Spirit is not exactly a forgotten band. Two of its songs, “I Got a Line on You” and “Nature’s Way,” have been constants on classic-rock radio playlists. Beyond those tunes, however, the typical rock fan probably hasn’t heard much from a group whose first four LPs rank among the best of the late ’60s and early ’70s. Perhaps Spirit’s eclecticism ended up limiting its appeal. At times its music could be pegged as progressive or hard rock, but it also included elements of jazz, folk, and even classical music. For all its ambition, Spirit wrote memorable songs that should have led to a much larger following.
Spirit’s story begins with Randolph Craig Wolfe, who was born in Los Angeles, California, in 1951 and began playing guitar before he hit his teen years. His uncle, Ed Pearl, owned Ash Grove, a folk club in Hollywood that also featured jazz and rock music. Wolfe’s mom, Bernice, was Pearl’s sister, and met drummer Ed Cassidy at the Ash Grove when he played there in 1965 with blues singer Taj Mahal. They married, and Cassidy, whose background was mainly in jazz, took an interest in his stepson’s band, the Red Roosters. Jay Ferguson was the singer in that band, and Mark Andes played bass. Both musicians were several years older than Wolfe. Cassidy was in his early 40s.
When Cassidy moved with his family to New York City in 1966 for work, Wolfe met a guitarist named Jimmy James at Manny’s Music, a popular shop in Midtown Manhattan. James asked Wolfe to join his band, Jimmy James and the Blue Flames, which was playing at the Cafe Wha? in Greenwich Village. James called his new guitarist “Randy California,” a name the young man kept when he pursued his own music career. Jimmy James—real name, James Marshall Hendrix—would soon become known professionally as Jimi Hendrix.
By the time Cassidy moved the family back to the West Coast in 1967, Hendrix was in England. Randy California renewed his friendships with Ferguson and Andes and started another band with them. Ferguson and Andes had met keyboard player John Locke while they were at UCLA, and Cassidy joined the band on drums. Locke had a jazz background and had previously played with Cassidy. The new group called itself Spirits Rebellious, after the English translation of a book by Kahlil Gibran. The name was soon shortened to Spirit.
William Ruhlmann’s liner notes to the 1991 two-CD Spirit compilation Time Circle (1968–1972) included a quote from Cassidy that helps explain how the band’s unique style developed. “I didn’t want the band to be a jazz band, I only wanted them to write their interpretation of jazz,” Cassidy told Ruhlmann, “and I didn’t want the band to be primarily a rock band, I wanted them to write their version and their interpretation of rock.” In addition to playing drums, Cassidy brought a visual flair to the band. He shaved his head, dressed in black, and used two parade bass drums, which he set up on either side of his drum kit.
Spirit began rehearsing and writing songs at Locke’s house in Topanga Canyon and soon started a weekly residency at the Ash Grove. “We got the dead night, Monday,” Locke told Mojo magazine in an interview for a February 2004 article about the band. “It started out just being a scattering of people, but after a few months, it was sold out . . . and started to make a name for the band.”
Spirit’s live act caught the attention of record executive Lou Adler, who had been instrumental in the success of The Mamas & the Papas, among other acts, and was helping to organize the Monterey Pop Festival. A friend of the group, Barry Hansen, who would later become radio personality Dr. Demento, recorded a demo tape for them and Adler signed Spirit to his new label, Ode Records, in August 1967. Spirit began recording its debut later that month, and completed the album in mid-November. Randy California was still only 16 years old.
After Spirit finished the recording, Adler brought in arranger Marty Paich to sweeten the tracks. Paich had extensive experience as an arranger in jazz and film music, but the band was dismayed by the sound of its debut. “Lou never told us he was going to add orchestrations,” Jay Ferguson told Mojo. “We walked into the playback and our jaws just dropped.”
Ode Records released Spirit in January 1968. From this distance, the band’s concerns about Paich’s arrangements seem unjustified. He only added to a few tracks and his enhancements were never intrusive. The album itself shows how open to risk-taking and unpredictability rock’n’roll was in 1967. It was the year of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, The Doors’ eponymous debut, Hendrix’s Are You Experienced, and many other surprising and challenging LPs. Those albums were pushing the boundaries of pop music, and Spirit fit into that mood of change.
Jay Ferguson wrote seven of the album’s eleven songs, and cowrote two others. “Fresh Garbage” opens with a hint of jazz, but California’s fuzz-toned guitar riffs pull it into psychedelia. An instrumental interlude features Locke and veers fully into jazz. Ferguson’s lyrics call attention to consumerism and its impact on the environment, themes the band would touch on again. California, astonishingly accomplished at 16, already had a unique and fully developed guitar style.
