Ace of Cups Deserved Much Better

They didn’t boo, they didn’t walk out, and they certainly didn’t applaud. The strangest thing — and maybe the most telling sign of things to come — is that they just stared, as if aliens had landed at a high school in Northern California.

The members of Ace of Cups don’t always agree on what constituted their first show together, but they all remember the one in Etna, California, sometime in the spring of 1967. A few of the band members were driven up from San Francisco in a VW bus by a friend, who crashed the vehicle into a tree almost as soon as they’d left; they continued on their way, but without a windshield, and in the rain. The situation wasn’t any less fraught when they arrived. The teens in the audience didn’t know what to make of a rock band composed entirely of young women, playing music with raw garage power. “They were just sitting there, standing there and just, no emotion,” recalls drummer Diane Vitalich. Between sets, the promoter apologized to the crowd and offered free sodas to make up for it.  The second set went better — the crowd actually started dancing — but the promoter still tried to get out of paying the band. Marla Hunt (now Marla Hunt Hanson), the keyboard player, almost quit right then and there. 

More than 55 years ago, before fellow pioneers like Fanny and the Runaways, Ace of Cups were one of rock’s earliest women-centric bands, one that wrote, sang, and played its own material. They emerged from the mythologized San Francisco scene of the Sixties, with a well-connected manager and shared bills with the likes of Jimi Hendrix, the Grateful Dead, and the Band. Their music, which encompassed sweet, piano-ballad pop, garage-band ravers, and proto-jam-band instrumentals, had the same range as many of their male peers.

Their friends in the San Francisco community — the Dead, the Airplane, Steve Miller Band — were rewarded with lucrative major-label record deals, national tours and media exposure. Not so Ace of Cups, who coped not only with puzzled crowds like the one in 1967 but sexism, industry misconceptions, and challenges (like raising children while pursuing a music career) that all-male bands rarely had to deal with. “They were great players and played some great music,” says former Jefferson Airplane guitarist Jorma Kaukonen, who knew the band during its formative days. “They were as intensely involved in their performance as any of the guy bands. They put it all out there. But at the time, it was like, ‘Whoa, women playing guitars?’ So stupid to think about that today, but it was a big deal back then. People were dumbfounded.”

When the group crumbled in the early Seventies, it left behind a batch of rehearsal and live tapes, piles of concert posters and flyers, and not much else. Hardly any video footage exists. “We wanted to be able to put our music out there, and that was always the regret for me when we didn’t get to do that,” says singer, guitarist, and harp player Denise Kaufman. “This was music we put our heart and soul into that never got heard.”

In recent years, four of the core members have reunited and, now in their later life, have picked up where they left off. They’ve finally been able to play outside of the Bay Area, get covered in the press, and make records, including a new EP, Extended Play, due out next month. But their story raises a question: What if you break the glass ceiling but no one hears it?

By New Year’s Eve night of 1966, Kaufman had already lived several different lives. She’d grown up in the Bay Area and, soon after high school, had transformed into Mary Microgram, one of Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters. She’d met Jerry Garcia in that world, and witnessed him being given his “Captain Trips” nickname during an early Acid Test. During her time as a student at U.C. Berkeley, she’d pursued music, becoming an ace harmonica player, cutting a local garage-rocky 45 (“Boy, What’ll You Do Then”), and playing in Luminous Marsh Gas, which eventually became Moby Grape. (She also dated future Rolling Stone founder Jann S. Wenner; the magazine would mention the band in passing in several articles, including a 1969 piece on a San Francisco festival.) 

ace of cups

Ace of Cups on Mount Tamalpais in Northern California, 1967 (clockwise from bottom left): Vitalich, Gannon, Simpson, Hunt and Kaufman.

