Ace of Cups Overflow With Excitement: Back After More Than Four Decades

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Ace of Cups photo by Rachael Wright

We were thrilled to recently connect with the all-female 1960s San Francisco band, Ace of Cups, who have shared the stage with such artists as Jefferson Airplane, The Band and, even Jimi Hendrix!  After a short time together writing, recording, and performing, life happened and found them pursuing marriage, motherhood, and other projects. Now, they are back!

Cover Photo Credit: Rachael Wright

The band recently released their first studio album featuring contributions from Bob Weir (Grateful Dead, Dead & Company), Jorma Kaukonen and Jack Casady (Jefferson Airplane, Hot Tuna), Taj Mahal, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Peter Coyote, and many more.    

We caught up with the Ace of Cups in their now four-piece lineup, all original members, Mary Ellen Simpson (lead guitar, vocals), Denise Kaufman (formerly guitar, now mostly bass, vocals, harmonica, dulcimer), Mary Gannon (formerly bass, now some bass, vocals, ukulele) and Diane Vitalich (drums, percussion, vocals).

Hearing about the Ace of Cups as a “new” band has made this Guitar Girl happy AND sad – happy that women were rocking back in the summer of love era and are back to it now, but sad that so many of us have never heard about you! When you first got together, had any of you played with other bands or was Ace of Cups your first real band?

AoC:  For most of us, the Ace of Cups was our first real band. Denise had been in a band called Luminous Marsh Goas with Jerry Miller, Don Stevenson, and Charlie Schoning. Jerry and Don went on to form Moby Grape. Denise had also recorded a single for Wee Records of her song, “Boy, What’ll You Do Then,” with a band from Berkeley called The Answer. Mary Gannon had had a brief stint in a band in the Haight Ashbury called The Demon Lover where she was expected to play a tambourine and sing some background parts. That didn’t rock her boat, so she didn’t last long there. For the rest of us, Ace of Cups was our first band.

What is your musical background? Did you all take music lessons or sang in choirs in school or church? What were your beginnings of the love of playing music?

Mary Ellen: I took guitar lessons from Naomi Heali from the time I was 12 until I was 18. At age 16, I went to a summer camp in Idlywild, CA called Isomata where I studied fingerpicking style guitar with Bill Cunningham. The legendary Almeda Riddle taught Appalachian singing and music to all the campers which was amazing! The only performing I ever did before the Ace of Cups was at my high school talent show. I was terrified. I had a 100-year-old Martin New Yorker guitar and sang “Silver Dagger” and “Banks of the Ohio.” I got a standing ovation and won first place. It took so much courage for me to even set foot on that stage. My hands were sweating, and I was shaking internally, so to get that positive response was incredible. Later, when I was in college in San Jose, I took some lessons from Jorma Kaukonen (later of Jefferson Airplane and Hot Tuna) and worked mostly on old-style blues guitar licks.

Denise: I started playing piano at age four and went twice a week to the San Francisco Conservatory of Music until I was 12. I was also in the San Francisco Children’s Opera Company and appeared in plays regularly for about six years. I switched to guitar at about 13 and started studying folk music from books, records, and whoever would teach me anything. By the time I was 15, I was sneaking out to The Shiloh, a small coffee house/folk club at the corner of Fillmore and Clay in San Francisco. It was heaven to me. I soaked up the music. Later, in Palo Alto, I was the only high school student in the Stanford Folk Music Club. I still have the handbills from our hootenanny events where we all took turns performing.

Diane: I wanted to play drums in my grammar school music class and was told: “girls can’t play drums.” That was the same thing I was told in junior high and high school which was discouraging because I knew I wanted to play drums! After I graduated, I started finding drummers who would teach me simple beats and let me sit in on jam nights. I finally rented a drum kit and starting practicing regularly on my own. That’s when I met the Ace of Cups.

Mary Gannon: I had a good foundation in choral music singing four-part harmonies in middle school (mixed choir – boys and girls) and high school (all girls). I wasn’t taught piano in the traditional way, but I always loved to play and figure out melodies and chords. Then, in my 20s, I found a teacher in North Beach, San Francisco who ran an ad in the paper “Learn everything about the Piano in Six Easy Lessons.” I signed up immediately! I learned three inversions of the basic chords (tonic, dominant, sub-dominant and relative minor) in every key. Then I was off and running! I later studied classical piano with Evelyn Cippolina, mother of John Cippolina of Quicksilver Messenger Service. I loved sitting in her beautiful living room and playing one of the two grand pianos with her. Regarding performance: I always thought I’d pursue a career in theater since musical comedy was my passion. In college, I was in various productions and when I won the Miss Monterey contest in 1963, I performed both Irish music and musical comedy.

