The first all-female psychedelic rock band to spring from the 1960s San Francisco music scene, Ace of Cups shared the stage with Jimi Hendrix, Jefferson Airplane, The Band, Janis Joplin, the Grateful Dead and others. Yet hopes of securing a record deal or achieving wider recognition were scotched by misogyny and motherhood, and eventually Ace of Cups disbanded in 1972.
Decades later, UK label Big Beat released a collection of the band’s archived lo-fi rehearsal, demo and concert recordings. High Moon Records founder George Baer Wallace heard the CD, offered the women his support and in 2018, his label released their eponymous debut studio album. Their second album, Sing Your Dreams, was released Oct. 2, 2020. A third is planned for 2021.
The band—Mary Gannon (bass), Denise Kaufman (guitar, harmonica), Mary Ellen Simpson (lead guitar) and Diane Vitalich (drums), with Dallis Craft replacing original keyboardist Marla Hunt—were joined on the new album sessions by Jackson Browne, Sheila E and the Escovedo Family, Jorma Kaukonen, Jack Casady, Bob Weir and numerous others. The tracks were recorded in California at Laughing Tiger Studios and Dan Shea Studios, San Rafael; Little Mountain Studio, Novato; Low Overhead Studios, Oakland; Groove Masters, Santa Monica, and also at Bakithi Kumalo Bass Studio.
Producer Dan Shea, whose credits include Mariah Carey, Santana and Jennifer Lopez, and Ari Rios shared mixing duties, along with Billy Whittington. Engineers included Erin Tadena, Sheldon Brown, Kevin Smith, Dallis Craft and Bakithi Kumalo. Emily Lazar mastered the project at The Lodge, New York, NY, assisted by Chris Algood.
Denise Kaufman, once a Merry Prankster (“Mary Microgram”) on Ken Kesey’s bus and now a yoga guru, avid surfer and organic farmer, brought PSN up to date with the Ace of Cups story.
ON FORMING ACE OF CUPS:
I had been in a band with some of the guys who later formed Moby Grape, but I really didn’t know other women musicians in the psychedelic rock genre—but we found each other. I met Mary Ellen on New Year’s Eve at Blue Cheer’s house, when 1966 turned to 1967. She was sitting on the bed playing acoustic guitar. I always had a harmonica in my pocket, so we started playing. She said, “We’re starting an all-women’s band and you should come and meet us.” I thought, that sounds really weird, but I went over because I was curious. By the second week or so of January 1967, we were starting to write songs.
We had five lead singers in our band; there wasn’t one front person. Even if one person wrote the song, we all had parts. We were such a harmony-based band—and we all had different musical influences, and all honored each person’s musical tastes and what they wrote or played. We didn’t feel there was any issue of flowing in different directions and featuring different vibes in our songs. Even now, I don’t know what category we’re in.
ON THE BAND’S FIRST RECORD DEAL:
Ace of Cups got invited to play for Wavy Gravy’s 75th birthday party with a bunch of our old friends—Bobby Weir, Micky Hart. After that, George [Baer Wallace] said, “I want to help you.” The three of us who live in California, Mary Ellen, Diane and I, started to get together, writing and playing. That went on for three years. Eventually George said, “You’ve got to go into the studio. You never got the chance before and you’re writing great stuff and I love what you’re doing.” That was an amazing gift.
We found a producer, Dan Shea; Diane knew him. We looked for a woman producer, but we didn’t find the right person for us. We needed someone who understood contemporary music. And Dan has a really good lyric sense.
ON CHOOSING THE SONGS:
For many years, even though we all lived in different places, we would gather when we could—sometimes two of us, sometimes three, four or five of us—and play our songs, so it wasn’t like we hadn’t seen each other for 50 years. Most of us have been in other bands all through the years; we’re all still writing.
Dan went through all of our material. We started with 12 songs, then it went to 16, then 21 and finally 36 songs. We narrowed it down for the first double album, but then we had some for this album. And we have another coming out in a year.
ON RECORDING WITH OLD FRIENDS:
Not only did we sing on the [Jefferson Airplane] Volunteers album, but we did some touring with them on the West Coast. So it was wonderful to circle around 50 years later and have Jorma and Jack from Jefferson Airplane and Hot Tuna be on our album.
Ace of Cups • www.aceofcups.com