Casey Sonnabend*

But Kaufman’s parents were deeply rattled when they learned she’d taken acid, and they were further concerned one day when they thought they saw her lying down in a relatively quiet street. They’d come across a lovesick letter they assumed was written by their daughter. In fact, it was written by Wenner’s sister Merlyn Ruddell, who’d become friends with Kaufman, and Ruddell, wearing a dress she and Kaufman made and shared, was in fact the one lying against a curb. But her parents were freaked out nonetheless. “They looked out of the window,” says Kaufman, “and thought it was me, and that I was trying to commit suicide by lying on the sidewalk.” She says she was then “tricked” into entering San Francisco’s Mount Zion Hospital for family therapy sessions.

Since she was free to venture out at night, Kaufman found herself at a party in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury neighborhood thrown by Blue Cheer, best known for their thunderous version of “Summertime Blues.” As she wryly recalls,  “It was better than staying home in the psych ward.” Mary Ellen Simpson (now Mary Simpson Mercy) had grown up in Northern California and taken guitar lessons from a pre-Airplane Kaukonen. She was playing guitar by herself in an upper room when Kaufman wandered in and, harmonica in hand, began jamming on basic blues chords. The bond was so strong that Simpson invited Kaufman to stop by a house in Haight-Ashbury where she was rehearsing with a nascent quartet. “I’d sung with women in all kinds of different settings—with my friends and in junior high school,” Kaufman recalls. “There were women fronting bands, but there weren’t women playing the instruments and singing. It had never occurred to me just because I’d never seen it.”

A few days later, Kaufman showed up and met the others. Hunt, who could play “Moonlight Sonata” on piano as a kid, had moved from L.A. to San Francisco the year before, where she had worked in the same donut shop with Mary Gannon. Now Mary Alfiler, Gannon was born in New York City but had relocated with her family to Carmel, California, a few years before. (During an early coffeeshop job, she recalls serving local hero Joan Baez her favorite, a milkshake with raw eggs.) The two had begun making up silly songs to play together and were soon joined by Vitalich. (Raised in California as well, Vitalich had wanted to play drums in her grade-school marching band. She was told, “Girls don’t play drums, but you can play tambourine.”) Simpson, who heard about these women who were making music together, then signed up, and Gannon switched to bass.

At that point, they only had the most rudimentary makings of a band. “To be honest, I don’t think anyone was thinking that at all,” says Hunt. “All I know is that it was kind of neat to play music with those guys. Those impulses to go out and play were there, but we weren’t anywhere near ready to start doing that.” But then Kaufman played them all a few of her songs, including “Yellow Petal Flower,” written the day she was committed to the hospital. (The song was named after a chrysanthemum she’d bought in the hospital gift shop.) “She’s playing on a little guitar, and we were all like, ‘Wow,’” says Gannon. “It wasn’t like, ‘Will you join us?’ because we didn’t even know there was an us.”

The hospital provided another unlikely connection. Kaufman was told by an occupational therapist about a patient on another floor she might like to meet. It turned out to be Ambrose Hollingworth, a poet, writer (eventually an astrology columnist for Rolling Stone), and manager (of Quicksilver Messenger Service) who’d been left a paraplegic after a car accident. After Kaufman had met her soon-to-be bandmates, most of them gathered around Kaufman’s hospital bed one day, where they sang a few songs. Hollingworth not only offered to manage them but also pulled out a Tarot card showing a chalice with five streams of water spilling out of it — the ace of cups. While he never suggested that name, the women agreed it sounded better than anything else they’d devised by then. By chance, Holllingworth’s hospital roommate had been left a quadriplegic due to another accident and offered to use his financial settlement to help the band rent a house above Mill Valley. There, they could quit their day jobs and simply work on their music. It all seemed too good to be true: As Kaufman recalls, “We were blessed.”

With the Summer of Love dawning, Ace of Cups couldn’t have picked a better home base than San Francisco. Hollingworth eventually handed management responsibilities over to Ron Polte, a mover-shaker on the scene who also took over handling Quicksilver. Polte was a true believer in Ace of Cups, and by 1967, months after their first get-together, he’d helped get them on the bill at clubs and outdoor festivals in the Bay Area, where they played alongside Quicksilver, Big Brother and the Holding Company, the Dead, and the Steve Miller Band.

