Bay Area Bits by Jimbo Juanis
JOHNNY WAS A ROCKER: On May 29th John Cipollina died at Marin General Hospital. He was 45. Although the cause of death was attributed to "heart failure," John had a history of respiratory problems and had battled emphysema for the last couple of years. Right up to his death, the legendary guitarist was playing gigs with a gusto that bellied his true physical condition. John's last public performance was a Fish & Chip show at The Saloon in San Francisco's North Beach district on May 13th.
Born as a twin (his sister Michael survives him) in Berkeley, CA on August 24, 1943, John had a chronic asthmatic condition so severe that he had to be held upright as an infant to fall asleep. His mother Evelyn, who also survives him, was a protege of famed concert pianist Jose Iturbi, who became godfather to John and his sister. As a child, John lived in San Salvador and Guatemala until the age of six when his family moved back to the Bay Area, settling in Mill Valley, CA.
In 1958, John, who was already steeped in music and played piano by the age of 2, became attracted to the electric guitar, mainly through the pioneering exploits of the guitar heroes of the day. Elvis Presley guitarists Scotty Moore and James Burton, along with others like Link Wray, were early influences. Cipollina once said of Wray "He could talk dirty with just a couple of licks on the guitar." A year later, John was in one of his first bands, the Deacons, playing Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Fats Domino covers at teen hops. By 1963, rock 'n' roll was on the wane, folk music was in and since John was a rocker, gigs were scarce to non-existent. Cipollina took to playing the bossa nova and played the local "steak and lobster circuit." He even dabbled in real estate to make ends meet. Also around this time, he took up with a bunch of flamenco guitar players. He often attributed his long, flowing, melodic guitar lines to his integration of flamenco stylings into the electric rock 'n' roll sound. John was also getting into the blues listening to the music of Lightning Hopkins, Howlin' Wolf and John Lee Hooker.
In 1964, courtesy of the Beatles, rock 'n' roll became 'in' again. It was around this period that John met the members of what would become his best-known group, Quicksilver Messenger Service: Jim Murray, David Freiberg, and Chet Powers (who would later change his name to Dino Valenti). Freiberg ironically shared the same birthday with Cipollina (August 24). At that time, Freiberg was playing 12-string guitar in a folk group that included Paul Kantner and David Crosby. Valenti had to leave the group early to serve a couple of years in jail on a marijuana rap. The original Quicksilver lineup consisted of Cipollina on lead guitar, David Freiberg on bass, Skip Spence on guitar, Jim Murray on harmonica and vocals and Casey Sonoban on drums. Marty Balin, who ran The Matrix in San Francisco and was just forming the Jefferson Airplane, took a liking to Skip Spence and Spence joined the Airplane as their drummer. As a result, Quicksilver was out one guitarist. But Balin recommended to John at one of the Acid Tests that he check out Gary Duncan and Greg Elmore, who ultimately became John's bandmates. (Incredibly, Duncan and Elmore were also born on the same day, September 4, 1946). It was Freiberg that came up with the group's name, concluding that since he and John and Gary and Greg were Virgos and Murray was a Gemini they were ruled by the planet Mercury. Another name for Mercury is Quicksilver and Quicksilver is the messenger of the gods, while Virgo is the servant. Hence, Quicksilver Messenger Service.
While other San Francisco groups at the time, namely the Grateful Dead, the Jefferson Airplane and Big Brother and the Holding Company, were all getting record deals and on the road touring, Quicksilver honed their sound. They became known primarily for long extended blues jams and developed quite a local following at The Fillmore Auditorium and Avalon Ballroom.
