Spirit was an impressive melding of rock, blues, and jazz. It boasted three top-notch songwriters in Ferguson, California, and Andes. They put out four albums of superb musicianship before the original lineup broke up. They had one song that became a standby on FM radio, but no big hits, and suffered from some poor decisions.
One was signing with Lou Adler. Adler was a top record executive of the time, and he signed the group to his Ode records label, distributed by Epic (which was a division of Columbia Records*). Adler, though was dissatisfied with Epic, and took the first opportunity he could to jump his label to A&M, where, renamed as Ode 70, he hit real success with Carole King's Tapestry.
But in the shuffle, Spirit was lost.
The original lineup played in the Los Angeles area before forming. Cassady had the most experience -- because he was old enough to be the guitar player's father. He was a jazz drummer before joining the group, and played with Cannonball Adderly, Roland Kirk, and the legendary group the Rising Sons (with Taj Mahal and Ry Cooder). He was the "face" of the group, with his shaven head -- even more unusual in the late 60s than long hair. When he played, he made what Lillian Roxon called "amazing facial distortions."
Randy California (born Randy Wolf) was Cassady's stepson (I told you he was much older) and had played with (and was influenced by) Jimi Hendrix before Jimi hit it big. Mark Andes was briefly in an early version of Canned Heat, and Ferguson and Locke were up and coming musicians in the LA area.
In their first incarnation, they recorded four albums:
- Spirit. Their first album was a bit tentative, more jazzy that rock, but still a first class job. The highlights are "Fresh Garbage," "Mechanical World," "Topanga Window," and "Gramophone Man." There's also "Taurus," which has gained some notoriety lately: it sounds suspiciously like the opening to "Stairway to Heaven," and since Spirit opened for Led Zeppelin, there have been charges that Jimmy Page stole it.
- The Family that Plays Together. This had the biggest hit, "I've Got a Line on You." It didn't go that high on the charts, but was an FM standby. Other highlights are the beautiful ballad "Darling If," "Jewish" (based on a Hebrew prayer), " and the rocking "All the Same." The group had reached its stride.
- Clear. Not quite as good as the previous album, but some fine songs like "Dark Eyed Woman," "So Little Time to Fly," "Give a Life, Take a Life," and "Apple Orchard." The record company picked the wrong song to promote as a single.
- The Twelve Dreams of Doctor Sardonicus. Quite simply, one of the twenty best rock albums ever. Twelve songs that are all classics. There is a wide range, with a great production job by David Briggs. Some rock hard; others rock softly, still others are achingly beautiful ballads. It ranks up with the best of the Beatles for tunefulness and eclectic sounds. I really can't pick a favorite. I love "Nature's Way," a ballad about death that never mentions the subject. "Animal Zoo" is a fine rocker, as is "Mr. Skin" (a reference to Cassady, though it seems rife with double meaning). "Why Can't I Be Free" is a beautiful moment, showing California's way with melody. "Morning Will Come" is a catchy single. If you haven't heard it, get it -- it will amaze you.
They broke up as the album was in final production, which left it in enough limbo that Epic didn't promote it (why spend the money on a group that won't record any more albums?). It did poorly (though over the years, it has gone platinum).
The name went on. Locke and Cassady brought in a couple of outsiders to put out the album Feedback, but it was as if Charlie Watts and Bill Wyman hired a few unknowns and called themselves the Rolling Stones. The group's songwriters were gone, and most fans ignored it. The group's name continued with various original members along from time to time, though only Cassady and California were constant. I lost track after the break up, but what little I heard was good, but not up to the brilliance of Sardonicus. It was a pinnacle that few groups could reach, and tended to overshadow later efforts.
Andes formed Jo Jo Gunne, and Ferguson had a solo career with a hit single "Thunder Island." Randy California also tried a solo career, then returned to Spirit, which essentially became his band. The group in various incarnations continued on until California's death in 1997 (saving his son from a riptide**).
*I go into this because many of these relationships have been forgotten as divisions are sold and merged. The Allmusic Guide's biggest flaw is that they only list the current (or most recent) labels for CDs, not the label where the group originally appeared).