The group was formed in late 1966 in San Francisco. (Although the origin of the name seems to be undisclosed, it is likely from the punch line of a "grape joke" circulating at roughly that same time: "What's big and purple and lives in the ocean?") Frontman and rhythm guitarist Skip Spence (the original drummer for Jefferson Airplane), lead guitarist Jerry Miller and drummer Don Stevenson (both formerly of the Frantics), rhythm guitarist (and son of actress Loretta Young) Peter Lewis (of the Cornells), and bassist Bob Mosley all wrote songs for their debut album Moby Grape (1967). In a marketing stunt Columbia Records immediately released five singles at once, and the band was perceived as being over-hyped. This was during a period in which mainstream record labels were giving unheard of levels of promotion to what was then considered counter-cultural music genres. Nonetheless, the record was critically acclaimed, and fairly successful commercially, with The Move covering its sardonic ode to hippiedom, "Hey Grandma". Spence's "Omaha" reached the lower rungs of the American singles charts in 1967, and Miller-Stevenson's "8:05" became a country rock standard (covered by The Grateful Dead, Robert Plant, Guy Burlage, and others). Moby Grape has today achieved the status of a highly respected rock album.
In addition to the marketing backlash, band members found themselves in legal trouble for charges (later dropped) of consorting with underage females, and the band's relationship with their manager rapidly deteriorated. The second album, Wow, was a critical and commercial failure, partially due to the double-album format (and price). The 2nd LP was one of loose and mostly directionless jams, and this detracted from the stronger tunes on the 1st LP such as the room-shaking shuffle "Can't Be So Bad". Their basic sound remained consistent from the first album, featuring tight harmonies, multiple guitars, imaginative songwriting and a generally stronger level of musicianship than what was found coming out of the Bay Area at the time with the exception of the seminal Steve Miller Band.
During its recording, Spence, who was supposedly never the same after ingesting large quantities of LSD (see also the biographies of Peter Green and Syd Barrett), started to go through the hotel room door of Stevenson and Miller using a fire axe, intending to murder them; In the words of Miller: "Skippy changed radically when we were in New York. There were some people there that were into harder drugs and a harder lifestyle, and some very weird shit. And so he kind of flew off with those people. They were really strange, almost Nazi-ish. Skippy kind of disappeared for a little while. Next time we saw him he had cut off his beard, and he had a black leather jacket on, with his chest hanging out, with some chains and just sweating like a son of a gun. I don't know what the hell he got a hold of, man, but it just whacked him. And the next thing I know, he axed my door down in the Albert Hotel. They said at the reception area that this crazy guy had held an axe to the doorman's head." Spence was committed to New York's Bellevue Hospital; on the day of his release he drove a motorcycle dressed in only his pajamas directly to Nashville to record his only solo album, Oar. The original lineup released an album in 1971, 20 Granite Creek. The remainder soldiered on for a few years, but save for a reunion or two, essentially joining Jerry Miller's band in Santa Cruz, the group never returned to the level of excellence and popularity they enjoyed in the early Avalon Ballroom/Fillmore Auditorium days.
Moby Grape was an example of a talented band who, through a combination of mismanagement and inexperience, never fully realized their potential. Along with the Flamin' Groovies, they were somewhat of an anomaly in the San Francisco rock scene; their concision and their strong roots in country music and early rock and roll seemed to work against them. In addition, perhaps because they were so versatile, their image was somewhat nebulous; as writer Robert Christgau put it, "All they really lacked was a boss, and what could be more American than that?"
Jerry Miller carries on today (2006) as the Jerry Miller Band, playing blues and the occasional Grape song. Homeless for years and suffering from long-term mental illness and a multitude of health ailments, the mercurial and brilliant Skip Spence died in Santa Cruz, CA in 1999. In 2006, after three decades of court battles, the band finally won back their name from the much-hated (in the music industry) former manager Matthew Katz and in celebration announced a reunion show with all of its living members, bolstered by drummer Ainsley Dunbar (Mayall, Zappa, Journey) and keyboardist Pete Sears (Jefferson Starship), to be performed in January 2007 at San Francisco's The Fillmore. However, the reunion show did not take place and nothing has been announced about future plans.
The 1993 Vintage: The Very Best of Moby Grape includes their first album in its entirety, as well as selected tracks from 1967 to 1969.