In the late 1960s, the generation gap was so wide that the Who was singing “I hope I die before I get old” and activists were warning “Don’t trust anyone over thirty.” That’s just one reason why the jazz-influenced psychedelic rock band Spirit stood out when it debuted in 1967: The group was made up of four Baby Boomers plus Ed Cassidy, a drummer decades older than his bandmates.
Cassidy, who passed away on December 6, 2012, at age eighty-nine, was born in 1923 in Illinois. After serving in the U.S. Navy during World War II, he worked within many styles of music, from a stint with the San Francisco Opera to gigs with jazz greats like Chet Baker. In the ’60s he started playing rock ’n’ roll, and in 1964 he formed the band Rising Sons with Taj Mahal and Ry Cooder.
In 1965 Cassidy began gigging with his fourteen-year-old guitar-prodigy stepson, Randy California (née Randy Wolfe), and by 1967 the pair had formed Spirit. Cassidy was forty-four at the time—ancient in the counterculture rock world. He turned that into a positive, though, and used his twenty years of experience in the music industry (something no other rock musician at the time could claim) to show his much younger bandmates the ropes.
In a New York Times interview after Cassidy’s death, Bob Irwin, who helped reissue Spirit’s catalog on Sundazed Records, said early sessions with the band were “kind of like a jazz history lesson,” with Cassidy at the helm. “Ed always encouraged them to color outside the box, to take chances on stage, to play to the best of and beyond their abilities,” Irwin added.
Cassidy clearly had a flair for marketing, realizing in the ’60s that a good gimmick could help an average band stand out among the crowd. With his trademark shaved head—he was nicknamed “Mr. Skin”—Ed dressed all in black and set up his huge drums in an unusual configuration, with an oversize bass drum angled at both sides of his kit. He also played up his relationship with his stepson, naming Spirit’s 1968 album The Family That Plays Together.
By 1971 Cassidy and California were the only remaining original members of the band. They continued performing as Spirit with various sidemen (even after Cassidy divorced California’s mother, Bernice Pearl). But when California tragically drowned in 1997, Spirit was officially over. After that, Cassidy dabbled in acting, including a minor role in the soap opera General Hospital, but he was always most proud of his drumming accomplishments. As he boasted to this magazine in an unpublished 1996 interview, “There’s nobody else playing rock drums at age seventy-three.” From drumming to image making, Ed Cassidy was an original.