Quicksilver Messenger Service was one of the vintage acid-rock San Francisco bands of the late 1960s. Its early shows and albums (featuring the heavily tremoloed guitar work of John Cipollina, plus that of second guitarist Gary Duncan) contributed some of the best-remembered instrumental jam music of the period. But as the '60s ended, Quicksilver's popularity waned, and it never achieved the national popularity of its San Francisco contemporaries, Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead.
The group formed in 1965 with Gary Duncan, John Cipollina (whose godfather was classical pianist Jose Iturbi), David Freiberg, Greg Elmore, and Jim Murray. Its original guitarist was to have been Dino Valenti (a Greenwich Village folksinger and, under the name "Chester A. Powers," writer of "Hey Joe" and the Youngbloods' hit "Get Together"). But Valenti was arrested on a drug charge and jailed for 18 months.
In December 1965 the quintet began playing the local circuit, but soon after, Murray left to study the sitar. Quicksilver recorded its debut as a quartet in December 1967, and it came out in May 1968, featuring jams like the 12-minute "The Fool." The band also provided two songs for the soundtrack of Revolution, out that year, and in late 1968 QMS recorded its part-live second LP, Happy Trails the group's only gold album. In January 1969 Valenti got Duncan to move to New York and form a group with him; British session keyboardist Nicky Hopkins took Duncan's place and was prominently featured on Shady Grove.
In early 1970 Duncan returned, bringing Valenti with him. Valenti finally joined Quicksilver three years late (though his "Dino's Song" appears on the debut LP). The new sextet issued Just for Love, and "Fresh Air" received substantial FM airplay, helping to make the LP one of its biggest sellers (#27, 1970).
Hopkins left just before the release of What About Me, and some of the tracks featured his replacement, Mark Naftalin, formerly of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band. Cipollina also left around this time; he later formed Copperhead with early Quicksilverite Jim Murray. During 1971 Freiberg left. That year he was jailed for marijuana possession; in 1972 he began a 12-year hitch with Jefferson Airplane/Starship. The remaining Quicksilver threesome —Duncan, Elmore, and Valenti —produced two more LPs, Quicksilver and Comin' Thru, with Mark Ryan (bass) and keyboardist Chuck Steales, but these sparked little public interest. Though the band didn't break up, it was virtually inactive from 1972 to 1975. That year, Valenti, Duncan, and Elmore recorded Solid Silver with bassist Skip Olsen and keyboardist W. Michael Lewis (and with Cipollina and Freiberg making cameos). Quicksilver then disbanded.
Duncan put together another configuration in 1987 to record Peace by Piece, but the LP went nowhere, and Quicksilver called it a day once again. John Cipollina, whose younger brother Mario found fame in the '80s as bassist for Huey Lewis and the News, continued to perform with a variety of bands, including the Welsh group Man and the Dinosaurs. A longtime sufferer of severe emphysema, he died in 1989 at age 45. Duncan returned again in the mid-1990s with another incarnation of Quicksilver. Valenti died in 1994 following surgery.
This biography originally appeared in The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll (Simon & Schuster, 2001).
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