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.
Text copyright 1998 Greg Gildersleeve.