Jefferson Airplane’s debut show was on August 13, 1965 at the Matrix nightclub in San Francisco. The first performance featured Marty Balin on vocals, Paul Kantner on vocals/rhythm guitar, and Jorma Kaukonen on lead guitar. Signe Anderson, (who sang on Jefferson Airplane’s first recording “Jefferson Airplane Takes Off”) also performed. The bass player, Jack Casady and drummer Skip Spence, (who was later one of the original members of Moby Grape) joined the band two months later. Spencer Dryden became the drummer in June of 1966 and Grace Slick joined as vocalist in October of 1966. The band performed the first concert for Bill Graham at the legendary Fillmore Auditorium in San Francisco in February of 1966.Jefferson Airplane performed at the Berkeley Folk Festival, Monterey Jazz Festival, Monterey Pop Festival, Woodstock, and Altamont. They had hit singles White Rabbit and Somebody to Love, from the album “Surrealistic Pillow”. They were on the cover of Life Magazine in 1968. The band co- headlined with the Doors in Europe in the summer of 1968. Many legendary bands opened for the Airplane: Grateful Dead, Santana, The Doors, Jimi Hendrix, Creedence Clearwater Revival, The Who, Janis Joplin, Steve Miller, and many others.The band was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1996
Grace Slick, to the public mind, is synonymous with Jefferson Airplane and Jefferson Starship in the way that Mick Jagger is synonymous with the Rolling Stones. Ironically, Grace was not an original member of the band, nor was she with Starship at the very end. But Grace’s importance to every phase of the band cannot be underestimated. White Rabbit, which she wrote, helped define not only Jefferson Airplane but also the acid rock era. Her unconventional vocals on Somebody to Love gave the Airplane its biggest hit. As one of the first female rock stars (as opposed to pop singers), Grace helped redefine women’s role in modern music as more than just a sex symbol backed by a band. Of course, with her statuesque beauty and icy blue eyes, Grace had the sex symbol bit down pat as well.
Grace Barnett Wing was born October 30, 1939, in Highland Park, a suburb of Chicago, IL. Her father, Ivan, was an investment banker, and her mother, Virginia Barnett Wing, had been an actress and singer in the early ’30s. Her lineage goes back to Norway, where the family name was Vinje.
Grace attended Finch College, a prestigious finishing school for girls, in New York (1957-58), before transferring to the University of Miami (1958-59), where she majored in art. She tried her hand at various odd jobs and even auditioned as a singer at a black record label. But although she modeled for I. Magnin’s department store from 1960-63, Grace later said she had no ambitions beyond being a housewife. On August 26, 1961, she married Gerald “Jerry” Slick, a film student and later a successful cinematographer. She later described the marriage as passionless and the result of “cultural imposition.” But it was during this marriage that she wrote her first song — a piece for one of Jerry’s film projects.
In August 1965, Grace read an article in the San Francisco Chronicle about a new band called Jefferson Airplane. A week later, she and Jerry checked out the band at the Matrix. Deciding that being in a rock band looked like a lot of fun and paid better than modeling, Grace and Jerry soon formed their own band, the Great Society. Jerry played drums, and his brother Darby Slick joined on guitar. With the lineup completed by David Minor (guitar/vocals), the Great Society made its debut at the Coffee Gallery in San Francisco’s North Beach section on October 15, 1965.
Despite her rather late entry into rock ‘n’ roll, Grace proved herself a talented singer. She attempted to imitate the sound of an electric guitar and developed a unique and forceful singing style. She also discovered a knack for writing songs — White Rabbit was one of her first compositions.
Grace has always said that White Rabbit was intended as a slap toward parents who read their children stories such as Alice in Wonderland (in which Alice uses several drug-like substances in order to change herself) and then wondered why their children grew up to do drugs. For Grace and others in the ’60s, drugs were an inevitable part of mind-expanding and social experimentation. With its enigmatic lyrics, White Rabbit became one of the first songs to sneak drug references past censors on the radio. Even Marty Balin, Grace’s eventual rival in the Airplane, regarded the song as a “masterpiece.”
In 1966, one Sylvester Stewart (the future Sly of Sly and the Family Stone) walked out as the band’s producer of a demo after it took the band 50 takes to get one song right. However, Grace’s talent carried the band, and they found themselves opening for Jefferson Airplane and other successful, local bands. Columbia Records even offered the Great Society a recording contract (and would release two albums by the band after Grace found fame), but, by the time the contract arrived in the mail, the Great Society was no more.
In September 1966, the Airplane put bassist Jack Casady up to asking Grace if she might be interested in joining them. For Grace, it was a no-brainer; the Airplane had already released an album and seemed on the verge of a major breakthrough. After discussing the matter with her husband (one of the last times, it seems, that Grace would take his opinion into consideration), she accepted the Airplane’s offer. Bill Thompson, then the Airplane’s road manager, would buy out Grace’s contract from her manager for the paltry sum of $750.
Following Signe Anderson’s final gigs with the Airplane in mid-October, Grace became the band’s new female singer. She would later recall that she was “scared shitless” — she barely knew the words, but it didn’t matter, for the Airplane played far louder than she expected.
After such an inauspicious debut, Grace barely had time to get comfortable with the Airplane before the band went to Los Angeles to record its second album, Surrealistic Pillow. She did contribute two stand-out cuts from the Great Society — White Rabbit and Darby Slick’s Somebody to Love. Though the Airplane recognized those songs as special, even they had little inkling as to how popular they would become. Nine months after she joined the band, Grace found herself a star as the lead singer of the band’s two top ten hits.
Grace Slick quickly emerged as an icon of the psychedelic scene that followed. She always downplayed her own significance in the press, suggesting that she got the most attention because she was the only woman in the band. But such comments disregard Grace’s obvious talents and extroverted personality. She would literally say and do anything. While appearing on the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour in 1968, she wore blackface and raised her fist in a Black Panther salute. During one rainy outdoors concert, she performed topless rather than getting her blouse wet. On another occasion, she drunkenly referred to a wealthy audience as “filthy jewels” (a comment misheard by some as “filthy Jews”). In her autobiography, Grace said she learned “how to let it out and damn the censorship” from Mick Jagger. Unfortunately, much of her behavior was also attributed to her increasing addiction to alcohol.
By early 1967, Grace’s marriage to Jerry was all but over, though they didn’t divorce until 1971. She had a brief dalliance with Jack Casady, then began a two-year affair with Airplane drummer Spencer Dryden. Grace felt an immediate connection with Spencer, since they were both initially “outsiders.” Once Grace became famous, however, Spencer would use their relationship to get his way within the band.
With the Airplane, Grace apparently regarded herself as an equal among equals who could write anything she damn well pleased. Her songs were psychedelic interpretations of literary classics (Rejoyce, 1967), attacked middle class repression (Greasy Heart, 1968), and assaulted human arrogance (Eskimo Blue Day — noted for the line, “the human name doesn’t mean shit to a tree” — 1969). On the occasion of Spencer’s 30th birthday, she wrote Lather (1968), a song expressing the anxieties of growing older — a theme she would revisit on several occasions.
