James Robert Mosley, 1990. "He’s the kind of guy who’d give you the shirt off his back. "
James Robert Mosley was a founding member, vocalist, bass guitarist, and songwriter with Moby Grape, the legendary San Francisco band whose 1967 debut album was filled with the bluesy idealism of that so-called Summer of Love. Released just two weeks after the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper's, the record featured five-part harmonies and a unique blend of folk and soul.
Today, Mosley, 51, a native San Diegan, is said by his mother to be homeless and living under bridges and railroad trestles in the Rose Canyon area, near the Price Club on Morena Boulevard. Betty Mosley, who lives in nearby Clairemont, says her son checks in with her about once a month to get the disability check he earned as a result of a non-combat injury in the Marine Corps. “Rob picks out an area very carefully, then he cleans it up,” explains Betty Mosley, who notes that her son still keeps an account at a bank on Napa Boulevard. “He always has a fire going, and he always knows where he is and what he’s going to do every day. A week ago, he walked all the way to La Jolla to find a pair of shoes. He’s as organized and active as you can be living on the streets.”
In Moby Grape’s heyday, Mosley was described by a Rolling Stone writer as a “gifted singer with a raw, earthquaking voice like some Viking warrior incarnation of Otis Redding.” He was diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic in 1970 while in the Marines and is now merely one of this city’s thousands of faceless indigents, according to a court document filed by his mother. But he is hoping for some late redemption. Last week in a San Francisco court, Mosley and the other four original members of Moby Grape — Alexander “Skip” Spence, Peter Lewis, Don Stevenson, and Jerry Miller — filed a lawsuit against Sony Music Entertainment and CBS Records, along with their former manager. They claim their rights to the band’s songs, recordings, publishing material, .and even the name were signed away in a 1973 settlement agreement without their knowledge.
Spence also is a schizophrenic according to the lawsuit, and subject to the conservatorship of Santa Clara County, ac-cording to Bill Lewis, deputy public guardian there. Glen Miskel, the San Francisco attorney representing the band, says that because Mosley and Spence were both “acutely disabled suffering from schizophrenia,” they couldn’t have knowingly signed away their rights to their songs. The other three band members say they only learned of the allegedly invalid agreement when they tried to perform again in San Francisco in 1982. Miskel says the band is simply asking for what they believe is their due.
Last year, Sony released The Very Best of Moby Grape, a two-disc anthology of the group’s brief recording career, from which no member of the band has received a penny. “This is not a lawsuit seeking damages. We are simply seeking declaratory relief,” says Miskel. “In other words, all we are asking is that the court set aside the bogus 1973 agreement that we contend was void from the beginning. A spokesperson for Sony’s corporate office in New York says the company has “no comment” on the lawsuit.
It’s hard to say if a court victory would change Mosley’s life. Born December 4,1942, he attended Kearny High School, lettering in three sports. His senior year he was voted the school’s “Most Valuable Citizen.” After graduating in 1961, the outgoing, big-voiced blond attended San Diego City College, where he played on the baseball team and earned an associate’s degree in social studies. After college, Mosley, a music lover with an abundance of natural ability, pursued a career as a musician. He joined a band called the Misfits, which became a fixture at the Red Coat Inn at 58th and University. Recalls his mother, “Bob was a great kid. Very popular, active, good looking, talented. He taught himself to play bass because his band had a bass player that no one liked. He always had an ability to pick up an instrument and just start playing it. He started with the french horn in junior high school, and went on from there.”
In the late summer of 1966, Mosley formed Moby Grape in San Francisco with singer/guitarist Peter Lewis, the son of actress Loretta Young. Lewis, a commercial pilot before his stint with the Grape, vividly recalls his first meeting with Mosley, which took place in a bar at the Los Angeles Airport. “I showed up with my bell bottoms and no shoes, and there was Bob, with his hair in a kind of shaved look, wearing sunglasses, a goatee, and Bermuda shorts," says Lewis. “He looked like one mean-looking dude, man. His bass was up against the wall. He didn’t say anything until we got in the car. That’s the kind of guy he is. Then he looked at me and said, ‘I can sing anything up to high C, and play like a motherfucker. What can you do?’ ”
It wasn’t until they went to a party in the Hollywood Hills, dropped acid together, and jammed that Lewis knew he wanted to be in a band with Mosley. “Bob was definitely not a hippie, but he was willing to try [LSD],” Lewis recalls. “I actually told him I was taking acid, but I didn’t take any, and he did. We really just wanted to check him out.” Lewis says Mosley was into soul and blues music, as opposed to the folk-rock sound that was so popular with West Coast white guitarists at the time. “I was more of a folkie, but when we jammed, it worked,” Lewis says. “That night was the night we sort of accidentally discovered the Moby Grape sound. That folk-soul combination.” Mosley and Lewis then picked Jerry Miller and Don Stevenson, two musicians from the Northwest, for the lead guitar and drumming parts. Finally, the band hooked up with Alexander “Skip" Spence, who had been a member of Quicksilver Messenger Service and an original member of the Jefferson Airplane (he wrote some of the Airplane’s early hits, including “Blues from an Airplane”).
