Fifty Year Friday: Spirit
Randy California, born Randy Wolfe, was a native Calfornian, born in Los Angeles, but when his step-dad, jazz drummer Ed Cassidy (the gentleman with the bald head in the left upper portion of their first album cover; a drummer that played gigs with Cannonball Adderly, Gerry Mulligan, Art Pepper, Roland Kirk, and Lee Konitz and was a founding member of Rising Sons with Taj Mahal and Ry Cooder) had some work lined up in New York City, the family moved to an apartment complex in Queens in 1966. Randy soon met Jimi Hendrix and then played with Hendrix that very summer as a member of Jimmy James and the Blue Flames. It was while they were playing together, that Hendrix started calling Randy Wolfe, “Randy California” and another Randy in the band, Randy Palmer, “Randy Texas.”
Randy Wolfe took the “Randy California” name back west, forming Red Roosters with his step-dad, a band that eventually evolved into “Spirits Rebellious” and then just Spirit. Randy was sixteen years old. Besides Randy and Ed, Spirit included composer, keyboard player and lead vocalist, Jay Ferguson, Mark Andes on bass and backing vocals, (who later played with Ferguson in Jo Jo Gunne in the early 1970s, Firefall in the late 1970’s and Heart in the 1980s.) and John Locke (who later joined Nazareth in the 1980’s) also on keyboards. Randy was still sixteen when Spirit’s first album, “Spirit”, was released on January 22, 1968.
None of the songs on Spirit’s debut album are typical pop songs, most having more of an jazz or a psychedelic or progressive rock ethos, with a prevailing ABA form with the B section being a instrumental, partly improvisational section providing contrast to the more traditional song-like A section. The last track, “Elijah”, due to its extended length, stretches out the ABA concept to a rondo-like form (ABACADAEA) with improvised passages between the recurring theme.
All the tracks on the album are notable, with 9 of the 11 songs written or co-written by Ferguson. “Elijah” was written by John Locke; Randy California wrote one of the tracks, “Taurus”, a well-written, nicely arranged instrumental following the Andes/Ferguson song, “Mechanical World”, the only track with single status on the album.
“Taurus” opens up with a orchestral introduction that floats into a soft, relaxing two-part theme which is played twice (this not being one of the tracks with ABA form on the album.) The striking part of the first half of the theme is its similarity to Zeppelin’s
“Stairway to Heaven.” The casual listener may very well consider that Zeppelin borrowed Taurus for that beautiful guitar intro in “Stairway”, particularly if that listener is aware that Zeppelin opened for Spirit in several 1968 concerts, that Zeppelin included material from the first track of the same Spirit album, “Fresh Garbage” in a medley they performed live, that Page is on record as stating that he had owned several Spirit albums, and that there are over a dozen noteworthy cases of Jimmy Page and Robert Plant “borrowing without credit” material from other artists.
So similar is the connection between “Taurus” and “Stairway” that ultimately in 2014, the estate of Randy California brought a copyright infringement suit against Led Zeppelin. Randy California had drowned in the Pacific Ocean in 1997, at the age of only 45, when swimming into the ocean to save his twelve-year old son from a rip current. Though giving up his life in the effort, Randy managed to push his son to safety. Now seventeen years after his death, lawyers for his estate planned to get a co-writing credit for Randy on “Stairway to Heaven.”
Unfortunately, the judge would not allow the jury to hear side-by-side comparisons of “Taurus” and “Stairway to Heaven.” Instead, he only allowed the performance of the two songs on keyboard by a hired musician using as the source the registered sheet music from the Library of Congress, music that differed from the final version on the recordings. Also ruled inadmissible were expert witnesses that were lined up to talk about sixteen instances of Jimmy Page’s past use of uncredited material, the judge ruling that any past plagiarism, alleged or actual, was not relevant to this particular case in question. Adding to this was the odd approach and personality of the prosecuting attorney for the California estate, who quickly exasperated the judge and who scored important points for the defense when questioning Page about his being influenced by the Disney/Mary Poppins song ” Chim Chim Cher-ee”.
The jury ruled in favor of the defense, and certainly there are notable differences in the two passages: the “Stairway” melody goes to A at the end of the first chord and then on to B of the next chord while “Taurus”, less remarkably, descends to A and then G#. If they jury had heard actual recordings, its seems almost certain they would have ruled otherwise.
Personally, I am glad to have both songs as part of our musical legacy and understand how easy it is to come up with the descending chromatic chord progression used in these two songs — something anyone could accidentally discover in the course of composing by hitting sequentially descending notes for their bass line. I am also sympathetic to how common it is to put together a song based on something one had heard a long time ago and unintentionally brought into their composing process as so clearly happened with George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord” — just an unintended revisiting of “She’s So Fine.” In the case with “Taurus”, it seems Jimmy Page had heard that song several times, forgotten about it, started to play with the chord progressions and went in the direction of a recreation of something close to what his subconscious mind was already familiar with. In my view, a living Randy California wasn’t particularly interested in who got credit, but his descendants, perhaps needing or wanting money, had a greater interest in assignment of authorship.
You can check out the video below for a good explanation of how these two songs are similar (and differ) in their sharing of the passage in question. If you have any thoughts on this Spirit album, or thoughts on the similarities of “Taurus” and “Stairway to Heaven” please don’t hesitate comment. Also what are some of your favorite albums from 1968? I know one of mine is still a few months away from being fifty years old, and plan to discuss that if I even if I have lost all my remaining, exceedingly patient readers by then.
Click her for track listing [from Wikipedia]