By 1969, her relationship with Spencer had ended, and she soon became involved with Paul Kantner. Though they never married, Grace decided that she wanted to have Paul’s child. Their daughter, China, was born on January 25, 1971. (In typical Grace fashion, she initially told the press that she was going to name the child “god.”)
One of Grace’s oddest and most famous incidents occurred shortly before her pregnancy. In April 1970, the former Finch College student was invited to a reception hosted by President Richard Nixon’s daughter, Tricia, at the White House. The organizers of the affair apparently had little idea who Grace was, or of her opinion of Nixon. (Her song, Mexico, a scathing critique of Nixon’s anti-drug policy, had only just been released as a single.) Upon arrival, however, Grace was barred from entering when she brought a “bodyguard” — ’60s radical Abbie Hoffman! Grace later said that, had they been allowed in, they had planned to spike Nixon’s tea with LSD.
But as the Airplane began to disintegrate in the early ’70s, Grace coped with it and the pressures of motherhood by drinking. On May 13, 1971, a mere four months after becoming a mother, Grace was involved in a near-fatal drunk driving accident. After an all-night recording session, she and Jorma drag-raced their sports cars near the Golden Gate Bridge. Grace lost control and crashed into a retaining wall. Miraculously, she escaped with only serious concussions.
Grace’s behavior became more extreme, and the remote Paul proved ill-equipped to deal with her outbursts. She often called him a “Nazi”. In August 1972, in Akron, Ohio, she and Paul were both arrested during an altercation with police following a concert. According to Grace, she had wandered on stage without her glasses during an argument between the police and the band’s road manager. Seeking to steady herself, she grabbed onto a policeman’s uniform. He responded by macing her. Paul rushed to Grace’s defense and was shoved to the floor by police.
N early 1974, Grace released her first solo album, Manhole. During that same period, Grace agreed to form a new band with Paul, Jefferson Starship. Her contributions to the first album, Dragon Fly, included Hyperdrive, a sobering reflection of life at age 35: “I didn’t know there were corners in time till I was told to stand in one.”
A year later, Jefferson Starship broke big with Marty Balin’s romantic hit, Miracles. To Marty’s consternation, Grace continued to command the public’s attention, albeit in the form of controversial behavior. In 1978, Grace was dragged off the stage of a local San Francisco game show after abusing contestants.
In the meantime, Grace had found a new love in the form of lighting director Skip Johnson. They began having an affair during the Starship’s first tour. Finally, Grace ended her relationship with Paul and, on November 29, 1976, she married Skip in Hawaii. Neither Paul nor Marty attended.
Over the years, Grace has been the subject of two biographies. The first, written by Barbara Rowes, was published in 1980. The second, Grace’s own Somebody to Love? A Rock and Roll Memoir, co-authored with Andrea Cagan, appeared in September 1998.
In the years since her retirement, Grace has turned to another creative endeavor — painting. Her works include portraits of old friends such as Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and Jerry Garcia. As of November 2000, she had sold about 60 paintings, priced from $1,100 to $8,700. Although her work has hardly garnered the respect of critics (so what else is new?), others laud her paintings for evoking feeling, something hard for any artist to do. For Grace, whose shoulder-length hair is now completely white (she had been dyeing it since her mid-20s), it’s a chance to create something that doesn’t involve her appearance. (Greg Gildersleeve, 1998 ).
Marty Balin was the lead singer and founder of Jefferson Airplane. Marty’s very distinctive, soulful voice became one of the hallmarks of the Airplane’s sound, and he composed many of the band’s most memorable songs, including Volunteers, It’s No Secret, Coming Back to Me and Today.
Marty was born Martyn Jerel Buchwald on January 30, 1942, in Cincinnati, OH, to Joe and Catherine Buchwald. He has an older sister. In the early 1950s, the family moved to San Francisco. He joined a gang called the Lairds, but also found time to sing and dance in a production of West Side Story.
At age 19 or 20, Marty decided to become an artist, but after doing some painting and sculpting, he became a singer, drawing on inspiration from rhythm and blues singers. In 1962, he signed to the Challenge label, which attempted to market him as a teen idol; on his manager’s advice, he took the surname Balin after the Bal Theater in San Leandro, CA. While at Challenge, Marty recorded two singles, Nobody But You and I Specialize in Love.
Around this time, Marty married and had a daughter, Jennifer Ann (born 1963). To accommodate his new family, Marty cut his hair and went to work with his father as a lithographer. But the marriage ended by 1965.
In 1964, Marty joined the Town Criers, a clean-cut folk combo, which folded after about a year. By early 1965, Marty was broke and living with a friend, Bill Thompson. It was at that point that Marty told Bill he planned to form a band with five guys and a girl, playing folk music with electric instruments.
Marty began to seek out new players for his band. He introduced himself to a guitarist/banjoist who was playing at a folk hangout called The Drinking Gourd. The musician, Paul Kantner, saw the potential in Marty’s idea and agreed to join his band. For the next three months, he auditioned musicians. By July, they had their band, Jefferson Airplane. A month later, the band debuted at the opening of the Matrix club, of which Marty was a part-owner.
As the recognized leader, Marty called the shots for the group. In typical San Francisco fashion, however, he seemed to rely on instinct as much as on any thought-out plan. When original drummer Jerry Peloquin was sacked, Marty brought in his replacement, Alex “Skip” Spence, who had never played drums professionally — Marty thought he “looked like a drummer.” (As it turned out, Skip was a quick study.) Marty later was responsible for firing Skip when the latter failed to show up at rehearsals.
Marty was also the Airplane’s chief songwriter. He wrote the first single, It’s No Secret (1966), as well as most of the material on the first two albums. But when the band broke big in 1967, it was newcomer Grace Slick who became the star. Marty’s rivalry with Grace became very intense — according to some sources, he did not care for her unorthodox singing and sexy stage antics. From mid 1967 onwards, Marty’s status within the band declined — not only was he eclipsed by Grace, but his romantic ballads drew heavy criticism from guitarist Jorma Kaukonen and bassist Jack Casady. His songwriting credits diminished, but he still managed to write or co-write several Airplane classics, including Today (1967), Share a Little Joke (1968), and Volunteers (1969).
At a concert on November 28, 1970, Marty played his last show with the Airplane.
Marty divides his time between Florida and Mill Valley, CA. He is married to Karen Deal and has a second daughter, Delaney Mariah Skye (born 1995).
Although he never wrote or sang lead on a hit single, Paul Kantner had the greatest impact on Jefferson Airplane/Starship of any member. He holds the record for the longest, unbroken membership (19 years), and he has been at times the only original member of the band present. His interest in science fiction helped transform Jefferson Airplane into Jefferson Starship, and, throughout it all, he presided over the band’s loose and sometimes messy democracy. If Marty Balin was the soul of the band, and Grace Slick its public persona, then Paul Kantner could be considered its brain.