Quicksilver performed at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967 and backstage in the musicians' tent, John Cipollina participated in one of the greatest jams of all time featuring Jimi Hendrix, Jorma Kaukonen, Jack Casady, and Bob Weir. Unfortunately Quicksilver still didn't have a record contract. But by the end of 1967, they finally signed and began recording for Capitol Records. Quicksilver's debut LP was produced by Nick Gravenites and it started a long and lasting friendship between John and Nick. By 1968, Duncan had left the band, around the time of their second LP, Happy Trails. The band took a year off, gigging occasionally with Gravenites as The Quick and Nick. In 1969, Quicksilver added British session keyboardist Nicky Hopkins for their 3rd album, Shady Grove. At a New Years gig with the Grateful Dead at Winterland '69-'70, Dino Valenti and Gary Duncan rejoined Quicksilver. The band did a national tour and recorded the albums Just For Love and What About Me during a stay in Hawaii. Around this time, through his association with Hopkins, Cipollina began doing session work for other artists which he enjoyed immensely, but which caused a rift with the other members of the group, and as a result John left Quicksilver in October of 1970.
Later that year, he formed his first post-Quicksilver band, Copperhead. The band included the late Jim McPherson on keyboards and bass, David Weber on drums, Gary Philippet on guitar, organ and vocals, Pete Sears on bass and keyboards, and, later, Jasper "Hutch" Hutchinson. The group gigged together for over three years, releasing an LP, Copperhead (Columbia), in 1973.
Around the time of John's departure from Quicksilver, he met Terry Dolan through Nicky Hopkins who was producing Dolan at the time. It became another friendship and musical collaboration that lasted to the end. Terry and the Pirates' original lineup included Cipollina on lead guitar, David Weber on drums, James "Hutch" Hutchinson on bass, and Greg Douglass on guitar, as well as singer-songwriter-guitarist Terry Dolan. Cipollina played with the Pirates throughout the '70s and '80s, and the Pirates hold the distinction of being John's longest running group, spanning more than sixteen years. Cipollina recorded five albums with the legendary band, all of which were released in Europe, except for those on Rag Baby: Too Close For Comfort (Wild Bunch, 1979), Doubtful Handshake (Line Records, 1980), Wind Dancer (Rag Baby, 1982), Risin' of The Moon (Rag Baby, 1983) and Acoustic Rangers (Line Records, 1988).
[Photo of Garcia and Elvis Costello at Sweetwater In Mill Valley - 4/24/89]
[Bob Weir belts out "Lovelight" at the Sweetwater (playing Elvis Costello's guitar)]
Cipollina also toured and recorded with the Welsh rock group Man. His guitarwork is included on the 1975 release, Maximum Darkness (UA). He also participated in the Quicksilver reunion in 1975 that produced two national tours and an LP, Solid Silver (Capitol).
John Cipollina formed Raven in 1975. The band consisted of Greg Douglass on guitar, Andy Kirby on drums, Nicky Hopkins on keyboards, and Skip Olsen on bass. Raven only played a handful of Bay Area Dates in 1975-76. In 1980, Raven (Line Records) was released.
In 1979, John started playing regularly with Nick Gravenites in The Gravenites-Cipollina Band, and later Thunder and Lightning. Besides John and Nick, personnel included bassist Doug Kilmer and Greg Elmore on drums. Two records have been released in Europe: Blue Star (Line Records) and Monkey Medicine (Line Records). A live recording from the 1988 Greek tour so far remains unreleased. John Cipollina was extremely popular in Europe and tried to make it over there annually with either Terry and the Pirates or Nick Gravenites. In fact, a month before his death John participated in a sold-out tour of Greece with Gravenites.
[The Dead at Frost 516/89]
By 1982, John joined Dinosaurs, an all-star group that was made up of members of each of the greatest San Francisco Bands of the Psychedelic Era: Barry "The Fish" Melton on guitar (Country Joe & the Fish), Peter Albin on bass (Big Brother & the Holding Company), and Spencer Dryden on drums (Jetferson Airplane, NRPS). At Dinosaurs' San Francisco debut at The Old Waldorf on Friday, August 13, 1982, they were joined during their set by Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter who subsequently became a member. Several years later when Hunter left the legendary band, Merl Saunders signed on. Dinosaurs released an LP in 1988 on Relix Records. John was also a member of Fish & Chip which is Dinosaurs without Merl Saunders.
