One of the first West Coast groups, Quicksilver Messenger Service formed in San Francisco in 1965 and built up a big reputation in that area from their free concerts.
The original line-up comprised John Cipollina, Jim Murray, Gary Duncan, Greg Elmore and Dave Freiberg (who would go on to join Jefferson Airplane).
Jim Murray left the group not long after they performed at the Monterey International Pop Festival in June 1967.
The band then began a period of heavy touring on the West Coast of the US where they featured many times at both the Avalon Ballroom and the Fillmore West
Of all the great bands in San Francisco’s cosmic hall of fame, QMS were the last to sign a record deal.
Tired of waiting for singer Dino Valenti to get out of Folsom prison following a drug bust, they signed without him in late 1967 and recorded a decent but strangely subdued self-titled debut that only hinted at the majesty of the dual guitar work conjured by John Cipollina and Gary Duncan at their live shows.
The band decided to record the follow-up LP live at Bill Graham’s Fillmore West in San Francisco, although Capitol also recorded gigs at the Fillmore East. Half a dozen performances recorded in November 1968 at both venues provided the spine of the album that became Happy Trails.
At the time, QMS were living across the Golden Gate Bridge on a ranch in Mill Valley, where they staged acid-fuelled ‘cowboys and indians’ fights with The Grateful Dead.
These shoot-outs inspired the artwork for the album and George Hunter of The Charlatans came up with the perfect image of the Old West for the front cover. The back featured pen-and-ink cowboy portraits of the band, like extras from a Wild West show.
Naming the LP after the Roy Rogers theme tune, they tricked drummer Greg Elmore into singing it in a cowboy drawl. Yet what preceded this campfire coda couldn’t have been more different. Side one featured a 20-minute psychedelic work-out on Bo Diddley‘s Who Do you Love? spliced together from different live shows, with two free-flowing guitars cross-stitching soaring arpeggios and stinging feedback.
Side two offered more of the same, opening with a tumultuous version of Diddley‘s Mona, while the screaming lead guitar lines on the album’s only studio cut, Calvary, represented the band’s interpretation of the crucifixion. The track ends with the coming of the angels, before the spirit of Roy Rogers takes over. “We were really swacked out when we conceived that one,” Cipollina later confessed.
Duncan left the group not long after Happy Trails – largely because of his escalating drug problems. For their 1969 album, Shady Grove, QMS were augmented by renowned English session keyboardist Nicky Hopkins.
Guitarist John Cipollina left in the early 1970’s, going on to lead the group Copperhead, and later playing in a variety of outfits, from the Welsh band Man to San Francisco’s Dinosaurs. He passed away on 29 May 1989 of complications from a respiratory ailment. He was 45.
Dino Valenti died in November 1994.
In recent years, original members Gary Duncan and Dave Freiberg have been touring as the Quicksilver Messenger Service, using different musicians to back them up.