The band’s repertoire was starting to expand and incorporate their different influences. Sung by Simpson, “Taste of One” felt like a West Coast version of the Nico-fronted Velvet Underground. Gannon’s raw delivery powered songs like “Stones,” and Kaufman did the same on “I Wanna Testify.” Hunt’s piano and sweeter delivery shone on “Looking for My Man” and “Gospel Song.” Songs like “Afro Blue” allowed them to stretch out with instrumental solos, from Simpson’s snarling guitar to Hanson’s organ.

The scene itself was welcoming to them, for the most part. Kaukonen gave them guitar tips, lending Kaufman one of his Gibsons, and the Dead were friendly and supportive. (Kaufman had hired the Zodiacs, which included Ron “Pigpen” McKernan and at times Jerry Garcia, to play at her high school graduation party.) Kaufman recalls driving her friend Carlos Santana to a hospital for tuberculosis treatments, since he didn’t have a car. Janis Joplin, who’d shared a bill with them with Big Brother and the Holding Company, called the band’s house one night. “She said, ‘Listen, what are you guys up to this weekend? I’m having a party tonight, and I was wondering if you would all like to come,’” Kaufman recalls. “I said, ‘Well, let me find out.’ She goes, ‘I just realized I didn’t invite any women.’”

In Golden Gate Park, they opened for Hendrix and, as Simpson recalls, even allowed him to use some of their gear. “When we finished our set and they were getting up on the stage, he asked me, ‘Is it OK if I borrow your amp to play through? I promise I won’t blow anything up.’ I’d seen him burn up his guitar [at Monterey Pop], but I go, ‘That’s no problem — whatever you want to do is good.’ He was so humble, almost self-deprecating.” Hendrix later returned the favor, telling Melody Maker: “I heard some groovy sounds last time in the states, like this girl group, Ace of Cups, who write their own songs and the lead guitarist is, hell, really great.”

Along the way, they had to suffer through indignities that didn’t apply to male musicians. Since unmarried women generally weren’t allowed to have credit cards in those days, they had to ask a male pal to help them rent guitars and amps. Hoping for a slot at the Peppermint Lounge in San Francisco, where Kaufman had seen Little Richard play, Polte called to ask if Ace of Cups could audition. According to Kaufman, the owner told him they had the gig, no audition necessary — as long as they played topless. 

jimi hendrix ace of cups melody maker

Jimi Hendrix’s quote in Melody Maker.

When the band was playing the Fillmore West, Hunt showed up a bit late and almost missed the performance thanks to a backstage security goon. “The guy was huge and blocked my way,” she recalls. “He said, ‘What are you doing?’ And I said, ‘I’m in the band — please, I’m late.’ He looked at me and started laughing and said, ‘Yeah, right.’” Eventually someone did recognize her, and she was allowed into her own show.

Merlyn Ruddell, who acted as their road manager, recalls an out-of-town gig in Eugene, Oregon. “It was a country & western bar, and there was one of those nets between the stage and the audience,” she recalls. “And the guys hated the band. They were throwing beer bottles at them. Maybe they weren’t ready for rock & roll. Or maybe it was because they were girls.”

Another time, while driving to a meeting, Kaufman picked up a male hitchhiker. “He said, ‘You’re in the Ace of Cups — I love your band. I mean, I love your band,’” she recalls. “And I was like, ‘Cool, thank you.’ He says, ‘You don’t understand. I love your music. You guys are amazing. And I have a huge favor to ask you.’ I’m like, ‘What?’ And he goes, ‘It would mean so much to me. Would you pull into the park and let me give you head?’ I’m just like, ‘You know, that’s really a sweet offer, but I’m going to this meeting.’”

