Spirit – in concert at the Texas International Pop Festival – September 1, 1969 – Gordon Skene Sound Collection –
Spirit in concert to kick off the week. Unfortunately, a band whose legacy at the moment appears to be “those guys who sued Led Zeppelin”, and not much else. However, nothing could be further from the truth. Spirit were a great band and a great band live and had an impressive trove of memorable songs to their credit (and not just the infamous “Taurus”) and were together for a good long time.
The original lineup of Spirit evolved from a Los Angeles band, the Red Roosters, which included Randy California (born Randy Craig Wolfe; guitars, vocals), Mark Andes (bass) and Jay Ferguson (vocals, percussion). With the addition of California’s stepfather Ed Cassidy on drums, and keyboard player John Locke, the new band was originally named the Spirits Rebellious (after a book by Kahlil Gibran), but the name was soon shortened to Spirit. Before returning to his native state, California previously played with Jimi Hendrix as a member of Jimmy James and the Blue Flames in New York City’s Greenwich Village in 1966. Hendrix gave Randy Wolfe the nickname “Randy California” to distinguish him from Randy Palmer, whom Hendrix named “Randy Texas”.
Cassidy was recognizable by his shaved head (hence his nickname “Mr. Skin”, later the title of a Spirit song) and his fondness for wearing black. Born in 1923, he was about twenty years older than the rest of the group. Although his earlier career was primarily in jazz (including stints with Cannonball Adderley, Gerry Mulligan, Roland Kirk, Thelonious Monk and Lee Konitz), he had served as the founding drummer of Rising Sons, an early blues rock vehicle for Taj Mahal and Ry Cooder.
Early demo recordings by the band were produced by their Topanga Canyon roommate Barry Hansen, later known as the radio host Dr. Demento. In August 1967, the record producer Lou Adler (known for his work with The Mamas & the Papas and The Grass Roots) signed the band to his label, Ode Records. The group’s first album, Spirit, was released in 1968. “Mechanical World” was released as a single (it lists the playing time merely as “very long”). The album was a hit, reaching number 31 on the Billboard 200 and staying on the chart for seven months. The album had jazz influences and used elaborate string arrangements (not found on their subsequent recordings) and is the most overtly psychedelic of their albums. A song from the album, “Fresh Garbage”, was included on the CBS sampler album The Rock Machine Turns You On, released in 1968 in the UK, Europe and South Africa, and was the UK’s first introduction to the band.
The band capitalized on the success of their first album with another single, “I Got a Line on You”. Released in November 1968, a month before their second album, The Family That Plays Together, it became their biggest hit single, reaching number 25 on the charts (number 28 in Canada). The album matched its success, reaching number 22. In December, they appeared at the Denver Auditorium, with support band Led Zeppelin, who soon after interpolated parts of Spirit’s song “Fresh Garbage” in an extended medley based around their cover of Bob Elgin and Jerry Ragavoy’s “As Long As I Have You” (initially popularized by Garnet Mimms) during their early 1969 concerts. Spirit also appeared with Led Zeppelin at two outdoor music festivals in July 1969. Jimmy Page’s use of a theremin has been attributed to his seeing Randy California use one that he had mounted to his amplifier. Guitar World magazine stated that “California’s most enduring legacy may well be the fingerpicked acoustic theme of the song ‘Taurus’, which Jimmy Page lifted virtually note for note for the introduction to ‘Stairway to Heaven’.” The Independent noted the similarity in 1997. In 2014, Mark Andes and a trust acting on behalf of Randy California filed a copyright infringement suit against Led Zeppelin in an attempt to obtain a writing credit for “Stairway to Heaven”. Page denied copying “Taurus”, and the suit was unsuccessful. The verdict was overturned on appeal in September 2018. On March 9th, 2020, the Ninth Circuit re-instated the original jury verdict.
To get an idea of what the band were up to during this watershed period, here is their appearance at the Texas International Pop Festival, recorded on September 1, 1969.