The only native San Franciscan among the Airplane/Starship principles, Paul Lorin Kantner was born March 17, 1941, to Paul S. and Cora Lee (Fortier) Kantner. Paul had a much older half brother and half sister. When Paul was eight, his mother died; he later recalled that instead of being allowed to attend the funeral, he was sent to the circus. Paul’s father, a traveling salesman, could not raise the boy on his own and sent him to live in a Jesuit military boarding school. It was there, in the second or third grade, that he discovered science fiction while being left alone in the school library. The Jesuits apparently also taught Paul the military-like discipline and determination that would serve him well through his career’s ups and downs.
Nevertheless, Paul was a troublemaker while in his teens. Around 1960, he was involved in a motorcycle accident that left a permanent hole in the left side of his skull. (Ironically, this hole is credited with saving Paul from brain damage when he later suffered a cerebral hemorrhage, by allowing the pressure to escape.)
Paul completed three years of college at the University of Santa Clara (1959-61) and San Jose State College (1961-63), before dropping out. He decided to become a musician and hit the folk club circuit as an acoustic guitarist and five-string banjoist. Before leaving San Jose, Paul met such fellow musicians as future Byrd David Crosby and future Jefferson Starship member David Freiberg. Also in San Jose, in 1962, he met another guitarist who would play a prominent role in his future, Jorma Kaukonen.
By March 1965, Paul had returned to San Francisco. He was playing by night in a folk club called the Drinking Gourd. One night a young singer introduced himself and asked him if he wanted to join his band. The singer’s name was Marty Balin, and the group was Jefferson Airplane.
Although Marty was clearly the leader, Paul took an active role in how the band developed. He recommended Jorma Kaukonen to join the band as guitarist.
Paul originally adopted a subdued role within the band, playing rhythm guitar and singing backup and the occasional lead. His early compositions included Come Up the Years (with Marty) and Go to Her (later released on Early Flight) and Let Me In.
As the ’60s wore on, the Airplane became a symbol of the burgeoning counterculture, and Paul reflected this in songs such as Crown of Creation (1968) and We Can Be Together (1969). To Paul, the “Establishment” included everything from cops who unplugged the band during curfew to the band’s own record company, RCA. In We Can Be Together, he included the line, “Up against the wall, motherfucker,” which launched a bitter contest of wills between the band and RCA over its inclusion; the company finally backed down.
On the same album (Volunteers), Paul combined music and science fiction for the first time on Wooden Ships (co-written by David Crosby and Stephen Stills and simultaneously recorded by Crosby, Stills & Nash), a song about a group of people who escape from a totalitarian society to start a free colony elsewhere. This concept would become a major theme of much of Paul’s subsequent efforts.
In 1969, his unrequited love for Grace was finally requited. They began a casual affair and soon started living together. Grace wanted to have his child; in January 1971, their daughter, China, was born.
By now the Airplane was moving in different directions. With Grace housebound for the duration of her pregnancy, Paul began recording a solo album in conjunction with David Crosby, Jerry Garcia, and others. The album, Blows Against the Empire, contained a mini science fiction epic on one side. As an afterthought, the album was co-credited to “Jefferson Starship,” marking the first use of that name. Blows was not only a commercial success, but was also nominated for science fiction’s prestigious Hugo Award.
From this point on, during this period Paul and Grace recorded joint solo efforts — Sunfighter (1971) and Baron Von Tollboth & the Chrome Nun (1973). In 1972, the Airplane recorded Long John Silver, which was a platinum album.
By 1973, the Airplane was no more, though neither Paul nor Grace wanted to admit it. In early 1974, he and Grace were faced with the prospect of moving on and forming a new band. Not wanting to completely break with the past, they hired musicians from the latter-day Airplane as well as their solo projects, and dubbed the band Jefferson Starship, which was managed by Bill Thompson.
Jorma Kaukonen is one of the most important guitarists of our time with a body of work lasting over three decades. His brilliant finger-picked fretwork and songwriting, a compelling blend of rock, blues, folk and country influences, has distinguished Jefferson Airplane and its equally legendary (and still active) spinoff band Hot Tuna.
Jorma Kaukonen has just completed Blue Country Heart, his debut recording for Columbia Records, currently scheduled for a June release. Exploring a unique chapter in American music history, Jorma interprets an intriguing collection of rural blues and country-flavored songs from the 1920s and 1930s. Featuring songs by tunesmiths such as Jimmie Rodgers, the Delmore Brothers, Slim Smith, Washington Phillips, Cliff Carlisle and Jimmy “The Singing Governor” Davis, this album reveals a new turn in Kaukonen’s ever evolving career. Joining Jorma in the studio are Sam Bush on mandolin, Jerry Douglas on dobro and Byron House on upright bass. Special guest Béla Fleck plays banjo on two tracks.
Jorma and wife/manager Vanessa Lillian are in the midst of the fifth year of operations at their successful Fur Peace Ranch Guitar Camp. Situated on 119 acres in the Appalachian foothills, the site includes a 32 track recording studio, concert hall, a music library and a gourmet kitchen and dining hall. With weekend workshops scheduled from February to November, the camp presents a chance for students of all ages and abilities to learn directly from the musicians who first influenced and inspired them as listeners and players. Gathering such outstanding artists and teachers in such a pristine and relaxed country setting, a place which remains concurrently rustic and comfortable, has allowed Jorma to create what he calls “a positive place to better explore the potential of your favorite instrument.”
In addition to Jorma’s own workshops, a typical weekend session might include Peter Rowan, Guy Clark, G.E. Smith or Chris Smither instructing different styles of blues guitar, teaching guitar repair, or Jorma’s longtime musical partner (and fellow Jefferson Airplane/Hot Tuna founder) Jack Casady explaining the intricacies of bass guitar. “We’re very fortunate,” says Jorma. “We really have great guest instructors, and everybody’s been having a really great time.”
Born in Washington, D.C., Jorma grew up overseas (his father was a member of the U.S. foreign service). He returned stateside at age 16 and immersed himself in the old-time country of the Carter Family and Roy Acuff. The blues soon grabbed young Jorma’s ear; the Chess label LPs of Chicago icons Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf and Sonny Boy Williamson mesmerized him. “I always tell people the music really chose me,” he says. “The first time I heard that, I just knew that that’s what I wanted to do.” He first teamed up with Jack Casady while still in high school around 1957 to start a rock band together.
In 1961, Jorma transferred to the University of Santa Clara in California, where he played folk clubs and passed along his guitar knowledge. “I started teaching when I didn’t have much to teach,” he says. “I always really enjoyed it. And I still really enjoy it. It’s really nice for me to be able to give a little bit back of all the wonderful things that were so freely given me.”
“When I took off for the blues, it was Rev. Gary Davis,” says Jorma, who first encountered Davis’ amazing finger-picking guitar technique in 1959 while attending Antioch College on a work-study program out of New York. “A guy who was in the house with me, his name was Ian Buchanan, a player in New York, had been studying with the Reverend,” says Jorma. “And he was a very accomplished player at the time. He probably was so irritated by my thrashing next door to his room that he took it upon himself to teach me the guitar, which he really did. His muse was the Rev., so that’s what he turned me on to, and I just fell in love with his stuff. And I’m in love with it to this day.” During the early ’70s with Hot Tuna, Jorma reintroduced several of Davis’ seminal songs to a new generation of appreciative fans.
