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A dream deferred: Pioneering all-female rock band Ace of Cups is finally having its moment

A dream deferred: Pioneering all-female rock band Ace of Cups is finally having its moment
Ace of Cups on Mount Tamalpais in Marin County earlier this year, Standing, left to right, Denise Kaufman, Diane Vitalich (black hat). Sealted, left to right: Mary Simpson, Mary Gannon (in scarf with hat). (Rachael Wright)

They were arguably the first all-female rock band of importance.

The five-member Ace of Cups was based in San Francisco at the height of the Haight, when the neighborhood in the ’60s was known for its outsider art and hippie culture. They performed with such acts as Quicksilver Messenger Service, Country Joe and the Fish and Jefferson Airplane.

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Bill Graham picked them to open for a then-new group called the Band, and Jimi Hendrix, upon returning to England, sang their praises (“I heard some groovy sounds last time in the States, like this girl group, Ace of Cups”).

Original and openly feminist, the act never scored a record deal.

Until now.

Today, with each of the women of Ace of Cups in her 70s, the band has been re-discovered. This month the act released its self-titled debut album via High Moon Records.

“This is a dream deferred,” says Denise Kaufman, who plays guitar, bass and harmonica and has written much of the group’s material.

“It’s magical,” adds guitarist Mary Ellen Simpson, who is simultaneously celebrating another grandchild.

Adds longtime fan Jackson Browne, “I’ve been waiting 45 years for the debut.”

The five original Cups — Kaufman, Simpson, Diane Vitalich, Mary Gannon and Marla Hunt (Hunt is not involved now) — met amid the haze of Haight-Ashbury on New Year’s Eve in 1966. Then in their late teens or early 20s, they were in school or held clerical day jobs.

Gannon, a former Miss Monterey, was working in an all-night doughnut shop, Simpson was studying art at a city college and Kaufman was employed at Fantasy Records, the label famous for its association with Creedence Clearwater Revival. But their passion was making music, and once they merged, they would often practice in Fantasy’s upstairs studio. Eventually, they landed a manager and started getting gigs in venues like the Avalon and the Fillmore.

Their songs upended the “It Must Be Him” sentiments they grew up hearing and boast lyrics like, “There are a whole lotta people tryin’ to mess with your mind.” They were soon part of the fabric of their place and time. None more so than Kaufman, who dropped out of UC Berkeley (where she was arrested in the free-speech protests) at 18, and temporarily hopped on Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters bus. At various points, she was apparently the focus of many a famous male’s life. (Hint: Check out the current biographies of Paul Simon and Jann Wenner)

But the summers of love eventually ended, and by 1972, the Ace of Cups’ moment had passed.

“I like to say we faded away,” says drummer Vitalich.

What followed were their version of normal lives: relationships, babies and geographical changes — or, in the words of Gannon, “a lot of hookups and wrong choices.”

Simpson returned to school and eventually became a substance abuse and mental health specialist. Gannon also went back to college and got a degree in education. Vitalich cleaned houses three days a week, and Kaufman, who was married briefly and gave birth to a daughter, moved part time to Kauai, where she started an organic farm, which is still operating, and with six local women opened a private school for kindergartners to 12th graders. She later became a yoga instructor, and her celebrity clientele has included Madonna, Quincy Jones and Jane Fonda.

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Despite the divergent paths, music was a constant.

Ace of Cups in 1967, from left: Mary Simpson, Denise Kaufman, Diane Vitalich, Mary Gannon and Marla Hunt.
Ace of Cups in 1967, from left: Mary Simpson, Denise Kaufman, Diane Vitalich, Mary Gannon and Marla Hunt. (Lisa Law)

“I never put down the guitar,” says Simpson, who, like Vitalich and Gannon, played locally with several bands over the years. There was some pain in watching decades go by, as girl groups like the Bangles and Runaways emerged, and proved you could strum and scream and still sell records.

“I felt glad for them, but I did feel sad that we had so much music out there that so many people had never heard,” says Kaufman.

That may change.

Alec Palao, a writer, archivist and ’60s music aficionado who has worked with various record labels on reissues from the era, in 2003 tracked down some Ace of Cups private recordings and started promoting them. He eventually caught the attention of George Wallace, who runs New York’s High Noon Records. Wallace, now in his 40s, remembered seeing old posters from concerts of the ’60s when he was in high school.

“I kept seeing the words ‘Ace of Cups’ and wondered what that meant,” he recalls. “I truly thought it might be a catering company.”

Wallace fell hard when he heard the band’s music and agreed to release an album and set out to find the right studio producer. The Cups lobbied for a woman but were satisfied when Dan Shea was enlisted. He had worked successfully with female artists like Mariah Carey, Celine Dion and Jennifer Lopez, and had Northern California roots.

He and Wallace knew instinctively that an album just for nostalgic purposes would not be enough: that the songs — most have their beginnings in the ’60s, though a few are new — had to stand alone.

“Some of the songs are virtually unchanged from the way they played them in the late ’60s,” says Shea, “and others went through some major rewrites. That can be a difficult thing if people have lived with a song for 50 years and then suddenly some guy says, ‘OK, the verse should actually be the chorus, this one verse should be the bridge, and the introduction should be the verse.’”

The final sound is a combination of rock, folk and blues with a garage-band sensibility.

“I like to say it’s trans-genre,” says Kaufman. The result is a double album with 21 tracks and contributions from some old friends — and fans — like Bob Weir, Taj Mahal and Buffy St. Marie.

Ace of Cups members always prided themselves on refusing to go softer or sexier or to be backed up by men. Now, of course, they face another potential enemy: ageism.

All are proudly gray, and as Vitalich says, “We just want to look the best we can for our age, and we are finding it empowering to not try to be what we used to be.”

The response and good vibes are already starting. San Francisco public television station KQED composed an eight-minute documentary about the group and received 5 million views.

“I’m overwhelmed by the blessings that have come to us,” says Vitalich.

The goals now are to sell some records, perhaps have their music used in film and television, and even find new young listeners. Or maybe even a Grammy.

Kaufman, a proud 72, smiles and says, “We’d love to get nominated for best new artist.”

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