The Many Incarnations of Moby Grape
Although Moby Grape was a contemporary of the Jefferson Airplane, Quicksilver Messenger Service, Big Brother and the Holding Company and the Grateful Dead, they were different in many ways. They probably should have changed their name to Bad Luck, because despite making one of the all-time great debut albums, the eponymous Moby Grape released on Columbia in 1967, the band never made it beyond cult status, much of which was based on the eccentric behavior of the now deceased rhythm guitarist Alexander "Skip" Spence rather than their exceptional musical prowess.
You name it, and it went wrong. Their manager trademarked their name which resulted in an ongoing legal battle that lasted nearly three-decades. They attempted a "super session" album for its follow-up Wow. Adding Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper to a second disc titled Grape Jam. However, Bloomfield one of the greatest white blues guitarists ever plays piano. On the main album they added gimmicky psychedelic embellishments and included one track that ran at not 33 1/3 but at 78rpm. The production overshadowed the music, although "Can't be So Bad" is a killer blues-rocker not a million miles from Steely Dan's "Reeling In the Years," released a decade later.
Spence's drug experimentation was fundamental in the band fragmenting. Spence made the legendary Oar solo album in 1969. The Grape made the lackluster Truly Fine Citizen around the same time and followed up with the much stronger ’69. Other albums include 20 Granite Creek, Moby Grape (referred to as the heart album) and Live Grape. The band has continued in various configurations on and off ever since, sometimes under odd names, Fine Wine, The Legendary Grape, Live Grape, Mosley Grape, several of the reunions have seen the original line-up get back together.
The Grape had and always had – a powerful sound but unlike their contemporaries was more into structured songs than free-form jamming, but with a three guitar line-up (Jerry Miller, lead, Skip Spence, rhythm and Peter Lewis, finger-picked) and five vocalists they had a really full and dynamic sound that should have made them untouchable. They had the power and intensity to be a major act, but it just fizzled out. The rhythm section of Don Stevenson on drums and Bob Mosley on bass was also powerful. Musically they merged folk-rock harmonies with a tenacious rock and roll sensibility. Kind of heyday Byrds fueled by Rolling Stones rock and roll energy and bolstered with blue-eyed soul, country and blues energy, especially notable in Miller's furious playing.
Given the legal hassles that the band has encountered finding their albums is no easy task, but a truly worthwhile one if you can find it, the two-disc Columbia/Legacy collection Vintage-The Very Best of Moby Grape which boast great sound by Bob Urwin. It contains 48 tracks from their first four albums including a number of unreleased cuts. More recently the folks at San Francisco’s DIG music have released an album under the title of The Legendary Grape. The album was original released back in 1990 and was a result of one of the reunions' of all five members (Spence's contributions are relatively minor due to his health conditions). Originally released as a 500-copy cassette only edition it has now been digitally restored and is bolstered by eight additional songs recorded around the same time. The album features much of the bands strong points with the choir-like harmonies, buoyant country rock and fluid jazz and blues soloing of Miller, the powerhouse vocals of Mosley and great songs. But things get better as buoyed by the release of the album the remaining four members are talking about touring again (assuming that something else doesn't go wrong) and that there's a savvy promoter out there that's interested (hint, hint).
Given all that is going on it seemed only appropriate to track down guitarist Jerry Miller and chat about things past, present and future. Miller has a number of solo projects going and two albums that are well-worth checking out, they are Live at Cole’s by Jerry Miller and Co., a very jazzy affair and the more rock-blues of Life Is Like That by the Jerry Miller Band which features members of Santana and the Doobie Brothers, Merl Saunders and more, but make no mistake Moby Grape was and still is one of the great rock bands. If, as indicated they get to tour again. Check them out it'll be more than worth it. Perhaps after three decades of bad luck things will change for them, but regardless, I know the music will be great.
M.S. . I’m trying to get some of the younger fans interested in Moby Grape especially as you have the new release and I think the music is still valid and fresh.
