Tuesday, January 12, 2010


THE TALE OF RAVEN' - by Mike Somavilla
Well it's coming up on thirty years since Raven first came together. Out of their ten members, maybe six of them are still left to spread the rumors. There isn't a lot that can be written about a band that lasted barely 10 months, and that played at best, maybe 11 shows. And when you consider that after all this time some of the memories and recollections of the surviving band members may be just a little but fuzzy. Here's their story.

Feeling restless with the lack of gigs with Terry & The Pirates, John Cipollina decided to start his dream band Raven, taking with him members of "the Pirates", Quicksilver and Copperhead for this new project. Raven was John's concept of a "Big Band" - 2 guitarists, 2 drummers, 2 keyboardists, 2 singers, and 1 bass player.

During their reign on the Bay Area music scene Raven included - John Cipollina from Quicksilver Messenger Service and Copperhead on lead guitar; Greg Douglass from Country Weather and Hot Tuna on lead guitar; Skip Olson from Boyd Albritton's band The Jones Boys and Quicksilver on bass guitar; Andy Kirby from King Kong on drums & lead vocals; David Weber from Copperhead and Front Page Review (a band he played with in Boston in 1968) on drums; Jasper "Hutch" Hutchinson from The Jones Boys on vocals & synthesizer; Nicky Hopkins from the Jeff Beck Group and The Rolling Stones on piano; Jim McPherson from Stained Glass and Copperhead on keyboards & vocals; Clay Cotton from the Charlie Musselwhite Band on keyboards and Dave Walker from Fleetwood Mac and Savoy Brown on vocals. (John told me once that he felt that Dave Walker was one of the best vocalists he'd ever worked with). It should also be mentioned that by this time John, Greg, Jim, Nicky, David and Andy had all been members of Terry & The Pirates.

In the beginning, but unknown at the time, Raven was born out of a rehearsal at Cipollina's Black Dragon Studio on December 9, 1975 with John Cipollina, Greg Douglass, Nicky Hopkins, Hutch Hutchinson, Terry Dolan, David Weber, Andy Kirby and Dallas Anderson (who played bass that night and was the "caretaker" of John's Corte Madera studio).

As these jam sessions began to take place, they gradually grew into "actual band rehearsals". John and Greg Douglass had often talked about a "serious" project together, but somehow, something always got in the way. But this time they were determined to start a band. Before John ultimately chose Raven for the band's name he was considering as possible contenders Jewel, California Vipers, Rangers, Witness, Prophet and Powerhouse.

Raven rehearsed non-stop for about six months before their first show, although, if you ask the band, it felt more like a year. But John wanted to make sure that Raven was well-rehearsed and ready to play "the Big Time" before they played out.

They probably rehearsed too much because by the time they were ready to play out, some of the songs already seemed old, not to mention that they were burned out on the lack of gigs and a lack of money! According to Greg Douglass "John had a serious case of cold feet". "John", we'd say, "let's go out and do some gigs, man!" "We're not ready", he'd reply. Raven did finally do some scattered gigs. As Greg Douglass put it "The only thing that would have made it all better is if we could've played out more".

Their first show was on June 27, 1976 at Sundance, a small club up in the mountains near Lake Tahoe, Nevada. John wanted to get out of town to debut the band in secret, far away from the familiar surroundings and scrutiny of the San Francisco Bay Area, and unleash this new band on an unsuspecting audience. Skip Olson blew off a gig with Quicksilver to play these shows, pissing off Gary Duncan and Dino Valenti, and subsequently getting kicked out of Quicksilver. Jim McPherson played bass at these gigs becuase Skip was too sick to play. By all accounts it was a disastrous weekend.

Gary Douglass recalls: "We did this three-night stand in Nevada that still stands near the top of my Worst Gigs Ever List. The first night, the crowd was small but extremely surly. Huge guys would come in small groups and end up scowling and yelling at the band. It turns out the place was a whorehouse that had just been converted into a rock 'n' roll club, without the knowledge of the former patrons. It was an ugly, ugly three days".

