Quicksilver Messenger Service
(important work in color)
1968: Quicksilver Messenger Service. 1969: Happy Trails * Shady Grove. 1970: Just For Love. 1971: What About Me * Quicksilver. 1972: Comin Thru. 1975: Solid Silver. 1986: Piece by Piece.
Dino Valenti: 1968: Dino Valenti
Nicky Hopkins 1966: Revolutionary Piano. 1968: Nicky Hopkins and his Whistlin Piano. 1973: Tin Man was a Dreamer. 1975: No More Changes.
Irwin Stamblers Encyclopedia of Rock and Roll mentions that Dino Valenti was set to join Quicksilver as a drummer circa 1965, but Dino was busted for drug possession and thrown in jail for 18 months. The Quicksilver Messenger Service "Shady Grove" website mentions Valenti doing a nine-month stretch of a ten-year sentence for drug possession. Valenti played congas on some later recordings for Quicksilver, so maybe the drummer position was the initial idea, but its hard to believe they didnt consider him as a front man immediately. A New York coffeehouse folk singer, Valenti had the narcissism and self-confidence of a troubadour mixed with the "groovy" good-will of a Haight Street hipster. Putting him behind the drums wouldnt have worked. Maybe Valentis drug bust was providence, because Gregory Elmore showed up with his effortless, shuffling, kick-heavy tempos, and his beautifully toned drums, and quickly became part of Quicksilvers signature sound. Dino Valeti wouldnt join Quicksilver until 1970.
Another future member of Quicksilver was somewhere in England. Nicky Hopkins was playing classic piano parts on classic songs by The Rolling Stones, the Kinks, The Jeff Beck Group, The Who, Lord Sutch (well, maybe not-so-classic in this case), and many more. Ray Davies is said to have wrote "Session Man" about Hopkins, although given the low-truth factor in rock history, this may not be true (Davies also contributed a song to Hopkins second solo album). Sometime during this period, Nicky Hopkins developed a chronic illness that would eventually push him towards a warmer climate.
Nicky Hopkins is one of the greatest musicians of 60s' rock. Piano players have always been dealt prejudice from guitar-centric musicians and critics, but Hopkins is certainly as faux-godlike as any faux-god guitar player. To ultimately understand the multi-leveled importance of Quicksilver, its pretty important to understand Hopkins talent. For the Stones, he played on "Lets Spend the Night Together," "Ruby Tuesday," "Shes a Rainbow," "We Love You," "Sympathy for the Devil," "Gimme Shelter," "Monkey Man," "You Got the Silver," "Moonlight Mile," "Angie," plus hes all over Exile on Main Street and Satanic Majesties Request, and Jamming With Edward (Edward is Nicky). Its pretty safe to say that the Stones legacy would have been somewhat diminished without Hopkins contributions.
Heres a partial list of some of Hopkins extraordinary accomplisments:
The Beatles/Joh Lennon: Hopkins joined the Beatles on "Revolution," and John Lennon on "Crippled Inside," "I Dont Want to be a Soldier Mama," "Gimme Some Truth," "Oh My Love," "How Do You Sleep?" "How?" and "Oh, Yoko."
The Who: Hopkins is on Whos Next and plays that great piano on "Getting in Tune" and "The Song is Over."
Jeff Beck Group with Rod Stewart: Nicky was a member of the Jeff Beck Group, and on Beckola he is featured on "Rice Pudding" (a piano rave-up), and "Girl From Mill Valley" (a piano ballad).
Kinks: Hopkins contributions to the Kinks are not clear, but he is there somewhere on Face to Face, mixed down in that mono-sounding production.
Jerry Garcia: "Catfish John," "Tore Up Over You," "Mission in the Rain," "Ill Take a Melody," the last tune is a beautiful version of Allen Toussaints song.
Graham Parker: On Parkers last album with The Rumour, Nicky Hopkins is in the piano slot, providing terse accompaniment to Parker classics like "Stupefaction," "No Holding Back," "The Beating of Another Heart," and "Jolie Jolie."