J.M. Thank you Mick, you are damn right that it's still valid. I'm boogieing and still playing all the time. I'm playing in three or four bands at the moment. I'm playing with Tiran Porter and Dale Ockerman from the Doobie's in Santa Cruz in October, Fuzzy John from the Sons of Champlin on drums. It's some good people, Bob Holton. I've got a band up here in the North West it's called Jerry Miller and the All Stars. There's just some good people, Jerry Shelton from Heart and Chris Leighton on drums, and Ed Vance on B3 organ.
M.S. Vance is on that Jerry Miller and Company album that you released a few years back.
J.M. Right, He is really good. There's also a possibility of Moby Grape or myself getting over to England this winter. That'd be killer. I'm just playing all the time, three and four nights a week.
M.S. Why don’t you talk a little bit about early Moby Grape? What happened, there’s a lot of legend but what are the facts?
J.M. In any interview I have I always liked to clear up one thing. We had the reputation for the drugs, yet we had no drugs for that first album, we were too busy. We didn't get any drugs until way later. Skippy got drugs. He got everybody's share (laughs). He basically got everybody's share. Moby Grape wouldn't mind going out again. I talk to Pete, Don and Bob and they'd like to play again as a band. If we do anything it has to be all the Grape that is available.
M.S. Now can you actually use the name Moby Grape now?
J.M. Oh yeah.
M.S. It’s a long bizarre story.
J.M. It's the longest music law suit in history and it is silly. I'm still battling the manager, but that's on publishing. I'm trying to get some publishing back. But namewise I think we are on the square and can use it. Once in a while he comes up and bamboozles people with a stop order. It's small-time thinking.
M.S. The saddest part is that if it had all been squared away you could have sold thousands and thousands of CDs.
J.M. He stopped Sony from doing the reissue album. That's not around anymore.
M.S. Talking of the Moby Grape Vintage set, there are a couple of live tracks on there. I was wondering if there’s any more stuff form that era that could be salvaged given digital technology.
J.M. Yes, there must be. A guy gave me some stuff last night from 1966 at the Avalon.
M.S. That must include that fantastic 16-minute track that’s never been released "Dark Magic."
J.M. I haven't listened to it yet. I have a lot of that stuff. I know that a lot of that stuff has the energy. "Dark Magic" came out on a bootleg CD but it was done on a nice package. It's something that could be put out properly. It was trip and the pinnacle of the three-guitar approach. At a certain period we did quite a bit of stuff like this. We'd get to tripping and I think the Grateful Dead would like at us and say "I see what you guys are up to."
M.S. You were always very different form the other San Francisco bands. You were high-octane and energetic rather than loose and free-flowing.
J.M. Well, we rehearsed like wild man. We were over there in Marin and we rehearsed from six in the evening until ten and then we'd play together until about six in the morning. That got us to where we could pop those songs of professionally. Then everybody said "oh they're not San Francisco-like at all." They are more LA like because they are polished.
M.S. It’s funny you should say that but a friend of mine Mark Andes from Spirit said Moby Grape was one of the only San Francisco bands that he liked. He was into the Byrds and Love and all that stuff.
J.M I like the B3 and blues and stuff like Wes Montgomery I didn't want to play in any band wit another guitar player and then I heard the Byrds and I said man I want to get into some guitar stuff with some other guitar players, because man that was good music. That first Byrds album was killer. Like Moby Grape the Byrds first album was a gem.
There was something about both of those first albums, maybe it was the energy. It was pure there was nothing added to it, but I'm not dissing any of our other albums.
M.S. Well, 20 Granite Creek and the one you did in the 80s on San Francisco Sound were good too. You mentioned Wes Montgomery as being an influence what other guitar players have influenced you?
