September 15, 2019

The Ace Of Cups’ Denise Kaufman Talks Reunion and New Album

Ace of Cups' Denise Kaufman, Mary Ellen Simpson, Diane Vitalich and Mary Gannon Alfiler; Photo by Rachel Wright

In the 1960s, The Ace Of Cups shared the stage with Jimi Hendrix, The Grateful Dead, and Jefferson Airplane. Yet the Bay Area-based group never released any music and ultimately faded into obscurity. But the legend of Ace Of Cups – remarkably an all-female band many years before the rise of The Runaways, The Go-Go’s and The Bangles – caught on in the decades following. The group has since reunited to release a 20+ track album, which includes collaborations with Taj Mahal, The Dead’s Bob Weir, Jefferson Airplane’s Jorma Kaukonen and Jack Casady, Buffy Sainte-Marie, and Peter Coyote.

I had the pleasure of speaking with The Ace Of Cups’ Denise Kaufman about the band’s 2018 released debut album — out via High Moon Records  – and plenty more. Highlights from that Q&A with Ms. Kaufman are below for your reading pleasure. And refreshingly, that self-titled studio effort includes four-fifths of the act’s core lineup, including guitarist Mary Ellen Simpson, drummer Diane Vitalich and bassist Mary Gannon.

Jewish Journal: The Ace of Cups is one of those bands that is storied and infamous in a way. When did you first start to hear that the band had a huge “after the fact” following?

Denise Kaufman: So during the 60’s we never got a record deal. We sang background vocals for Jefferson Airplane, Quicksilver Messenger Service, Mike Bloomfield and others, but never got the chance to record our own music in a studio. Except in the hearts and memories of people who saw us play live during those years, we were pretty much unknown. If you weren’t there in the ’60s, “Ace Of Cups” was just a name on a Fillmore or Avalon poster.

When we all went our separate ways in 1972, we saved a few boxes of our reel-to-reel rehearsal and live show tapes. The boxes were stored in various garages for over 30 years and even survived a hurricane on Kauai. Then in around 2001, Alec Palao of Big Beat Records in the UK reached out to us inquiring about any recordings we might have in our “vaults.” Alec patiently culled through all those tapes, cleaned up the best of them and in 2003 Big Beat released our first-ever Ace of Cups CD, “It’s Bad For You But Buy It.”

We created a simple website and started getting messages from all over the world from people who heard the CD and loved it. We were astounded and really touched that all these years later we were reaching people with our music.

JJ: From your 1960’s run, is there an accomplishment that you are most proud of?

DK: What I’m most proud of is that we played so many benefit shows. In those days, the Bay Area bands were really connected with the community and all the social changes we were nourishing and exploring together. Our manager Ron Polte always said that the best music happened at benefits and free shows. We played for the Haight-Ashbury Medical Clinic, KMPX Strike Fund, Save The Straight Theater, American Indian Well-Baby Clinic, The Fellowship Church (Unitarian), Bay Area Drug Committee’s Save the Children and many more. Now that we are touring again in 2019 we’ve already played in support of the Monarch Family Services in Santa Cruz, Camp Winnarainbow, Harmonic Humanity and have an upcoming show in L.A. for the Kara Love Project.

JJ: The group has reunited to release this album 50 years or so after first forming. What were the first steps taken to make that happen?

DK: We got together in 2011 to play for our dear friend Wavy Gravy’s 75th birthday benefit for the SEVA Foundation’s sight-saving work in Nepal and India. George Baer Wallace, president of our label, High Moon Records, got really excited after seeing our live set at Wavy’s birthday. After that reunion, three of us started meeting up just to play and write. High Moon Records helped us with travel expenses and rehearsal spaces to make our convergences possible.

When George heard the new music we were writing, he urged us to find a producer so we could finally record a studio album. He gave us the chance we never had 50 years ago. We found our amazing producer, Dan Shea, and we were off and running.

The first track we recorded was Wavy Gravy’s iconic song “Basic Human Needs.” Working with our videographer, Jesse Block, we created a music video for it and surprised Wavy on his 80th birthday. That beginning blessed our whole project. “Wouldn’t it be neat if the people that you meet had shoes upon their feet?”

JJ: Over how long was this album recorded?

DK: This double album is the first release of the larger project we’ve been working on. We’ve worked over a three-year period with Dan Shea at Laughing Tiger Studios in San Rafael, California. We all have families and live in different places so it takes some coordination! We’ll have another double album ready to release in about a year and we’ve already finished more than half of it. We’ve toured most of this summer and we’re getting back in the studio in mid-September to record new tracks and finish the second release.

JJ: Did you know from the beginning that you would have interesting guest contributors to the album?

DK: Well, we knew we wanted to invite some of our dear friends to play and sing with us and we hoped they’d be up for it. It turns out they were! Buffy St. Marie was our first guest and then Taj Mahal, Bob Weir and Peter Coyote followed. Most of our guest musicians have been our friends for more than 50 years. Bobby Weir and I were on the bus together when we were both 18-year-old pranksters with Ken Kesey and company!

The band played shows with Taj Mahal in the ’60s and later Ace of Cups member Mary Gannon was his children’s music teacher at Island School on Kauai. In the ’60s, we sang/arranged background vocals on Jefferson Airplane’s “Volunteers” album and now OG Airplane members Jorma Kaukonen and Jack Casady are playing on ours. In a way, our album is an expression of the community we were all part of and the longevity of those connections.

Our next release has a track with Jackson Browne and another with Pete Escovedo and his whole family: Juan, Peter Michael, Sheila E. and even Moms! 50 years ago, Jackson used to stand outside the heliport in Sausalito and listen to us practice and we played on the same bill with Pete Escovedo in 1969. Let the circle be unbroken…

JJ: Do you have a favorite song on the new album?

DK: That’s like asking, “Which is my favorite child?” I love them all.

JJ: When not busy with music, where does your free time go?

DK: When I’m in L.A. I teach Yin yoga at Santa Monica Yoga and make it a priority to nourish the friendships I’ve missed from being on the road. I do my best to stay tuned politically and find ways to make a difference in these challenging times. My family has a small organic farm in Kauai, Hawaii, and whenever possible I head over there to soak in the aloha and help out on the farm.

My daughter Tora Smart is a beautiful jazz singer, her husband Kirk is a wonderful guitarist and my grandson Eli is finishing his last year of music school in Liverpool, England. They have a music store and performance venue in Hanalei and there’s always family music to join in with. I’ve been in love with surfing for 55 years so I get in the ocean whenever I can.

JJ: I feel compelled to ask: Were you a bat mitzvah?

DK: There was no such thing as a bat mitzvah at Temple Emanu-el in San Francisco in the late 1950s when I was 13. Only bar mitzvahs.

I have always felt a presence of spirit or mystery. When I was 18 and took psychedelics, “I” dissolved into a oneness of all energy and that set the course for the rest of my life. You can hear that journey in Ace Of Cups lyrics from the ’60s as well as in our new songs. These days when I’m in L.A., I’m always at Shabbat services at my shul, Ohr Hatorah, where I study with Rabbi Mordecai Finley and continue to deepen my practice.

JJ: Finally, Denise, any last words for the kids?

DK: Let’s remember to be kind and take care of each other, the animals and our planet.

I think Ace Of Cups reminds people to keep stoking the fires of what you love — it’s never too late for the impossible to happen and for dreams to come true.

More on The Ace Of Cups can be found here.