ed cassidy, 1923-2012

Ed Cassidy of Spirit.

Like father, like stepson. That hardly seems like the expected personnel fabric for an innovative rock ’n’ roll band. Yet that was what drove one of the most underappreciated West Coast acts to emerge out of the psychedelic ’60s. The band was Spirit, responsible for such exquisite radio hits as I’ve Got a Line on You, Nature’s Way and one of the decade’s most artfully funky singles, Mr. Skin.

Spirit roared out of California with four consecutive albums between 1967 and 1970, each more adventuresome than its predecessor. By the time the last one, The Twelve Dreams of Dr. Sardonicus, hit the charts, Spirit was borrowing from jazz, psychedelia, funk and crystalline guitar grooves for its exuberant pop sound.

On each recording, guitarist/vocalist Randy California and his drummer/stepfather Ed Cassidy remained at the helm. Perhaps that explains the title of Spirit’s second album, 1968’s The Family That Plays Together.

Spirit’s other key members – most notably co-vocalist Jay Ferguson – bolted from the band after Sardonicus. But for much of the next three decades, California and Cassidy kept Spirit’s music alive on the road, playing mostly as a trio, with a revolving lineup of bass players.

The Spirit saga came to a very sad end in 1997, when California drowned off the coast of Hawaii while, ironically, rescuing his son from drowning.

Yesterday, Cassidy left us. He was 89. Tall. Shaved head. Clad from head to toe in black. That was Cassidy. Reared in jazz (his pre-Spirit days were spent performing with such titans as Gerry Mulligan), the drummer was said to have been a strong influence of many of the day’s most esteemed rock percussionists – in particular, Led Zeppelin’s John Bonham.

For me, Ed Cassidy’s Spirit music comes down to two songs. The first is a gorgeously orchestrated and sublimely cool instrumental called Ice (from the band’s overlooked third album, Clear). The other is the tune that took Cassidy’s nickname for its title – Mr. Skin.

Need an introduction or a quick refresher in the music of Spirit? Then track down Mr. Skin and turn the volume way, way up. The song’s drive, groove and joy will light up any day. And for that, we can thank rock music’s mightiest but least-heralded father-stepson team and the unending spirit they found in playing together.

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