Raven then played several back to back Friday/Saturday night gigs: at the Keystone in Berkeley on July 16/17; at the LongBranch Saloon in Berkeley on August 13/14 and then it was back to the Keystone on August 19/20; Jim McPherson played keyboards at the July and August Keystone shows and possibly at the LongBranch Saloon appearances. (There remains some doubt as to whether it was Nicky Hopkins or Jim McPherson that played the LongBranch shows.) On the way to the July 17th Keystone gig, Skip was pulled over by the cops for speeding and not having a driver's license, which is why their first set was short.

For their last gig on September 4, 1976, also at the Keystone, Clay Cotton played keyboards; Andy Kirby stepped out from behind the drums and was singing lead vocals (leaving David Weber as the only drummer), and featuring their new vocalist Dave Walker on a few songs. (Now whether or not Dave played more than one show or if both Keystone shows scheduled for that weekend actually took place, no one can remember).

The songs Raven played showcased the music and songwriting skills of John Cipollina, Greg Douglass and Jim McPherson, with the occasional cover tune thrown in for fun. As Greg Douglass put it "A lot of Raven's songs were structurally pretty strange, but at the same time pretty well written and well performed".

Other songs that were part of Raven's repertoire included: Takes All Kinds, Post Scripts, Special Kind of Love, Wet Wild & Warm, All American Boy, Fingers, Snake Eyes, Cloye, Rain or Come Shine, Your Move, She's That Kind of Woman, Moon Light Traveler, Vampira, Saw Tooth, Fever Dreams, Oxblood, and Two Roads (A song by Boyd Albritton).

Over the years there has been much confusion over the identity of Hutch Hutchinson in Raven which is Jasper "Hutch" Hutchinson. The "Hutch Hutchinson" that played bass with Copperhead, Terry & The Pirates and who plays with Bonnie Raitt is "James" Hutch Hutchinson. Jasper was introduced to Cipollina by James, but was brought in to Raven by Skip Olson. (Where is the scorecard to keep this information straight when you need one?)

In 1975 Skip was playing with Cipollina in the reunited Quicksilver Messenger Service and recording at Wally Heider's world renowned studio in San Francisco with Boyd Albritton on guitar & vocals, along with Hutch Hutchinson, Nicky Hopkins, Greg Douglass, Michael Lewis (keyboards), with Sammy Piazza & Harold Aceves (who had also played with Quicksilver) on drums. (In 1998 these recordings were released as Boyd Albritton Band Prehistoric Raven.) John liked Boyd's song "Clouds" so much that he recorded it for the Raven album; Boyd in appreciation of this insisted that John shared the writing credit with him.

Reflecting back Andy Kirby feels that "Cipollina made sure that there were 2 drummers, 2 singers and 2 keyboard players because, in the event someone called in sick, John could still go out and play the gig". Andy also recalls that Beach Boy Blondie Chaplin was being considered as a possible member for Raven and even came over and jammed one day. "He was considered for the band, but I don't recall ever having met the man. John loved his singing & playing. I do remember that" says Greg Douglass.

Having Nicky Hopkins in the band made for some interesting moments. "For instance, there was the high note high dive" factor as Greg Douglass calls it. "Nicky would do one of those spectacular runs up the keyboard all the way to the top note... and keep going, and all of a sudden Bang! He was off the stool and on the floor. To keep Nicky from being seriously injured, Dallas Anderson rigged up a canvas seat belt to prevent any further chromatically-driven spills."

At one rehearsal Raven found themselves being surrounded by a S.W.A.T. team, who thought they were the Symbionese Liberation Army (the group of radicals that kidnapped Patty Hearst). It seems that the band had been shooting at bottles with some of John's extensive gun collection whe a neighbor called the cops, saying they[sic] we're terrorists. A great deal of fast talking was done to convince the gun-toting police specialists that they were just a bunch of goofy old guitar pickers. Dallas did a nice job of hiding Cipollina's M-16s while the band engaged the S.W.A.T. team leader at the front door.

