Quicksilver Messenger Service: Not Quite Happy Trails

Quicksilver Messenger Service's Gary Duncan
Quicksilver’s Gary Duncan

Quicksilver Messenger Service, a band that initially vowed never to make an album, today exists with its original personnel only on LPs. And its founding members, who once shared living quarters and close friendships, now travel diverse, lucrative routes that make it difficult for several of them to even keep in touch.

Meeting for the first time 10 years ago in San Francisco, the five musicians could hardly have anticipated the successes that seem to underlie their present rift. Back then, bass and violin player David Freiberg held an unsatisfying job as a rate clerk for the Southern Pacific Railroad; the college dropout and transplanted Ohioan had previously flirted with a folksinging career and served 60 days in jail on a drug charge. John Cipollina, a fledgling guitarist, had passed the early 60s selling real estate and dropping acid before work to kill his boredom. Dino Valenti, then a recent arrival in Frisco, had spent several years not making it on the Greenwich Village folk circuit. And guitarist Gary Duncan and drummer Greg Elmore, the latter a junior- college dropout, had encountered their share of disappointments in the rock arena.

After the five formed Quicksilver, however, their luck began to turn. Gigging in the San Francisco Bay Area, they won critical accolades and quickly attracted a large coterie of fans. Before long, they were supporting themselves with concert fees.

“And that’s all we were concerned with,” recalls the loquacious Gary Duncan. “We didn’t want to make records. We just wanted to play and get high. And we wanted to stay away from the commercial side. You know, we all lived together in a whole bunch of places. And it was fun, like having a family. We wanted to keep it that way.”

But the “family” soon began to change. First, Dino Valenti left the group to serve an 18-month drug-related prison sentence. Shortly thereafter, in late 1967, the remaining foursome accepted a then extremely generous contract offer from Capitol Records: a $40,000 advance, a $10,000 bonus, and four options worth as much as $100,000 each. “Everybody else was making albums by then,” Duncan says simply. “The Airplane, Big Brother, the Dead. So we figured, ‘Why not?'”

Though Quicksilver Messenger Service, released in 1968, sold only moderately well, it marked the group as a prime mover in the burgeoning San Francisco music scene. Happy Trails, its follow-up, established the strength of the band’s commercial appeal. And Shady Grove, which found Duncan replaced by star English pianist Nicky Hopkins, sat firmly on the charts for five months. Several later albums, which spotlighted Hopkins while reincorporating the work of both Duncan and Valenti, also racked up strong sales.

Despite these successes, the degree of stardom attained by such groups as the Dead and the Airplane never came to Quicksilver. “I think the reason for that is that we had a different record company,” opines Duncan. “And our company did very little promotion at all. They went through a pretty strange financial disaster a few years ago. I’m not really sure what happened; I know they lost a lot of money and they just weren’t into spending anything on anything. So I never saw a single bit of media on about three or four of the albums we made. You know, I ran into people that said, ‘When are you guys making another album?’ I said, ‘Well, we just made one.’ And they didn’t even know it.”

While Capitol’s apparent lack of interest may have hurt the group, it unquestionably encountered a much larger problem when, in 1970, Hopkins, Cipollina, and Freiberg all turned in their resignations. “Nicky, he’s not a really healthy cat,” Duncan explains. “He’d had a lot of operations and he couldn’t stand the pressures of being on the road and all that. John and David left ’cause they said they wanted to do their own thing. And our manager quit, too; he just decided he didn’t want to do it anymore.”

Replacing this personnel, Quicksilver continued for a time to tour and make albums. “But,” says Duncan,” “it sort of kills you when you’re in a studio doing a record and you know they’re just gonna bury it. Capitol could sell enough of our records to make a profit without spending money on promotion. Which was OK for them, but didn’t help us much. I hate to badmouth a record company, but this is what was going down then.

“Finally, when we had two or three albums left on our contract, we asked for a release. They wouldn’t give it to us. But eventually, they said, “Listen, give us an anthology record and we’ll let you go; and there was some money involved in it, too. So we put together an anthology and got released. That was in the end of ’73, I think.

“We went for about a year without a record company, which was kind of all right. We were going through a lot of changes in the band; we weren’t really ready to do any recording.”

Then, late in 1974, Capitol approached the group and its departed original members with the proposal for a reunion LP. By now, Freiberg had joined Jefferson Starship and Cipollina was playing in England with Man and other bands. Despite these commitments and Quicksilver’s longstanding misgivings about Capitol’s promotion, however, all five quickly assented to the project. The album they would call Solid Silver, Duncan implies, just looked like easy money.

“If they’d said they wanted to sign us for five years,” he explains, “I would’ve said, ‘The hell with that.’ But they just said, ‘It’s a one-album deal, and here’s the bread and all you gotta do is go in and do an album with the original guys. So it sounded like a pretty good idea. You know, it wasn’t ‘you do an album and go on the road’ and all that. It was just the record. So it was pretty easy.

“And Capitol’s doing better with this one. I think because it’s just the one album. They don’t have to commit themselves.”

Neither does the group, admits the guitarist, who adds that the reunion hasn’t to date extended much beyond the sessions required for the album. “In the old days,” he explains, “everybody knew everybody else. Like the Dead and the Airplane, we were all friends and we would see each other pretty often. But when you’re on the road all the time, you hardly ever see anybody. Last I heard, I think John was in Hawaii watching a crater festival. And David, of course, is busy with the Starship.”

Duncan, meanwhile, has been touring with the current version of Quicksilver. And according to him, the group’s sound has changed as much as his relationships with Cipollina and Freiberg. “You gotta understand,” he remarks, “that the gigs we were playing when we started were real crazy. We just worked in Frisco mainly, at the Avalon and the Fillmore. And that whole scene was crazy. I mean, everyone was just wiped out on everything, man, the bands included. And most cats that were playing then were so stoned all the time, they couldn’t remember the arrangements. So what you did is go onstage and just blow, man, for three or four hours. Today there’s a little more thought in what we’re doing. If you can say something in three minutes that used to take you 15 minutes to say, I think somewhere you’ve made progress.”

Quicksilver’s fans seem to agree. On the recent tour, which included sold-out dates, the band consistently attracted large, enthusiastic audiences.

While he expresses satisfaction with this present aggregation, Duncan states that he would have “no qualms” about making another disc with the original Quicksilver. “If Capitol came and said, ‘Look, we sold 400,000 albums, let’s do another,’ I’d do it. I think we all would.”

Might the group’s founding members also be willing to try a reunion tour? “Well,” says Duncan, “John’s into his own trips. And David’s never really expressed a whole lot of interest in touring with us, because he’s pretty much into that Starship thing. I don’t blame him, man; they got a platinum album. Shit, that’s a good deal, you know.”

Still, Duncan emphasizes, he wouldn’t completely rule out the possibility of a concert series by the original quintet. “Who knows what will happen? Who can say? I imagine if the present record went gold, all of a sudden there’d be a big chance that we could get back together for a tour.”


  1. Very sad about GD’s passing. I was a fan of the band since I was a young lad. The band came to Pittsburgh a couple of times. Once, at a large outdoor festival venue. Another time was at the University of Pittsburgh in a large hall – it was an unforgettable concert.

    I still think Happy Trails is one of the best albums of all time. And they were doing that level of music back in the 60’s.


  2. Quicksilver was a much better band than the Dead or Big Brother, the best SF sound. Gary & John were 1 of the greatest guitar duelers, equal to Duane & Dicky.


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