A good spirit

By Sergio Ariza

This is the marvelous yet sad story of Randy California, an extraordinary guitarist whose fame was elusive despite hobnobbing with some of the heavyweights in rock history. If anyone has heard anything about him it’s perhaps about the controversy over how his Taurus served as an inspiration to Jimmy Page to compose Stairway to Heaven, but reducing his story to that would be a disservice. To begin with, his artistic name was given to him by one Jimi Hendrix, then he founded a remarkable cult band with his stepfather, he replaced Ritchie Blackmore for a few days in Deep Purple, and died while preventing his son from drowning at sea...   

Randolph Craig Wolfe was born February 20, 1951 in Los Angeles, California. His mother was the sister of the owner of Ash Grove, one of the most famous clubs in the city, so he grew up surrounded by musicians. When he started playing guitar, his lessons were given by people like blues legend Sleepy John Estes and Clarence White. In early 1965 his mother, who was divorced, started dating Ed Cassidy, the drummer of the most fashionable group in town, the Rising Sons, captained by Taj Mahal and Ry Cooder. Cassidy, with a broad experience in the world of jazz, became his stepfather and saw a lot of potential in the teenager and his friends, the singer Jay Ferguson and the drummer Mark Andes, so he decided to form a band with them called the Red Roosters and they ended up playing at Ash Grove.

But in the spring of ‘66 Cassidy got a job in New York and moved with his family to the east coast. Once there Randy would meet a man who gave him his definitive nickname and who would eventually become the biggest legend in the history of the electric guitar: Jimi Hendrix. It was at the famous shop Manny’s Music in Manhattan where Randy spotted a guy in the back playing a Strat, and he played wonderfully, so with the courage of a 15-year-old he approached him and asked if he could show him a few things he had learned, Hendrix (at the time he went by the name Jimmy James) handed him the guitar, Randy put on a slide and played something good enough that Hendrix invited him to play that night with him, in what would be be his first night at Cafe Wha? in Greenwich Village.    

That night he was definitely added to Jimmy James & The Blue Flames, Hendrix's band, and he gave him his nickname, California, to not confuse him with the other Randy in the band, the bassman, who he called Texas (I guess it’s clear why). The Blue Flames repertoire was mostly covers of blues and R&B, although they also did Hendrix favourites like Hey Joe and Wild Thing. Hendrix played one of his borrowed Strats plugged into a Fender Deluxe, while California played with his cheap gear, a Danelectro through a Sears Silvertone amp. Hendrix was already able to create a wall of distortion and noise, something that would greatly influence California. When they finished their set, Jimmy and Randy went to the Cafe au Go Go to see the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, whose guitarist, Mike Bloomfield, was a big influence on them both thanks to his ‘bending’ ability.   

A few months later, the Jimmy James performances were starting to get attention of English musicians who were in town, Keith Richards had caused an uproar by going to see them, and his girlfriend at the time, Linda Keith, ended up giving him a brand new Stratocaster. But the visit that would change Hendrix’s life was that of Chas Chandler, the bassman for the Animals, who decided to quit music to become their manager, and bring him to England. Hendrix invited California to go, but with just 15 years of age, he had to stay in the U.S..

In the fall of ‘66 California’s family returned to L.A. and the following year they got back with Ferguson and Andes, as well as the pianist John Locke, to form a band called Spirits Rebellious, who shortly became just Spirit. After recording a demo they were signed by the producer of The Mamas and the Papas, Lou Adler. It was the summer of ‘67 and the band got together with Adler in the studio to cut their first record. The result would see light in January ‘68, a psychedelic work but with a nod to jazz and elaborate string arrangements, California shone on his Danelectro despite being just 16, with his aggressive style and a lot of fuzz, as you can enjoy on the single Mechanical World, or in the best song on it, Fresh Garbage. Both were composed by Ferguson, the main writer in the band at that moment, but the most remembered from this first album was a small instrumental by California titled Taurus, but we will get there.


