Obituary: Randy California

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The Independent Online
Many guitarists have existed in the shadow of the great Jimi Hendrix. But Randy California had more right than most to take on the mantle of the guitar genius.

In 1966, when only 15, the precocious Californian Randy Wolfe met Hendrix in a New York music store. They got talking, played some slide and soon Hendrix was adding the nickname "California" to Randy's name and asking him to sit in with his band, Jimmy James and the Blue Flames, at the Cafe Wha? in Greenwich Village.

The following three months (and five sets a night) had a lasting influence on both players; Hendrix was spotted by the Animals' bass-player Chas Chandler (who became his manager and brought him to London) while the under-age Randy eventually headed back to the West Coast and formed the psychedelic outfit Spirit, successfully merging jazz, blues and rock to create a truly progressive sound.

Born in 1951 into a musical Los Angeles family (one of his uncles had a blues radio show, the other one owned the Ash Grove night-club and often brought players like Lightnin' Hopkins round to his nephew's house), Randy was taught the rudiments of guitar by his mother, Bernice Pearl Wolfe. When she got divorced and subsequently married Ed Cassidy, a drummer who had already played with Thelonious Monk, Ry Cooder and Taj Mahal, Randy joined forces with his stepfather.

By the age of 13, Randy was already messing around with his friend John (Jay) Ferguson doing the singing and Mark Andes on bass. They formed a group called the Red Roosters but, following their time in New York with Hendrix, added the keyboard player John Locke (an old associate of Cassidy's) and became Spirits Rebellious (after the Kahlil Gibran book) and then Spirit.

After releasing an eponymous album on the Ode label, the five-piece went on tour in 1968 with Led Zeppelin as support ("Stairway To Heaven", the Led Zeppelin classic, bears more than a passing resemblance to "Taurus", a California song released on Spirit's debut offering). The appropriately- titled Family That Plays Together Stays Together followed and the infectious "I Got A Line On You", written by California, became a Top 30 US hit in 1969. The group should have played Woodstock before Hendrix but were instead sent on a promo tour of radio stations. The seeds of dissension were sown.

After the relative failure of Clear Spirit (which contained the visionary single "1984"), the quintet tried one more time and recorded Twelve Dreams of Dr Sardonicus, a concept album worthy of the Beatles. In spite of the distinctive psychedelic sleeve, material like "Nature's Way" took a while to work its magic and this masterpiece only reached gold and then platinum status in 1976, five years after its original release.

By then, California had suffered a riding accident, travelled to Britain and released Kaptain Kopter and the Fabulous Twirlybirds, while Andes and Ferguson launched Jo Jo Gunne (instantly finding the magic formula with "Run Run Run", though Andes later joined Heart). Meanwhile Cassidy and Locke recruited replacement players called Chris and Al Staehely, but subsequently left Spirit, leaving a line-up which carried on without any original members. American promoters were not amused and the band's reputation suffered.

In 1974 Cassidy and California reformed Spirit and signed to Mercury Records, releasing a succession of fine albums like Spirit of '76, Son of Spirit and Future Games, and reunited with the other original members for a concert which featured a guest appearance by Neil Young. Another reunion took place 10 years later with The Thirteenth Dream.

In the late Seventies and early Eighties California visited Britain regularly and worked both with Spirit (still with Cassidy) and as a solo artist. In 1981 the album Journey to Potatoland was a rare UK Top 40 entry. Restless (1985) proved a nadir of sorts, and the same year California fell into the Thames while under the influence of drugs. Signing to Miles Copeland's IRS label in 1989, Spirit released Rapture in Chambers and California took part in "Night of the Guitars" at the Hammersmith Odeon alongside Robbie Krieger of the Doors, Steve Howe of Yes and a dozen other axemen (he also appears on the live album).

Recently, California had overseen the release of the excellent compilation of Spirit material, Time Circle (1992), as well as the remastering of the group's first four albums on Sony's Legacy label. At the tail end of last year, a new Spirit line-up (featuring California, a 73-year-old Ed Cassidy, Mark Andes' brother Matt on slide guitar and his daughter Rachel, 16, on vocals; three generations playing together) recorded California Blues, a collection of originals and cover versions which came out as the band were due to embark on a lengthy European tour this month.

To celebrate the New Year, Randy California and his 12-year-old son Quinn went swimming off the coast of Molokai, in Hawaii. A tidal wave caught them both but California managed to push his son away from the riptide before he was himself pulled out to sea. The guitarist's body has not been recovered.

Randy Wolfe (Randy California), guitarist, singer, songwriter: born Los Angeles 20 February 1951; died Molokai, Hawaii 2 January 1997.