J.M. I have always loved Freddie King. I used play this place down here in Olympia, Washington, the Evergreen Ballroom and we had this steady gig on Saturday night, and every Sunday would be a soul review, you'd get Billy Butler who was with Bill Doggett, they'd come in . Bobby Bland, B.B. King would be there all the time and Freddie King. I lived with Albert Collins for a while and I really dug his stuff. Sly Stone turned me on to his 45 on Hall Records way back when; I think it was back in '67 when nobody had heard of him. I told Bill Graham, you got to get these guys Albert King and Albert Collins up here and he didn't even know who they were at the time, and I told him that T-Bone Walker would be good too, and so I passed a few names on. We played with Albert King in New York and I got to play his guitar Lucy that was sweet, all you had to do was turn> he had it upside down and backwards.
M.S. Are there any guitarists that you would like to play with?
J.M. I don't think I've played with Mick Taylor and I like him a lot his subtlety and is good, but a lot of times people don't rave about subtlety and taste. These days people get more excited about shredding.
M.S. That’s like seeing CSN& Y. Neil Young gets all the attention and Stills plays all the subtle licks.
J.M. Yeah. There you go but its right and they seem to give more credit to the loudest and the style. Sometimes that certain style, a blues rock style captures more action than somebody kicking back providing a beautiful rhythm or those tasty little extras like Stills does.
M.S. Why don’t you tell is a little about the Legendary Grape album? I think they’ve done a good job with the sound. I think it sounds really good.
J.M. DIG did do a pretty good job cleaning up the tapes. One of the first drafts they sent had a little too much echo but eventually it came out good. I like the music; I think it came out well. I think it is one of Moby Grape's most essential recordings. It's got a lot of variety. It was good to hear some of those things that I haven't heard in a long time. In fact, I didn't' remember some of those sounding so good. It was really cool. I remember that some of the sessions were really good but that the end copies were not as good as what are on DIG.
M.S. When you recorded that first Moby Grape album what kind of equipment was it recorded on?
J.M. It was a right track. A lot of the guitar parts were done at the same time. On "Hey Grandma" we just did that real basic and then Pete came in and put some picking on, but Skippy drove that rhythm real good. Him and Bob and Don and myself we'd get in there and chomp away and get the jam session feel and lay down the track.
M.S. The idea of the three guitar parts was unusual?
J.M. Although we had three guitar players, the three were not infringing on each others space so that really made it easy. I played lead, Skippy did rhythm, and if I could think of a 13th chord that sweetened things up and Pete did that real nice finger picking. If we'd had myself and two other guitar players heading for the same direction we would have trouble. It was real easy to play with those guys except every once in a while the tuning. 22-strings and maybe a little too much smoke of something…..it's a miracle that we did end up in tune quite a bit, but all you had them was a tuning fork and maybe a piano nearby, and if you had a piano nearby you were lucky because most everything was guitars back then.
M.S. Yes, these day’s people are spoiled with digital and electronic tuners, although it’s the only way I can tune a guitar!
J.M. Right, I couldn't get by without them today. I always wish that they had those in the 60s. It would have made things so much easier. We did have some strobe tuners, but they were kind of rare and Skippy would refuse to use one anyway. He had a pretty good.
M.S. So, you still see the rest of the guys from the Grape?
J.M. Oh yeah, Don plays and writes and he has a couple of open months in the year when he can go out. I talk to Bob all the time. We do some gigs together. We did some in Carson City, Pete I talk to when I can stand it…he rambles on so, but I love him. He is a great guy. All of us are ready to do something and now that we are able to with the name and stuff, anybody that wants to give us a ring, man we are ready.
M.S. Has it been a frustrating career. You made such a great album and then it all fizzled out?
J.M. Yes. When I go and see Crosby Stills and Nash and my Doobie friends and they ate all out there and doing it, I am, and we have the doors open now for us. I'm healthy, Bob's healthy, Don, shit he does a 100 push-ups a day. It would be fun to go out with the Grape.
M.S. If you do you should tape it all.
J.M. I'm absolutely up for that. I encourage taping everywhere I go. We are looking to go out as Moby Grape so if you know anyone, let me know.