A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE BAND
by David Givens
Candy and I moved from Aspen, where we met, to Boulder, Colorado in August of 1968. Boulder was the home of a growing community of young people, from all parts of Colorado and even the rest of the world, who were looking for alternatives to the traditions with which we had been raised. The town, like the broader American culture, was suffering the pain that comes with radical change. Some people fought to keep things as they were, some people went off the far ends into oblivion, and some survived to help create what we have today. The arts were highly energized, including the small, but dynamic music scene.
Tommy Bolin and John Faris had come to Boulder around the same time we did. They had a band called Ethereal Zephyr. Candy and I had a band called Brown Sugar. Each of our bands were playing in the night clubs scattered around the state, along the Front Range and at events staged by students at the University of Colorado and Denver University, but we didn’t know each other.
Kit Thomas, a mutual acquaintance, brought Tommy down to one of our regular Wednesday nights at the Buff Room, on The Hill in Boulder. He sat in for a couple of songs and it clicked. Playing together was very easy and we arranged to get together again. Within a week or two we had played together again, this time with John Faris and Slackjaw, the Fuchs Hate Band drummer. Again it was good we had a natural understanding, but we needed to find a drummer on whom we could all agree.
Candy and I heard about an excellent drummer from Denver, Robbie Chamberlin, and we put out the word that we wanted to meet him. He walked up to us one night when we were jamming with Otis Taylor, one of Tommy’s chief mentors, at the old Folklore Center in Denver. A couple days later we all played together at Candy’s parents’ house out on the plains, east of Boulder near Brighton. Robbie fit right in. We rehearsed regularly for two weeks and then, all but Robbie moved into a little house at 427 Canyon in Boulder.
We began writing right away and most of our first album material came out during the first three weeks. Candy and I had put together parts of Cross the River while playing with Brown Sugar. As we learned it with Tommy, John, and Robbie, we added parts and modified others until it became pretty much what you hear on the tape. John came up with the opening chords for Hard Chargin’ Woman and we took a similar approach to it, adding chord changes and form as we learned it. Tommy came up with the verse and chorus to Sail On and we used the same treatment on it. Candy wrote most of the words as we were working out the music. She had some help from our roommate, Frank Anton (aka ‘Number 9’). Frank primarily worked as a sounding board for her, but he contributed a few words as well.
We used the verse and chorus parts of several of our songs in the same way the bebop and modern jazz musicians used the ‘heads’ of their tunes. We would establish the song with the verse and chorus section and then go off and improvise for a while and then find a way back to the verse/chorus to pull everything back before we ended. We always tried to come up with a big ending. Sail On is a good example of this format.
We liked playing different feels with the same pulse, improvising rhythmically as well as melodically. The time would stay the same, but we would play it half-speed or double, straight or swing, sometimes we changed time signatures to five-four or six-eight, all the while holding the same basic beat.
Our improvisations were based on the ‘Ouija Board’ principle. Usually there was a designated soloist for a section, but the music was free to go where ever it moved. By paying close attention, we would each adjust to the movement of the whole. Each player would take the lead and then follow another depending upon the direction of the shared vision as it developed. You might only lead for a moment or perhaps you might lead for an extended period depending on the power and clarity of your inspiration. Sometimes there was no leader except the sound of the music as a whole. To me, the magic part was that we could go surprising places without stumbling. We all understood that it was important to start the songs in the here and now, go places that we hadn’t been before without losing the audience, and then somehow get back to where we started and then end the thing on climax.
As we jammed in the middle sections of these songs, we identified themes that had occurred spontaneously, but which we wanted to keep as ‘playgrounds’ for the band as well as the soloists. We created musical ‘milestones’ that we could use to signal the change from one theme to another. These cues might be a guitar rhythm change or a keyboard melody, a bass and drum figure, a vocal line or even a particular look that we recognized. The idea was to find a way to avoid just going through the same steps over and over, to explore new ground every time, but to still have a context that we could depend on.
