Ace Of Cups Gets A First Chance At An Overdue Debut

Jan 9, 2019
Originally published on January 9, 2019 3:32 pm

Joel Selvin remembers the San Francisco music scene of the late 1960s as an especially fertile time for experimentation. "There was tremendous hunger and openness for musical influences," the music journalist and author says. "World Music, Indian music, rhythm and blues, jazz ... and that was all new in the world of popular music."

At the time, Selvin says, one band stood out for its talent and its unusual lineup. Ace of Cups didn't just feature a powerhouse female vocalist in the mold of Janis Joplin, but five women who sang, played their own instruments and wrote their own music.

"Ace of Cups played their instruments with the same kind of accomplishment that the male musicians did," he says. "They were on so many bills starting in the summer of '67, but they were a complete anomaly in the San Francisco hippie world."

Mary Gannon, Marla Hunt, Denise Kaufman, Mary Ellen Simpson and Diane Vitalich met in the Haight-Ashbury district. They had all been in other bands, but Gannon, who plays bass, says they weren't always treated as equals.

"I had been in a band called The Demon Lover and, like, I was supposed to be a backup singer and play the tambourine, Gannon says. "It was like it was 'the man band.' "

Gannon knew right away that Ace of Cups was going to be different.

Ace of Cups during the band's original run, which lasted just a few years during the late 1960s and early '70s.
Casey Sonnabend / Courtesy of the artist

"We approached songs differently," Gannon says. "I can remember the first day that Denise showed up and played a song. Like, she was already a songwriter. And I just think the fact that we were girls and she was a girl [meant] we weren't going to step on her music."

The band informally recorded its rehearsals and shows. Ace of Cups built a considerable following in the 1960s playing high-profile venues in town, such as The Fillmore, the Avalon Ballroom and Winterland. Several labels expressed interest, but nothing ever happened.

After a few years, Ace of Cups called it quits. The members certainly never expected to reach faraway fans. But they did.

"Growing up in the late '70s and early '80s, I got fascinated with the San Francisco sound," says Alec Palao, an Englishman. "So I scoured every book I could find about Jefferson Airplane and The Great Society and Grateful Dead and, you know, I keep seeing this name mentioned, this all-women band that played under the name Ace of Cups."

Palao eventually got his hands on a few bootleg tapes and he became smitten. "They had a sense of poetry," he recalls.

When Palao became a scout for a UK-based reissue label, coincidentally called Ace Records, he collaborated with Ace of Cups to release the band's rehearsals and live recordings. Those recordings caught the ear of New Yorker George Wallace.

"They were definitely unafraid to go into different directions and to have soul mixed with psychedelia mixed with a capella, often packed with, you know, really beautifully arranged harmony. And it was all live, too," Wallace says.

When Wallace started his own reissue label, High Moon Records, in 2008, he reached out to Ace of Cups in search of more archival material. There wasn't any, but the band still played from time to time, so Wallace flew out to hear them. He offered them a chance to record a new album — a first for the band.

"Because we never got to go into the studio ... he decided he wanted to give us that gift," guitarist Denise Kaufman says.

YouTube

Ace of Cups' self-titled debut, which came out in Nov. 2018, is a double album featuring four of the band's original members plus contributions from longtime friends including Buffy Sainte-Marie and the Grateful Dead's Bob Weir.

Joel Selvin says the talent and energy that set the band apart 50 years ago still shines through. "Ace of Cups today are this vibrant, exciting time capsule that lives in the contemporary world" he says

And for Gannon, the debut album is a full-circle moment to where Ace of Cups began: "We just happened to be girls playing music, having fun."

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Today, all-female bands are an established part of the musical landscape. In the late 1960s - not so much. Before Fanny, The Runaways and The Slits, there was Ace of Cups. The band played the same San Francisco concert stages as Jefferson Airplane, Jimi Hendrix and The Grateful Dead but never made an album until now. Allyson McCabe has their story.

ALLYSON MCCABE, BYLINE: Music journalist and author Joel Selvin remembers the San Francisco music scene of the late 1960s as an especially fertile time for experimentation.

(SOUNDBITE OF ACE OF CUPS SONG, "CATCH YOU LATER")

JOEL SELVIN: There was tremendous hunger and openness for musical influences - world musics, Indian music, rhythm and blues, jazz. And that was all new in the world of popular music.