Ace of Cups – photo by Lisa Law

Were you aware back then of the other female bands across the country that were also out there rocking, but perhaps not getting the accolades that their counterpart male bands were getting, (although not because of any lack of talent)? For instance, Birtha, Suzi Quatro, Fanny? Was this inspiring to you?

AoC:  None of us knew of any all-female bands. We’d never seen one or heard of one!

It sounds as though through osmosis the female band scene was beginning in different areas all around the same time. Did you feel any competition with any other female singers or musicians while you were pushing through the gates of rock and roll in San Francisco? (I only ask this because of the late ‘70s/early ‘80s record companies/managers/producers’ idea of “We already have our all-girl band.”)

AoC:  Well, we were inspired when we saw a woman fronting or playing in a band. When we started, we didn’t know any women who were playing instruments in bands. Grace Slick and Janis Joplin were fronting bands and they were both great! By late 1967, we saw mixed bands with women playing instruments in Joy of Cooking, Cold Blood, It’s a Beautiful Day, and Anonymous Artists of America. We didn’t feel competition with these women. We were impressed and inspired and glad to see them rocking! Trixie (Beatrice) Merkin from the Anonymous Artists is still rocking her bass today with a great band in Santa Fe. We’re thrilled to see this!

Who were your musical influences and, also, who mentored you in those youthful days?

Mary Ellen:  My early influences included Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, and Buffy St. Marie. Others were Fats Domino, Mahalia Jackson, Hadda Brooks, Little Richard, and even the Beach Boys. Later, I learned by watching Jimi Hendrix! I still play bar chords the way I saw Jimi do when we opened for him in Golden Gate Park. I’d also name Michael Bloomfield as a mentor because he came to our rehearsals, taught us cool chords and progressions, and was really supportive. The Electric Flag rehearsed at our house for about two months before their debut at the Monterey Pop Festival. We got to watch them put their band together and we learned so much.

Jazz drummer Jerry Granelli was Diane’s drum teacher and also an overall coach for the band. We learned about the power of silence/space in music from Jerry as well as the freedom to jam wherever that took us. From Buddy Miles, we learned about the importance of the backbeat.

How EXCITING that you were in San Francisco around the Summer of Love and accepted as a serious rock band. While playing with all of these famous or soon to be famous groups like the Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane, what were the goals of Ace of Cups?

AoC:  Our primary goals were to become better musicians, to write songs we loved, and to play them well. We practiced for many hours a day. We were fortunate that a few people stepped in to help us get equipment and even paid our rent for a while so we could practice. We lived together at that point and were just focused on writing and playing.

Were you actively seeking a record deal and professional management?

AoC:  We had two managers over the time we were together. They were old friends from Chicago who had come to the Bay Area and were real activists in the cultural transformation taking place. In 1967, Ambrose Hollingsworth heard us play, loved our music, and asked to manage us. Ambrose helped us choose our name and helped awaken us to our spiritual journey. After his life took him in a different direction, Ambrose passed us onto Ron Polte who had created West Pole – a synergistic office with great managers and bands who were changing the paradigm of music and management. There was a circle or a circuit between the bands and the community. We were all excited about creating a new consciousness where humanity, community, and creativity could thrive. The bands in our office were Quicksilver Messenger Service, Janis Joplin with Big Brother and the Holding Company, the Sons of Champlin, Freedom Highway, and the Congress of Wonders. Our managers were our champions.

As far as seeking a record deal, at some point, we hoped we’d get one, but really our focus was on our music.

Tell us more about opening for Jimi Hendrix! (Please!)

Mary Ellen:  Opening for Jimi Hendrix in the Panhandle of Golden Gate Park was an incredible experience. I had just seen him play for the first time at the Monterey Pop Festival the previous weekend, and it was like being struck by lightning for me, in a good way. I felt as though I had been blind and now I could see! His playing and performance changed my world. So, when we got invited to open for him a few days later we were ecstatic. It was a beautiful sunny afternoon. We played our opening set on that flatbed truck and Jimi stood in front taking photographs of us for a while. Then he watched the rest of our set with Buddy Miles from a few feet away. As it turned out, he was a humble and soft-spoken person. He and his band used our new equipment for their set, and Jimi was thoughtful enough to assure us that they’d take care of our gear and that nothing was going to get set on fire! We were relieved!

I read that you soon started writing your own songs, shortly after the five-piece lineup was secure. Who were the main songwriters in the band? 