To fill up the sets, we learned a few covers. We learned St. James Infirmary (John’s suggestion), Sack of Woe, Wade in the Water, Repent Walpurgis,Satin Doll, Higher and Higher, Mr. Sandman, some blues standards and one of my favorites, the real loud version of Swing Low Sweet Chariot. We wanted to be entertaining, but we didn’t want to be ‘commercial’.
Around the house, we were listening to a variety of music. Led Zeppelin’s first album, Jimmy Smith, Wes Montgomery, Jeff Beck, Dr. John the Night Tripper, John Coltrane, Procol Harum, Big Momma Thornton, Jimi Hendrix, and Miles Davis, among others, come to mind.
The dreaded name subject came up. John and Tommy wanted to keep their name. Candy and I definitely did not think of ourselves as ‘Ethereal’. To us, ZEPHYR referred to the California Zephyr, a 100 mile per hour, chromed art-deco streamliner that cruised from Chicago to San Francisco that we used to see flashing by as we drove through the mountains to work. It was an elegant and powerful machine and that was what we both thought of when we heard the name. We found out that the name came from the ancient god of the west wind. Anyone who has stayed along the Front Range in Colorado knows that the west wind can be gentle at times, but every now and then, it pours down out of the mountains at hurricane speed. We liked to think that our band was capable of those kinds of contrasts. The image of the powerful, elegant train combined with the many-faceted personality of the west wind pretty well personified our vision for the music we wanted to play. Tommy and John agreed to the change and we had a name.
People in Boulder were excited when Candy and I joined forces with Tommy, John, and Robbie. Our first job was at a nightclub called ‘the Sink’, back in an alley near the University of Colorado. Chuck Morris was the very nervous college-boy bar manager. It was standing room only. We played our guts out. It was hot and crowded and dark and the people loved us. We all took solos and we jammed and we played our newly written songs: "Cross the River", "Hard Chargin’ Woman", "Sail On", and the rest. There was a fine dark tension in the room as we began each set. We were very "surefooted": we played with abandon, but we didn’t fall, we had great confidence in ourselves. The audience understood what was going on, and they were having a hell of a time.
We never played the five or six (or even two) night gigs like most bands. We played at colleges (the legendary ‘Balls for Peace’ at the University of Colorado’s Glenn Miller Ballroom and several similar gigs at Denver University and CSU), rodeo barns, theaters, and occasionally we played one-nighters in bars along the Front Range. We were helping to express the viewpoint of our part of the community. We were naive in some ways, but we were honest and we had the sense that what we were doing mattered. We weren’t particularly political, but we were against the war and we believed that we should do what we could to help stop it. We played to raise money to start a Free Clinic for people, a Spay Clinic for animals, and other community service gigs. We were living thin but happy. We believed in sharing our good fortune with the people around us. Then we were ‘discovered’ by the music business.
We made a demo tape in Denver with our friend Wyndham Hannaway producing. We took the tape to Jim Mason, a DJ at the Denver ‘undergound’ FM station, KMYR. Jim played the tape on the air. It was the most requested music he ever played on his shows. When we heard it on the radio, we flipped. It sounded sooo good. It’s still by far my favorite studio Zephyr recording. The tape got us offers from Atlantic, Columbia, and ABC records. Our manager took the ABC deal because it paid the most money up front. Big mistake. The record we made for ABC was deeply flawed. The producer ABC provided had no idea what to do with us. Every song on that album was take 20 or higher. Not the best strategy for a bunch of kids who had never made a record before. We should have made a live record. Now we have.
