Gary Duncan, Quicksilver Messenger Service Guitarist, Dies

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Quicksilver Messenger Service circa 1967 (l. to r.): Gary Duncan, John Cipollina, Greg Elmore, David Freiberg

One of the two lead guitarists of the psychedelic-era San Francisco band Quicksilver Messenger Service, Gary Duncan, died on June 29, according to confirmed reports by people close to the musician. Duncan, who also served as one of the group’s three primary singers, died Saturday morning in Woodland, Calif., after suffering a seizure and falling into a coma. He was 72.

Born Gary Grubb in San Diego, Duncan joined a band called the Brogues in Merced, Calif., in 1965. The group, which also included drummer Greg Elmore, split that same year and the two musicians accepted an invitation to team with guitarist John Cipollina and singer-songwriter Dino Valenti, who had been working as a traveling folkie. Along with bassist and vocalist David Freiberg and a third guitarist, Jim Murray, they formed the band that would become the San Francisco-based Quicksilver Messenger, but they were immediately reduced to a quintet when Valenti was arrested and jailed for marijuana possession.

Related: Our Album Rewind review of the band’s debut album

Taking their name from the fact that four of the members shared the Virgo astrological sign, ruled by the planet Mercury (a.k.a. quicksilver), the group quickly gained recognition among the first wave of Bay Area psychedelic bands, alongside groups like the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane and Big Brother and the Holding Company. They performed often at the city’s ballrooms, the Fillmore and the Avalon, and at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967.

Watch a live clip of Quicksilver Messenger Service performing Bo Diddley’s “Who Do You Love.”

Duncan and Cipollina often engaged in fiery, extended jams that showcased their complementary styles, but, as our writer said in a retrospective review, QMS was “a rock ’n’ roll band that’s not only conversant with jazz but also at ease with—and adept at—pop music.”

Gary Duncan (left) trading licks with John Cipollina

Quicksilver held out longer than the other major Bay Area bands in signing a recording deal, but finally signed with Capitol Records in late 1967, by which time Murray had left the band. Duncan told an interviewer, “We had no ambition toward making records. We just wanted to have fun, play music and make enough money to be able to afford to smoke pot.”

The remaining quartet released their self-titled debut on the label the following year, followed by the live Happy Trails by the same lineup in early 1969. Duncan temporarily dropped out of the band that same year and did not appear on the third album, Shady Grove, which featured the newly added British pianist Nicky Hopkins. By 1970, not only had Duncan returned, but so too did Valenti, who took over the band’s lead vocal spot for the albums Just for Love, What About Me (both 1970), Quicksilver (1971, with Freiberg, Cipollina and Hopkins now out) and Comin’ Thru (1972). The group split that year, then reunited for Solid Silver in 1975, with Duncan, Cipollina, Freiberg, Elmore and Valenti on board.

Duncan later formed new lineups of Quicksilver (no longer using Messenger Service in the name and sometimes calling it Gary Duncan’s Quicksilver), with which he released several albums beginning in the late ’80s.

Related: Our story on Duncan’s later years

Duncan is survived by his wife, Dara Love Duncan, their three sons and one grandchild, as well as his son and daughter from a previous marriage.

Duncan’s death follows those of bandmates Cipollina, Valenti and Murray. Freiberg tours with the current lineup of Jefferson Starship.

Listen to the instrumental “Gold and Silver,” which began life as a jam on Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five”

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Jeff Tamarkin

Best Classic Bands Editor Jeff Tamarkin has been a prolific music journalist for more than four decades. He is formerly the editor of Goldmine, CMJ andRelix magazines, has written for dozens of other publications and has authored liner notes for more than 80 CDs. Jeff has also served on the Nominating Committee of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and as a consultant to the Grammys. His first book was 'Got a Revolution! The Turbulent Flight of Jefferson Airplane.' He is also the co-author of 'Shell Shocked: My Life with the Turtles, Flo and Eddie, and Frank Zappa, etc.,' with Howard Kaylan.
Jeff Tamarkin
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  1. mack
    #1 mack 30 June, 2019, 08:48

    Quicksilver’s Happy Trails album was one of those timeless records that I can still play over and over and never tire of. The guitar playing was some of the best rock and roll ever played imho. It is not possible to play the album too loud. Thats probably one of the reasons I can’t hear much anymore. Oh,well. RIP Gary.

