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Jimi Hendrix’s time with The Experience and the Band of Gypsys is legendary, but before his electrifying performances at Monterey, Miami Pop, and Woodstock, he honed his craft in New York City’s club scene. There, Jimi Hendrix made up a friendship with a talented young guitarist named Randy California. California would become a key collaborator in Hendrix’s early career.

This article explores the story of Randy California, one of Jimi Hendrix’s best friends and musical collaborators, from their chance meeting to their time together in the band Jimmy James and the Blue Flames.

We’ll also delve into Randy California’s successful career as a founding member of the influential psychedelic rock group, Spirit.


Who is Randy California?

Born Randy Craig Wolfe, Randy California was born on February 20, 1951, interestingly sharing the same birthday as Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain. Born into a musical Jewish family in Los Angeles, Randy’s life was infused with music from a young age. He absorbed various styles while attending his family’s Los Angeles folk club, the Ash Grove, founded by his uncle Ed Pearl.

In the summer of 1966, when he was 15, Randy California’s life took an unexpected turn. His mother, Bernice Pearl, and his stepfather, Ed Cassidy, relocated the family from Los Angeles to the bustling heart of New York City.


How Did Randy California Met Jimi Hendrix?

In the spring of 1966, when he was 23, Jimi Hendrix landed in New York City, ready to immerse himself in the city’s music scene. In the epicenter of the counterculture movement, Greenwich Village, Jimi Hendrix inspired by his idol Bob Dylan who had played at The Café Wha years earlier, decided to venture into this new territory.

After a long period of playing on the “Chitlin Circuit,Jimi Hendrix was looking for something different since Jimi had not found a good fit in the Harlem scene. Unlike his experience in Harlem, Greenwich Village was a melting pot of ideas and styles, a perfect stage for Jimi Hendrix’s creativity to flourish.

In his first week in New York, Jimi Hendrix had already secured a gig at the Café Wha?. In the meantime, history repeated itself: his guitar was stolen. In search of a new guitar, Jimi headed to Manny’s Music, where he met a young man named Randy Wolfe, who was just 15 years old. In the same place, Jimi Hendrix invited Randy to join his band for a performance at the Café Wha? that night and completed the lineup by inviting the store owner on bass with them. And just like that, Jimi Hendrix had formed a new band.


Jimi Hendrix & Randy California: The Jimmy James and the Blue Flames Story

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Jimi Hendrix’s last stop before the Experience was a band called Jimmy James and the Blue Flames. It was also at this time that Jimi began to spell his name as “Jimi” for the first time after some changes in the past.

There were two musicians in the band named Randy. Jimi Hendrix was the one who gave Randy the nickname “California,” which we still know today. The other Randy became known as “Randy Texas.”

The Blue Flames with Jimi Hendrix and Randy California, recorded four songs. One of these songs, “Mr. Bad Luck,” would later be renamed “Look Over Yonder” and become part of Jimi Hendrix’s repertoire.

During this time, Jimi Hendrix’s setlists typically featured “Killing Floor,” “Like a Rolling Stone,” and “Wild Thing,” songs that would be part of many memorable concerts of The Jimi Hendrix Experience in 1966 and 1967.

This short-lived band came to an end in the summer of 1966. A woman named Linda Keith entered Jimi Hendrix’s life, and his life would never be the same again.


Jimi Hendrix Takes a Flight to London and Randy California Stays in the USA

Jimi Hendrix’s career was about to take a major leap forward. After meeting Chas Chandler, former bassist of The Animals, through Linda Keith, Jimi Hendrix was offered a chance to form a new band in England. Chas Chandler was impressed by Jimi Hendrix’s rendition of the song “Hey Joe” and eventually brought him to London on September 24, 1966. Chandler then signed Hendrix to a management and production contract, partnering with former Animals manager Michael Jeffery.

While Randy California and Jimi Hendrix were initially offered the opportunity to go to England, Randy’s parents refused to allow the teenager to leave for Europe. They insisted he stay home and finish school.


Randy California Formed Spirit After The Blue Flames of Jimi Hendrix

After Jimi Hendrix departed for England in 1966, Randy California’s musical career took a different but successful turn. Unable to join Hendrix, Randy didn’t waste time. In 1967, at just 16 years old, he co-founded the influential psychedelic rock band Spirit alongside drummer Ed Cassidy, songwriter/frontman Jay Ferguson, bassist Mark Andes and keyboardist John Locke.

Their self-titled debut album hit shelves in January 1968, just a month shy of California’s 17th birthday. California became a great songwriter for Spirit, writing amazing songs like “I Got a Line on You,” which appeared on their sophomore album, The Family That Plays Together.

Inspired by George Orwell’s 1984, Randy California wrote the controversial single of the same name. Released in early 1970, “1984” was so critical of the U.S. government that many radio stations refused to play it. However, this didn’t stop it from becoming a massive hit in Germany, showcasing his ability to create thought-provoking music.

California’s songwriting talent continued with “Nature’s Way,” another hit for Spirit, featured on their best-selling album, Twelve Dreams of Dr. Sardonicus. These achievements solidified his place as a talented musician and songwriter.


Did Spirit play at Woodstock?

Spirit declined the invitation to perform at Woodstock. Despite a chance to share the stage with Jimi Hendrix at Woodstock, Spirit’s manager, Lou Adler (a rock festival pioneer who co-founded the Monterey Pop Festival with Mamas & the Papas’ John Phillips), ultimately declined the offer. The main reason was the conflicting promotional efforts for Spirit’s latest album, Clear.

This decision had a profound impact on Randy California. With the band’s struggling album sales and the tragic death of his close friend Jimi Hendrix, he decided to depart from Spirit.


Led Zeppelin Wins Long ‘Stairway to Heaven’ Copyright Case

Randy California, alleged that Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page lifted the guitar riff from “Taurus” for “Stairway to Heaven.” This claim stemmed from Led Zeppelin opening for Spirit at two American music festivals in 1969. Further fueling the suspicion, California noted Led Zeppelin included “Fresh Garbage” in their setlist, another track from the same Spirit album containing “Taurus.”

The long road of a copyright suit over Led Zeppelin’s 1971 megahit “Stairway to Heaven” ended in 2020, when the United States Supreme Court announced that it had declined to hear the case. This decision marked the end of a nearly six-year legal battle that began in 2014, centered on whether specific elements of Led Zeppelin’s song infringed upon the copyright of another song.

The lawsuit alleged that the opening instrumental section of “Stairway to Heaven” copied a similar section from Spirit’s 1968 song “Taurus.” The specific elements in question were the chord progression and a descending chromatic bass line, even though these are common musical building blocks. The crux of the legal battle was whether these shared elements, while similar, constituted copyright infringement.

See the difference by yourself in the videos below:

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How did Randy California Die?

Tragedy struck in 1997 when Randy California, at the young age of 45, drowned in the Pacific Ocean while saving his son. While vacationing near his mother’s home in Molokai, Hawaii, California heroically pushed his 12-year-old son, Quinn, to safety from a rip current. Sadly, the current proved too strong and he couldn’t overcome it and was swept away. His body was never found.

 

 

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