We played all over the U.S. and Canada, working shows with Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, the Dead, Rod Stewart and the Small Faces, Janis Joplin, Joe Cocker, Albert King, Chuck Berry, Steve Miller, Traffic, Santana, Three Dog Night, Iron Butterfly, Creedence Clearwater Revival, the Staple Singers, Spirit, John Mayall, Mitch Ryder, Alice Cooper, the Flock, ZZ Top, Fleetwood Mac, Jethro Tull, Ten Years After, Mountain, and many other popular musicians of the time. We played the Avalon Ballroom, the Filmores East and West, the Whiskey, the Boston Tea Party, the Eastside Theater in Detroit, the Aragon Ballroom in Chicago, Santa Monica Civic and most of the other big venues of the day. We also played quite a few smaller places where we headlined we liked this better. We even got on American Bandstand. We learned all about Holiday Inns and airports and headliners who didn’t like being upstaged. We lived for short periods in San Francisco, LA, Phoenix, and New York City, but we always returned to Boulder to attempt to refresh our spirits.
Robbie was a great drummer. When I listen to our first album now, he’s the one who stands out the most. Even on take 134, he somehow managed to stay fresh and inventive. He was more mature musically than any of us. As time passed, the rest of us slipped away from our original vision. We started to become ROCK STARS. Robbie didn’t, but that left him out and we got frustrated with him. We brought Tommy’s friend, Bobby Berge, from South Dakota to replace Robbie just before recording our second album. Bobby was also very talented and he played harder and faster than Robbie, which was just what we wanted. He recorded the album Going Back to Colorado.
Jimmy Page had raved to me about working with Eddie Kramer, Jimi Hendrix’s engineer, on Led Zeppelin’s second album. Candy and I had gone to New York while Eddie was building Hendrix’s new studio, Electric Lady on Eighth Street in Greenwich Village, to look him up. We found him in the midst of the construction, covered in dust, and told him about ourselves. We hit it off with him and invited him to Boulder to check us out. He came to Colorado to see us play at Mammoth Gardens. He really liked us. He liked us so much, that he called the president of Warner/Reprise records and got us a new record deal with Warner Brothers Records. After several weeks of songwriting and rehearsing, we went to New York to record our second album, full of high hopes that we would redeem ourselves for the disappointing first album.
We moved into the Chelsea Hotel on 23rd street and began work on the album. The Chelsea was the rock and roll hotel in those days. Duane Allman, the Airplane, and others were staying there at the time. The hotel had a real good attitude toward musicians and artists which made it a great place to live.
Everything was going along pretty well. Eddie had introduced me to Carly Simon, who was working on her first album with him at the time. He had me play on a couple of her tunes. I liked her a lot until I realized that she was sleeping with Eddie and therefore, she was getting the prime working hours in the studio. This slowed us down a bit, but we were still OK.
Jimi Hendrix was one of our heroes. To me, he was the ultimate genius musician of the time. I had talked to him briefly at the Denver Pop Festival the preceding summer, but I certainly didn’t know him. Eddie Kramer loved him and thought we would get along famously. We were all really looking forward meeting him and maybe even jamming with him when he returned from Europe. Except he came back in a box.
Jimi died on a Sunday. We received a very distressed call from Kramer early Monday morning, notifying us and canceling the days session. We had seen plenty of our friends die from drugs. We weren’t amazed, only very sad. We wanted to do something. I suggested that we go over to Electric Lady and play for a while in the studio.
When we arrived, Suzanne, the receptionist, buzzed us in. She was cool, and opened Studio A, where our equipment was set up. We walked into the quiet, dimly lit room. Someone had opened one of Jimi’s guitar cases and left it sitting on the piano. Tommy walked over and put his hand on the strings for a moment. We plugged in and looked at each other, and then, without saying anything, Tommy started playing Foxy Lady. We joined him. No singing, just music. Candy played the piano. Then we went into Purple Haze and then Voodoo Chile. All of a sudden, Shimon, the Isreali studio electrician, came bursting into the room and began shouting at us in his weird accented English to stop immediately. He was really, really pissed. He must have thought it was some kind of sacrilege, but in truth it was the best and only tribute we could pay. I think JH would have dug it. We just put away our guitars and left.