Jorma joined a certain fledgling rock band in 1965. “Paul Kantner had been living in San Jose, where I was living,” he says. “We were friends, and he got together with Marty Balin, and they started Jefferson Airplane. I had just graduated from college, and they wanted a lead guitar player. I guess they didn’t have one. They asked me, and I was kind of reluctant, because I was really into the blues: ‘I don’t know if I want to do this or not.’ But I did get seduced by the music, and wound up having a lot of fun for a couple of years.”
It was Jorma who named the band. “I had this friend up in Berkeley, Steve Talbot, and he came up with funny names for people,” explains Jorma. “His name for me was Blind Thomas Jefferson Airplane (for blues pioneer Blind Lemon Jefferson). When the guys were looking for band names and nobody could come up with something, I remember saying, ‘You want a silly band name? I got a silly band name for you!’”
Installing Grace Slick as their lead singer, Jefferson Airplane rocketed to superstardom in 1967 on the initial strength of their hits “Somebody To Love” and “White Rabbit,” making them a cornerstone of San Francisco’s burgeoning rock scene. Jorma’s ground-breaking acoustic piece “Embryonic Journey” was a highlight of Surrealistic Pillow, the Airplane’s 1967 breakthrough album. The band was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1995.
In 1970, Kaukonen and Casady found time between Airplane gigs to put together another uniquely named aggregation, the blues-influenced Hot Tuna. “The first Hot Tuna record was all stuff that I had been playing myself for years,” says Jorma. “We were very fortunate–we were able to open some shows for ourselves as Hot Tuna with Jefferson Airplane. Paul let us play some insert songs. As the Airplane became less fun for whatever reason, Hot Tuna became more fun. Finally we just couldn’t do both, and we had to make a decision. I took Hot Tuna.”
What began as a musical “bluesman’s holiday” from Jorma and Jack’s day job with the Jefferson Airplane, has now endured for 30 years, and a prodigious recording longevity of over 27 albums. There have been many transformations throughout. From the addition of electric violin player Papa John Creech to the lineup for First Pull up, Then Pull Down and Burgers, to the deafening volume featured on albums such as America’s Choice and Hopkorv, jokingly referred to these days by Jack and Jorma as “Hot Tuna: The Metal Years.”
Recently, Kaukonen and Casady have returned to their acoustic past and are currently touring as a duo. Featuring Jorma’s brilliant finger-picked fretwork and songwriting and Jack’s expert melodic bass work, these shows are an opportunity to witness two lifelong friends coming together once again to make extraordinary music.
Most recently, Jorma and Jack have performed music scored by Mark Isham for the upcoming Disney distributed film Goodbye Hello. Written, directed and produced by Brad Silberling, the film stars Susan Sarandon, Dustin Hoffman, Holly Hunter, Jake Gyllenhaal and newcomer Ellen Pompeo. Set in the 70s, the film tells the story of two parents who take in the fiancee of their recently murdered daughter. Jorma and Jack have brought their unique artistry to the project and have created what Kaukonen calls “a sonic landscape that enhances the mood of the film.” Comprising about 20 minutes of the score, Jack and Jorma performed 6 cues/vignettes as well as the film’s closing piece to be played as the credits scroll.
From the mind bending psychedelia of the mid 60′s Airplane to the stark blues and country of Hot Tuna and later projects, Jorma Kaukonen’s work has always been distinctly American. From dizzying electric guitar gymnastics to breathtaking solo acoustic work, the music of this consummate artist has remained both of and ahead of his time. With over 40 albums spanning his solo and band career, he has forged his own legacy in American Music.
After a lifelong journey in music, from his first professional gigs with the Jefferson Airplane from 1965-1972 to his ongoing collaborations with longtime partner Jorma Kaukonen in Hot Tuna, bassist Jack Casady feels extremely pleased with where he is at right now. While Casady has distinguished himself in a career that spans four decades, he remains excited about entering his fifth decade as a working musician.
“The main issue is I love to play the bass guitar,” says the 57-year-old rock bass icon. “It thrills me more now than ever. I think it’s a mistake to try and chase your youth. It’s better to play like the person you are at the age you are. Things change as you get older and you bring different qualities to the music. The craftwork in really learning the subtleties of the instrument is a lifelong project.”
Growing up in D.C. in the ’50s, Casady was exposed to music at an early age through his older brother and his father, William Robert Casady. “My brother had a blues collection and I had started collecting records myself when I was around 12,” he recalls. “My father was a dentist but he was also an audiophile and an electronics enthusiast. He would build high fidelity stuff by Heathkit — tvs, scound equipment and whatnot. He built a ’50s style recreation room with knotty pine walls and naugahyde red upholstery in the basement and set up a turntable with a big 15-inch speaker for listening sessions. He loved music and belonged to the American Jazz Society. Every month he’d get various jazz records which we’d listen to. And from that I got hooked on music.”
Jack’s appreciation for music manifested itself in learning how to play the guitar at age 12. His first instrument was a Washburn nylon string guitar which he had found in the attic of his parents’ house shortly before Christmas of 1956. As he recalls, “When I found that guitar up there in the attic I started plunking around on it, even though it only had four strings. Suddenly it disappeared and I really didn’t think too much of it. Then on Christmas Day I noticed an envelope for me on the tree. I opened it up and it read, ‘We fixed up that guitar in the attic. It was supposed to be ready in time for Christmas but it won’t be ready until next week. Meanwhile, this entitles you to 12 guitar lessons.’ So that basically started me off on my career.”
Jack began his lessons with Harry Voohees, a Swing Era guitarist who had played with many of the famous big bands of the ’30s and ’40s. Later on he continued lessons with Bill Harris, the guitarist for The Clovers. “I took guitar lessons for a period of a year and a half,” he recalls. “During that time I also sold newspapers like many a lad at that time. At the peak I was delivering 450 papers in the morning and the afternoon– morning Washington Post and the evening Star . And the object of this and my side business of cutting neighborhood lawns was to get enough money to buy an electric guitar and an amplifier.”
By 1958, Jack had acquired his first electric guitar, a Gibson ES-125 with a single pickup. “But I really had my eye on a ’58 Fender Telecaster,” he recalls, “so I got my money together from this newspaper route and eventually bought that. And I was off to the races.” His first amplifier was a model that he had helped his father build at home from a kit. “It had a 8 watt power amplifier and a one 8-inch speakers,” he recalls. “We built the whole thing from scratch on the dining room table every night after dinner. We’d set up shop, do the soldering, follow the diagrams and slowly put it together. Boy, I wish I had that amp today. Of course, I wish I had the Telecaster today. I wish I had kept everything from those days.”