Playing with Raven was a stretch for Clay Cotton because he had come from a Blues & R&B background and Raven was a rock 'n' roll band. He was brought to the band by Skip Olson with whom he worked with in Charlie Musselwhite's band. Clay remembers being treated with dignity and nobility when he met John and Raven and found John to be a gentleman and a true world class artist. "He was clearly a creative genius and composer who put together unique and esoteric songs that had power and integrity" and recalls that "the band played interesting and challenging music that was spot on. I especially remember Fever Dreams as being a zany song with zany lyrics". What appealed to Clay the most was that John had an intellect and personality and wished he could have known John, the person, a little bit better.

Todd Tolces, the San Francisco correspondent for Melody Maker, arranged for Dave Walker to meet John Cipollina and Greg Douglass at Fantasy Studios in 1975. He would later go over to Black Dragon and "jam" a couple of times. Shortly after this Dave moved back to England for about 7 months, and upon his return to the States in August of 1976, he went down to the KSAN studios and signed up on their musicians directory, looking for a band to join. No sooner than he comes home that day the phone rings and it was Cipollina reintroducing himself, and they started hanging out, which led to band practices and recording sessions at John's studio, and then some gigs with Raven. Walker noted, "Being with John gets a little deeper than just doing gigs."

Raven practiced a lot in the studio and they had a lot of freedom to stretch out and play. Dave Walker commented, "Although John was kind of the figurehead of everything, he still counted himself as one of the guys. If you had some kind of idea he was the type of guy that would say, "let's give it a shot and see if we can work something out". John and Greg were kindred spirits and they were a great teaming of guitarists, maybe one of the finest of all time."

Walker continues, "John played with a lot of people and felt he had a lot of responsibility to his friends and he took it seriously. John gave you the free will to be yourself in the studio and on the stage; he was the kind of guy who wouldn't let you down. If he felt he had an obligation to play with someone he would. I've enjoyed playing in America so much more than playing in England, becuase of that freedom to play and be yourself. John got me started here and made it possible for me to continue playing music in America. He took me under his wing a little, and I'll always be grateful for that. Let me put it this way, I've played with a lot of people, but playing with John and Greg Douglass was always a lot of fun".

Raven was an awesome band that was chocked full of some incredibly talented musicians who got along famously, had a lot of potential, and who showed a lot of promise. Maybe the band was too good; but with their aggravation over the lack of gigs and money, members started losing interest. Funny thing though, their disdain for the lack of gigs and money didn't get in the way of their enthusiasm for the music that they creating, both live and in the studio.

At this point Raven wasn't playing live anymore, they weren't earning any money either. This continual underlying theme of "No Gigs equals No Money", only went to underscore once again the frustrations that they felt, and which had plagued them ever since their inception. Greg Douglass sensed Raven's time had about run its course and was preparing for it.

Raven never really broke up; they just stopped playing together, or as John Cipollina explained "Bands in Marin County never really break up; they just have a new rehearsal and fail to tell somebody about it."

Feeling restless with the lack of gigs with Raven, Greg Douglass decided to star a new band, taking with him members of Raven and adopting the name of his old band Mistress and within a month they... De'ja vu... This sounds somewhat familiar... I think this is almost where I started...

In 1980 Line Records in Germany released the Raven recordings as John Cipollina Raven on vinyl. That release was made from a cassette tape that belonged to Andy Kirby; (John didn't have access to his masters so he borrowed Andy's reference tape to use as the master for the record's release).

To summarize - Raven was a powerhouse of a band that played with conviction, fire, intensity, and spirit along with that typical John Cipollina "Take No Prisoners" attitude. The energy and precision with which the band played was a wonder to behold. In looking back, all those rehearsals actually did pay off and they were ready all along.


Eric said...

I'm curious Bill, the set opener "Tenderness", would that be the Mars Bonfire tune Steppenwolf recorded for their "For Ladies Only" elpee?

Anonymous said...

I was just listening to Happy Trails again last week and then found this... thanks very much!

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