The Spirit of Randy California

In the Company of Jimi Hendrix

The date was late July, 1969. We've been flashing back to the Grande Ballroom, where Spirit topped a bill that included one-hit wonders Fever Tree (San Francisco Girls (Return of the Native)). Led by guitar whiz Randy California, Spirit had debuted their first album that past January, with one track, Fresh Garbage, in regular rotation on Detroit's underground rock stations.

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Alas, it being the '60s we don't remember too much about this concert, other than being enthralled to hear such an iconic rock group at that magical venue. With Jay Ferguson, Mark Andes and John Locke joining California and his stepfather, Ed Cassidy, Spirit's music was an inventive mix of fusion of jazz, rock, folk and blues, liberally sprinkled with psychedelia.

The Doors were all right—but for many rock fans in the
late 60s, the band that really mattered was Spirit.

Critic Jim Washburn, Los Angeles Times

Just two years before this concert date, guitarist Randy Wolfe had moved to New York with his mother and jazz drummer Ed Cassidy, the elder having at one time played with Dexter Gordon, Cannonball Adderley, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Les McCann, Gerry Mulligan, Mason Williams, Taj Mahal and Ry Cooder. Already a prodigious guitar player at 16, it was at Manny's Music in Manhattan that Wolfe met Jimi Hendrix, subsequently joining the latter's Jimmy James & the Blue Flames in 1966. There being another Randy—a Texan—in the band, it was Jimi who rechristened Wolfe "Randy California," apparently to help the band leader distinguish between the two. And when Hendrix was called to London by Chas Chandler to ultimately form the Experience, California's parents made him forego that fork in the road so he could finish high school stateside.

In '68 Spirit was backed on tour by Led Zeppelin. Many accounts cite that, in creating Stairway To Heaven, the Zep's Jimmy Page borrowed the key riff from Spirit's Taurus—charges that Page denies. California ultimately penned all of Spirit's hits, including I Got A Line On You, 1984 and Nature's Way.

A month after Spirit's '69 appearance at the Grande, Hendrix was scheduled to play Woodstock. Not forgetting his old friend, California was asked if his group would like to appear before him. The idea was nixed by the Spirit's manager, Lou Adler (co-producer of the Monterey Pop Festival two years earlier), with this short-sightedness ultimately preventing the band from achieving the level of success it should have easily attained.

Spirit's The Family That Plays Together was an impressive follow-up to the group's debut recording, but it was their fourth album, The Twelve Dreams of Dr. Sardonicus, that ranks highly on many "Best of the Era" lists. With good reason, too: it's one of those rare recordings that is consistently great from start to finish. The band continued to languish, however, causing Ferguson and Andes to soon cast their fate with Jo-Jo Gunne (the band's name lifted from a Chuck Berry song).

Various Spirit incarnations came and went over the next several years, Cass being the only original member to remain. After several solo projects, ultimately his step-son rejoined. Recorded at Milwaukee's Summerfest festival, the Spirit In Concert DVD has Scott Monahan (keyboards and vocals) and Walter Egan (bass and vocals) joining co-founders Cass and California. The audio recording quality is sub-par, but this DVD clearly displays the exuberant showmanship of California and the Thor-like power of Cass on the drums. Floydian Slips recommends renting this video for its "feel good" entertainment value alone.

Like the Beatles and Pink Floyd, don't hold out for a Spirit reunion featuring the original lineup. John Locke passed away in 2006 and California drowned in Hawaii while rescuing his son from a riptide in 1997. Thankfully this one video exists of California in his prime, and the Spirit back catalog continues to be available.