By the time he was 13 or 14, Jack met Jorma Kaukonen, a budding guitarist in the neighborhood who was a few years older and attended the high school a block and a half away from the junior high school where young Casady attended. “When I met Jorma I already had my guitar and a thriving blues and r&b record collection. He’d come over to visit with my older brother but we struck up a friendship and ended up playing a little together, just doing covers by Buddy Holly, Gene Vincent and whatever things were going on at the time.” Jack also had an appreciation for bluegrass and old-timey country music, which was regularly performed around town. “Washington D.C. was a wonderful place to grow up because it was the crossroads of all those styles — rhythm ‘n’ blues, blues, country music and bluegrass coming through the Appalachians. And all of those things could be heard at the local clubs. At the same time, I had the opportunity to hear classical music being performed at the famed Constitution Hall. So all of those influences were mixed together. One night I’d be down at the Howard Theater seeing Ray Charles, the next night I would be at the Shamrock Tavern in Georgetown hearing Mac Weisman, Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs among other bluegrass people. And the next night it would be jazz — people like Eric Dolphy and Roland Kirk. Plus, we had the Library of Congress nearby. You could go down there and lock yourself in a room and listen to Alan Lomax field recordings or listen to music of the rainforest or whatever. So I was really just a sponge soaking up a lot of this stuff.”
His curiosity and hunger for seeking out sounds naturally led Jack on a path he has been pursuing ever since. As he puts it, “I think the thing I was most grateful for was finding that one thing I was really passionate about in life. And that one thing was music. It really took me away from the normal kind of teenage drudgery that follows you around. For me, music was the great escape.”
By 1959, Jack and Jorma had formed a band called The Triumphs with drummer Ronnie McDonald and Warren Smith. As Jack recalls, “I played lead guitar, Jorma played rhythm guitar and sang. The PA system was a Wollensac tape recorder put in the monitor mode so Jorma’s vocals were coming through a 3-inch speaker. It was kind of raw but it was fun while it lasted.”
The following year, Jorma graduated from high school and went to Antioch College, where his interest in folk music deepened and his fingerpicking chops blossomed. “By the end of the ’50s, the popular music scene had taken a downturn,” Jack explains. “After the payola scandal the industry wanted to clean things up, so all of a sudden you had Pat Boone singing Little Richard tunes. It just wasn’t the same. So then the interest for me shifted into the folk music of America while my older brother became interested in English folk music and ballads and also Irish music. A lot of people got caught up in the folk music revival in the early ’60s.”
But while his musical interests broadened, Jack continued working with various cover bands around the D.C. area. “There was a certain kind of music that you played in clubs during those days — lots of Louis Prima and Ray Charles songs,” he explains. “And the bands that formed back then were mostly bigger small ensembles with at least two or three saxes. In D.C., that was sort of a scene unto itself.”
By age 16, Jack got a call to fill in for a bass player on a gig. It proved to be the beginning of a longstanding career as a bassist. “As soon as I started playing bass my work quota expanded tremendously,” he recalls. “And I started falling in love with the instrument. There was just a certain sound, that register of the bass and also the higher register of the bass which is kind of going into the cello range that I really was attracted to.”
With the aid of a forged ID, made on Jorma’s grandfather’s copy machine, the under-age Casady began working at various clubs around the D.C. area. “Later on I hooked up with various bluegrass and country bands playing on the fair circuit. We’d also go up and play the beaches along the New Jersey shore. It was a great education and an interesting time for me being that young and yet being in what was considered an adult world. I mean, I’d go back to high school in the morning after spending all night playing in some club backing up Little Anthony & The Imperials. And now that I look at some of the pictures from those days, there’s no way I could pass for 18(the drinking age at that time).”
In the early ’60s, Jack did some extended gigging in Florida with his D.C. colleague Dick Heinze before enrolling in Montgomery Junior College in 1963. By 1964, the music scene had changed. Beatlesmania was starting to come on strong in the States, which shifted the nature of the club scene and greatly affected the working musicians. “I was kind of discouraged by it all,” says Jack in retrospect. “I would still play with bands on weekends and things like that. But at that point I was kind of lost.”
Then in September of 1965, Casady got a fateful call from his old friend Jorma Kaukonen, who had transferred from Antioch College to Santa Clare University in San Francisco and became immersed in a new music scene developing there. As Jack recalls, “Jorma told me he had joined a band called Jefferson Airplane and I kind of laughed at the name. He asked me what I was doing and seemed surprised to hear that I was playing the bass. Then he says, ‘Wait a minute. I’ve got a bass player in this band that I’m not fond of. It’s not working out, in my opinion.’ So then he says, ‘Let me call you back.’ A few minutes later he calls back and says, ‘We got this band. We got a manager. And the manager promises to pay us $50 a week whether we “worked or not.” What do you think?’ And I said, You’re on!’”
Jack quit school in the middle of October of ’65 and came out to San Francisco to join the Jefferson Airplane. “And there began my career in earnest,” says the bassist who became renowned for the inventive, melodic lines he contributed during his seven-year tenure with the band “What was great for me was the opportunity of coming to San Francisco in that environment in the mid ’60s where you had a lot of people who didn’t even come from as much of a professional background as I had but had picked up a guitar in college and wanted to expression themselves in original ways. You had a tremendous number of middle class white kids trying desperately to do anything their parents didn’t. And all these kids were suddenly out there playing instruments, making up songs. And that whole coming together aspect created some different music, most of it not keeping up to professional polish of other areas of the country, but still, people wanted to make their own statement. And so I found myself in this band that I thought was the craziest band I had ever seen.”
Paul Kantner came from a folk music background as a fan of Pete Seeger and the Weavers. Marty Balin came from a pop background and had previously recorded a couple of singles in the early ’60s. Kaukonen was an accomplished fingerpicking stylist in the tradition of Rev. Gary Davis. The drummer, Skip Spence, was a frustrated guitar player. The original singer was Signey Anderson and Casady with his R&B background.
“We had a format to play four nights a week and get material together,” says Jack of those early Airplane days. “At our first gigs, the music writer Ralph Gleason liked us and gave us good reviews, which led to a record contract with RCA. And it was a fairly unique deal for the time. We made everybody an equal in terms of payment and participation.”
That band’s debut for RCA, Jefferson Airplane Takes Off , was recorded in February of ’66 and released in August of that year. “It had somewhat of a local success,” explains Jack. “It was the material that we had been playing as a group around the Bay area for a while. We recorded it on 3-track, all pretty much live performances.”
When the group’s originally singer Signe Anderson left the group in late 1966 to have a baby, she was replaced by the lead singer in another San Francisco band called The Great Society. Grace Slick not only brought her distinctive voice to the group but also two potent songs in “Somebody to Love” and “White Rabbit,” a drug-oriented song which developed Lewis Carroll’s “Alice Through The Looking Glass” via its acid connotations. Both songs (from 1967′s Surrealistic Pillow ) became hit singles and served as a rallying point for the emerging Haight Ashbury freak community. “That album was really a unique statement,” says Casady in retrospect. “There were a lot of different styles of songs contributed by everybody, including an an instrumental acoustic fingerpicking original tune by Jorma called ‘Embryonic Journey.’ It was quite an eclectic album and it still holds up today.”