A couple of years later, John joined a jazz-fusion group called Zero. It was another all-star affair that included Martin Fierro on sax, Bobby Vega on bass, drummer Greg Anton, John Farey on vocals and keyboards, and Steve Kimock on guitar. John was a member of this group until late 1987 and is included on the band's Relix Records' debut, Here Goes Nothin'.
While he was juggling between Dinosaurs, Thunder & Lightning, Terry & the Pirates, Fish & Chips, and Zero, he also participated in the hard-rocking Problem Child. Problem Child went through numerous lead vocalists but the core consisted of Cipollina and Greg Douglass on guitar and Greg Elmore on drums. They disbanded in 1988. Other Cipollina groups over the years have included Fish Stu, Rocky Sullivan, The Summer of Love All Stars, The Sounds of San Francisco, The Healy Treece Band, The Seven Deadly Sins, Silver Lightning, The Fierro-Cipollina Band, M.U.S.I.C., Nicksilver and Once. John will be remembered for the distinctive, quivering, heavy tremeloed guitar style that was his signature.
One of the most underrated facets of John's playing was his unique supportive guitar style. He had the ability to fit in musically even in the most incongruous of situations. Cipollina's presence made the other musicians, especially guitarists, sound even better. Whether it was with Barry Mellon, Steve Kimock or Nick Gravenites, John's involvement in the music took it to another level. Be it a stinging guitar solo, a rhythm riff, or slide guitar work, Cipollina made his indelible stamp on the music - a sound that was completely his own.
During the last few months of his life, John had to use crutches or a cane to get around off stage. Besides his lungs, John's hip bones were deteriorating. On stage he would have a stool nearby, although at many shows he chose to stand. He was in great pain but you would never know it by watching him play or even by talking to him backstage. John lived to play his music for his fans and he always delivered the goods. One of the best parts of writing this column was sharing many of John's memorable moments with Relix readers each issue. The San Francisco music scene will simply never be the same without him.
Besides his mother Evelyn and sister Michael, John is survived by his sister Antonia and his brother Mario Cipollina who plays bass with Huey Lewis and the News. On June 1, John's body was cremated and his ashes were spread on Mt. Tamalpais, which is where he spent much of his life.
Plans are in the works for a retrospective album and video featuring many of the various Cipollina groups. A tribute concert is planned to be held at the Fillmore on June 26th. At presstime, artists scheduled to perform include Robert Hunter, Nick Gravenites, Dino Valenti, and Mickey Hart. Those wishing to send cards to the family may do so by writing to John Cipollina Family, c/o Music Hotline P.O. Box 2224, San Rafael, CA 94912. If you wish to contribute to the memorial fund set up for John's family, you may send a check payable to "Dinosaurs" to the same address.
EIGHT DAY CLOCK: At the time of John's death, he was scheduled to play a reunion show with Thunder and Lightning at The Chi Chi Club on June 2nd. The evening became a moving tribute for many of his fans and friends. The show was a sell-out and the line of folks that tried to get in extended down Broadway to The Stone. The Chi Chi Club is where John played regularly since 1983. Chi Chi Club owner Miss Kieko, fighting back tears, made some emotional remarks from the bandstand (which was adorned with framed pictures of John) to the somber crowd before introducing Nick Gravenites and Animal Mind. Animal Mind featured Pete Sears on piano, Doug Kilmer on bass, and Roy Blumenfeld on drums - all good pals of Cipollina's. John's mother Evelyn, sister Antonia, and brother Mario also turned out to thank John's fans. Animal Mind was joined by Mario Cipollina on bass and Boots Houston on sax as well as Joseph Stewart on harp for an allstar tribute jam that turned the packed house from gloomy and somber to what perhaps resembled an old fashioned Irish wake. Nick reminisced with the crowd between numbers including "Eight Day Clock," "You Can't Hurt Me No," "Kill My Brain," "Pride of Man," and "Who Do You Love." During "Who Do You Love" Greg Elmore, sat in on drums. The spirit and music will go on.
Relix, August 1989, Vol. 16 No. 4