“Uncle Jack” demonstrates the band’s smart use of well-arranged harmony vocals, which owe something to the Beatles and, to a somewhat lesser extent, the Beach Boys. “Girl in Your Eye” is a charming bit of late-1960s psychedelic rock, with an electric sitar setting the tone. I hear touches of both Buffalo Springfield and Moby Grape in “Straight Arrow,” and songs like “Topanga Windows” and “Water Woman” are good examples of Southern California rock of that period.
Spirit had a recognizable band identity on its debut, because the players had distinctive styles and the songs moved in unexpected directions. Locke’s “Elijah,” by far the longest track on Spirit, is also the most experimental. Its ten minutes manage to incorporate rock, free jazz, and bebop. The band’s chops are on full display, particularly Andes’s bass playing. Cassidy's jazz background helped when the band veered in that direction, but he was able to move convincingly into rock, even after years of jazz drumming.
Randy California wrote one track for the album, “Taurus,” for which Paich did a string arrangement. The song would be the subject of a court case more than 50 years later, but we’ll come back to that story.
When Spirit entered the recording studio in March 1968 to record a second album, the musicians told Adler they wanted a harder, more resolutely rocking sound. Adler told the band it needed a hit single. California sat down and cranked out “I Got a Line on You,” one of the band’s most popular songs and one of the best tunes of the late 1960s. California plays what would soon be an iconic guitar riff against firmly stated piano chords from Locke. Andes provides a rhythmically solid, rolling bass line, and Ferguson’s lead vocal is supported by the group’s increasingly impressive vocal harmonies.
“I Got a Line on You” led off The Family That Plays Together, Spirit’s second album, which Ode released in December 1968. California stepped up on the album to be a writer or cowriter on five of its eleven tracks. “It Shall Be” has a touch of bossa nova that showcases Spirit’s versatility, and “Darlin’ If” is a gorgeous midtempo ballad, aided by Paich’s tasteful string arrangement and Locke’s dynamic piano playing. California and Cassidy cowrote “It’s All the Same,” where the guitarist provides another series of memorable guitar lines and a powerful, multitracked guitar solo that solidified his guitar-hero status.
California also wrote “Jewish,” using the words from “Hine Ma Tov,” a hymn sung at Shabbat. “Jewish” is an unusual blend of Middle Eastern musical scales, psychedelic rock, and jazz. “It’s All the Same” suggests that California could summon a great guitar riff at will for his own songs, but he brought that skill to other songs on the album, especially Ferguson’s “Poor Richard” and “Aren’t You Glad.”
Ferguson penned six of the album’s songs, including “Silky Sam” and “Drunkard,” which used studio effects to give the music drama and sonic depth. “Dream within a Dream” is prime late-1960s California rock, featuring a ripping guitar riff from Randy California and expansive vocal harmonies. Spirit had apparently grown comfortable with Paich as an arranger, and perhaps collaborated with him. His work on The Family That Plays Together enhances the songs and never feels heavy-handed.
While the band was playing in a Los Angeles club in 1968, Spirit caught the attention of Jacques Demy. The French director was in town shooting a film, and was looking for a band that would embody late-1960s Los Angeles. He hired Spirit to write the soundtrack music and appear in the film. The soundtrack for Model Shop didn’t see release until 2005, when Sundazed Music made it available on vinyl and CD. It’s a mostly instrumental album that is a good example of the band’s command of various musical styles, but is only essential for completists.
Model Shop stiffed at the box office, but Lou Adler had already backed away from releasing the movie’s soundtrack by that time. Unfortunately, he had a contractual obligation to issue some of the music Spirit had recorded for the film. When the band went into the studio in the spring of 1969 to record a follow-up to The Family That Plays Together, Adler ended up producing a record that was a combination of new songs and reworked instrumental tracks from Model Shop. “It was partially a soundtrack for the Jacques Demy film . . . and partially some new songs,” Ferguson told Mojo in 2004. “It never felt satisfying to any of us.”
Ode released Clear in September 1969. Despite its origins, Clear is a worthwhile part of Spirit’s early discography. California and Ferguson cowrote “Dark Eyed Woman,” and, once again, California crafted a memorable guitar riff in service of a strong melody and a radio-friendly hook. His solo solidifies his stature as one of the great guitarists of the 1960s. “Apple Orchard,” a full-band songwriting collaboration, is a heavy blues tune that would have done Led Zeppelin or Cream proud.