The Jefferson Airplane subsequently released a string of acclaimed recordings –After Bathing At Baxter’s (late ’67), Crown of Creation (’68), the live Bless Its Pointed Little Head (’69), Volunteers (’70), Bark (’71), Long John Silver (’72) and the live Thirty Seconds Over Winterland (1973). Meanwhile, by 1970, Kaukonen and Casady had established Hot Tuna as a blues-drenched spin-off band that sometimes opened for the Airplane in concert.
By the end of 1972, the Jefferson Airplane disbanded. Jorma and Jack continued to pursue Hot Tuna while Grace Slick and Paul Kantner went on to form the Jefferson Starship. “We formed Hot Tuna basically because we were young and had endless energy,” says Casady, “and there was so much material going into the Airplane from everybody it ended up that you’d only get a couple of songs per session. And also we wanted to play a style of music that wasn’t being played by the Airplane. And we kept that up along with Jefferson Airplane up until ’72, when we decided it was too much to continue the Airplane.”
Starting initially as an acoustic trio and later adding veteran fiddler Papa John Creach when they went electric, Hot Tuna recorded a series of albums through the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s and continues to perform and record to this day.
Hot Tuna did have a hiatus from 1979 to 1982, during which time Casady formed his own rock band. “But Jorma and I got together in ’83 and have played regularly since then.” For the past three years, Casady has also been involved as a bass guitar instructor at Jorma’s Fur Peace Guitar Ranch. A more recent project was his participation in a tribute recording to the late Allman Brothers bassist Alan Woody. “I knew Alan quite well,” says Jack. “He was a fan of mine and a very nice guy. We’ve had a number of conversations together and often found ourselves talking a lot of shop about basses. So I was very pleased to be involved in this project honoring Alan’s memory.”
Inspired by recent acoustic duo tours with Kaukonen, Casady finds that his own musicianship has reached new levels. “I can’t remember having as much fun but also musically being so in touch and in the moment with the music as I am now; where every minute, every note counts on stage. And I find it really unique that I have a situation with a partner of 42 years now where we can just really enjoy the craft of making music together.”
Spencer Dryden played drums with Jefferson Airplane during its peak years, 1966-70. Spencer’s varied background in jazz and rock contributed greatly to the Airplane’s sound, as evidenced by his bolero-style beat on White Rabbit.
Spencer was born April 7, 1938, in New York City, to Wheeler and Alice Dryden. Wheeler was a British stage actor on Broadway, while Alice danced with the Ballet Company at Radio City. A little-known fact is that Spencer’s father was also half brother to Charlie Chaplin. Spencer kept that fact secret for many years – even from the rest of the Airplane — because he wanted to be known for his own accomplishments, not as Charlie Chaplin’s nephew.
When Spencer was one year old, the family settled in Los Angeles. His parents divorced when he was six, and Spencer spent weekends with his father on the lot of Chaplin Studios. “I had a playground that was just immense,” Spencer recalls of living in Hollywood. “I was constantly being around artists and Bohemian types.”
At age 13 or 14, Spencer began accompanying his father to jazz clubs — which was legal in those days — and, sitting very close to the stage, he would pay attention to the drummers and how they played. By age 16, he was able to go to clubs on his own and sit in with the bands.
Such early experience no doubt came in handy when Spencer made the switch to rock ‘n’ roll in the mid ’60s. “Obviously, there was more money in rock ‘n’ roll,” Spencer says. “Jazz was on the wane at the time, which was unfortunate.” Spencer joined the Ashes, a five-piece rock band.
Working odd jobs to make ends meet, Spencer received a call in May 1966, from one Matthew Katz, who was looking for a drummer for a band he managed in San Francisco. “Matthew couldn’t find a drummer in San Francisco,” Spencer recalls. “All the drummers were getting snapped up,” due to the burgeoning Bay Area music scene.
Katz refused to tell Spencer the name of the band, but played for him part of their record — It’s No Secret — over the phone. It was only after driving up to Katz’s house to meet him that Spencer learned the name of the band — Jefferson Airplane. Ironically, Spencer had already heard of them though a magazine article about the strange names favored by San Francisco bands. Unbeknownst to him, the Airplane had also recently been in L.A., recording their debut album during the same week when the Ashes were recording their first single.
When Spencer flew north to meet the Airplane, he was also blown away by the community in which the Airplane lived. “I didn’t even know Haight-Ashbury existed,” he says. “Everybody had long hair, everybody was an artist. And there was a vibe going on, a lot of energy.”
Spencer was hired by the band. “I was the right choice for the band,” he says. “It was a good match-up. I liked the band, liked their music. I always had a folk-blues current active in my head. It just worked.” Even Jerry Garcia, guitarist of the Grateful Dead and “spiritual advisor” of the Airplane, was brought over to check out the new arrival. “He gave me thumbs up,” Spencer says.
Early in 1967, Spencer began having an affair with Grace Slick, herself a newcomer to the band. They formed a faction, and exerted tremendous influence once the group became famous. According to most accounts, Spencer bullied the others into getting his way by routinely threatening to quit. Grace, at least tacitly, went along with him; as neither was yet signed to the band or RCA, the possibility of Grace going solo was very real.
Spencer is often cited as the culprit behind the sacking of Bill Graham as acting manager in early 1968. Graham wanted the Airplane to work harder and make more money, but the band members were fed up with the schedule he demanded of them. Spencer, with Grace’s approval, gave the band an ultimatum: either Graham went or they did.
Not content to merely be the drummer, Spencer had creative ambitions, as well. He contributed two electronic and percussive experiments, A Small Package of Value Will Come to You Shortly (Baxter’s, 1967), and the eerie Chushingura (Crown of Creation, 1968). His only song to make it onto an Airplane album was a country & western parody and clever poke at the music industry, A Song For All Seasons (Volunteers, 1969).
Spencer’s heavy drinking and questionable judgment were often the source of strife within the band. For a time, he and Grace shared an apartment next door to Jorma and Margareta Kaukonen, but the place was burned to the ground when Spencer left groupies in charge of it. Spencer would openly pick up other women in front of Grace and later took to carrying a gun. He was also constantly complaining about matters; in one interview, he estimated that he had threatened to quit 28 times.
The final straw apparently came at Altamont. The Airplane performed at the Rolling Stones’ free concert on December 6, 1969, the day after playing a concert in Florida. Mentally and physically exhausted, Spencer initially refused to play — he said that the “vibes” at Altamont were wrong. (Ironically, he turned out the be right, as the free concert degenerated into violence and murder.) The others finally convinced him to play — no one wanted to let down the people who had put the concert together — but Spencer’s constant complaining almost provoked the band to violence.