But along the way, the record companies that were scooping up their peers expressed only marginal or fleeting interest in them. The band would often rehearse at a heliport in Sausalito, where the likes of Quicksilver would also practice. Some of the members recall the time when the late Alan Livingston, then the head of Capitol, visited the space and offered to hear Ace of Cups. “They gave us five minutes to perform for them and to decide to sign us,” Kaufman says. “We chose a slower song, and I think it wasn’t the right one for them to be impressed enough to say, ‘Oh, yeah, this is something.’ But five minutes — that’s all we had, and that was a lot of pressure. And I guess they weren’t impressed with us.”

At a festival, an executive from Warner Bros. Records approached Hollingworth about a deal, for around $40,000, but according to the band, Hollingworth (who died in 1996) passed on the offer, thinking they were worth more. At some point, Polte also met with another company, Fantasy, but that deal went nowhere; according to the band members, the label asked for ownership of their song publishing, which killed the deal. In liner notes to an Ace of Cups collection, Polte, who died in 2016, explained his approach: “My theory was just to let them play and get better. There was no other way for me: I couldn’t afford the studio, and I didn’t want to get in a situation where somebody else owned the tape. I didn’t want to give the songs away. … I knew that the record companies were giving five percent of a hundred percent pie, and I didn’t like that one bit. … I was stubborn.”

Decades later, the band members grapple with the way they were deprived of a major-label contract and how much they knew and didn’t at the time. “Maybe Capitol said, ‘Well, they stink,’ and Ron didn’t want to hurt us,” Hunt says. “Maybe he turned around and said, ‘Oh, you guys, I just couldn’t let them do it because you aren’t ready yet.’ But none of us know, because nobody was asked. Ron didn’t tell anybody what went down.”

The fact that their music wasn’t easily categorizable — and that the women shared lead vocal duties — also worked against them. “I could see where record labels wouldn’t necessarily know what to do with a band like the Ace of Cups,” says Simpson. “We didn’t have a front person, and labels probably wanted somebody like Grace Slick or Janis Joplin. And we weren’t playing just all blues or all country, but a lot of different things. We were there so early on, doing what we were doing, that I don’t think people really knew what to think about it.” Whatever the reason, the original Ace of Cups never officially walked into any recording sessions to put their songs on tape.

Starting with Hunt in 1968, some of the women began having children, a challenge for them in ways it wasn’t for male counterparts. “We had to have more child care when we practiced and played,” Kaufman says. “If we had had more financial success, we probably could have had a more solid child care situation. But it was always a little bit like, ‘How is it going to work?’ It was always haphazard, like who was available. It’s not like we could have a full-time nanny.”

ace of cups

Courtesy of High Moon Records

The group continued to grab whatever shows it could on a local level; with a few exceptions, like a blues festival in Chicago and a shot opening for Jefferson Airplane in Vancouver, Ace of Cups almost never had the chance to play outside the Bay Area. (It was the ultimate rock Catch-22: They couldn’t get a record deal, but they also couldn’t tour without an album to promote.) In 1969, they landed one of their most distinguished gigs — opening for the Band at San Francisco’s Winterland, the night when a flu-stricken Robbie Robertson had to be hypnotized before he was able to go onstage. The band’s set that night was recorded; when Ace of Cups learned that theirs hadn’t been, it felt like one more stinging insult. “I was very disappointed,” says Vitalich. “You can’t keep trying after a while when we’re not getting the opportunities. It just takes a toll on a band.”

A cocktail of music-biz indifference, family responsibilities, and creative friction within the band (Kaufman and Hunt would often butt heads) began to chip away at their solidarity. In late 1969, Simpson left, partly to raise her child. With Kaufman stepping up to learn the solos Simpson could peel off, the quartet continued, but Hunt was the next to depart. I remember it as clear as day,” she says. “We were playing at the Matrix, and I couldn’t take it anymore. There was no forward progress.” When she asked Polte for some money after the gig and he handed her all of $50, she realized the band, after about five years, had hit a dead end.