“So Little Time to Fly” is a skillful slice of psychedelia, driven by Locke’s rollicking electric piano and an arrangement that gradually adds layers of instrumentation as the song grows in intensity. “Ground Hog” injects a bit of humor into the album and comes off as an affectionate parody of British blues. “Cold Wind” is as close as Spirit came to outright prog rock, with touches of classical music and late-1960s acid rock. “Policeman’s Ball” is a comment on police excess at the 1968 Chicago Convention, done in an electrified, fuzz-toned, jug-band style that uses a kazoo to great comedic effect.
Locke is featured on electric piano on “Ice,” which also includes a strong solo from California that deftly balances hard rock and jazz. The pianist contributed another instrumental, “Caught.” Both tracks benefit from Locke’s keyboard skills and the band’s genre-bending talents, but they’re clearly meant to accompany images on film, as is the title track.
Adler shares credit with California on “Give a Life, Take a Life,” an enjoyable piece of psychedelia with lushly arranged vocal harmonies. Ferguson’s “I’m Truckin’” is a vibrant rocker, and the closing track, “New Dope in Town,” is a band composition that exhibits how Spirit’s abilities as players matched their sometimes grand musical ideas. Locke’s piano playing is brilliant throughout, and California blazes on guitar. The tune is a mini suite in three sections that moves effortlessly from jazz to rock. All three tunes, along with side 1 of Clear, suggest a better album would have resulted if Adler’s restrictions hadn’t been imposed on the band.
Spirit’s first two LPs placed in the top 40 in the album charts, but Clear stalled at number 55. The band tried for a hit with “1984,” a tune that appeared later on The Best of Spirit (1973). Ode released the single in December 1969, but didn’t promote it, probably because the label was ending a distribution agreement with Epic Records, a subsidiary of Columbia. A series of business decisions by Adler led to Spirit moving to Epic to record its fourth album.
With Adler gone, the band needed a new producer. California knew Neil Young from the band’s time in Topanga Canyon, and Young suggested his producer, David Briggs. Spirit began recording in April 1970 with Briggs guiding them. “David was of an equal with us, and worked very closely with us,” California told Ruhlmann. Epic released Twelve Dreams of Dr. Sardonicus later that year.
Briggs helped Spirit bring focus and control to its work. As a result, Twelve Dreams of Dr. Sardonicus is Spirit’s most consistent LP and its masterpiece. The “Twelve Dreams” in the title refers to the 12 tunes on the album. The only explanation for the “Sardonicus” reference appears to be a 1961 horror film called Mr. Sardonicus. Nothing in the album itself points to a connection to the film, however, so a mystery remains.
California’s “Prelude—Nothin’ to Hide” begins with his acoustic guitar and voice, and addresses the issue of environmentalism, one of the themes of the album:
You have the world at your fingertips
But see what you’ve done to the rain and the sun
So many changes have all just begun . . . to reap
As the prelude closes, California sings, “I know you’re asleep . . . wake up!” and the group kicks in with “Nothin’ to Hide,” a hard-driving rocker about consumerism with impressive guitar work from California. The song moves into a horn-driven instrumental closing section, California’s slide guitar swirling between the left and right channels. The band’s harmony vocals help drive the song and create a stirring counterpoint to California’s lead vocal.
California’s “Nature’s Way” reinforces the environmental theme on the album, and, once again the group’s vocal harmonies are sophisticated and lush. Ferguson’s “Animal Zoo” continues the themes of the first two tracks, but with humor that lightens the mood. “Love Has Found a Way,” a California-Locke tune, combines ornate psychedelia with jazz, and includes an impressive performance on vibes by Cassidy. Ferguson wrote “Mr. Skin,” which some folk think is about Cassidy’s bald head, but I think is about another body part (read the lyrics).
California’s “Life Has Just Begun” is a gorgeous ballad, with vocal harmonies that remind me of the Beach Boys’ recordings of the same era. “Morning Will Come” is among California’s best guitar rockers, and arranger David Blumberg’s driving horn chart is a high point of the album. Although California fully came into his own as a songwriter on Twelve Dreams, Ferguson’s four tunes are consistently unique and ear-catching, and allow room for the band to let its instrumental talents flow. California and Locke shine on “Street Worm,” and the entire band steps forward to create the edgy, tense “When I Touch You.”
Epic Records released Twelve Dreams of Dr. Sardonicus in late 1970. The band’s imagination and sense of adventure were still on display on the album, but California and Ferguson were seasoned and accomplished songwriters by then. Briggs helped Spirit bring its ideas together in a more consistent manner than Adler had, and sequenced the album so that its songs flowed together logically. The album’s initial chart performance fell short of that of its predecessors, but in time it was certified gold and even rekindled interest in Spirit’s back catalog.
