Randy Craig Wolfe was born in Los Angeles, California in 1951 and later adopted the artistic name of Randy California. He was one of the founders of the group Spirit, which was famous for songs like “I Got A Line On You”, “Why Can’t I Be Free” and “Taurus”, the song which the group said inspired Led Zeppelin‘s intro for “Stairway To Heaven”.
Randy was born in a musical family and curiously, formed Spirit alongside his stepfather Ed Cassidy, who was a drummer. But before that he had the chance to not only meet the late legendary Jimi Hendrix, but also to play in his band called Jimmy James and The Blues Flames for a while. His ex-bandmate was one of the famous musicians who praised Randy’s playing and Spirit over the years.
But besides his work with Spirit, Randy collaborated with many other artists and also released four solo studio albums. But sadly he tragically passed away in 1997 at the age of 45.
The tragic death of Spirit’s Randy California
On January 2, 1997, Randy California went for a swim in Molokai island located in Hawaii with his 12 year-old son Quinn. They were there visiting Randy’s mother, Bernice Pearl, who lived on the island. On the beach they were surprised by a riptide, which is a powerful offshore current that is caused by the tide pulling water through an inlet along a barrier beach.
To save his son, Randy shoved Quinn into a wave in order to propel him to the shore. The act saved Quinn’s life since he made it to the shore. But Randy was taken by the strong undertow that swept him away from the shore.
At the time of his death, Randy was planning an European tour with the revamped line-up of Spirit. After his passing, The Randy Craig Wolfe Trust was created and using royalties from his recording contracts, the trust financially supported the Randy California Project. It is a a music education programs for underprivileged elementary school children located in Ventura County, in the southern part of the state of California.
Ed Cassidy said Randy California left a great legacy
In an interview with Merrell Fankhausers back in 2008 (Transcribed by Rock and Roll Garage), Randy’s stepfather and bandmate Ed Cassidy talked about his passing. He said he left a great legacy, not only for his music but for saving his own son. “Oh yeah (It was a big loss). People were in tears when they called and they couldn’t believe that Randy was lost.”
“And of course I would tell them ‘He left a great legacy because during that point in time when he was lost, he was lost, while saving his son and getting him on a wave, then was lost himself. So he left the legacy of his music and his son,” Ed Cassidy said. The drummer passed away a few years after, at the age of 89, a victim of cancer.
The group came to an end after Randy passing but in 2005 an soundtrack album for the movie “Model Shop” was released. It was a collection of material recorded by the band back in 1968, between their second and third album.
It was Hendrix who gave him the nickname “California”
Curiously, it was Jimi Hendrix himself who gave Randy the nickname “California”. They first met each other in a music store in New York when the guitarist was only 15. It was after that meeting that Hendrix invited Randy to be part of his band Jimmy James and The Blues Flames. That band only was active in 1966 and it was seeing them live that The Animals bassist Chas Chandler heard their version of “Hey Joe” and decided to invite Hendrix to England and become his producer.
In the following year Hendrix released the album “Are You Experienced”, alongside Noel Redding and Mitch Mitchell as The Jimi Hendrix Experience.
He was the guitarist of Deep Purple for one night
Even being part of Spirit he continued to collaborate with other artists and was even Deep Purple‘s guitarist in 1972. At the time Ritchie Blackmore contracted hepatitis and they even tried to play one show without a guitarist.
But then recruited Al Kooper who after rehearsing with them decided to decline the gig, suggesting Randy. He played only one show with the British group, which happened in Quebec City, Canada.
Randy California believed that Led Zeppelin’s intro for “Stairway to Heaven” was a rip-off
During the last decade Led Zeppelin was sued by a trustee representing the estate of Randy California. The British band eventually won the case in 2020. Since the Ninth Circuit Court in the United States rejected the copyright precedent known as “inverse ratio rule”. During his life, Randy never tried to sue the band. But he believed their famous intro for the track was inspired by Spirit.
He told that in an interview with Listener magazine in 1997, the year he passed away. “Well, if you listen to the two songs, you can make your own judgment. It’s an exact… I’d say it was a rip-off. And the guys made millions of bucks on it and never said, ‘Thank you,’ never said, ‘Can we pay you some money for it?’ It’s kind of a sore point with me. Maybe some day their conscience will make them do something about it. I don’t know.”
“There are funny business dealings between record companies, managers, publishers, and artists. But when artists do it to other artists, there’s no excuse for that. I’m mad! (laughs),” Randy California said.