Nile, Steve “Liberty” Loria and Scott Monahan. Spirit self-released Live at La Paloma (Werc Crew 1995) and the studio album California Blues (Werc Crew 1996).
Randy California died in a tragic accident on January 2, 1997. According to his obituary in London’s Independent, “To celebrate the New Year, Randy California and his 12-year-old son Quinn went swimming off the coast of Molokai, in Hawaii. A tidal wave caught them both but California managed to push his son away from the riptide before he was himself pulled out to sea. The guitarist's body has not been recovered.” Posthumous releases include The Original Potatoland (Evangeline/Acadia 2006). John Locke died of lymphoma in Oak View, California on August 4, 2006.