MCCABE: Selvin says one band stood out for its talent and its unusual lineup.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CATCH YOU LATER")

ACE OF CUPS: (Singing) They say that Jesus walked upon the water. You can do anything if you really want to. Say that you can be just like him, but you got to have the faith or be prepared to swim.

MCCABE: Ace of Cups didn't just feature a powerhouse female vocalist in the mold of Grace Slick or Janis Joplin but five women who sang, played their own instruments and wrote their own music.

SELVIN: Ace of Cups played their instruments with the same kind of accomplishment that the male musicians did. And they were on so many bills starting in the summer of '67, but they were a complete anomaly in San Francisco hippie world.

MCCABE: Selvin says Ace of Cups built a considerable following, playing high-profile venues such as The Fillmore, the Avalon Ballroom and Winterland. Mary Gannon, Marla Hunt, Denise Kaufman, Mary Ellen Simpson and Diane Vitalich met in Haight-Ashbury.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WALLER STREET BLUES")

ACE OF CUPS: (Singing) Sitting in a tenement and got no bread to pay the rent, somebody roll up a smoke.

MCCABE: They had all been in other bands, but bassist Mary Gannon says they weren't always treated as equals.

MARY GANNON: I had been in a band called The Demon Lover and, like, I was just supposed to be a backup singer, play the tambourine. It was like it was the man band.

MCCABE: She knew right away Ace of Cups was going to be different.

GANNON: We approach songs differently, each other's music. Like, I can remember the first day that Denise showed up and played a song. Like, she was already a songwriter. And I just think the fact that we were girls and she was a girl, that we weren't going to step on her music.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SIMPLICITY")

ACE OF CUPS: (Singing) You light, you are simplicity, close my eyes. If you're not there, then I don't want to see.

MCCABE: The band informally recorded its rehearsals and shows, and several labels expressed interest, but nothing ever happened. After a few years, Ace of Cups called it quits. They certainly never expected to reach faraway fans like Englishman Alec Palao.

ALEC PALAO: Growing up in the late '70s and early '80s, I got fascinated with the San Francisco sound, so I scoured every book I could find. And, you know, I'd keep seeing this name mentioned, this all-women band that played under the name Ace of Cups.

MCCABE: Palao eventually got his hands on a few bootleg tapes, and he became smitten.

PALAO: They had a sense of poetry. The word I always think of is joy. I mean, they had the joy of making music.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CIRCLES")

ACE OF CUPS: (Singing) Well, it's so easy to let love die or get a little lazy and let it pass on by.

MCCABE: When Palao became a scout for a U.K.-based reissue label coincidentally called Ace Records, he collaborated with Ace of Cups to release the band's rehearsals and live recordings. And they caught the ear of New Yorker George Wallace.

GEORGE WALLACE: They were definitely unafraid to go into different directions and to have soul mix with psychedelia mixed with a capella backed with, you know, really beautifully arranged harmony. And it was all live, too.

MCCABE: When Wallace started his own reissue label, High Moon Records, in 2008, he reached out to Ace of Cups in search of more archival material. There wasn't any, but the band still played from time to time, so Wallace flew out to hear them. Guitarist Denise Kaufman says he offered to record a new album.

DENISE KAUFMAN: Because we never got to go into the studio and didn't have that opportunity, he decided he wanted to give us that gift.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MUSIC")

ACE OF CUPS: (Singing) When it gets so black, you think the end is near, so near, that's when all the stars appear. Like music, they light up the land. Music, snap your fingers, clap your hands. Music, laugh and let your heart feel glad. Everything will be all right. Just keep playing, girl.

MCCABE: Ace of Cups' newly released debut is a double album, featuring four of the band's original members plus contributions from longtime friends, including Taj Mahal, Buffy Sainte-Marie and Bob Weir of the Grateful Dead. But journalist Joel Selvin says the talent and energy that set the band apart 50 years ago still shines through.

SELVIN: Ace of Cups today are this vibrant, exciting time capsule that lives in the contemporary world.

MCCABE: They've come full circle, says Mary Gannon, to where Ace of Cups began.

GANNON: We just happened to be girls playing music, having fun.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FEEL GOOD")

ACE OF CUPS: (Singing) I really like it because it makes me feel so good.

MCCABE: For NPR News, I'm Allyson McCabe.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FEEL GOOD")

ACE OF CUPS: (Singing) All these judgments you're hearing, don't let them get you down. Every generation carries something new to turn this world around. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.