The Best Band You’ve Never Heard of: Ace of Cups

Sarah Lapean ’23

Ever heard of Jefferson Airplane? Maybe. How about the Grateful Dead, or Jimi Hendrix? Almost certainly. But what about the Ace of Cups? Despite having performed or recorded with more well-known names in the 1960s and 70s, the Ace of Cups exited the era without their name rising to notoriety. Perhaps this was because they were the first all-female rock band amidst a sea of male-dominated acts. Perhaps it’s just because it wasn’t the right time. 

Composed of Denise Kaufman (guitar, harmonica), Mary Simpson (lead guitar), Mary Gannon (bass), Diane Vitalich (drums), and Marla Hunt (organ, piano), the Ace of Cups was formed in San Francisco in the Summer of Love, 1967. They named themselves after the tarot card, which represented the five members in its five streams of water.1 Despite their soulful, catchy music, which wound from rock to folk to blues, a record deal was not in the cards. The absence of record label interest, combined with the changing dynamics of the band as they started to have families, led to the Ace of Cups going their separate ways. 

Years later, everything changed when a scout named Alec Palao, enchanted by the Ace of Cups songs he’d heard, got the band’s rehearsals and live recordings released from his position at the UK-based label Big Beat Records.2,3 This was how they came to the attention of George Wallace, who started High Moon Records in 2008 and offered them the record deal that had always eluded them.4 In 2018, the original band, minus Marla Hunt, released their eponymous first album! Over fifty years after they had formed, the Ace of Cups was back on the scene. 

Could a group of seventy-year-old women really release a rock album and have any success? The answer was a resounding YES, as songs from their album such as “Feel Good” brought them to the Today Show Citi Concert Series in January 2020. This lively song, full of amazing electric guitar, unapologetic drums, and strong vocals, is energizing and an instant earworm. The music video splices together original footage of the band performing back in the Summer of Love with them now, embracing their sounds and style and by all appearances fully enjoying themselves. Also on this 26-track album is “Simplicity,” a hauntingly slow melody, and “Stones,” another rousing, exciting experience. The latter’s music video features bright colors and quick imagery that is reminiscent of 60s psychedelic energy.

With such a positive response from fans both young and old, hippies hailing from Haight-Ashbury and millennials who respected a good beat, what was the Ace of Cups to do but release another album? Sing Your Dreams, released in 2020 by High Moon Records with twelve tracks, ranges from slow and mellow to stand-up-and-dance anthems. “Put A Woman in Charge” feels like the perfect celebration of Kamala Harris’s recent appointment as America’s first female Vice President. “I’m On Your Side” is a cheerful little beat that seems perfectly lighthearted on a cold winter’s day, especially with its warm vocals and mischievous clarinet. My personal favorite is probably “Waller Street Blues,” a cheeky, honest reflection on how things have changed since the band got together in the 60s. 

Overall, the Ace of Cups is a victory story that we all need, and their music speaks to a heartfelt love of music and joy at having this opportunity to share it. They aren’t concerned about winning approval or awards; they know their audience is out there. More than anything else right now, it’s comforting to know that despite setbacks, snubs, and seemingly insurmountable time, anything is possible. The Ace of Cups know that “it’s been a long, long road / That got you where you are.” They remind us that this too shall pass, and when it does, your dreams will be waiting on the horizon. 

 

“Herstory: The Ace of Cups.” Aceofcups.com. n.d. https://www.aceofcups.com/herstory 

2, 4 McCabe, Allyson. “Ace of Cups Gets a First Chance At An Overdue Debut.” NPR Music 

News. 9 Jan. 2019. https://www.npr.org/2019/01/09/683670180/ace-of-cups-gets-a-first-chance-at-an-overdue-debut 

3 Harris, Liz. “Reuniting Ace of Cups: S.F.’s Summer of Love girl band.” The Jewish News of 

Northern California. 16 Oct., 2018. https://www.jweekly.com/2018/10/16/reuniting-ace-of-cups-s-f-s-summer-of-love-girl-band/ 

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