Spencer Dryden

Drummer with the hippie band Jefferson Airplane on such hits as 'Somebody to Love' and 'White Rabbit'
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The Independent Online

Spencer Dryden, drummer and songwriter: born New York 7 April 1938; three times married (three sons); died Petaluma, California 10 January 2005.

"Somebody to Love" is one of the defining songs of the hippie era, forever associated with the Summer of Love and the San Francisco group Jefferson Airplane. Spencer Dryden, drummer with Jefferson Airplane, played on the million-selling "Somebody to Love" and also provided the bolero-like beat on the trippy "White Rabbit", the group's second Top Ten US hit of 1967.

The oldest member of the band when he replaced their original drummer Skip Spence in May 1966, Dryden helped bring together the disparate elements that made Jefferson Airplane, a group with three lead singers and a love of drug-fuelled improvisation, such a unique listening and live experience. He played on five Airplane albums, including the psychedelic classic Surrealistic Pillow (1967), which stayed in the US charts for over a year, and the live recording Bless Its Pointed Little Head, which charted on both sides of the Atlantic in 1969.

Dryden also contributed material to the albums After Bathing at Baxter's (1967) and Crown of Creation (1968) and appeared with the Airplane at the Monterey (1967), Isle of Wight (1968) and Woodstock festivals as well as supporting the Rolling Stones at the ill-fated Altamont free concert in 1969.

He left Jefferson Airplane the following year after recording the album Volunteers and joined New Riders of the Purple Sage, the "cowboy" offshoot of the Grateful Dead, staying with them until 1978. When the classic Jefferson Airplane line-up of Grace Slick (vocals), Paul Kantner (vocals, rhythm guitar), Marty Balin (vocals), Jorma Kaukonen (lead guitar) and Jack Casady (bass) reunited for an eponymous album on Epic in 1989, the drum-seat was occupied by Kenny Aronoff, but at least Dryden was spared the embarrassment of taking part in the venture dubbed "Most Unwelcome Comeback of the Year" by Rolling Stone magazine.

Born in New York in 1938, Spencer Dryden was the son of Wheeler Dryden, a British actor who was Charlie Chaplin's half-brother, and his wife Alice, a ballet dancer. The Drydens moved to Los Angeles when their son was one but divorced five years later. Spencer went to live with his mother. He often spent afternoons and weekends on the studio lots where Chaplin and his father were filming Monsieur Verdoux and Limelight. "I had a playground that was just immense. I was constantly around artists and Bohemian types," Spencer Dryden recalled.

By his mid-teens, he had developed a strong interest in jazz, and drumming in particular. After graduating from the Army and Navy Academy in Carlsbad in 1955, he studied at music school and sat in with jazz bands at night. He also accompanied comedians and strippers, including his first wife Jeanne Davis - billed as "Athena, the Grecian Goddess" - at cabaret venues.

In the mid-Sixties, Dryden gave up on jazz and joined the Ashes, a short-lived folk-rock group who issued one single and subsequently evolved into the psychedelic outfit Peanut Butter Conspiracy. In May 1966, he received a phone call from Matthew Katz, a San Francisco-based manager who had heard about him through the session musician Earl Palmer. "Matthew couldn't find a drummer in San Francisco. All the drummers were getting snapped up," explained Dryden. He wasn't told the identity of the group he would audition for, but was played "It's No Secret" - Jefferson Airplane's first single - over the phone.

When he arrived in San Francisco, he was in for a shock. "I didn't even know Haight-Ashbury existed. Everybody had long hair, everybody was an artist. And there was a vibe going on, a lot of energy," the drummer remembered. He showed up for the audition wearing cowboy clothes. "I was the right choice for the band," Dryden said. "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."

Spencer Dryden joined a group at the same time as Grace Slick, the strikingly beautiful singer from the Great Society. The two became an item and often held the upper hand in the group's negotiations, since neither was bound by the original RCA contract the others had signed. Less laid back than his San Francisco bandmates, Dryden argued that the acting manager Bill Graham should be sacked; following the success of Surrealistic Pillow, he was working the group too hard and forcing them to record the follow-up After Bathing At Baxter's, in between concert engagements. The band's road manager Bill Thompson took over their affairs.

"Baxter's was a reaction to the success of Pillow because the band was pissed off. We went in and said: screw it, we can do what we want to do," Dryden said. He created the sound collage "A Small Package of Value Will Come To You Shortly" and jammed with Casady and Kaukonen on the free- flowing "Spare Chaynge". Dryden contributed another eerie montage, entitled "Chushingura", to Crown of Creation, the group's 1968 album, and inspired the opening track "Lather", a composition by Grace Slick. Slick and Dryden eventually separated, Slick starting a relationship with Paul Kantner while Dryden married Sally Mann, a groupie, with Slick's blessing.

The power shifts within the group and the débâcle of Altamont, where Hell's Angels stabbed a fan, led to Dryden's eventual exit from Jefferson Airplane in March 1970. By then, he had apparently taken to carrying a gun and threatened to quit on 28 occasions. The others eventually called his bluff, replacing him with Joey Covington.

Dryden remained active in the Bay Area music scene, taking over from Mickey Hart in New Riders of the Purple Sage. In the Nineties, he teamed up with his fellow psychedelic rock veterans Barry Melton of Country Joe & The Fish and John Cipollina of Quicksilver Messenger Service in the ironically named Dinosaurs.

Pierre Perrone

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