Unfortunately, Twelve Dreams would be the last Spirit album recorded by the original band lineup. Band tensions and a desire to play straight rock’n’roll led to Ferguson and Andes leaving to form another band. California was injured by a fall from a horse; after recuperating, he decided to pursue his own projects.
Cassidy and Locke hired guitarist Chris Staehely and his brother Al, who played bass, to create a new lineup for Spirit. David Briggs produced Feedback, which Epic released in 1972. Al Staehely wrote most of the songs, and it’s a likable example of early-1970s SoCal rock. It just doesn’t sound like Spirit.
Ferguson and Andes started Jo Jo Gunne, with Andes’s brother Matt on guitar and William “Curly” Smith on drums. The band took its name from a Chuck Berry tune, and it was more consistently a rock band than Spirit had been. Its debut, Jo Jo Gunne (1972), yielded a hit single, “Run Run Run,” but neither that album nor the three that followed led to sustained chart success, and the band broke up in 1974. It reformed briefly in 2005 to record an album that, while well done, didn’t trigger a big comeback.
Randy California recorded a solo studio album, Kapt. Kopter and the (Fabulous) Twirly Birds, which Epic released in 1972. The Jimi Hendrix Experience’s bassist, Noel Redding, is among the sidemen, and California’s playing owes something to Hendrix on several tracks. Had Hendrix done a version of James Brown’s “I Don’t Want Nobody,” it might sound like California’s take on the song. California covers the Beatles on two tracks, bringing a jolt of fuzz guitar to “Day Tripper,” and stripping “Rain” down to loud guitar basics.
A cover of Paul Simon’s “Mother and Child Reunion” was a misstep on Kapt. Kopter, but California’s own songs were generally strong. The album failed to find an audience, and Epic rejected a follow-up, The Adventures of Kaptain Kopter & Commander Cassidy in Potato Land. Cassidy and Locke appeared on that recording, and various later releases of the album on obscure labels credit it as a Spirit release.
Randy California spent some time in Hawaii, and in 1975 he reconnected with Cassidy to record Spirit of ’76. Barry Keene, the sound engineer who recorded the album, played bass. Mercury Records released Spirit of ’76 in May 1975. A follow-up recorded at the same sessions, Son of Spirit, came out in October of that year. Both have moments that conjure up some of Spirit’s magic, but without Ferguson, Locke, and Andes, they don’t achieve the heights of the original band.
Two more Spirit albums appeared on Mercury, including Farther Along (1976), with Locke and Andes onboard, but without Ferguson. It’s a competent album of SoCal rock, but the vocalist is missed. Future Games: A Magical-Kahauna Dream, from 1977, is essentially a Randy California solo album. The full band reformed in 1984 for The Thirteenth Dream, released by Mercury in the US as Spirit of ’84. It sounds like the work of a 1960s band trying to make itself palatable to MTV.
Randy California recorded several more solo albums throughout the ’80s and recorded and toured with Spirit under various lineups through the ’90s, with Ed Cassidy as the only constant. He died in Hawaii in 1997 while rescuing his 12-year-old son from drowning.
In 2014, attorneys for Randy California’s estate sued Jimmy Page and Robert Plant for plagiarism. The suit alleged that Led Zeppelin’s hugely popular “Stairway to Heaven” was based on California’s “Taurus,” from Spirit’s debut album. The songs share a descending chromatic middle-register line, but use different chord progressions. In addition, the melody lines that John Paul Jones plays on the recorder are different from the lines in Marty Paich’s string arrangement for “Taurus.” There are many possible sources for Page’s chord progression.
Led Zeppelin “appropriated” quite a few songs during its recording career and over the years has had to make restitution to the original composers. “Taurus” doesn’t seem to be one of those instances. The case was settled in Led Zeppelin’s favor in 2020.
Jay Ferguson and Mark Andes are the two surviving member of Spirit. Ed Cassidy did some acting, in addition to playing with Randy California in Spirit’s various formations. He died in 2012, at age 89. After Spirit, John Locke went on to play with Nazareth, and did session work. He died in 2006. Ferguson has had success writing for television and film—he wrote the theme song for the US version of The Office. Andes went from Jo Jo Gunne to Firefall, which had a run of hits in the late ’70s. He did a lot of session work before joining Heart in 1983 for a ten-year stay. He remains active in music.
Spirit was a product of the adventurousness of late-1960s rock, when the rules were not yet settled and musicians were willing to try anything. Whatever issues the band might have had with Lou Adler, for the most part he let Spirit go wherever inspiration took it for three LPs. David Briggs respected the band’s willingness to take chances, but brought it closer to what could have been chart success with Twelve Dreams. All four of Spirit’s albums with the original band lineup were musically daring. Track them down and listen to some of the best music of the era.
. . . Joseph Taylor