By this point, Spencer’s relationship with Grace was all but over. On January 26, 1970, he married Sally Mann, a groupie, at the Airplane House with Grace as matron of honor and Paul Kantner as best man. (Spencer and Sally had a son named Jesse, but divorced by 1973.) Without Grace, Spencer no longer carried much weight within the band and, a few weeks later, he was fired. Though he was asked to stay around long enough to help his successor, Joey Covington, learn the ropes, Spencer declined, not wanting to linger. He played his last gig with the Airplane on March 23, 1970.
Spencer then played with the country rock band New Riders of the Purple Sage for several years, also becoming their manager. His subsequent career was largely out of the public light. From 1982-95, he played with the Dinosaurs and its off-shoot band, Fish & Chips, along with other San Francisco alumni (e.g., Barry Melton, ex-Country Joe & the Fish, and John Cipollina, ex-Quicksilver Messenger Service). In 1995, he retired from drumming after a 40-plus year career.
Papa John Creach
Born in 1917 in Beaver Falls, PA, “Papa” John Creach began playing violin in Chicago bars when the family moved there in 1935, and eventually joined a local cabaret band, the Chocolate Music Bars. Moving to L.A. in 1945, he played in the Chi Chi Club, spent time working on an ocean liner, appeared in “a couple of pictures”, and performed as a duo with Nina Russell.
In 1967, while playing at the Parisian Room, he was “discovered” by drummer Joey Covington. When Covington joined the Airplane in 1970, he introduced them to Creach, who was invited to join the band. The audience reaction to his tune-up alone convinced the rest of the Airplane that he was a worthwhile addition to the bands line-up. In addition to playing with the Airplane, Creach also joined Hot Tuna, and the Jefferson Starship, before leaving in August 1976 to concentrate on his solo career. Despite this, he returned as a guest performer on the spring 1978 Jefferson Starship tour. A year later, he renewed his working relationship with Joey Covington as a member of the San Francisco All-Stars (1979-84), and also Covington’s Airplane predecessor, Spencer Dryden, as a member of the Dinosaurs (1982-89). He also continued with occasional guest appearances with Hot Tuna, and was on stage at the Fillmore West that night in 1988 when Casady and Kaukonen were reunited with Kantner and Slick for the first time since the end of the Airplane. Papa John Creach died in February 1994 at the age of 76.
While at San Luis Obispo (CA) High School, he started drumming in a band called the Sentinals, who recorded two albums before he graduated in 1964. In 1966, he joined the Strangers with Joel Scott Hill (later of Canned Heat) and Bob Mosley (later with Moby Grape). He then joined the Turtles from 1966 to 1969, and then Crosby Stills Nash & Young (1970). He also became an in-demand session musician, appearing on some 60 albums up to 1975 by Eric Clapton, Leon Russell, Dave Mason and others.
When Joey Covington quit the Airplane in 1972, David Crosby recommended John Barbata as a replacement, and he appeared on “Long John Silver”, as well as the live “Thirty Seconds Over Winterland”. When the Airplane collapsed in 1972, he continued working with Kantner and Slick, appearing on their solo projects, before becoming the original drummer for Jefferson Starship.
He drummed for the band all through the multi-million selling 1970′s, but was forced to leave the band following a serious road accident in October 1978, in which he was badly hurt and his passenger died. By the time he recovered from his injuries, he had been replaced by Aynsley Dunbar. He subsequently went on to form a band with Spirit bassist Alex Staehely, and later returned to session work. He now lives in Oklahoma, and still plays the drums regularly.
Self-taught in percussion at the age of 10, Joey Covington started out playing drums in polka bands. By the time he was 14, he had graduated to backing strippers at a club in Johnstown, PA. Moving to New York in 1965, he got his professional break backing singer Danny Apollinar, before joining the Fenways in 1966. He then moved to California, where he met fiddler Papa John Creach in the summer of 1967. Despite their 28-year age difference, they became lifelong friends.
In California, he joined a band called Tsong, and sometime around 1968, met Marty Balin and Bill Thompson. This meeting resulted in Joey being invited to play and record with Jorma Kaukonen and Jack Casady leading to the formation, in 1969, of Hot Tuna. He later guested on Volunteers, and sometimes drummed onstage alongside Spencer Dryden. When Spencer was fired from the Airplane in 1970, Joey was the natural successor. Unfortunately, this was the time the band began to fragment into its various factions. Quitting Hot Tuna in 1970, following a dispute which also ended Marty Balin’s brief tenure as a member of that band, he later quit the Airplane sometime about April 1972.
He only appears on one full Jefferson Airplane album, “Bark”, on which he co-wrote two songs including the band’s last chart single “Pretty As You Feel”. He also played the drums on Paul Kantner’s “Blows Against The Empire”. By the time of the band’s last studio album “Long John Silver”, he was involved in a great many other projects, and only appears on two songs. Unhappy with his position within the band, he sat out the final tour, and , although still officially a band member at the time, does not appear on the live “Thirty Seconds Over Winterland”.
Following his departure from the band, he appeared on Peter Kaukonen’s “Black Kangaroo”, before forming his own band, Fat Fandango. Following the failure of this band, he faded from view, briefly re-surfacing as co-writer of Jefferson Starship’s “With Your Love” in 1976.
David Freiberg has played a varied role in San Francisco rock. He started out as bass player and vocalist for Quicksilver Messenger Service, but found fame and fortune as bassist and keyboard player for Jefferson Starship. In between, he was brought in to replace Marty Balin as lead singer of Jefferson Airplane, a role for which David, who has been described as amiable and easy-going, seemed ill-suited.
David was born August 24, 1938, in Boston, MA, but grew up in Cincinnati, OH. His family had a background in classical music — his grandfather, an orthopedic surgeon, was an amateur violinist — and David even made the Ohio All-State Orchestra as a violist and violinist while in high school. After graduating in 1956, David married, then moved to California in 1959. The marriage soon ended, however, and David taught himself the guitar and began performing in folk clubs. In 1962, he began singing in a duo called David and Michaela, who played their last show on February 9, 1964, the night the Beatles debuted on the Ed Sullivan Show. David also joined a trio called the Folksingers of Peace, who reportedly were deported from Mexico for being subversive.
During 1963-64, David lived in a “proto-hippie commune” in Los Angeles with Paul Kantner and David Crosby. According to San Francisco Chronicle reporter Joel Selvin, David found himself busted for drugs on two separate occasions in 1965. During the first stretch in jail, he was visited by Paul, who announced the formation of his new band, Jefferson Airplane. On the night before he began his second sentence, he heard his other friend, Crosby, singing with the Byrds on the radio. In an LSD-induced epiphany, David decided that rock ‘n’ roll was the way to go. Upon his release, he learned to play bass and soon co-founded Quicksilver Messenger Service.
QMS achieved notoriety as one of the last major San Francisco bands to sign a recording contract; after watching many of their contemporaries get burned, they refused to sign until Capitol Records agreed to all of their demands. But after a promising start with two legendary albums — their eponymous debut in 1968, and Happy Trails in 1969 — QMS fell prey to personnel changes and drifted aimlessly. In 1970, they achieved a moderate hit with Fresh Air, but faded into obscurity just a few years later.