    Reply this comment
    • Butch
      Butch 1 July, 2019, 02:28

      Truth. It saddens me that QMS did not receive the recognition that the other founders of the SF sound did as they were truly talented and original. Gary Duncan’s more recent works are excellent as well.

      Reply this comment
    • Cheryl
      Cheryl 1 July, 2019, 15:01

      Yes, the louder, the better!

      Reply this comment
    • Briggsy
      Briggsy 16 September, 2019, 11:05

      Duncan was probably the nicest, most down to earth, humble musician that I have ever met.. He would stand against the backstage door at concerts in Miami and let many people in backstage. He was the just the nicest-guy and the most-under-rated-guitarist of the entire S.F. Psychedelic 60’s and 70’s music-scene. He told me that he didn’t practice that much and that he was very spontaneous and never ever played the same notes twice..He tried to sound like a horn-player instead of a guitarist. He was heavily-influenced by horn-players like Miles, Trane, Chet Baker, Yusef Lateef, Roland Kirk, even though his favorite guitarist was: the late Freddie King. He told me that he thought that he was a better guitarist than Eric Clapton. He once shared the stage in Texas at a Festival with his heroes: Freddie, Albert and B.B. King, with Leon Russell and Quicksilver all together at one festival…back in the mid-1970’s… He told me that he thought that Michael Bloomfield was better than anyone,including that of Jimi Hendrix! He also told me once: “I’m not Jimi Hendrix”! He was the coolest Native American Indian cat this side or that side of the Mississippi!

      He paid tons of dues playing music his whole life and said that he would not be well-known until after he died… He called himself a “Crazy-Indian” many times…He told me that I was one of a kind! There will never ever be another person as cool as Gary Duncan…

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  2. Sharland
    #2 Sharland 30 June, 2019, 12:28

    Loved Quicksilver music . RIP Gary !

    Reply this comment
  3. Blue turtle
    #3 Blue turtle 30 June, 2019, 13:08

    I totally remember this growing up in the 60s

    Reply this comment
  4. Studebaker Hawk
    #4 Studebaker Hawk 30 June, 2019, 16:13

    I want to be the first here to say “Happy Trails Gary!”

    Reply this comment
  5. Sidney
    #5 Sidney 30 June, 2019, 19:15

    Yeah they were one of my favorite acid rockers from the bay area. Mona,Who do you love, timeless R&R.Its sad when we lose the people that made music so timeless, love to all you heads out there love Sid Norwood

    Reply this comment
  6. Avalon
    #6 Avalon 2 July, 2019, 10:29

    By far QMS was one of the best of the SF Bands during the sixties/seventies, it saddens me the Gary has passed, but not forgotten, I still listen to their music, which brings back many memories. Gary, QMS, thank you for sharing your wonderful talent, and Gary, you will be sorely missed.

    Reply this comment
  7. Freeway Flyer
    #7 Freeway Flyer 3 July, 2019, 19:42

    Rest now Gary, you gave us much joy say hello to Dino and Nicky.Thank you.

    Reply this comment
  8. MontereyPurple
    #8 MontereyPurple 3 July, 2019, 22:26

    RIP and Happy Trails, Gary. Thanks for the memories, the shows, the hangouts at the Power Lounge, and all the rest. AB.

    Reply this comment
  9. rem
    #9 rem 4 July, 2019, 10:25

    HAPPY TRAILS 1 des meilleurs live .RIP Gary

    Reply this comment
  10. Mike
    #10 Mike 4 July, 2019, 21:28

    Quicksilver Messenger Service is my all time favorite band. QMS and Happy Trails are the best albums. Gold and Silver and Calvary, composed by Gary Duncan, are my favorites. Gary and Quicksilver were the pathway to my interest in Jazz. Now you and John can trade lead back and forth again. Thanks for all the great music. Rest in peace Gary.

    Reply this comment
  11. DL
    #11 DL 11 July, 2019, 15:13

    Hi, I’m Dara, Gary’s wife, saw your comment and didn’t know who you might be, but you were obviously at the studio which was a very special place for us. Hit back if you wish. Thank you for your sentiments!

    Reply this comment
  12. Richie
    #12 Richie 13 July, 2019, 17:55

    I haven’t heard any band repeat the full spectrum of sounds from 3 string instruments and a drum kit. I can’t stop listening to their stuff. Thank You Mr. Duncan for wanting to have fun ..

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