Listener Magazine Spring 1997
Randy California, guitarist, songwriter, and a driving force behind the band Spirit, died on January 2, California (born Randy Wolfe) was swimming off the Hawaiian island of Molokai with his 12-year-old son, Quinn, when a sudden and strong undertow began pulling both of them away from shore. As he rescured his son by pushing him out of the current, California was dragged beneath the surf. To date, his body has not been recovered.
As a member of Spirit, California was best known for his guitar playing, as well as for writing such songs as “Nature’s Way,” “I Got a Line On You,” “1984,” and “Morning Will Come.”
Beginning in the late 1960s, Spirit earned a reputation for its innovative fusion of varied musical styles. When the first Spirit LP (Spirit) was released in 1968, Randy California was just 17 years old. The original Spirit lineup dissolved in 1971, but California continued, until his death, to record under the group name, along with his step-father/original Spirit percussionist Ed Cassidy.
The latest Spirit CD, California Blues, was released in December 1996, just weeks before Randy California’s death.
Sony/Legacy recently reissued the first four Spirit albums in expanded 20-bit remastered CD versions; later titles are expected in 1997.
Though recognized primarily as a rock musician, California’s roots and deepest influences were in folk, blues, and jazz music. During an interview on November 27, 1996 (see Listener, Vol. 3, No. 1), he described some of his early influences. As a child, California grew up in the presence of blues greats such as Mance Lipscomb, Sonny Terry, and Brownie Magee. His uncle, Ed Pearl, owned a club called The Ash Grove, which booked the musicians – who often spent the night at the family home. Bernice Pearl, California’s mother, first taught her son to play the guitar at age five.
Later, at age 15, California joined Jimi Hendrix in his pre-Experience band, Jimmy James and the Blue Flames. In fact, it was Hendrix – in a fortuitous meeting in the back of a New York City music store – who first taught California to play “Hey Joe” and other songs. From his early and varied musical experiences, Randy California was able to cull the wide range of styles that were to infuse his own compositions and guitar playing. California’s inventive guitar technique eventually formed a basis for the unique sound of Spirit.
Throughout his 30-year recording career, Randy California’s music consistently revealed a constructive, optimistic, and spiritually based world view. Compositions such as “Nature’s Way,” “Morning Will Come,” “Give a Life, Take a Life,” “So Little Time to Fly,” “It Shall Be,” and “Living In This World” (among others) exemplify a deep and authentic longing for peace, justice, and stewardship. These commitments persisted to the end of California’s life. His final recording, California Blues, includes the songs “We Believe,” “One World,” and “The River,” each a re-statement of his high ideals and faith in possibilities.
THE LAST RANDY CALIFORNIA GUITAR PROJECT
by Willie G. Moseley
Vintage Guitar Magazine February 1999
Randy California had an ongoing relationship with repair ace Tracy Longo, who operates Guitar Tech Corner in Ventura, California. Longo’s original operation was in the back of a local music store, and it was in this location the guitar-oriented paths of Randy California and Tracy Longo first crossed. “He had broken the headstock on his Charvel and he was heading to New York to play at the Bottom Line,” Longo recently told VG. “He was leaving at two o’clock that day, so I did a real quick super glue fix on the neck, and it held up. We hit it off, and he found out I played in a Led Zeppelin tribute band, so we talked a lot about the early days of Spirit, when Zeppelin opened for them.
I did all of his guitar work after that; including minor things like fret dressing and keeping his Floyd Rose vibrato cleaned up. He’d visit me between tours; every few months. I played a Led Zeppelin bootleg for Randy; they were playing “Fresh Garbage” (a Spirit tune), he said it was pretty good, but Jimmy (Page) was doing the lick a little wrong.
“My band did a gig with his and he heard me using a Theramin in “Whole Lotta Love,” so he called me when we got back in town, and told me about the Theramin that he’d had in his early Danelectro, and how the New Yardbirds/Led Zeppelin had watched him play that guitar at a concert in England. Randy was a real humble guy, and while he wouldn’t come out and say it, I think it’s obvious his Danelectro AND his Theramin influenced the Led Zeppelin sound.”
Just as California’s original Danelectro was a highly modified budget guitar that sounded unique, so was the last guitar he brought to Longo for extensive reworking. “He called me up telling me he’d found a great guitar. I was expecting him to show up with a 50’s Strat or Tele, and he showed up with a cheap Strat copy! But he told me to hot -rod it, because, he said, “this guitar FITS me; it feels right.”