The band was given another shot at a record deal after their friends in Jefferson Airplane started their own label, Grunt Records. What was left of Ace of Cups — Kaufman, Vitalich, Gannon and several men, including Kaufman’s husband, horns player Noel Jewkes — auditioned, but it wasn’t the same lineup, and the sound, Kaufman recalls, had “a lot more of a jazz influence.” Gannon remembers that the Airplane’s Marty Balin wasn’t happy: “Marty was so upset because it’s their recording studio, their record company, and this was not the Ace of Cups. The music was OK. You had great musicians up there. But it wasn’t our all-girl band.” Once again, nothing came out of it.

This version of Ace of Cups kept playing live for a while, but by 1972, the end was near. One of the last calls came when the remnants of the band played an outdoor benefit for the post office in San Geronimo, not far from where they were all living — worthy cause, less than glam setting given their previous venues. “It was free public space, and they said we could use their electricity or something,” says Gannon. Adds Vitalich, “We were doing things for fun. It just wasn’t happening anymore. Musically, we didn’t really break up. We faded out.”

Like most bands that collapse, they scattered. Simpson played in a few other groups before volunteering at a local detox center (her partner at the time was in recovery) and became a substance abuse counselor and mental health specialist. Gannon eventually became a school music teacher. Vitalich played in blues, R&B, and funk bands, had her own group in the Eighties that played weddings and parties, then got into massage therapy, eventually starting her own business. Hunt cofounded the Fairfax Street Choir, a shifting, free-form pop ensemble that at times included Gannon, Vitalich and even former Monkee Peter Tork.

Kaufman had moved to Hawaii in 1972, where, five years later, she co-founded the Island School, a highly regarded private school in Kauai that, in some ways, has its roots in her old band. “The Ace of Cups experience made it possible for me to not be stopped by anything,” she says. “The fact that we had never started a school and didn’t have any money was not in any way a reason to not do it.” For a period in the Eighties, she moved to L.A. and went to music school, but realized she now had to deal with a different, post-Sixties musical landscape as well: She auditioned to play bass in a female rocker’s band. “She just looked at me and said, ‘No, you’re not going to work.’ I didn’t look the part.”

In the Nineties, Kaufman became a go-to yoga instructor for Madonna, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Jane Fonda, and others, though she recalls Madonna as the most disciplined of her students: “She was making Ray of Light, and she would be out in the studio until two or three in the morning, and she’d always be there for practice at 8 a.m.” Kaufman remembers the only time Madonna was a few minutes late for a session was the morning she learned about the death of her friend Gianni Versace. Madonna herself seemed intrigued by Kaufman: As she told Rolling Stone at the time, “She was in one of the first all-female bands. I like to poke her brain, get information out of her.” One track on Ray of Light, “Shanti/Ashtangi,” was inspired by the stand-up prayer they would repeat at each lesson.

In 2003, thanks to archivist Alec Palao, the first Ace of Cups album finally arrived . It’s Bad for You But Buy It pulled together songs from rehearsals, live shows, demos, even infrequent TV appearances. The recordings weren’t polished, finished takes, but at least it was something for people to hear decades later. In 2011, the group was invited to play at the 75th birthday party for their friend Wavy Gravy, and a new benefactor, George Wallace of the indie High Moon Records, helped arrange rehearsal space and offered to release a new album. Hunt, who has played on and off with other bands, chose not to participate: “I hope they’re happy, and I just wish them the best,” she says.

The one upside of never having been given the chance to make a record back in the day was a surfeit of original material, more than 60 songs they’d stashed away. When their first real album, Ace of Cups, arrived in 2018, they had enough to fill two CDs. Whether the songs were newly composed or dusted off from the shelf, the album, produced by Dan Shea, demonstrated what they’d learned along the way. “Fantasy 1 & 4,” two never-cut songs merged into one, tapped into mid-Sixties folk-rock, but they also cranked the guitars on “Circles,” ventured into string-band country territory on “On the Road” and luxuriated in a gorgeous, orchestrated ballad, “Indian Summer.” With it, the band was finally able to hit the road, stopping in cities they’d never played, like New York. But challenges remained, as they felt when the group submitted paperwork to be considered for the Best New Artist Grammy.

