John Cipollina; Founder, Mainstay of Rock Group Quicksilver Messenger Service

John Cipollina, a founder of the rock group Quicksilver Messenger Service that, with the Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead, became the heart of the San Francisco rock scene in the 1960s, has died in Northern California of respiratory ailments.

Cipollina, who suffered for years from emphysema, was taken to Marin General Hospital in Greenbrae after he became short of breath Monday evening at his home in Mill Valley, but efforts to save him failed. He was 45.

He had been hospitalized last year for several months.

Although Cipollina never regained the fame he had as lead guitarist of the Quicksilver group, which he formed with guitarist Gary Duncan and bassist David Freiberg in 1965, he continued to perform.


“We were sleeping in some girl’s basement in North Beach,” Duncan said this week in recalling the formation of Quicksilver. “He (Cipollina) had an amp and I had a guitar. Between the two of us, we made it work.”

Quicksilver, Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead were fixtures at San Francisco’s storied ‘60s concerts at the Avalon and Fillmore ballrooms.

The personnel in the band shifted, but Cipollina was the mainstay of the group, which finally broke up in 1971. They made a reunion album in 1975.

After the group disbanded, Cipollina was featured on at least 35 albums. He appeared as a special guest on a 1975 British album, “Maximum Darkness,” by the Welsh group Mann, whose members credited Quicksilver with being a major influence on their style.


Cipollina remained especially popular in Europe, where he had made annual tours during the last 15 years.

Recently he worked with such groups as the Dinosaurs, composed of former members of Jefferson Airplane, Terry and the Pirates, the Barry Melton-John Cipollina Band and the Nick Gravenites Band.

In those concerts, his emphysema forced him to remain seated until the show was nearly over.

Cipollina’s guitar work had a trademark squeal.

“He was like a surgeon inside your skull operating with a scalpel,” said drummer Mickey Hart of the Grateful Dead.

Cipollina was born in Berkeley into a musical family. His mother, who survives, was a concert pianist. His godfather was Jose Iturbi, the famed classical pianist. Cipollina began playing piano at age 2.