“We replaced the tuners, and were going to replace the pick-ups with Seymour Duncans when he got back form a tour in England, but the main thing he wanted was a counterpart to my Theramin built into that guitar, with a retractable antenna that he could just pull out, flip a switch, and go instantly into Theramin mode. Then he called me later the same night and told me he wanted flashing LEDs and more switches.”
Longo did a lot of wiring and routing to the guitar body, and had a custom Theramin built, with IC chips in it for better stability. When the modifications were complete, the big test was unique, as well. “We went into the shop, turned off all the lights, cranked up the Gorilla amp, and turned on the Theramin. We sat there for maybe 20 minutes, listening to this howling and watching flashing lights. When we flipped the lights back on, Randy shook my hand, and all he said was “Thank you.”
“We had some fine tuning to do, but we finally nailed it the week before Christmas of ’96,” Longo related. “We had to do some work with the potentiometers and the shielding in the cavities, because this was a custom-made ONE-OF-A-KIND THERAMIN; it wasn’t an analog model like mine.”
As we noted, the guitar was slated for further mods after Spirit’s overseas tour, but Longo noted, “The playability of the guitar was fine when Randy picked it up for the last time. During the guitarists last visit to Longo’s shop, he gave the repairman a copy of the new CALIFORNIA BLUES album and signed a photo, dating it ’97, although it was actually signed the last week of ’96. And while Longo never saw Randy California again, he had one more conversation with him. “He called that night, and played the guitar over the phone so I could hear it; you could hear it howling in the background. He said that he was really happy with it, and I told him to get in touch when he got back from England, and we’d do the rest of the work.”
Sadly, it never occurred.
“A memorial service was held at the beach in Ventura.” he said. “And Dr. Demento (aka Barry Hanson) did the eulogy. I was running a little late, they had a generator and a small PA, and I walked up to the service as Dr. Demento’s voice came across the beach-the same voice you hear on the radio, and he was talking about one of his oldest and best friends (Hanson had produced Spirit’s first recordings in the 60’s). There was some Indian chanting, and everybody threw some sage into the waters, in remembrance.”
So Randy California’s last guitar was as unique and intriguing as the person who played it, and the same can be said for the music he created. His brilliant, searing guitar tone lives on in his numerous recordings.
Tracy Longo can be reached at Guitar Tech corner;ph, (805)647-7221, email: GTCT@aol.com
Mojo July 97 – SPIRIT The Mercury Years
by Max Bell
Spirit Part 2 – double CD retrospective of the idiosyncratic LA mavericks, resequenced by Randy California shortly before his death.
Despite the sad circumstances surrounding it’s release, this compilation offers the best quality versions of some of the music recorded by Randy California, Ed Cassidy and their various escorts along the time coast during the ’70’s.This package confirms California’s status as a brillant guitarist and an eccentric songwriter with a penchant for eco-anthems and state-of-the-nation discourses.
Casting himself in the role of conduit between Hendrix and Dylan, SPIRIT OF 76 was a soundtrack of bicentennial bliss, an acoustic and electric marvel, while the somewhat overlooked FARTHER ALONG boasts sparkling arrangements and the bands crispest ensemble work since SARDONICUS. Now, how about the unexpurgated CD version of Spirit’s strangest album, FUTURE GAMES A MAGICAL-KAHUNA DREAM?
Q (UK) June 1997 – Spirit – The Mercury Years
Post-Twelve dreams of Dr. Sardonicus, Spirit went through a weirdly wispy time, producing 4 albums for Mercury in cerebral limbo seemingly unaware of the outside world, punk rock and anything that couldn’t be listened to in the early stages of a coma. The late Randy California created a hypnotic drone of primal newagery, typified by their Spirit of 76 double, the majority of which is featured here. Excursions from Son of Spirit and Further Along, plus an ethereal moment from their Star Trek homage, Future Games, wind down still further as the thoughtful lyrics and the odd moment of psychedelic confusion make Spirit’s Mercury Years memorable.
Mojo March 1997 – Randy California 1951-1997
Randy California, the guitarist and songwriter of West Coast group Spirit, drowned after swimming off the Hawaiian island of Molokai on January 2. California and his 12-year-old son Quinn were bodyboarding when they were caught in a riptide. Randy managed to push Quinn to safety but was himself carried away by the current.
Born Randy Craig Wolfe in Los Angeles on Feb. 20, 1951, he was an accomplished acoustic guitarist long before reaching his teens. His family on mother Bernice Pearl’s side were involved with the local music scene. Randy’s uncle Ed Pearl, opened the Ash Grove on Melrose as a folk coffee house where his nephew studied with visiting bluesmen like Mance Lipscomb, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, Lightnin’ Hopkins and Sleepy John Estes. As the Ash Grove moved with the times, becoming a popular hangout for nascent ’60s acts likes The Byrds and Canned Heat, so Randy turned his attention to an electric Silvertone guitar.