Hopkins contributed to Powerglide - the toughest album the New Riders of the Purple Sage produced.
Steve Miller: Hes on one of Millers best albums Your Saving Grace.
He also worked with Gary Moore, Carly Simon, Izzy Stradlin and Jerry Lynn Williams.
[This is a very slim list at the moment].
Unlike most session men, Hopkins seldom took a back-up roll. Bands seemed to open up space for his imagination. He could be counted on to come up with immediately captivating openings for songs, and he always elevated end-of-song rave-ups. Even Jeff Beck and Rod Stewart got out of his way, allowing him extended flights on Beckola. Most piano players doing session work in the sixties favored the percussive qualities of the keyboard, and most keyboard players served as textural color, working somewhat in the background. Hopkins filled up space with his warm, rich tones. He didnt shy away from the reverb pedal and his flourishes were grand. In his hands, songs immediately became more than they initially were: he had a great sense of melody, placement, and a knack for the hook. Hopkins might have become a touring member of the Stones (he was asked to join in 1969), or some other great UK band; or maybe his talent would have been directed along session lines, but his legacy is outstanding for a single musician. He wouldnt join Quicksilver until 1969.
Back in San Francisco, Quicksilver Messenger Service launched itself in that year of launchings 1965. At the Fillmore, Quicksilver sometimes played on a weekly basis. The line-up solidified around John Cipollina (rhythm and lead guitar), Gary Duncan (rhythm and lead guitar), David Frieberg (bass), and Greg Elmore (drums). Songwriting and lyrics werent the basis of their appeal and it would be almost two years before they put out a record. Like other San Francisco bands, their club ascension seemed to come from a combination of loose covers, tentative self-penned endeavors, and long jams. This freedom was part of the San Francisco sound. Their first album effort in 1968 Quicksilver Messenger Service reflects their ability to entertain without being particularly focused. The bands version of Hamilton Camps "Pride of Man" always sounded overly portentous, but this first song on this first album heralded another maverick instrumental assault from San Francisco. "Light Your Windows" works as a psychedelic tune of three-minute dimension, but the instrumental "Gold and Silver" is more fun. The long jam tune, the twelve-minute "The Fool" is interesting, but doesnt elevate the album enough. "The Fool" can be micro-loved for John Cipollinas twangy, vibrato-bar, plucking uniqueness, and for the bolero sequence which was a tempo the band had a fondness for and would drift towards on a number of later songs. The production doesnt sound up to the playing though; the band was just too huge for the production filter. The result was promising, but not overpowering. "Pride of Man" received airplay on many of the free-form radio stations popping up in the late-sixties, but the perfect hit-single wouldn't readily materialize for Quicksilver.
It would be interesting to see a chart of how sixties jamming made its step by step, month by month, conquest of world-wide rock and roll by 1970. Certainly the longer song forms that the Beatles suggested in 1965 were a step forward. And the Yardbirds early rave ups were a nice example. Then there was the general blues-based jamming of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band in 1965 and 1966. Not to mention blues-based jamming in general. Some people mistakenly assume that Cream were a major influence on the San Francisco scene. But the Dead was already jamming on stage in local clubs in 1966, as was Quicksilver. And some members of the Dead, notably Jerry Garcia, were jamming from a jug-band, bluegrass background that suggested new avenues when connected to electricity. The freer style from San Francisco and the communal vibe, soon captured the imagination of pent-up musicians everywhere; before long, many rock bands were supplying longer jams, which soon evolved into a need for longer concert space. Rock bands that failed on an improvisational level usually had rhythm sections raised on the less-is-more approach which didnt work for the more-is-more requirements of extended instrumental prowess. Those musicians who made their living backing up singer/songwriters in tasteful arrangements may have had to hide an unexposed jamming side, but they couldnt necessarily attain the naturalness of the best jamming bands simply because they never got the chance to flex their muscles properly. What was often substituted, was show-stopping, carnival-like strain exemplified prototypically by stuff like Creams unmelodic efforts, or Iron Butterflys side-long solo-followed-by-solo avoidance of interaction, or any number of guitar-slinging, blues-copying bands. Some bands never should have tried to improvise and other bands are fondly remembered for ignoring the trend. Genres like power-pop, punk, new wave, would arise in reaction to the extravagances, though the best jamming-influenced bands, of course, were always vital and unique, although they started encountering generation-bias and critical trend-hopping bias that helped marginalize the whole genre for a short while in the late-seventies and early eighties.
