In a better world, like his close friend Jimi Hendrix, guitar great Randy California would be a household name. From the mid ‘60s until his tragic death, at age 45, in a 1997 in a swimming accident, California played (and often composed) some of the most transcendent music ever delivered on a six-string. Much of that music was recorded within the context of Spirit, one of the most sophisticated ensembles to emerge from rock’s psychedelic era. Formed in 1967 by California and his drummer-stepfather, Ed Cassidy, the original band also included jazz pianist John Locke and future rock mainstays Jay Ferguson and Mark Andes.
Cassidy’s story constitutes a phenomenal tale in its own right. As late as 2010, he was being hailed as “the world’s oldest active drummer,” and at age 89, he purportedly continues to correspond with Spirit’s legions of fans. In truth, eclectic is hardly a sufficient word to describe the inventive blend of pop, rock, jazz and psychedelia that coursed through the four albums released by Spirit during the band’s initial incarnation in the late '60s. Evoking everyone from Iron Butterfly to The Kinks to vintage Pink Floyd, the group embodied the old adage about the whole being greater than the sum of its parts. In the following interview, conducted in 2005 and never-before-published, Cassidy talks about Spirit’s legacy and the brilliance of Randy California.
When did you and Randy first begin playing together?
When we first started, in a band called The Red Roosters, Randy was 14 and I was 42. The Red Roosters were mostly a blues, folk, and rock and roll combination. That was in 1965. That lasted several months, and then the band dissolved, and then we came back together in the early part of 1967 as Spirit.
Before The Red Roosters evolved into Spirit, you left L.A. and returned to New York for a time. Is that where Randy began playing with Jimi Hendrix?
That’s right. Randy’s mom and I were in the process of getting married. We drove back to New York and I started trying to get some gigs there, in jazz groups. Randy met Jimi Hendrix in a music store. Randy was still in high school, and Jimi was putting together a group down in the Village, at a place called the Café Wha?. It was a real small place, down in a basement. The joke was that it was so small you had to go outside to change your mind. Jimi and Randy eventually moved over to a place called the Café Au Go-Go. I went over there a couple of times and jammed. There were a lot of famous people who would come in there at that time. The Village was full of jazz, and folk music, and blues … you name it. It was a vibrant time.
Did Randy come close to going to joining The Experience when Hendrix went to London?
Well, Jimi wanted Randy to go, but Randy was still in high school. His Mom and I said, “I don’t think so.” Who knows what would have taken place? But then again, look what happened to Jimi. He got swept up into the craziness. Randy was very talented, and we knew that, and Randy knew that Jimi was very talented. They became good friends. Jimi was a nice fellow.
After Hendrix went to London, you and Randy returned to L.A. and formed Spirit. What was the concept behind the band?
I wanted a band that could play anything and everything. I didn’t want a band that played perfect rock and roll, perfect jazz, perfect country, perfect folk and perfect classical, but I did want those influences. And I wanted the group to write its own material. There were no other bands doing that sort of thing. Randy and I became partners in that concept.
Who was most responsible for bringing the psychedelic component to Spirit?
I’m not really clear on that. I know that Randy’s playing, at the time, was considered pretty psychedelic. He could play a lot of different things, but his style--just going bonkers--was very unusual for the time. But he was also very much in control. He had started playing guitar when he was six years old. By the time he was sixteen, he had played a lot of music, and he knew quite a bit about it. He also knew a lot about jazz. When we played at the Whiskey A-Go-Go, Wes Montgomery would come and sit up in the balcony, and watch Randy and listen to him. And Randy would do a lot of Wes Montgomery kinds of chordal playing. Anyway, it was a time of “make love not war,” and a lot of groups were writing things that were meaningful, and spiritual, and cosmic, and so forth.
Was Spirit paying close attention to what your L.A. peers–The Doors, Jefferson Airplane and others--were doing?
Not me and John, so much, but I think the rest of the band–Randy, and Jay, and Mark--would have been doing that. I wasn’t really interested in listening to other people. There were a few bands I really liked a lot--The Beatles, Traffic, The Allman Brothers and of course Hendrix. But I wanted us to do our thing. We never really tried to copy anybody. One of the reasons we didn’t get as big as some other bands is because our music was more difficult to categorize.
What was the critical reception to Spirit like?
It was almost universally positive. The only magazine that dissed us was Rolling Stone. Our first album sold well, and it enabled us to do more work over the years. Everyone connected to the band felt we were going to go all the way. We thought so, too. I did, and I know Randy did. But when it came to the power of radio and media and so forth, it never got us over the hump.
What caused the original members of the band to go their separate ways?
It was a combination of things. I think Randy’s view and Jay’s view didn’t really go together, in the sense that Jay had more commerciality about him. Jay wrote some great songs, and his work, later, with Jo Jo Gunne bore that out. Jo Jo Gunne played mostly good, get-down, rock and roll stuff. And of course Randy had started writing more. Other bands were passing us by, bands that used to open for us. Led Zeppelin had opened for us when they first came to the America. Jethro Tull opened for us, as did several other big groups--Bachman Turner Overdrive and so forth. In fact, Spirit, The Doors and The Allman Brothers once played together on the beach in L.A., on the same night. The Allman Brothers were known as the Allman Joys, at that time. These three bands were the “comers” in the music world, as far as the West Coast was concerned. Anyway, I think each member of Spirit became disappointed, and felt that he could do it without everyone else. But I think a lot of times people don’t realize that it’s the chemistry of a band that makes things happen.
Of course, today there are legions of people who feel Spirit was one of the best bands of that era.
The people who I consider my real family are my fans. That’s the truth. I still get letters and emails from all over the world, and they all, without fail, say that this music stood on its own, and left a great legacy for them and their sons and daughters. To me, that’s what’s important. Nobody gets out of here alive, so make your life worthwhile while you’re here, because when you’re gone, you’re gone. Sometimes fans ask me what’s my secret, and I tell them one of the things to remember is to keep the child alive within you.
What are your thoughts regarding Randy’s personal legacy?
I consider Randy a genius. As a player, he was totally unique. He never tried to be Jimi Hendrix, or anything like that. He played his thing, in his way. And he was also a really fine human being. I knew him from the time he was 14 until he was 45. Before he passed away, we were scheduled to leave L.A. and fly to Paris to do three-month European tour. Randy was a very special human being, and was like a son to me. You can’t be together that long and not having something going on that’s positive. He’s left a great legacy of his music, and he left a son. It would be nice to have him here now, but it’s important to remember that he did great things--more than most--while he was here.