In 1966, he went to New York City and began playing eight sets a night for Jimmy James and the Blue Flames in Greenwich Village. James, who hadn’t yet made the transition to Jimi Hendrix, recognized Wolfe’s talents and switched him from rhythm to bottleneck lead, christening him Randy California in the process.
I first met Randy California at a Spirit club date in 1976. Randy conjured up two glasses of peach juice and we moved outdoors, settling inside a conveniently hollow bush. A charming, soft spoken man, California had swapped the vestiges of acid-soaked hedonism for a full-on fitness regime, and was immersed in his trilogy of ‘Time Coast’ recordings: Spirit of 76, Farther Along and Future Games. California was keen to share his enthusiasm. He was delighted when Beggars Banquet released the album Journey to Potatoland here in 1981.
After sporadic Spirit reunion shows in the ’80s, Randy and Cass were enjoying a fresh burst of creativity. Their first four albums were reissued in splendidly remasterd format last year, there were two new releases, Live at La Paloma and California Blues.
Last autumn Randy was in London discussing a European tour. Clean-shaven and short haired, he played an impromptu solo set sitting on the counter at Plastic Passion record shop. Here was no burnt out husk but a young spirit with child-like energy to burn.
Sifting through a few momentos I found one of his letters, a typically idiosyncratic missive on which he’d drawn a guitar and a spaceship next to the quote from Ecclesiastes: “To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heavens.” I imagine his death as being retrieved by a greater force. It’s nature’s way, after all.
Listener Magazine Winter 1997 – Spirit’s Still Willing
Excerpt From A Conversation With Randy California by Jeff McLaughlin
Note: Back issues containing this article are available from Listener, 36 Chestnut St., Oneonta, NY 13820 607-433-0808. Back issues are $5 plus $2 shipping.
California: I was very fortunate growing up. My early influences were really traditional American artists. I learned from the very best of that era. My mother actually taught me how to play guitar when I was five years old. She got me started in music. She’s just great. She’s been supporting the group all these years.
Listener: Why was it so critical that you did not perform at Woodstock? California: I think it was a psychological thing. We all wanted to go and I wanted to play with Jimi. We were offered a spot right before Jimi. But management decided it was more important to go out on a radio tour and promote the product. I guess watching Woodstock on the news just made us feel, like, “What’s going on here?” Career-wise, it might of made a huge difference. At that time, Spirit was getting to be a kind of supergroup, Led Zeppelin was opening for us. We were playing pretty big places.
Listener: Speaking of Led Zeppelin, the guitar introduction to your 1967 composition, “TAURUS” is a dead ringer for Zeppelin’s introduction to “STAIRWAY TO HEAVEN” released in 1971. Did they ever acknowledge their artistic debt to you? They must of known–“TAURUS” having performed as your warmup band.
California: Well, if you listen to the two songs, you can make your own judgement. It’s an exact …….
…Listener: Regarding your point, the positive message: that actually characterizes much of Spirit’s music, doesn’t it? There’s a constructive, optimistic outlook throughout your compositions, in particular, which contrasts with much contemporary music.
California: I think the general mood of the world has changed. It’s become so mechanical and so involved in getting ahead. We really need that idea…that whole vibe of the 60’s. It’s almost as though artists of any particular period in time provide an overall viewpoint of the feeling of that time. And the feeling of this time – well, just listen to a lot of the stuff you hear on the radio. Not very positive, but then that’s the world we have created for ourselves. The children of the 60’s haven’t really followed through on those feelings. Now that the people who grew up during the 60’s are in the positions of power and control, it’s really our obligation, having experienced those good vibes and those possibilities, to enact them in today’s world. That’s why on CALIFORNIA BLUES I do a whole poem I wrote for John Lennon. John was one of my heroes.
Listener: So, in your opinion, musicians have a responsibility to spread the message, to keep hope alive, keep people thinking about the right things.
California: Yeah. We’re in a position of influencing people. Sure it’s our responsibility to do good.
A Poem For John Lennon By Randy California
In days of old when thoughts were bold, ideals were high, we reached for the sky.
A guiding light for all to see, one person’s special dream for humanity
We were many but now we are few, hurt and confused by what happened to you.
It seems to always end this way…men of peace are not wanted they say
It’s not just one that does them in,
but the lower evil side of man that comes back to haunt us again and again
In our lives we loved you more, you opened so many doors…………..
The shock of this will never leave, for I was one who did believe.
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’ll never stop believing in you, we’ll never stop believing your dream can come true.
– Randy California