The great rock instrumental flowering that flourished in San Francisco was led by The Grateful Dead, Quicksilver Messenger Service, Moby Grape, Santana, and Jefferson Airplane, though it obviously spilled over to Big Brother, Country Joe and the Fish and many others, as it spilled out into the greater USA. The Dead were the most cerebral, but, in their own funky way, probably the most playful of the SF bands. Santana and Quicksilver seemed the most naturally jam-oriented sheer feeling for musical form and taste, without that troublesome brain getting too much in the way. Moby Grape didnt explode, they created a jam-implosion their chops and interaction were so disciplined that it suggested possible jam-heaven, though the improvised disc they released Grape Jam, was an ill-considered example of those possibilities (they never put out a live album). The Jefferson Airplane could be boring as improvisers; but then again there are so many examples that prove the opposite that they cant be ignored. The Airplanes grandeur came from a certain amount of conceptual smarts (again that brain-thing) and a certain amount of increasing proficiency. Jack Casady alone was so interesting to listen to with the biggest bass sound in the universe, that he tended to drag the whole band up to his caliber of playing. Santana started with tribal percussion madness on a huge scale grounded by a bass-anchor in the middle, then overlaid everything with beautiful waves of melody on top.
So to differentiate, Quicksilver had a supple rhythm-section that natually gravitated to sudden intricacies and change-ups. Gregory Elmore, David Freiberg and Gary Duncan (great rhythm player Duncan) knew their stuff. Always sprite, they never sound drug down, as the Airplane and Dead occasionally did, and unlike the Dead, they never sound like they struggled with short forms. As it proved with other bands from San Francisco, a live album was a perfect way to give people a surer hint of what it meant to be a San Francisco musician. Happy Trails was a live follow-up to Quicksilvers debut album. Happy Trails is Quicksilvers purest hour as a guitar-driven, musical force, but the dexterity they displayed on Happy Trails would be a part of all the music they made. Cipollina just hauls butt all over the record; everytime he makes an entrance he lifts the album to classic status. Not only is there the unbelevibly moving quality of Cipollina's pure tone, but he manges to make his guitar do that "blues-talk" trick so lucidly on part of the "Who Do You Love" Suite that it sounds like John's muse has pushed him out of the way and commandeeredl him guitar for several minutes. Quicksilver Messenger Services playing would always be lively, entertaining, witty, tasteful and moving.
The fact that the seismic entrance of Nicky Hopkins shook up the guitar foundation, and then was followed by another seismic entrance (Dino Valenti), just means that their string of albums sound a little more varied than other group's offerings over the same period of time. Guitar lovers may have been somewhat saddened by Cipollina's slightly diminished role (at least on record - I'm sure he had plenty of space in concert). In this case, shifting personnel (Gary Duncan left in 1969 and rejoined a year later), did not mean a flagging of inspiration or a deterioration of music, but it did make for some sudden changes in emphasis.
Shady Grove is a classic of keyboard rock and roll, a San Francisco classic and, perhaps, a classic in general. Dominated by David Frieberg (he wrote/co-wrote/arranged 4 of the songs) and Nicky Hopkins, the band attempts to redefine their style around Friebergs singing. Gary Duncan had left and guitars dominate only on "Josephs Coat," "3 or 4 Feet from Home," and the title track, "Shady Grove," which are all nice, uptempo rockers that Cipollinas stinging leads push along admirably. The album otherwise is ballad-driven with a touch of psychedelia. The deficits of the album are the murky production which muddies the vocals and buries the drums and bass. The Freiberg songs are nice existentialist-style work-outs, probably underrated a bit, because they are hard to decipher. The songs arent sharply designed, but they have a pleasant haze of effects built around Hopkins piano. "Edward (The Mad Shirt Grinder) is magnificent: it's one of the best manifestations of psychotic keyboard sublimnity ever recorded.
