If you have never heard of the Ace of Cups, you may be wondering why given that they were brushing shoulders with all the big groups in the 1960’s San Francisco music scene! I’d never heard of them until recently and after reading how tricky it was in those days for an all-girl rock band to make it big, perhaps we can see why their name never made it as big as their contemporaries. Ace of Cups formed in San Francisco in 1967 at the peak of the Summer of Love. They are now known (are revered) as being one of the first all-female psych-rock bands.
Writing all of their own material (song writing was divided among the band members), early band members consisted of Mary Gannon (bass), Marla Hunt (organ, piano), Denise Kaufman (guitar, harmonica), Mary Ellen Simpson (lead guitar) and Diane Vitalich (drums). Lead vocals were sung by all members of the band except Vitalich, whilst all five sang backing vocals. Ace of Cups made their debut in the early spring of 1967 and by late June, Jimi Hendrix had invited them to open for him at a free concert in Golden Gate Park. In London that December, Hendrix told Melody Maker: “I heard some groovy sounds last time in the States, like this girl group, Ace of Cups, who write their own songs and the lead guitarist is hell, really great.”
Their music crossed over several genres, integrating piano-ballad pop with blues garage-rock and psychedelia. Basically, they were exploring and experimenting with the upcoming sounds of that time, matching the sound of their male peers as they shared bills with the likes of Jimi Hendrix, the Grateful Dead, and the Band! Jefferson Airplane guitarist, Jorma Kaugonen (who knew the band in the early days) spoke highly of the Ace of Cups, explaining how, ..”they were great players and played some great music! They were as intensely involved in their performance as any of the guy bands. They put it all out there. But at the time, it was like, ‘Whoa, women playing guitars?’ So stupid to think about that today, but it was a big deal back then. People were dumbfounded….
Despite achieving a fair amount of recognition in the Bay Area the Ace of Cups never got a record deal and why that never happened has never been firmly established. It wasn’t from lack of opportunity as they had the chance to sign with Warner Bros., Capitol, and Fantasy, but their management evidently felt the band wasn’t ready or that the offers weren’t suitable. There was also a reluctance in the group to tour as some of them were starting families, but they did appear on some records when Kaufman’s Flute Song was recorded on Quicksilver Messenger Service’s Shady Grove album in 1969. The group also did some backing vocals on records by Quicksilver, Jefferson Airplane, Nick Gravenites, and Mike Bloomfield.
Regretfully, by the early 1970’s the band broke up and several factors led to their collapse. Some of the band members were frustrated at the group’s lack of commercial success, whilst others were interested in other pursuits. Several members had children and found it difficult to balance motherhood and a musical career. In the early 1970s, several men joined the band to replace the women who had left. Kaufman was the last remaining member from the original line-up when the band folded in 1972.
Many years passed before their material made it onto records, but in 2003 Ace Records released It’s Bad for You But Buy It!, a CD of “rehearsals, demos, TV soundstage recordings, and in-concert tapes” of Ace of Cups. This is where today’s little rascal can be found. Its funny to think that, at the time, whilst bands like the Doors and The Byrds were being made to change lyrics that eluded to getting high, this band were writing blatant songs like this! I love it! Waller Street Blues is sassy and groovy, with blues-rock tinges and cool vocal layering! It’s a shame they never went the whole distance back then, but they are making up for it now! The band (of sorts) reformed in 2017 and are still going from what I can gather!! Better late than never, eh!!