five young women in fashionable 60s gear sitting together on a hillside
Ace of Cups on Mount Tamalpais in 1967 (from left): Diane Vitalich, Mary Gannon, Denise Kaufman (front), Mary Simpson, Marla Hunt (Photo/Casey Sonnabend)

Reuniting Ace of Cups: S.F.’s Summer of Love girl band

San Francisco native Denise Kaufman, 72, sings and plays bass guitar in The Ace of Cups, the first “all-girl” band in the Bay Area. Hitting the music scene in 1967, the Summer of Love, the rock band played at local venues and music festivals with Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, The Band, Jefferson Airplane and other greats. Though Kaufman no longer resides in the Bay Area, she calls Laughing Tiger Studios in San Rafael her second home. That’s where she and her three 70-something bandmates have been recording their very first studio album. The 26-song set, to be released Nov. 9 online and soon after as a double vinyl album, also features Taj Mahal, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Bob Weir, Peter Coyote and others. Ace of Cups members are still working in the studio and in their Novato rehearsal space preparing their second album, due out next spring.

J.: The Ace of Cups started playing and writing music together in January 1967, but broke up five years later. Why?

Denise Kaufman: By 1972, it was sort of the end of the band. Four of the original five of us had children, and family life was pulling us in different ways. Because we didn’t ever get a record deal, we didn’t have the financial support [to continue]. I think the energy just slowly dissipated for us.

J.: You were one of Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters, most famously known for their 1964 psychedelic summer road trip and the Acid Test events when LSD was available in vats of Kool-Aid. What was that like?

For me it was wonderfully life-altering. It was a chance to explore community and consciousness and break out of the stultifying strictures of the 1950s. It was a profoundly liberating way out of that envelope. We traveled on the bus with the Grateful Dead, so musically I was really happy there, too.

And you were at UC Berkeley’s Sproul Hall during the student protests …

In the fall of 1964 as a freshman at Berkeley, I got arrested in the Free Speech Movement. I’d come to Berkeley to be a political science major. I was always politically active. … I went on my first picket line in San Francisco at age 14. I was all about making a difference.

I see that you teach yoga, too.

Yoga was always my personal practice. As a single mom [in L.A.], I ended up teaching yoga privately … to Madonna, Jane Fonda, Quincy Jones, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar … It was a really good way to do something that I loved with people.

young woman with long hair playing guitar in front of a mic
Denise Kaufman playing in the ’60s (Photo/Lisa Law)

So how did your debut album come about?

In 2003, Big Beat Records, a British label, released an album of live tapes we had from rehearsals and shows in the ’60s. That was the first time people who weren’t around then could hear our music … With the help of the internet, we developed a global niche following.

In 2011, we were invited to play at Wavy Gravy’s 75th birthday party in the East Bay. George Baer Wallace, who owns High Moon Records, loved our live performance and songs, and gave us the incredible gift of recording this music 50 years after we got started. We began rehearsing in Marin every six weeks for five days. Then we found our amazing producer, Dan Shea. It started out that we were going to record 12 tunes. That expanded to 16, 20, then 36.

four older women smiling, leaning on a wooden fence on a hillside
Four of the five original Ace of Cups members (from left): Mary Gannon, Diane Vitalich, Denise Kaufman and Mary Simpson (Photo/Rachael Wright)

Have you always been Jewishly involved?

Always. My parents, Golda and Harold Kaufman, were activists in San Francisco, and dedicated to the San Francisco Jewish community. I started at Congregation Emanu-El when I was 4, and sometimes we would go to the little Sephardic shul in the Richmond.

Tell me about Ohr HaTorah, the synagogue you belong to in L.A.

I’ve looked all my life for the kind of Jewish wisdom that Rabbi Mordecai Finley teaches [at Ohr HaTorah]. And I love playing bass in our wonderful shul band every Shabbat and on holidays. On Kauai, I helped found the Kauai Jewish community, and in the 1970s I was the outer island representative to the Jewish federation on Oahu. My tradition has always been a deep part of my being.

“An Evening Celebrating the Ace of Cups” will be held at 7 p.m. Friday, Nov. 9 at the Mill Valley Community Center, 180 Camino Alto, presented by the Commonwealth Club. $22.50-$50. “Talking With” focuses on local Jews who are doing things we find interesting. Send suggestions to [email protected].

Liz Harris

Liz Harris is a J. contributor. She was J.'s culture editor from 2012-2018.