Ace of Cups Hit The Road

By Michele Willens

They were, arguably, the most consequential all-girl band of the Sixties, opening for headliners like Quicksilver Messenger Service, Country Joe and the Fish, and Jefferson Airplane. Bill Graham asked them to open for a new group called The Band, and Jimi Hendrix said, “I heard some groovy sounds in America, like this girl group, Ace of Cups — really great.” Their music was raw and feminist, but to the disappointment of many, they never got a record deal. “I’ve been waiting 45 years for the debut album of the Ace of Cups,” said longtime fan Jackson Browne.

He got his wish in November. Their debut album was released to nice buzz and hopefully, new generations of listeners.

And now the Cups, comprised of four women in their 70s, are making their first appearances in New York City, playing the Mercury Lounge and the Rockwood Music Hall Stage. After New York, they could be hitting the road to other cities.

With counter-culture songs like, “Boy, What’ll You Do Then? and lyrics like, “there are a whole lotta people tryin’ to mess with your mind,” they were a pivotal part of the fabric of the Northern California music scene. None more so than Denise Kaufman, guitarist and lead writer, who dropped out of Berkeley (where she was arrested in the free speech protests) at 18, and temporarily hopped on Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters bus. She was close enough to Paul Simon and Jann Wenner to be included in recent biographies of the icons.

The gigs were pretty non-stop. But by 1972, the Ace of Cups’ moment had seemingly passed. (“I like to say we faded away,” says drummer Diane Vitalich) What followed were marriages, babies, geographical changes and odd jobs. Vitalich cleaned houses three days a week, Mary Gannon (a former Miss Monterey) and Mary Ellen Simpson got various college degrees, and Kaufman moved part-time to Kawaii where she started an organic farm. (still operating) But they never stopped rocking.

“I played locally with about six bands at one time,” Vitalich says. They all kept playing and “wishin and hopin,’ but decades passed and girl groups like the Bangles and Runaways were in vogue. But about a year ago, Sixties aficionado George Wallace, who runs High Noon Records in New York, heard some old recordings and was hooked. “I recalled seeing their names on old posters,” he says, “but I honestly thought it might be a catering company.” He brought in record producer Dan Shea and the old sounds became new again.

Shea, who has worked with Mariah Carey, Jennifer Lopez and Celine Dion, was not deterred by the Cups’ ages. “They had very little experience in the studio, so the learning curve was quite steep,” he says. “But I was really amazed at the way they embraced the process and by their energy levels. I’d be ready to call it a day and they’d say, ‘Hey, we can go a couple more hours if you can.’”

All are proudly gray and Botox-free, and as Vitalich says, “We just want to look the best we can for our age, and not try to be what we used to be.” The support has been heartfelt. The public TV station in San Francisco, showed an eight-minute documentary about the group and received five million views. The group has been approached by another production house interested in a fresh documentary. Can Diane Keaton and Meryl Streep be far behind?

For now, the goals are to sell some records, have their music used in film and television, and find new young listeners beyond the Bay Area. People like Leah Tashman, 22, an intern at High Noon. She had no idea who this group of women was but says, “I was blown away. It would never dawn on me they are written by women, let alone older ones.”

Denise Kaufman, a proud 72, smiles at responses like that and shares the next long-deferred dream: “We’d love to get nominated for a Grammy as best new artists.”