The Spirit of Randy California - The American Spectator | USA News and Politics
The Spirit of Randy California

It’s been nearly 20 years since the death of Randy California and he still can’t catch a break.

Last week, a jury in Los Angeles rejected a suit brought on behalf of California’s estate two years ago seeking damages from Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant and Jimmy Page for lifting the guitar intro to “Stairway to Heaven” from “Taurus,” an instrumental written by California for Spirit’s 1968 eponymous debut album. “Taurus” was released nearly four years before “Stairway to Heaven” saw the light of day.

For his part, Page claims he never heard “Taurus” until 2014 when he discovered he had Spirit’s debut album in his collection. When you consider that Led Zeppelin has had to settle copyright claims with James Holmes and the estates of Howlin’ Wolf and Blind Willie Dixon, it is utterly inconceivable that Plant & Page didn’t lift the opening riff of “Stairway to Heaven” from “Taurus.” After all, the two groups toured together in 1968 and “Fresh Garbage,” another song from Spirit’s debut album, found its way into Zeppelin’s set list. But Page managed to convince jurors that the descending chord progression in “Stairway to Heaven” was commonplace and could be heard in “Chim Chim Cheree” from Mary Poppins. With all due respect to Page, how many people have listened to “Chim Chim Cheree” and said, “Boy, this reminds me of Led Zeppelin”? When I listen to “Chim Chim Cheree,” all I hear is Dick Van Dyke’s horrible attempt at a British accent.

To be fair to the jury, they didn’t actually get to hear Spirit’s recording of “Taurus.” All jurors had access to was the sheet music of both songs and generic interpretations of them. Because if the jury had heard the actual recording of “Taurus” the jurors would have said, “This sounds like ‘Stairway to Heaven.’” Of course, it could also be the case that jurors were so star struck by the presence of Plant and Page in the courtroom that they didn’t want to rule against them. Not only did jurors not get to hear “Taurus,” but they didn’t get to know Randy California ether.

Born in 1951 as Randy Craig Wolfe, he would be given the surname California by none other than Jimi Hendrix. This happened while playing with Hendrix’s Jimmy James and the Blue Flames in Greenwich Village during the summer of 1966 at the tender age of 15. How many 15-year old boys can say they’ve shared a stage with Hendrix, much less invited to perform with him in London?

However, California’s parents wanted him to finish high school and would not let him go to London to become part of the Jimi Hendrix Experience. From that most people might have assumed that California’s parents were squares who wanted to rein in their wayward son. But how many teenage kids in the 1960s formed rock bands with their stepfathers? California’s stepfather was Ed Cassidy, a jazz drummer who played with the giants of the West Coast jazz scene such as of Art Pepper, Roland Kirk, and Gerry Mulligan. Cassidy also played with Thelonius Monk and Cannonball Adderley as well as blues guitarists Taj Mahal and Ry Cooder. Aside from the fact that Cassidy was over 40, he also sported a shaved head which was almost completely unheard of in the psychedelic ’60s. Spirit would later record “Mr. Skin” in homage to Cassidy’s bare dome.

California and Cassidy, along with percussionist and vocalist Jay Ferguson and bass player Mark Andes, were known as Red Rooster. When John Locke (the keyboard player not the 17th century philosopher) joined the band they became known as Spirits Rebellious (named after a novel written by the Lebanese poet Kahlil Gibran) and by the time producer Lou Adler signed them to a recording contract in 1967 they were known simply as Spirit.

Between 1968 and 1970, Spirit would release four albums — Spirit, The Family That Plays Together, Clear, and Twelve Dreams of Dr. Sardonicus. Although all four albums were well received, Spirit’s esoteric combination of psychedelia, jazz, and classical music didn’t make for a lot of radio airplay. What radio station manager in the late ’60s or early ’70s would have wanted to play “Jewish,” a song California (who was Jewish) adapted from the traditional Hebrew folk song “Hine Ma Tov” which appears in Psalm 133? What radio station manager in the late ’60s or early ’70s would have wanted to play the environmentally themed “Nature’s Way” or the politically oriented “1984”? In fact, “1984” would be banned from many American radio stations. Spirit’s only Top 40 hit was “I Got a Line on You.” This song has been covered by dozens of artists most recently last year by The Hollywood Vampires — the supergroup consisting of Alice Cooper, Johnny Depp, and Aerosmith guitarist Joe Perry.

It also didn’t help matters when Adler nixed an opportunity for Spirit to play at Woodstock — their presence had been requested by Jimi Hendrix. Even if Spirit had played to a diminished audience on Woodstock’s final day, right before Hendrix closed the show, it would have undoubtedly given Spirit wider exposure. But poor sales of Dr. Sardonicus (which would years later attain Gold Record status), the departure of Ames and Ferguson who formed Jo Jo Gunne, and especially the death of Hendrix would prompt California to briefly leave Spirit to pursue a solo career. The result was Kapt. Kopter and the (Fabulous) Twirly Birds. Released in 1972, Kapt. Kopter was a mixture of originals and covers of Beatles and Paul Simon songs which featured Cassidy on drums as well as Noel Redding of the Jimi Hendrix Experience.

But California would soon rejoin Spirit and over the last two decades of his life would tour and record nine albums with the group, which aside from California and Cassidy would have a revolving cast of members. Spirit’s final album California Blues would be released in December 1996. It featured California, Cassidy, Steve Loria on bass, Matt Andes (the brother of original Spirit guitarist Mark Andes) and his 15-year old daughter Rachel Andes on vocals. Here are the five of them lip syncing the title track in California’s backyard.

The combo was set to go out on the road in January 1997 to promote California Blues when tragedy struck on January 2nd of that year. While visiting his mother in Hawaii, California and his 12-year old son Quinn were out for a swim when they were caught in a riptide. While California managed to get his son to safety, he would be swept out to sea. His body was never found. Spirit would be forever broken. Randy California was 45.

Meanwhile, Cassidy would continue to play drums into his 80s but it wasn’t the same without his stepson. He would pass away in 2012 of cancer at the age of 89.

For his part, California seldom talked about “Stairway to Heaven” and never sought legal action. (His estate can bring suit because of a 2014 Supreme Court ruling involving the film Raging Bull: in Petrella v. MGM, the Court ruled there was no time limit on seeking copyright damages, but limited those to the last three years of earnings.) However, he would share his thoughts when asked about it by music journalist Jeff McLaughlin shortly before his death in November 1996 and he had some very definite opinions on the subject:

Well, if you listen to the two songs, you can make your own judgment. It’s an exact… I’d say it was a rip-off. And the guys made millions of bucks on it and never said, “Thank you,” never said, “Can we pay you some money for it?” It’s kind of a sore point with me. Maybe someday their conscience will make them do something about it. I don’t know.

Now that Plant and Page have prevailed in court, it is highly unlikely their conscience nor anything else will motivate them to recognize California’s contribution to one of the greatest songs in rock ’n’ roll history. But perhaps music fans will gain a better appreciation of the music of Spirit and the spirit of Randy California.

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