That was the end for us. Eddie and Mitch Mitchell, Hendrix’s drummer had to try to finish Jimi’s incomplete new album. Eddie was devastated and couldn’t offer much to us. We had no choice but to persevere, but his heart wasn’t in it. We moved even further down in the schedule as Eddie and Mitch tried to do their work in what amounted to an hysterical atmosphere. It got pretty bad. Eddie tried to mix our recordings, but he couldn’t concentrate. In one of the songs, he spliced in a copy of a whole verse that wasn’t supposed to be there. No one even noticed. Its still there. Oh well.
We had all grown musically. We listened to Miles Davis, Bartok, Stravinsky, Pharaoh Sanders, Leon Thomas, Alice Coltrane, John Cage, Blood Ulmer, and other more sophisticated musicians. We began to incorporate more outside jazz into our performances. John got us into playing The Creator Has a Master Plan, a Pharaoh Sanders/Leon Thomas composition that featured Thomas’ incredible jazz vocalizing. Candy, never shy when it came to singing, produced her own version. One show, in Detroit, we had been pushed down one slot on the bill as the result of some political nonsense. We were angry, so instead of playing our usual set, we played The Creator for an hour. Somehow, the anger purified us and we were able to capture our old intensity for the first time since the record came out. The crowd went mad and wouldn’t stop cheering. It was the best reception we had since our early days. I wonder why we didn’t learn from that.
John was the atmosphere man. He colored the music, added dimension to the picture in a style that was as unique in its way as Tommy’s. His playing was emotional, wide-ranging and accomplished. He was a very important influence on our individual development as a musicians.
Robbie could play with all of us at the same time, continuously and subtlety changing with the music. Bobby tended to concentrate on me at first, in a more traditional straightforward rock drums and bass style, even though he was playing the parts Robbie had recorded. We were tight and quite powerful, but most of the time we were less creative than Robbie and I had been, because Bobby tended to concentrate more exclusively on Tommy. Eventually, the band became more showy, less integrated, much louder, less inventive, and we lost the vision we had been granted.
We played together for several more months, had some fun, got in trouble, traveled a lot, burned out, and then broke up under a cloud of mutual recrimination. Looking back, the petty differences and ambitions peel away, and I think of the music. When it was good, which was often, it was very, very good and I’m proud to have been there with them all.
We split up because we felt we had failed to achieve the lasting success that we thought we were capable of. We had lost the magic. We had lost the perspective that would have allowed us to value what we HAD achieved and we had lost the ability to really appreciate each other. We needed a vacation.
Candy and I, and eventually Robbie and John, had a new band called the B’s, while Tommy and Bobby Berge started a competing band called Energy. We were all going to show each other. Both bands had flopped by ’73.
Candy, Tommy, John, and I came back together in 1973, as founders, with Harold and Mick from Flash Cadillac, of the Legendary 4-Nikators. We were playing oldies every Monday night at Art’s Bar & Grill, out on Broadway in North Boulder. We were packing the place and we were making more money than we ever had as Zephyr. Without the music-business-generated bad vibes, we found that we really did like each other after all and we were having a great time playing.
Art Yodis, the proprietor, suggested that we have a Zephyr reunion at Art’s Bar & Grill and we agreed. We hadn’t played any Zephyr material in a long time, but we had it tattooed into our cerebral cortexes and we figured we could pull it off. Marty Wolff, one of our original managers, suggested that he record the performance.
On the afternoon of the gig, we set up, jammed a little, and then went over to Tommy and Karen’s house to go over the set. Bobby Berge played drums on the floor, Tommy played box guitar, and I played bass by leaning my guitar up against a closet door for amplification, sort of Zephyr unplugged. We were just the five of us and we were enjoying ourselves. We laughed until our cheeks hurt as we reminisced while going through the songs. A little of the magic had returned.
We arrived to a full house at Art’s. We went into the dressing room and got ready and then we went out to play.
Listening to this music, Candy and Tommy come back to life for me. I hope they like it.