It only seems appropriate that as an LA Music Examiner your favorite music man tells you about an artist whose very name said California: Randy California. Guitarist/singer-songwriter Randy California was born Randy Craig Wolfe into a musical family in LA in 1951. As a child he spent time studying various different genres of music at the Ash Grove his family’s LA folk music club.
In 1966 his mother Berenice Pearl and his then-new stepfather Ed Cassidy moved the family to New York City when Randy was fifteen. His step-dad was a musician and had a number of jazz gigs to play there.
It was in there that California met Jimmy Hendrix. Soon he was playing with Jimi Hendrix as a member of Hendrix’s band Jimmy James & the Blue Flames that summer. California lived with his mother and stepfather in an apartment building whose other residents included one of the future Steely Dan co-founders, Walter Becker.
Becker once told the press that California’s style of blues-based guitar had a significant influence on his own performance. Hendrix was actually the one to christen Randy “Randy California”. it was simply a nickname meant to distinguish him from another Randy in the group, “Randy Texas”.
Hendrix was offered a chance to play in the UK. Randy had to remain behind in order to finish high school. Because of this California missed out on an opportunity to become a member of the Jimi Hendrix Experience.
California and his stepfather and bass player Mark Andes had originally created a group named the Red Roosters. With the addition of singer/songwriter Jay Ferguson and keyboardist John Locke the formed a new band named Spirits Rebellious after a poem by Kahlil Gibran in 1967. They soon changed the name to simply Spirit. Their demo was produced by none other than Barry Hansen who would one day be better known as Doctor Demento.
A month before California turned seventeen, the band released their premier platter, Spirit. The following year, 1968, California wrote “I Got a Line on You” which would become the band’s biggest hit. The tune was the high point of The Family That Plays Together, their second album.
California wrote other songs for the group including “1984” which (in 1970) was banned from AM radio and yet another Spirit hit, “Nature’s Way” which was a track on the group’s best-selling album Twelve Dreams Of Dr. Sardonicus. California was a key player in the band’s role as what some called “the pioneers of jazz/rock-fusion”. His songs and the music produced by the band on the aforementioned albums remain individualistic.
California and company had a signature sound brought about by blending a hard rock beat, satirical lyrics and oft-time delicate musical compositions. In fact, there is an interesting rumor about California and Led Zeppelin. Supposedly, Jimmy Page copied California’s guitar work from “Taurus” on the debut Spirit disc and used it on Zep’s “Stairway to Heaven”.
Naturally Page denies this although rumor also has it that this had happened after Led Zep opened for Spirit in 1968. When Spirit was re-issued on CD in 1996, in the liner notes California commented: “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’ (another song from the Spirit album) in their live set. They opened up for us on their first American tour”. There can be no doubt that Page was not at least aware of California’s compositions.
When sales of Twelve Dreams Of Dr. Sardonicus failed to meet the expectations Andes and Ferguson, the two quit Spirit and started a new band, Jo Jo Gunne. When Hendrix died it was the last straw and California was too depressed to remain with the group.
He went into seclusion. When he returned to the recording studio it would be to complete a new project, Kapt. Kopter and His (Fabulous) Twirly Birds. Unfortunately, this psychedelic material was often a bit dysfunctional for some critics. While California was considered a talent and perhaps even a genius by some it was felt by many that he would all too often end up almost drowned in a sea of his own peculiar indulgences.
The platter certainly contained a variety of genres–from the tip of the hat salute to Hendrix in such riff-frenzied cuts as “Downer” (featuring former Experience bassist Noel Redding, AKA ‘Clit McTorius’) through such heavy metal-soul mixes as “I Don’t Want Nobody”–but they were somehow musically-mangled. There is an unbelievable cover of the Beatles’ “Rain” which California turns into a terrible monsoon.
The record also contained a cover of Paul Simon’s “Mother and Child Reunion”. The critics generally considered the later attempted reunion’s of Spirit to be less outrageous than the material here. To further create problems for California, the debut Jo Jo Gunne record as well as another Spirit album, Feedback, hit the record racks at almost the same time as his Kapt. Kopter and His (Fabulous) Twirly Birds.
Reportedly, California later took back the group monicker, Spirit. California and Cassidy signed onto the Mercury Records label in 1974. The duo then resumed recording and performing as Spirit.
Although critics were quick to point out that the Mercury material was lacking and that the songs were generally cliche-filled parodies of their former glory, California and Cassidy would continue to make music up until 1997 when California died. California drowned rescuing his son from a rip current in Molokai, Hawaii. While he was able to shove his son towards shore he was unable to free himself from a strong undercurrent that took him out to sea.
It was a sad end to the life of a genuine talent who never managed to regain his former glory. California once told the press:“If I had to listen to one album before I died, it would probably be ‘Rubber Soul’”. Hopefully, he got his wish.
My name is Phoenix and . . . that’s the bottom line.