While in QMS, David married Julia “Girl” Dreyer. Although it was a marriage of convenience, intended to keep the teen-aged runaway out of jail, they stayed together for several years and had a daughter, Jessica (b. ca. 1967).
In September 1971, David began yet another jail sentence for drugs, which effectively ended his tenure with Quicksilver. He did session work and lived on unemployment for a time, until his old friend, Paul Kantner, called in 1972, and asked him to join Jefferson Airplane for its upcoming tour. David handled the vocal chores abdicated by Marty Balin and appeared on the live set, Thirty Seconds Over Winterland (1973).
David soon began collaborating with Paul and Grace Slick, and was given equal billing on their 1973 effort, Baron Von Tollbooth and the Chrome Nun. He also assisted Paul in completing Grace’s solo album, Manhole (1974). Largely out of the public eye since leaving Jefferson Starship in the 1980s, David owns Free Mountain Studios near Novato, CA, and occasionally sings with the refurbished QMS, known simply as Quicksilver. He contributed backing vocals to their albums Piece by Peace (1986) and Shape Shifter (1996), and guested on Quicksilver’s 2000 tour. While recording Piece by Peace, he met singer Linda Imperial, with whom he’s been romantically involved ever since.
(Greg Gildersleeve, 1998).
One of the original members of Jefferson Airplane, Signe Toly was a respected folk singer before joining the band. Soon after joining the Airplane, she married the Matrix’s lighting director (and former Prankster) Jerry Anderson. It was her departure in 1966, following the birth of her first daughter, which bought Grace Slick into the band.
Following her departure from the band, she returned to Oregon, where she sang for nine years with a ten-piece band. Then, in 1975, she was diagnosed with cancer, which she eventually beat. By 1977, she had married a local building contractor, Michael Alois Ettlin, and had decided to retire from singing.
In recent years, she has made the occasional guest appearance with both the KBC Band and Jefferson Starship – The Next Generation, but remains in official retirement from performing, and currently works in a department store. Sometime around 1996 she had some further medical problems, which caused serious atrophy of her legs. Fortunately, medical intervention corrected this problem, but caused severe financial hardship for Signe and her family.
Alex “Skip” Spence
Alex “Skip” Spence is better known as guitarist for another legendary San Francisco band, Moby Grape, but he managed to play drums for Jefferson Airplane just long enough to appear on their first album. Unfortunately, both of his music roles became overshadowed by decades of mental illness exacerbated, if not brought on, by drug abuse. Today, Skip, who died in 1999, is remembered either with fondness as a lost genius of the ’60s, or as one of rock’s most tragic drug casualties.
Alexander Lee Spence Jr. was born April 18,1946, in Windsor, Ontario, Canada, the son of a decorated war hero of the Canadian Air Force. Skip’s father was also a jazz pianist whose career resulted in several relocations — to Cincinnati, New York, Arizona, and, finally, California. Skip reportedly grew up as a normal kid whose sole eccentricity was phoning Little Richard to protest the rock ‘n’ roll pioneer’s decision to give up music for the ministry.
Upon being discharged from the U.S. Navy in 1965, Skip auditioned as guitarist for an early version of Quicksilver Messenger Service. QMS were rehearsing at the San Francisco club the Matrix.
The Airplane’s Marty Balin thought Skip looked like a drummer and invited him to join, even though Skip had only limited experience playing drums. Skip proved to be a quick study, however, and reportedly mastered the drums in two weeks.
But Skip was ill-suited to being the drummer and longed to be a front man. Then in May 1966, shortly after the album was completed, Skip was allegedly fired for missing rehearsals. The 20-year-old drummer had taken a holiday to Mexico without telling the rest of the band. (Reportedly, he did tell manager Matthew Katz, who failed to inform the others.)
Skip didn’t seem to mind being fired; he was already laying plans to form his own band, also to be managed by Katz. He remained on friendly terms with the Airplane, who recorded his song My Best Friend for their second album, and even released it as a single. (In a small touch of irony, My Best Friend became the Airplane’s first chart single six months after Skip left.) (Another of Skip’s songs for the Airplane, the enigmatically titled J.P.P. McStep B. Blues, would later be resurrected on Early Flight.)
In September 1966, Skip formed Moby Grape, which also included guitarists Peter Lewis and Jerry Miller, bassist Bob Mosley, and drummer Don Stevenson. Moby Grape went on to become briefly famous and the subject of everlasting notoriety. Fondly remembered as one of the best of the San Francisco groups, they specialized in short, psychedelic pop tunes instead of run-on jams. But their commercial appeal was sabotaged when their record company released all ten songs from their debut LP as five singles. Radio stations, not knowing which song to promote, stayed away from all of them.
Then, in a move that further reduced Moby Grape’s reputation to gimmickry, their second album contained a song that could only be played at 78 rpm. The members of Moby Grape, of course, did their own part to undermine their chances of being taken seriously. Skip, along with Lewis and Miller, was arrested in the company to under-aged girls. Then Skip’s already tenuous hold on reality was compromised further by drugs. After running amok with a fire axe, Skip was confined to the prison ward of Bellevue Mental Hospital in New York, in 1968. There, he was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. Moby Grape continued without him for a time before splitting up and reforming several times, with and without Skip.
Skip returned to the music business long enough to record his only solo album, Oar, in 1969. Proving once again that he was a quick study, he played every instrument. Rolling Stone Magazine, however, dismissed it as a “joke,” full of “haphazard folk music” and “sad, clumsy tunes that seem to laugh at themselves.” Oar reportedly became the lowest selling album in Columbia Record’s catalogue and subsequently a much sought-after collector’s item.
Before vanishing from an active role in music forever, Skip played one final, crucial role in launching another very successful band. When West Virginia drummer John Hartman came west to join an aborted Moby Grape reunion, Skip introduced him to guitarist/singer Tom Johnston. Hartman and Johnston went on to form the Doobie Brothers.
Skip spent most of the next two decades in and out of mental institutions and battling alcoholism. He was named a ward of Santa Cruz County and, by 1994, was living in a residential care home in San Jose. He had only recently been reunited with his four children. He continued to perform occasionally and, in 1996, was briefly reunited with Moby Grape. That year, he also wrote and recorded a song for the X-Files movie soundtrack, featuring his old Airplane colleague, Jack Casady. The song, Land of the Sun, was not selected for the final cut. (It subsequently showed up as a bonus track on the 1999 Tribute album More Oar.)
Meanwhile, Skip’s health continued to deteriorate and he was diagnosed with lung cancer. On April 5, 1999, he entered a Santa Cruz hospital and died there on April 16, two days before his 53rd birthday.
Skip’s talent, however, continues to inspire musicians such as Robert Plant, Tom Waits, and Beck, who recorded their own versions of his songs on More Oar two months after his death.
(Greg Gildersleeve, 1998).
Jefferson Airplane Takes Off (1966)
Surrealistic Pillow (1967)
After Bathing at Baxter's (1967)
Crown of Creation (1968)
Long John Silver (1972)
Jefferson Airplane (1989)