JANUARY 2, 1997 – Spirit guitarist/songwriter RANDY CALIFORNIA (b. February 20, 1951 in Los Angeles, California as Randall Craig Wolfe) drowned in the Pacific Ocean at the age of 45 while rescuing his 12-year-old son Quinn from a rip current near the home of his mother, Bernice Pearl, at Molokai, Hawaii. He managed to push Quinn (who survived) toward the shore. According to the Spirit website, a memorial gathering was held on January 18th in Ventura, which was attended by his family, friends and band members. Acoustic music was performed, including a song Andes wrote for his long-time friend and cohort. One of the bonus cuts from “California Blues”, a poem that Randy wrote upon hearing of the death of John Lennon in 1981, applies with equal compassion to it’s author :”Beautiful man, Questioning one. Always searching for the reason, You let us visit into your mind, your private world for a time, and what you gave will never die and I will never stop believing in you. We’ll never stop believing your dream can come true….imagine.”
California grew up surrounded by musicians, as his uncle owned the noted Los Angeles club, the Ash Grove. As a result, all kinds of people stayed at his house. Randy received free lessons from blues greats such as Mance Lipscomb and Sleepy John Estes. He also took an official lesson from the late great Clarence White during White’s days with the Kentucky Colonels.
The story of Spirit really took shape in 1965 with the Red Roosters, which included future Spirit members Mark Andes and Jay Ferguson. When Randy was 15, his mother married to jazz drummer, Ed Cassidy, and when the family moved to New York in the summer of 1966 because Cassidy had a number of jazz gigs lined up, the group split.
While in New York, California had a chance encounter with a guitarist at Manny’s Music Store. This guitarist turned out to be Jimi Hendrix and before he knew it, he was gigging with Hendrix and his band, Jimmy James and the Blue Flames, at Cafe Wha. It was in fact, Hendrix who coined his nickname Randy California. There were two Randy’s in the band and Randy Wolfe was from California so the moniker stuck. Hendrix and California were invited to come to England by Chas Chandler, former bassist of British Invasion band The Animals who became Hendrix’s manager and producer, but Randy’s parents refused to allow him to go, insisting the 15-year old stay and finish high school. By some accounts, Chandler wanted Hendrix as the only guitarist for the band and nixed California’s going to England. Hendrix invited Randy anyway, so they could “go find Jeff Beck.”
Shortly thereafter, Randy’s family moved back to Los Angeles. The influence of those days with Hendrix, however remained. As anyone who ever saw Randy play “Hey Joe” or “All Along The Watchtower” knows, he never imitated but rather added his own versatile qualities to those songs while paying homage to one of his mentors.
California formed the band Spirit’s Rebellious (taking the name from a book by Kahil Gibran). Within a year, this group evolved into the legendary Spirit. In May, 1967 the lineup included Randy California, vocalist Jay Ferguson, bassist Mark Andes, keyboardist John Locke and drummer Ed Cassidy.
Their first, self-titled album was released in January 1968, a month before California’s 17th birthday. He then wrote the band’s biggest hit, 1968’s “I Got a Line on You” for Spirit’s second album, “The Family That Plays Together”. He also wrote the single “1984,” released in early 1970 and banned from most AM radio stations at that time. He also penned Spirit’s other hit, “Nature’s Way,” for the band’s best-selling album, “Twelve Dreams of Dr. Sardonicus”. In addition to their role as the pioneers of jazz/rock-fusion, Spirit’s music still stands as a unique sound mixing ethereal notes, hard beats, and a satirical view of the world.
It has been recognized that Jimmy Page made use of California’s guitar riff from “Taurus”, an instrumental song from the first Spirit album, when he wrote Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven”. Led Zeppelin was on the same bill as Spirit on several American concert dates in 1969. In 1996, in the liner notes for the reissue of Spirit’s first album, California stated “people always ask me why ‘Stairway to Heaven’ sounds exactly like ‘Taurus,’ which was released two years earlier. I know Led Zeppelin also played ‘Fresh Garbage’ in their live set. They opened up for us on their first American tour.” The fact that “Fresh Garbage” was a track from the same album that includes the song “Taurus” further fueled the belief that Led Zeppelin was at least aware of the song. In 2014, a copyright infringement and injunction lawsuit against the reissue of Led Zeppelin IV started with the lawyer saying, “The idea behind this is to make sure that Randy California is given a writing credit on Stairway to Heaven.”
Spirit was invited to open for Jimi Hendrix at Woodstock, however, band manager/producer Lou Adler (who, ironically, had been one of the founders of the rock festival movement two years earlier, as a partner with Mamas & Papas lynchpin John Phillips) opposed it because the band was busy promoting their latest album, “Clear”.
Their next album (the pinnacle of its achievements) “The 12 Dreams of Dr. Sardonicus”, long hailed as one of the best rock albums of all time.
The band’s fusion of jazz, rock, folk, blues and psychedelia has never been matched for its intensity, originality and consistent quality.(Fans of Phish are urged to check out these albums to really discover what “eclectic” means) Luckily, all four of these albums have been reissued on CD in high-quality, extended versions by Legacy/Epic. Ironically, at the height of it’s musical accomplishments, the original band split. Andes and Ferguson went off to form the excellent, albeit more basic, rock ‘n’ roll band, Jo Jo Gunne. The newly recruited bassist, Al Stahaley, along with Locke and Cassidy continued briefly as a trio before recruiting J. Christian Stahaley as lead guitarist. This lineup released “Feedback” in 1972 with Staehely writing and singing most of the material on the LP, but because Ferguson and Andes left and then his dear friend Hendrix died, California became depressed.
Around this time, he also had an accident in which he fell from a horse. Exhibiting erratic behavior, he left the band. He recorded “Kapt. Kopter & The Fabulous Twirly Birds”, which included California and Cassidy’s version of Paul Simon’s “Mother and Child Reunion” plus a slew of authentically Hendrix-like tracks (also featuring former Experience bassist Noel Redding, AKA ‘Clit McTorius’). Other cuts included tenacious workouts of the Beatles “Day Tripper” and “Rain”, and several stunning originals namely “Rainbow” and “Downer”. Before long a new Spirit with California, Cassidy and bassist Larry “Fuzzy” Knight emerged. The group recorded the legendary cult classic “Potatoland”, which Epic deemed too non-commercial to release, although a trimmed down version with some different material was eventually released in 1981.
In 1974, California legally acquired the band name Spirit. From then on, he and Cassidy (who is the only musician who appeared on all Spirit albums) stuck together. That year, they signed with Mercury Records.
Also in the early 70’s, California did part of a tour with Deep Purple when it’s guitarist, Ritchie Blackmore was taken ill. Throughout the late 70’s and 80’s, various incarnations of Spirit released a slew of fine and varied albums, including a reunion of the original band for the 13th Dream, the polished, Farther Along, the excellent double set “The Spirit of 76”, and the bizarre “Future Games”. Later efforts included the much underrated “Tent of Miracles” and “Live at La Paloma”, as well as “California Blues”.
California also made several excellent solo albums in Europe, “Euro-American” and “Shattered Dreams”. He was a focal point and spiritual leader for many big name guitarists that toured as “The Night of the Guitar” roadshow, which featured such luminaries as the Door’s Robbie Krieger, Ten Years After’s Alvin Lee, Wishbone Ash’s Ted Turner and Andy Powell, Yes’s Steve Howe, Mountain’s Leslie West and the Climax Blues Band’s Peter Haycock. This collaboration resulted in a video and a live CD. Prior to his death, Randy had been compiling material for a “Kpt. Kopter Volume 2” release.