Dino Valenti joined up for Just for Love in 1970 and would stay for the remainder of Quicksilvers career. His voice and persona came in for some criticism in the rock press, and probably from that section of the audience who would have preferred that Quicksilver remain a guitar-dominated band. His song "Fresh Air" was the hit that would push the band to the top of the charts for awhile. Valentis vocals and songwriting were distinctive. His voice rode a crackling, pinched, twangy, electrical current that was sometimes controlled with an uncertain pitch. It definitely cut above the roar of an electric band and Quicksilvers lyrics would no longer get lost in the mix ("the songs that I sing to you, you will here every word" Dino sings on his first tune for Just for Love). Valenti seemed to be the type of singer who swaggered a little, and a few of his lyrics betray a sixties sense of casual sexism. Like all sixties rockers resorting to love ballads when there was a whole world to sing about, Valentis approach was somewhat suspect by people who wished for a more ambitious approach. But all said, his songs are marked by emotional honesty and a romantic, almost operatic grandeur. Compared to Marty Balin, for instance, Valentis songs were less contrived as pop formulas. More importantly, they were natural extensions of Quicksilvers rolling, jamming style. Some of the songs ("Just for Love," "Call on Me," "Long Haired Lady," "Dont Cry My Lady Love," "Cowboy on the Run") have an improvised sense of formulation. Underpinned by Hopkins piano for the most part, or punctuated by Cipollinas and Duncans rhythmic/lead fire, they are immensely listenable. By the time the band was breaking up, Valentis voice was getting better and he was kicking the stuffing out of rockers like "Worrying Shoes," "Chicken," "Mojo," and "Forty Days." Which means that Valenti was one of the few folk artists who successfully made a transition to hyperactive rock and roll. Sometime the way Valenti sang certain lines could give you a twinge of delight: his melisma and long notes were ever-present: and sometimes his sweeping flow took you along with it. There may have been times when Valentis voice had too much presence, but sometimes his singing turned average lyrics into melodic poetry: "The rules of life were measured up in thin white lines, the last time that I saw her, she was blown out of her mind." (From "Out of My Mind,"); at the end of "Dont Cry my Lady, Love" a break-up song, he observes about the aftermath, "Ones always crying, and ones always taking the blame."
John Cipollina left the band after What About Me and the following album, Quicksilver, is still a great slice of Quicksilver given that Hopkins, Valenti, Elmore and Duncan are on board. Gary Duncans talents had always been overlooked due to the presence of Cipollina, who could do less, but somehow get more attention due to his unique style. But here Duncan comes up with some nice solos and some nice tunes and the result is again, underrated, San Francisco rock. The band cut another album, Comin Thru, but by then it was down to Valenti and Duncan, and the results sounded patched together. But the reunion album, "Solid Silver" has all the highs of their classics, including nice instrumentals, good Valenti/Hopkins ballads, and a David Frieberg/Robert Hunter grandiose epic ("I Heard You Singing").
So what kind of career are we talking about? A career that still recalls the highs of the sixties in both instrumental prowess and thrust of vision. Add up what are now undeniably overlooked songs: "Chicken On Back," "Mojo," "I Heard You Singing," "Worrying Shoes," "Flames," "Witches Moon," "The Letter," "Edward the Mad Shirt Grinder," "Cobra," "Local Color," "Long Haired Lady," "Spindrifter," "Call on Me," "Hope," "I Found Love," "Rebel," "Out of My Mind," "Dont Cry My Lady Love," and "The Truth," and you have a considerable achievement.
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