The record charted in the top 40 and the band got back to a the studio to record the next one, The Family That Plays Together (a wink to the relation between Cassidy and California). This time the guitarist composed an overwhelming song, which was I Got a Line On You, the best song in the band’s discography. Not surprisingly, this song should be in the canon of indispensable 60s songs. It opens with a riff played on both guitar and piano at the same time and then the voice comes in like a hurricane, and then a good solo with his Danelectro U56. However, the best moment on the 6-strings arrives with Aren’t You Glad, an excellent piece of ‘psych-rock’ in which California proves again his mastery of the fuzz, delivering the most brilliant solo on the record. It’s easy to see what Hendrix saw in this kid whom he never stopped praising.


Both the album and the single, released in late ‘68, were a success and the band hit the road on a country-wide tour, in December they played in Denver with the help of an English band who still hadn’t made a record, it was Led Zeppelin. The mark left on the Engilshmen was profound, not long after they would put a part of Fresh Garbage in their gigs and Jimmy Page began to use a theremin after seeing one mounted on California’s guitar. But without a doubt, the most relevant was that a little part of Taurus would become the intro to one of the most important songs of all time, Stairway to Heaven. If anyone is interested in my opinion about the polemic, no, I don’t think Stairway to Heaven was a plagiarism, it’s a different song and much better than Taurus, but it wouldn’t  be so hard for Jimmy Page to recognise his influences.   

The band’s 3rd record would come out in 1969, Clear, the least good of their first period, despite containing great moments like Dark Eyed Woman, with one of California’s best solos. Late that year came 1984, a single that showed they were in top form, something that would be confirmed on Twelve Dreams of Dr. Sardonicus, the best album of their career, a culmination of that first stage with California maturing as a composer and guitarist, as he shows at the beginning of the record on the powerful Prelude -- Nothin’ to Hide and the delicate Nature’s Way. Not far behind is one of Ferguson’s best songs, Animal Zoo, another potent 70s rocker, When I Touched You is one of the hardest songs of their career, anticipating the sounds to come, Morning Will Come sounds ahead of its time, a rocker with strong horns, while Mr. Skin, dedicated to Cassidy, is another lost classic from an album that should have had made them famous.


But they weren’t lucky, the record hardly made a commercial splash and Ferguson and Andes quit the band to form Jo Jo Gunne. Soon after, California was crushed by the death of his mentor, Jimi Hendrix, and he left too. He would soon get one of the most curious calls of his career, Al Kooper asked him to replace Ritchie Blackmore in Deep Purple for a few shows while he was ill. Kooper was the first name the manager has thought of for the replacement, but after seeing he was not able to play things like Highway Star, he chose to call one of his favourite guitarists. Without much time to rehearse, California went off with Deep Purple at the time of Machine Head to Canada to give a concert, while there he left a good impression on the band members, so much that it was suspected that some members, a little tired of Blackmore’s foul temper, offered him a permanent job. The fact is that that remained anecdotal and in 1972 California debuted his solo album Kapt. Kopter and the (Fabulous) Twirly Birds, a record in which Noel Redding appears and can be seen as a tribute to Hendrix.

In the mid-70s he got back together with Cassidy and they returned performing as Spirit, releasing several records on the Mercury label, during this stage he went on to play cheap Stratocasters, although the guitar most linked to him in his final years was a Charvel. At the start of the 80s the original Spirit got back together, putting out a new album, Spirit of ‘84, but their main market was on the road. His name was still greatly valued by his colleagues, as seen by his inclusion on the legendary tour The Night Of The Guitar, which also featured Robby Krieger of the Doors, Alvin Lee from Ten Years After, Ted Turner and Andy Powell from Wishbone Ash, Steve Howe from Yes and Leslie West from Mountain.

During the 90s he never stopped touring, on one of those few breaks between gigs he was in Hawaii, one of his favourite spots, on vacation with his family when he went swimming with his 12-year-old son Quinn. While they swam the tide began to change and dragged them out to sea, California grabbed his son and got him as close as possible to the shore but he was out of strength to get himself out, he drowned on January 2, 1997.

He could play guitar alongside Hendrix or replace Blackmore, but he also had his own style and enough talent to write songs like I Got A Line On You, Nothin’ To Hide, Nature’s Way, and 1984. But as you can see in his lyrics and his performances, beyond being a great musician, Randy California was a better person, someone who no-one had a bad thing to say about, and died in a tragic way, but heroically, by saving his son’s life. There’s no better legacy than that.