Spirit was unleashed in 1967, evolving from a band called Red Rooster featuring drummer Ed Cassidy, his stepson Randy California on guitar, bassist Mark Andes, singer Jay Ferguson, and keyboard player John Locke. 1968 was a big year for the band. They released their first album, which was self-titled, their second album, The Family That Plays Together, and wrote and performed the soundtrack for the Jacques Demy film Model Shop. They had a hit single with “I’ve Got a Line On You.” Oh, and they toured. Their opening act? A little band called Led Zeppelin. In fact, many people believe that Jimmy Page “borrowed” the opening to “Stairway to Heaven” from the Spirit instrumental “Taurus.” Page denies it, but I’ve listened, and it’s really close. You can decide for yourself.The following year, Spirit released their third album in two years. It was called Clear. Can you imagine a band releasing three albums in two years these days? Not bloody likely. It is said that the band members felt that it was a rushed effort. Given their workload, it would kind of have to be. Still, many fans consider it to be their best album. The album came out on Ode Records, and was produced by the legendary Lou Adler. The three instrumentals that are featured on the album may be a side effect of the rush to get the album done, but no matter, they are each worthy in their own way. My favorite is the exquisite title track, written by California and Ferguson. The band’s jazz influences are most obvious on the instrumental tracks, especially on John Locke’s “Caught.”
Elsewhere the band shows great skill in putting together multi-part suites such as the opening “Dark Eyed Woman,” and the album closer, “New Dope In Town.” My favorite song on the album though is the California / Adler song, “Give A Life, Take A Life.” I’d say that this song is influenced by the Beach Boys, but with both bands living in L.A., and recording in the same years, it’s hard to say who influenced who. In any event, it’s a great song, featuring lovely vocal harmonies.
Spirit was a band that could do it all. They were pioneers in jazz rock. They could play hard rock and do the psychedelic thing with the best of them. Randy California, who at 15 played with Jimi Hendrix when he was still Jimmy James, was one of the best guitarists of the era. Spirit would go on to release their classic album Twelve Dreams of Doctor Sardonicus in 1970. Many consider that one to be their best, but I’m pretty partial to Clear. You can’t go wrong with any of their first four albums though, so pick one up and give it a listen.