Spirit Rises in a Flashback 50
by John Diliberto January 24, 2018
I’ve got our first Flashback 50 of 2018. It’s an album that’s been one of my favorites since it came out on January 22 of 1968. Psychedelia was in full swing, but Spirit brought something different to the sound. They were more adventurous, less wedded to conventional pop song structure and more will to experiment. There were elements of classical music and a more jazz inflected approach that you can hear in their odd time signatures courtesy of jazz drummer Ed Cassidy and the keyboards of John Locke. Cassidy had been in the Rising Sons with Taj Mahal and Ry Cooder. His stepson, guitarist Randy California, provided the signature sound of the group. When he was only 15 California was in Jimi Hendrix’s band Jimmy James and the Blue Flames before Hendrix went to England and fame. It was Hendrix who gave him the name, California. His birth name was Wolfe. The story is, he was supposed to go to England with Hendrix but his parents wouldn’t let him. Instead he went back to California, formed The Red Roosters with his stepfather and then changed the name to Spirit. They released 13 albums and had hits later on like “I’ve Got a Line on You,” “Nature’s Way” and “1984.” But it was that first album that just overflowed with inventiveness, odd time signatures, unusual pop structures like “Mechanical World,” with its whiplash stop-start rhythm, elegiac mid-section, California’s burning guitar and Jay Ferguson’s wail of the lost as he sang, “Death falls heavy on my soul. Death falls makes me moan.” Not exactly the flower power joy of the day. That song holds the seeds of Progressive Rock. The album was also unusual in the string arrangements of Marty Paich who went beyond sweetening to classical drama.
The band came to some contemporary notoriety when bassist Mark Andes sued Led Zeppelin for stealing the pastoral opening of “Stairway to Heaven” from a short Randy California penned instrumental, “Taurus.” The similarity is remarkable, but he lost that suit and Randy may have lifted it himself from a classical piece. Nevertheless, Spirit was much more than that two and half minute tune.
Spirit went on in different configurations to record 13 more albums up through 1996, including a second album in 1968, The Family That Plays Together. They had hit singles with vocalist Jay Ferguson and bassist Marc Andes are still around. They formed the group Jo Jo Gunne after they left Spirit. Andes went on to be a founding member of Firefall and then was a member of Heart for a decade. He also played with Native flutist Robert Mirabal. Ferguson went on to a solo career that included some Top 10 hits. He also composed the theme for The Office TV series. John Locke, an underrated keyboardist, kind of faded away although he played and recorded with Nazareth for a while. He died in 2006. Ed Cassidy continued to play with his stepson, Randy California until California died tragically in 1997 in the process of saving his son from a riptide current in Hawaii. He was 45. Cassidy outlived his stepson, succumbing to cancer at the age of 89 in 2012.
Spirit has been forgotten in the lexicon of 60s music, although Pink did sample their “Fresh Garbage” for her song “Feel Good Time.” They were an amazing band and in a time of forward thinking music, they were even more ahead of their time than most. Randy California was an extraordinary guitarist who took his instrument into mazes of distorted sound and melodic invention. I got to see him live sometime in the 1980s. He walked off the stage came right up to me and played his guitar right into my face.
I’ve got music by Spirit from their self-titled debut on the Wednesday, January 24 edition of Echoes, program 1804C.