Gary Duncan, guitarist and vocalist of the influential San Francisco psychedelic rock band Quicksilver Messenger Service, has died at the age of 72.
Quicksilver Messenger Service bassist David Freiberg confirmed Duncan’s death to Rolling Stone. Duncan’s ex-wife, Shelley Duncan Haslouer, said that Duncan had a “severe fall and hit his head” last week. Duncan suffered a seizure as a result of the fall and went on life support for a few days before his death in Woodland, California.
“I’ve always thought of Gary as the engine of the original four-piece group,” Freiberg told Rolling Stone. “He kind of taught me by osmosis, as I was a folkie 12-string guitar finger-picker, how to become a part of the machine. I felt he was always underrated as a guitarist. His solos with QMS were some of the finest ever. He was an amazingly talented musician – one of the best.”
Born out of the same San Francisco scene that fostered the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane and Steve Miller Band, Quicksilver Messenger Service were known for their electrifying live performances and complex guitar interplay.
Duncan co-founded Quicksilver Messenger Service after a stint as lead singer of the garage rock band the Brogues, who had a Nuggets-bound hit with 1965’s “I Ain’t No Miracle Worker.”
Soon after, Duncan and his Brogues bandmate, drummer Greg Elmore, were recruited by guitarist John Cipollina to audition for and then join the fledgling Quicksilver Messenger Service in 1965 alongside bassist David Freiberg; at the time, the band’s founding guitarist Dino Valenti (the stage name of “Get Together” songwriter Chet Powers) was in the midst of a two-year prison sentence on marijuana charges.
“When I first came to San Francisco before Quicksilver started, Jefferson Airplane was already playing. You could see them and see that they were gonna be successful. I mean, they were groomed for it. The Grateful Dead was just a phenomenon,” Duncan said in an interview. “We didn’t pursue that. Nobody really wanted to be a celebrity. That’s kind of like the way all of us are. Virgo is the sign of the hermit in the Tarot cards. We were all hermits and still are.”
Quicksilver Messenger Service spent the next few years honing their guitar-powered, psychedelic sound at San Francisco venues like Bill Graham’s Fillmore West. Following a breakout set at the 1967 Monterey International Pop Festival, the band signed with Capitol Records, which released their self-titled debut in 1968.
As far as Quicksilvers’ [Monterey Pop] performance, we were scared. I was scared. I had never been in front of that many people in my life. The whole set went by in a flash and it was finished,” Duncan said in 2007 for the book A Perfect Haze: The Illustrated History of the Monterey International Pop Festival. “I wasn’t aware until later that there was that much media, label attention on the show. I don’t know if we got signed because of our performance or not. I would assume not because we didn’t play that well in my opinion.”
In 1969, Quicksilver Messenger Service released their acclaimed Happy Trails, recorded live at the Fillmore West and Fillmore East and featuring a side-long riff on Bo Diddley’s “Who Do You Love?” Duncan also penned a pair of instrumentals, “Calvary” and “Maiden of the Cancer Moon,” that appeared the album’s B-side.
Rolling Stone placed the band’s 1969 LP Happy Trails at Number 189 on the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time list. “The definitive live recording of the late-Sixties ballroom experience: This San Francisco acid-blues band’s second album captures its twin guitarists in bright flight, and composed intricacies like the studio epic ‘Calvary’ prove that psychedelia was about more than just tripping out,” Rolling Stone said of the album.
Following a brief departure from Quicksilver Messenger Service – the guitarist did not perform on 1969’s Shady Grove – Duncan and founding member Valenti rejoined the group for 1970’s Just for Love. Duncan remained a member through the founding lineup’s run, which concluded in 1975 with Solid Silver. Duncan and Elmore continued performing under the Quicksilver moniker until 1979, when the group disbanded.
While Duncan revived the Quicksilver name in the mid-Eighties for his own band, he ultimately reunited with Freiberg beginning in 2006. The duo performed as Quicksilver Messenger Service until Duncan’s death.