California’s eclectic Spirit blended hard rock and jazz with elements of blues, country and folk to produce a series of acclaimed albums during the late ’60s and early ’70s.
Featuring a bald middle-aged drummer, a teenage guitar whiz who had played with Hendrix in 1966, a brilliant jazz keyboardist and two rockin’ LA dreamboats, Spirit had it all.
With a visceral subtlety, strong melodies (which gave them a couple of Top 30 hits) and sharp lyrics – like the ecological Fresh Garbage and Nature’s Way – they are one of the most underrated West Coast groups.
The group was formed in 1967 by teenage guitarist Randy California (born Randy Wolfe) and his shaven-headed stepfather, percussionist Ed “Mr. Skin” Cassidy (who had played with such legendary jazz artists as Thelonious Monk, Cannonball Adderley, Art Pepper, and Gerry Mulligan, and had also joined Ry Cooder and Taj Mahal in Rising Sons).
California was given his nickname by Jimi Hendrix, whom he first played with in a band called The Red Roosters in 1965, which also featured future Spirit members Jay Ferguson (vocals) and Mark Andes (bass).
Cassidy and California moved to New York and played with several bands in 1966 and formed Spirit upon their return to Los Angeles. Keyboardist John Locke, an acquaintance of several members, was the first to join Cassidy and California, and the group christened itself Spirits Rebellious, after a book by Kahlil Gibran; the name was shortened to Spirit when Ferguson and Andes signed on.
The group’s unique style, Cassidy’s visual distinctiveness and the idea of a stepfather/stepson combo quickly attracted attention, and Spirit recorded two well-received albums in 1968 (Spirit and The Family That Plays Together). The latter produced their only hit, I Got a Line on You.
1970’s The Twelve Dreams of Dr Sardonicus was hailed as their finest album and ultimately proved to be their biggest seller as well.
Ferguson and Andes left the band in 1971 to form Jo Jo Gunne (Andes would later join Firefall and Heart). Brothers Christian and Al Staehely were brought in on guitar and bass, respectively, but California and Cassidy themselves left after the Feedback album.
California moved to England and played with Peter Hammill, but a concussion sustained in a fall from a horse, and a nervous breakdown, interrupted his career. He returned in 1972 with a spotty solo LP, Kaptain Kopter and the (Fabulous) Twirlybirds.
Spirit reformed for the first of several times in 1974 with California, Cassidy, and bassist Barry Keene.
Their ensuing LPs – including Spirit Of ’76, a double-album released as a tribute to American Bicentennial celebration fever – sold rather poorly, leading to periodic break-ups and reunions. California continued to lead various Spirit line-ups, usually with Cassidy.
Randy California drowned on 2 January 1997 while body-boarding off the Hawaiian island of Molokai. He was just 45.
Guitar, vocals, bass
Ed ‘Cass’ Cassidy