Lost '60s Rockers Ace of Cups Debut First Single, Talk Band Resurrection: 'We Were Unusual On Every Level'

Jamie Soja
Ace of Cups

On Nov. 9, the 1960s Bay Area psych-rock band Ace of Cups will release their self-titled debut album via High Moon Records. Although the group shared the stage with the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane and the Jimi Hendrix Experience, they never recorded a proper album and called it a day in 1972.

An all-women ensemble that could flip from barbershop-style harmonies to mind-bending psychedelic jams at a moment’s notice, Ace of Cups didn’t find commercial success in their day. This was partially due to their uncategorizable presence in the rock n' roll boys’ club; back then, label suits would routinely ignore the band to schmooze with and sign their male peers. Or, as original guitarist Denise Kaufman puts it to Billboard -- “They would just look at us and go, ‘What are you?’”

There were other, simpler reasons for the split, too; most of the band had become new mothers by the end. With no tangible commercial success on the horizon, the Ace of Cups began to make less sense on a practical level. The five musicians -- Kaufman, bassist Mary Gannon, organist Marla Hunt, lead guitarist Mary Ellen Simpson and drummer Diane Vitalich -- amicably went their separate ways in the early ‘70s, with each working various supplemental jobs. But crucially, no member of the Ace of Cups ever lost touch with the other -- nor hung up their instruments.

Instead of being lost to rock history, the Ace of Cups have enjoyed a spectacular -- and highly improbable -- second act 50 years later. A collection of rehearsal demos, TV soundstage audio and other ephemera from their brief run resulted in the great compilation It’s Bad For You So Buy It! -- and renewed interest in the long-defunct band. And when George Wallace, head of the ‘60s and ‘70s rarity label High Moon Records, initially approached the band to release more of those tapes, it turned out to be a no-brainer as to what the Ace of Cups’ next move should be: finally making a record.

And what a debut it is, brimming over not only with great songs, but a formidable guest list from the band’s ‘60s peers -- Bob Weir, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Taj Mahal and more. It’s the sound of four maximum-eclectic musical lifers, unfettered by old frustrations in the biz and purely ready to jam.

Billboard is honored to share the first single from The Ace of Cups, “Feel Good,” and an exclusive interview with Kaufman about how the Ace of Cups’ better-late-than-never debut album came to be.

What hindered the Ace of Cups from releasing a proper album back in the 1960s?

Well, first of all, there were no all-women bands that were signed back then. The first all-women bands that started to get signed were a few years later. We were just an anomaly. Another thing was that, at the time, we basically had five lead singers. We had a lot of musical influences. We never felt like we had to restrict ourselves to one genre. I think we were less easy to put in a box, you know? We’d play a psychedelic rock jam and then something that was more gospel, and then we’d do an a cappella song where we’d put down our instruments and sing. We were sort of unusual on every level.

Can you describe what’s been happening in the Ace of Cups camp in those five decades of silence?

Two of us moved to Kauai, the northern island of the Hawaiian chain. That’s Mary Gannon, the original Ace of Cups bass player, and me. We’ve played on and off ever since. We played in bands there, and then we played as a duo — we just played when we could. I, with some other friends of mine from Marin County and a few others we met there, started a private school 41 years ago called Island School. Seven of us, all women, founded it together. That was my next huge project after Ace of Cups. But Mary was a music teacher there for many years after the school really got going. In these intervening years, she got her teaching credential and then she taught music at Island School and St. Catherine’s School. She’s been a teacher for her professional life. I also teach yoga in L.A. to a few private clients and offer a public class one night a week.

It seems like you weren’t alone in taking a step back from music to focus on educating others.

You know, it’s interesting. No one ever stopped playing music, but we all had to make a living. By the time I moved to L.A., I had a teenage daughter at home, so I couldn’t really be out at night or travel with the band, even though I had a band here. So, teaching yoga, which was one of my other passions, was a really nice thing to be able to do in the daytime while being with my daughter at night. You know, Jane Fonda was a student of mine, and Sting and Trudy, and Madonna, who I taught for two years. I got connected with some wonderful people by word-of-mouth. That was a way to intelligently be a single mom and do something I loved.

The other members, like Mary Ellen, who moved way up to Northern California — she became a case worker in the mental health field. But she’s always playing guitar. She has a band right now with her husband and some other people, and recently retired from being a mental health worker. Our drummer, Diane, also has been in bands nonstop her whole life. But her other, supplemental work was that she became certified in shiatsu massage. We all had to figure out how to make ends meet and keep playing music.

I’m getting the impression that the realities of life simply got in the way, rather than anybody having some kind of acrimonious breakup.

Yeah. Three of us had babies by the time we went our separate ways. It happened a bit slowly. One person kind of moved on, then someone else did, then the rest of us tried to hold it together. But eventually, like you said, family and keeping all the ships afloat [took precedence].

How did everyone reconnect after so much time apart? Or did you all stay really tight?

We stayed in touch always. Then we’d get together every certain amount of years — either all of us, or sometimes three of us, two of us — and play some music. We got together a few times and just recorded our songs to keep them alive. We did that in Kauai, Marin County and Los Angeles every few years. In 2003 or 2004, a division of the British label Ace Records called Big Beat put out a CD of some of our live tapes that, luckily for us, had been saved from being thrown out and being stored in different peoples’ garages. Alec Palao, their representative in the United States, went through all of our old tapes and put out the live album It’s Bad For You But Buy It!.

We never got to go into a studio with our music and record an album, but there was this album of tapes that were meant to be rehearsal takes just to listen to, to be able to improve our music. It was never meant to be released. It was just some Sony reel-to-reel on the side of the stage somewhere recorded by a road manager, just so we could hear how the gig went and be better musicians. That was released in about 2004. Before that, no one had heard us. After that, they heard something of us.

