Meet the Ace of Cups
In the summer of 1967, San Francisco’s first all-female rock band burst onto the scene. Despite making a big impact as a live act, and sharing billing with everyone from Jimi Hendrix , Jefferson Airplane and The Grateful Dead, the band stopped performing without ever recording an album of their own.
50 years later, they are finally releasing their debut studio album long overdue. Their songs lay buried in old scrapbooks, on unmarked home tape reels and in the collective memories of those involved. It’s a stunning collection that reflects their unique origins and deep life stories.
As the news began to spread that the Ace was recording, old friends and allies began to catch word and come by the studio to offer support and musical contributions. People like Bob Weir, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Taj Mahal, Jorma Kaukonen, Jackson Browne and others. When the dust and smoke had cleared, 36 songs had been recorded, and what started out as a chance to set the record straight turned into a history-making second-act.
The story of the Ace has grown from a historical connection to their fans from the 60’s to a new following of millions who watched their recent documentary from KQED Arts about their story and the upcoming album. The ACE have a timeless ability to captivate. Think Beatlemania but cuter.
The original five young women of the Ace Of Cups were pioneers, dealing with issues that their male counterparts of the day did not have to. Even with the gender challenge of the day they brought a soulful, poetic sensibility to the stages of the psychedelic ballrooms and could fully hold their own with the gnarliest rockers in town. They were the first all female groups to be taken seriously enough to be given an equal share of the stage with their male peers. Legendary concert promoter Bill Graham went one step further, giving the Ace Of Cups the much-coveted spot of opening for The Band’s first concert, which he presented at Winterland in April, 1969.
The Ace of Cups started as Mary Gannon, Marla Hunt, Denise Kaufman, Mary Ellen Simpson and Diane Vitalich. The group stayed active in the Bay Area music scene for a full five years and during that time made musical contributions to albums by Quicksilver Messenger Service, Jefferson Airplane and a handful of others.
George Wallace, president of High Moon Records knew of the Ace of Cups from a 2003 release of their live performances called It’s Bad For You But Buy It. Inspired by their music and their story he sought out Denise Kaufman to talk to her about a potential reissue of more of their old tapes. During his trip to California he had the opportunity to see them perform at a reunion concert for the SEVA Foundation and he decided to bankroll an album project after seeing the magic first hand.
Within weeks, four of the original five Ace - Denise Kaufman, Mary Ellen Simpson, Diane Vitalich and Mary Gannon Alfiler – had put their heads together and begun to witness years of restless creativity percolate from within.
The inspired choice of producer Dan Shea, who's clients (Santana, Jennifer Lopez, Mariah Carey, Janet Jackson) have sold over 150 million albums combined to handle production laid a bold and unpredictable path for the women to follow. Shea studied the recordings of vintage Ace, and his skill, patience and vision has taken these women and their songs to new heights.
Shea recognized the pure folk, blues and gospel moves that are the generational roots of the Ace, but he also chose to amplify the inherent pop sensibility in their songs, and encouraged both the thrilling energy of the garage band, and a delightful and wholly appropriate psychedelic sheen.
Most importantly, the producer has understood that the core essence of the Ace Of Cups is in fact the songwriting. Styles and formats may come and go, but a song is timeless, and the Ace had - and has - quality songs in abundance. Whether they are vintage tunes reinvented and reinvigorated, or more recent work that reflects their maturity and shared experience, everything exudes with the Ace Of Cups’ trademark, wide-eyed wonder at the powerful possibilities of communication through music.
Music – everything will be alright.
Mary Ellen Simpson
Music was always a part of my life. I heard music regularly as a child including big band, gospel, pop, and rock and roll. My early influences included Fats Domino, Jimmy Reed, Mahalia Jackson, a boogie woogie player named Hadda Brooks, and of course Joan Baez, whose songs I loved to sing and play, and by extension Bob Dylan when I first saw him sing at the Hollywood Bowl in about 1962 when he was 17 or 18 years old and just starting out.
Growing up in San Francisco during the 1960s placed Denise right in the center of the cultural revolution. Her commitment to social justice and exploratory approach to life led her to adventures in counterculture: to being arrested at UC Berkeley's Sproul Hall protests during the Free Speech Movement, to "getting on the bus” (as "Mary Microgram") with Ken Kesey, the Merry Pranksters and the Grateful Dead; to forming the legendary Ace of Cups.
I was 23 when the band first got together. I lived in the Haight on 1480 Waller St. with a college roommate from Monterey, Val Risely. I worked as a Kelly Girl and then at First Savings and Loan as a receptionist/secretary. I was attending night school at UC Berkeley and also San Francisco State. I would take buses everywhere. Val and I lived in the Haight, an eclectic neighborhood with stores and shops run by people from all over the world. An amazing and colorful place to live for sure. The vibe of the Haight fostered community and creativity like nowhere else.
I was born and raised in San Francisco. I listened to the big band sounds in my early years and loved the jazzy vocalists. I took piano lessons, ballet, tap dancing, and modern dance. By Jr. High I had started listening to KDIA the soul radio station, and I watched Dick Clark's Dance Party on TV. During high school I was singing and dancing in a doo-wop group, and hung out at Mel's drive-in where the outdoor waitresses wore roller skates. I cruised Mission St. in my '52 Studebaker and sped along the great highway next to Ocean Beach where Playland was the place to go, never knowing that in later years I would be performing at the same location to be known as The Family Dog.
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