In June 1967, at the Avalon Ballroom in San Francisco, the band held one of the most ridiculously excessive album-release parties in rock history. Guests received purple velvet press kits that included all five of their single releases. Ten thousand purple orchids were dropped from the ceiling, and there were 700 bottles of wine, and not one corkscrew.
In 1968, Spence was admitted to New York’s Bellevue mental hospital for six months as a result of drug abuse and general hysteria, and at the end of the year he fled to Nashville, where he recorded a solo album, entitled Oar, according to the rock history anthology, Movers and Shakers. Mosley and the three remaining members tried to recapture the initial Moby magic. They embarked on their one and only European tour, during which they performed at a private party for the Beatles and hung out afterward at John Lennon’s house. But in February 1969, after the band returned from Europe, Mosley surprised everyone by quitting. Soon after, he would join the Marines.
“We were all shocked,” says Lewis. “But you just never knew what Bob was going to do next. He was so pissed off, at everything. We had already been screwed so many times by record companies and lawyers and managers. He was just tired of the whole thing. He was so talented it was frightening. He taught me pretty much everything I know about singing. Bob was a good guy, but he isn’t always easy to be around.”
Mosley never made it to Vietnam, which is where he wanted to go, and nine months into his Marine stint, he reportedly got in a fight with a lance corporal, who, says Lewis, “bounced Bob’s skull off the pavement.” The injury put Mosley into a Camp Pendleton hospital for several weeks. When he got out, Betty Mosley reports, “He wasn’t the same person. That’s when the schizophrenia really surfaced. He hasn’t been the same person since.”
After his release, Mosley lived on Maple Street, then on Third Avenue downtown. He went to therapy every day, his mother says, and eventually married his therapist. He recorded a solo album that didn’t chart, and reunited with Moby Grape on several occasions for various projects, most of them leading nowhere. The problem, says Lewis, is that the band members no longer owned the name. “Whenever we tried to perform as Moby Grape, we’d get a restraining order slapped on us,” says Lewis. “After a while that really took its toll on all of us.”
After three years of marriage, Mosley and his wife divorced, his mother says. He teamed up again with Lewis and Miller in 1973, calling themselves The (Original) Grape. But as the years progressed, his mother recalls, he slowly drifted out of the music scene and into a life of homelessness and despair. He’d spend time at his mother’s house and with friends. But never for very long.
“I don’t really know how this all happened,” says Betty Mosley, her voice cracking. “We had a network of people out there for him. He had places to stay all over. For a while last year we paid for a place for him in Hillcrest on Eighth Avenue. He lived there for a month, that was it. The problem is, as soon as you get too close to him, he bags it ” (Attempts to locate and interview Mosley himself proved fruitless.)
Lewis says no one in the band has spoken to Mosley for nearly two years. “I’m really worried about him,” he says. “I want him to come up and stay with us. He stayed here with us for a while about two years ago, but then he disappeared. He’s a very pervasive character. He’s in this constant state of heightened awareness. He’s been hurt by so many people. He’s the kind of guy who’d give you the shirt off his back. I like to compare him to Van Gogh. He’s this brilliant, multi-talented guy, and everyone has taken advantage of him. I don’t look forward to the day when I get a call and am asked to attend his funeral. If that happens I know I’ll be screaming at the top of my lungs at the gravesite.” Lewis, who lived in San Diego from 1982 to ’85 — in North Park — says being a member of a popular 1960s band didn’t help him land many gigs here. He played with a partner at Holiday Inn lounges and wherever else he could find a paying job, but, he says, “Believe it or not, when I tried to get jobs playing in bars in San Diego, my experience with Moby Grape only hurt me. They looked at me like, ‘What the hell’s the matter with you? You were in Moby Grape, and now you’re trying to get a job here?’ ”
Lewis now lives in Solvang, where he is working on a solo album. He is still determined to get Moby Grape — all five members, including Mosley and Spence — together again. And he wants the Moby Grape name back. “Bob and Skip aren’t the crazy ones,” he says. “They gave and gave, and never got anything back. That will eventually make anyone snap.” Lewis says he’s had it with worrying about Mosley, and in the next few weeks, he plans to come down to San Diego, find his mate, and try to get him to come up and stay with him and his wife. “He may not come, but I have to try,” Lewis says. “We’ve been through too much shit together. I remember one time, up at Monterey, Bob and I split some acid that David Crosby gave us. It was the real strong, purple haze stuff. We did it together, and we sort of jumped into each other’s soul. But when we were coming down, I started to laugh. I was glad to be back. But Bob started to cry. He just didn’t want to come back.”