And that’s how George Wallace, who owns High Moon Records, heard our music for the first time, on that CD. Then, he reached out to us — originally, because he wanted to know if we had any more live tapes that he could release. His label has basically, up until now, only been reissues of music from those days. They released one of Gene Clark from the Byrds’ solo albums and an unreleased Love album. We didn’t have any studio album to reissue, and George fell in love with our music and us. He said, “You girls never got the chance to do this. You need to do it.” So, that’s been an amazing miracle.

In 2018, it’s really cheesy and frowned upon to use “all-female” as a genre descriptor. But we’re talking about a much different time back then, obviously. Do you remember the band facing any resistance in a male-dominated industry?

There was some of both. There was amazing support from some people and resistance from others. We had real heroes, starting with our two managers, Ambrose Hollingsworth and Ron Polte. I think the basic San Francisco scene was very progressive, and we got a lot of support from the other bands. They were great to us.

But on the business side, when labels would come and sign our “brother bands,” they would just look at us and go, “What are you?” I think in San Francisco, we were kind of part of the scene and really did feel a lot of support and love. Also, Jimi Hendrix loved us! He stood right in front and took pictures of us when we played the show in Golden Gate Park with him. He loved us. And he spoke of us when he went back to England and got interviewed about America and what he liked here. He only named maybe two or three bands, and we were one of them.

Hendrix was perhaps your biggest booster in those days. What was your impression of the man?

My whole band, except for me, had gone to the Monterey Pop Festival the weekend before because they had gone as guests of the Electric Flag. Who had put their band together at our house! We had a big living room and we were all in the same circle of people through our manager, Ron, who was from Chicago and knew Paul Butterfield, Michael Bloomfield and Nick Gravenites.

So, they made a proposition that they could practice in our living room for a period of time before their first gig at Monterey Pop. We could kind of watch their process and learn from that, which was amazing. We practiced early morning, they practiced in the afternoon and we practiced at night, and all their gear was in our living room. They invited the band to go to Monterey as their guests. I didn’t go, but everybody else did.

When my bandmates came back, they — particularly Mary Ellen, our lead guitarist — were just raving about Jimi Hendrix. She was kind of in shock that he lit things on fire, you know. When she was growing up, her guitar teachers were just like: take really good care of your instrument! This is so special that you have a beautiful guitar! She was just completely blown away and shocked and distressed to see him do that. Like, no! That’s your instrument!

Fast forward a couple of days, we got the phone call inviting us to play with Jimi and the band at a free concert in the panhandle at Golden Gate Park. When we got there, they asked if they could use our equipment, since they didn’t have equipment with them. When Jimi saw Mary Ellen’s face — she was probably like, oh my god, no!

We had such clunky little equipment when we were starting out, like one funky amp, one drum, one cymbal. We had just gotten our Dual Showman amps and our Fender Twin Reverbs and we were so excited to have good gear! So, Mary Ellen looked at Jimi, and Jimi totally got it. He was like “Don’t worry, I’ll take really good care!”

When you talk about resistance, or not — it’s like, there’s no photographs of us from that day that any photographer took. It was only us and Jimi who played. Jimi stood in front of us and took photographs, but there are still none of us playing that day. Not to mention film footage. I keep wondering why that was. Jim Marshall did do some photographs of us later and we have some, but compared to all of the other bands, they were being documented more than we were.

When I look at us, I think, “Gosh, we were sure cute!” I wonder why that would be! We were five wildly adorable hippie chicks. Who wouldn’t want to take a picture?

You’ve got some pretty significant guest stars on the album, most of whom kind of belong to that era; Bob Weir, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Taj Mahal. How did they come into the picture?

They were all dear friends of ours, and were from those days until now. I was on the bus [called Further, carrying the Merry Band of Pranksters] with Ken Kesey and Bobby. And I knew Bobby when his band was the Warlocks, before the Grateful Dead. I went to high school in Palo Alto, which is where Bobby and Jerry were. Before Jerry and Pigpen did the Grateful Dead, one of their bands was the Zodiacs, and I loved that band. I hired them for my high school graduation.

So, we all go back as community. Also, we’re committed to the philanthropic work that we’ve all supported through the years, like the Seva Foundation, which works to end reversible blindness in Asia. We also support and love Camp Winnarainbow, which is the circus and performing arts camp that Wavy Gravy, his wife Jahanara and their friends started 42 years ago

We’ve all been on the same page of trying to make a difference in our world and keep the values that are so close to our heart front and center and offer them to others. That kind of goes back to what you pointed out about the Ace of Cups. We all look for ways to make a difference in whatever we were doing. Bobby has always supported things that are worthwhile, especially things that were rooted in the values that we grew up with.

Also, Taj Mahal used to live on Kauai, and his kids were students of Mary Gannon’s at Island School. Taj and his wife, Inshirah, and sometimes his kids would come to my house for yoga classes. We played with Taj in the old days. Also, Taj’s kids and Buffy Sainte-Marie’s son Cody are good friends. We all stayed connected, you know?

That sort of community that flows through this record is really strong. I’ve said that everybody on the record is either people from the old days, or one degree away. Either we played with them, or we played with people they played with. We never played with Melvin Seals directly, but Jerry Garcia was a really dear friend to all of those folks and he played with Jerry. So, it’s one degree off. If Jerry were alive now, I’m sure he would have played on our record.

When one of the great young musicians I sometimes play with offers "I’ll play on your record!” or “I’ll sing on your record,” I say “Nah, you’re too young."