Ace of Cups felt they qualified: They’d just released their first album, hadn’t received a Grammy before that, and “never had a significant public identity until now,” all of which seemed to match Recording Academy’s criteria for that category. But the Academy’s Screening Committee rejected their entry, informing the band that “the Recording Academy defines ‘new artist’ as an artist whose release(s) achieved a breakthrough into the public consciousness and notably impacted the musical landscape. The artist(s) submitted in this entry had established a public identity prior to the eligibility year and so are not eligible in this category.”

Ace of Cups photographed in San Francisco, CA on March 04, 2020 ©Jay Blakesberg

Simpson Mercy, Vitalich, Kaufman, Alfiler (standing) and new member Dallis Craft in San Francisco in March 2020.

Jay Blakesberg*

When Kaufman reached out to an Academy executive for explanation, she received a reply, in correspondence reviewed by Rolling Stone, that “the committee that made the determination believed that, were we to announce on January 25, 2020, ‘And the award for Best New Artist goes to…’ a band that was founded 50 years ago, it simply wouldn’t make sense.” (In a follow-up note, that executive clarified that “the committee’s decision had nothing to do with the age of the individual band members — we often have Best New Artist candidates of middle-age or older — but rather the age of the band itself, that it would be difficult to characterize a band that has existed for 50 years as ‘new.’”)

The group eventually accepted the decision, but Kaufman still sounds stung by the experience. “What we were facing at first was sexism,” she says. “And I think what we face now is ageism. And that correspondence to me was really shocking. We totally qualified to be in the running. We didn’t have any thought that we would win, but we thought it would be fun to be in the race. But when they wrote and said, ‘Well, what would it look like if the Best New Artist was you guys?’ we thought, ‘It would look actually like it’s never too late to make your first album.’” (A spokesperson for the Recording Academy confirms that a rep for the organization did tell the band the entry was deemed ineligible for Best New Artist due to “prior prominence.”)

Even decades later, Ace of Cups still can’t quite catch a break. The first week of March 2020, they’d just put the finishing bits on their second reunion album, Sing Your Dreams, when Covid-19 and the lockdown squashed any plans they had to promote it. The album continued the mature and eclectic vibe of its predecessor, and included an autumnal duet with Jackson Browne (“Slowest River/Made for Love”), a remake of Kaufman’s pre-Ace solo single  “Boy, What’ll You Do Then” and a vampy, almost metal protest song about life in the Trump era, “Put a Woman in Charge.” A tour was canceled. Even when the album rolled out that fall, it was the wrong time thanks to the pandemic. “It was sort of a blip,” Kaufman sighs. “People just didn’t really hear it. Everyone’s attention was just on survival and the upcoming election.” Next month comes Extended Play, featuring a lovely mid-tempo rocker, “You Don’t Understand,” that Kaufman first wrote in 1967. Alongside that track and the country lullaby “Baby Come Home,” the record also includes, at last, the warmly enveloping “Yellow Petal Flower,” the hospital-inspired tune Kaufman brought to the first band jam. But between their advanced ages, family health issues, and the ongoing pandemic, the odds of them playing live shows now appear to be slim.

For the time, Kaufman may have to live vicariously through her grandson Eli Smart, a singer-songwriter in his early twenties who, unlike his grandma, landed a major-label contract. Does that strike Kaufman as ironic? “Right?” she says. “I know. But I’m so happy.” Last fall, Smart posted a TikTok of him singing a Curtis Mayfield song in a family living room. In time, maybe some of the 200,000 people who liked the clip will realize that the beanie-capped woman sitting on the floor, playing bass and singing along, is in a killer rock & roll band too.