AoC:  We all wrote songs, but some of us were more prolific than others. Some of our material was written by individuals and some songs were written in collaboration with other band members, sometimes two of us wrote together, and sometimes all of us did.

Your song about a little baby was indeed inspired by impending (or recent) Motherhood – what other subjects did you write about back then, and how much have things changed with writing now?

Mary Ellen:  We wrote about what was happening to us, what we saw and felt in those times of social change. We were exploring a more natural way of living:  gardening, natural childbirth, and living communally. We wrote love songs, songs of independence from a woman’s point of view, and sang about our vision for a better world for everyone. We felt that music had immense power to bring people together and to encourage positive change. Remember, we were in the middle of the Vietnam War. We wanted our music to inspire a more peaceful way of handling differences. And then, sometimes we just wrote love songs or songs that laughed at the lives we were living!

In terms of how much things have changed with our writing, we think we’re still writing about those subjects. Our old songs still ring true for us, and that’s why we can sing and play them. If they weren’t real for us now, we couldn’t do it. Our new songs still have many of those themes because sadly, the world hasn’t evolved as much as we would have hoped. And then, of course, there are love songs. We’ll keep writing love songs as long as we live!

What was the catalyst that brought you all back together? Had you kept in touch over the years?

AoC:  Yes, we had kept in touch all through the years. We lived in different places and got together when we could in various configurations. We always loved playing our own music together whenever possible. The catalyst that brought us back together finally was playing for Wavy Gravy’s 75th birthday benefit for SEVA Foundation in the Bay Area in 2011. George Baer Wallace of High Moon Records came out to hear us play and that was the beginning of us playing, writing, and recording our new release.

We were always connected. We never disconnected. We may have lived in different States, but we somehow always stayed in touch. Before the internet, we wrote letters and called each other. We still have some of those letters.

When playing again, did you have the same feelings as in your younger days?  

AoC:  Yes, we really did! There was something about looking over and seeing each other, listening to those drum grooves or bass lines or guitar licks, listening to those harmonies fall into place. It felt as though time hadn’t gone by even though of course, it had. We had kids, jobs, grandchildren, etc., but something still felt like home to us.

Any of the same problems arise?  

AoC:  Nowadays, we work through things so much faster. When there are emotional moments that come up, we recover faster and apologize sooner. We don’t take each other for granted, and we have the same goal of being successful with the band and being the best we can be. We have an emotional flair-up every once in a while, but it is minor compared to the past.

How do you keep things going with freshness as the band progresses?  

AoC:  We stay fresh by writing new songs and even revamping some of our old ones. The music has to be real for us. Because we never recorded an album before, everything these days is new and fresh for us!

Any advice for our readers, both young and not so young? (I always encourage girls that they CAN have a life long career!)

AoC:  Our Advice:  Keep going! Don’t give up, and age is not a barrier. Don’t take each other for granted because having people you love to play with is a HUGE gift.

Your first record has recently been released. Congratulations! You have recorded some of the songs from your original line up, from your original gigs that you did back when the band first started, plus some new material. Tell us some fun stories about being in the studio with some of your very famous and talented guest artists/friends.

Denise:  Most of the guests on our album are friends from way back when. I went to high school in Palo Alto and used to hear Jerry Garcia play at The Tangent when I was 16/17 years old. I hired The Zodiacs (with Jerry and Pigpen) for my high school graduation party. I was a Prankster (Mary Microgram) on the bus with Ken Kesey and the rest of the Merry Pranksters with The Grateful Dead as we created “The Acid Tests” and jump started the ‘60s. Bobby Weir and I have remained friends from those days and when I asked him if he’d like to sing/play on our project, he immediately said yes. He’s a beautiful and kind human being. Buffy St. Marie, Taj Mahal, and Peter Coyote are longtime friends of the band. We’ve played shows with them, done yoga together, jammed around the campfires through the years, and our children are friends as well. All of our guests are so special to us. We toured with Jorma Kaukonen and Jack Casady with the Jefferson Airplane and sang backups on their Volunteers album. Now they are adding their talent to our first studio album. Our project is an expression of the community of souls we’ve journeyed with through the years and hope to keep going with for as long as possible!

Will you be performing live on a regular basis now that you have a record out and are back together, well-rehearsed and raring to go?  What are your plans for the next year?

AoC:  We’re going to New York and Philly at the end of February for a few dates. We’re planning to tour this summer on the West Coast at least and are putting out feelers for more dates now. We’d love to be part of the upcoming Woodstock events in August. If people want to come and see us, they can join our community at www.AceofCups.com and they’ll be kept up to date with our travels and adventures.

Thank you so much and keep on rocking!

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