In 1965s she was living in San Francisco and gaining recognition as an accomplished jazz/folk singer, when vocalist Marty Balin heard her sing at a popular folk club, the Drinking Gourd and asked her to join a folk-rock group he was forming.
The band, soon christened Jefferson Airplane, signed with RCA Victor Records and released its first album, “Jefferson Airplane Takes Off,” in 1966.
Soon after joining the Airplane, she married one of the Merry Pranksters, Jerry Anderson, a marriage that lasted from 1965 to 1974. She sang on the first Jefferson Airplane album, Jefferson Airplane Takes Off, most notably on the song “Chauffeur Blues”. Just as Jefferson Airplane was ascending, Anderson gave birth to her first child. Realizing that life on the road with a newborn was unfeasible, Anderson opted to part ways with Jefferson Airplane in 1966. Anderson remained with the group while they searched for a replacement, eventually choosing the Great Society singer Grace Slick, who brought that band’s “Someone to Love” (retitled “Somebody to Love”) and her “White Rabbit” to Jefferson Airplane.
Anderson distrusted the Airplane’s original manager, Matthew Katz, and refused to sign a contract with him until he inserted a special escape clause freeing her from him if she left the band for any reason.
In July 1966, Anderson informed Bill Graham that she was quitting the band after a series of shows they were playing in Chicago, realizing that bringing her newborn child, with then-husband Jerry Anderson, on the road was not feasible. Graham, however, asked her to stay with the band through the October shows at the Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco, to which she agreed. This gave the band time to search for her replacement, eventually choosing Grace Slick after Sherry Snow declined their offer. Allegedly there were other factors, such as the hostility of other band members towards her husband.
Anderson’s last live performances with the Jefferson Airplane were two sets on October 15, 1966 at The Fillmore. Both performances were recorded (as were most Fillmore shows) and have surfaced on some bootleg albums. In August 2010, Collector’s Choice music in cooperation with Sony finally released the second show on a legitimate CD issue. At what seemed to be the end of the second set, Marty Balin returned to announce that Anderson was leaving the group. Her goodbye to the fans, recorded for posterity, was as follows: “I want you all to wear smiles and daisies and box balloons. I love you all. Thank you and goodbye.” At several fans’ request, Anderson and the band performed her signature number, “Chauffeur Blues”.
They finished the night with “High Flying Bird,” and thus ended Anderson’s tenure with the Airplane. The band returned to play two more shows the following night with Grace Slick on board for the first time. This entire performance was officially released in 2010 as Jefferson Airplane: Live at The Fillmore Auditorium 10/15/66 Signe’s Farewell.
After leaving the Airplane she returned to Oregon where she sang for nine years with a ten-piece band, Carl Smith and the Natural Gas Company. In the mid 1970s she recovered from cancer. In 1977 she married local building contractor Michael Alois Ettlin, and continued to sing with Carl Smith. Anderson also worked in a department store.
Anderson credited the Airplane’s success with its members’ musical educations. “We all were very knowledgeable music-wise,” she told KGON radio in 2011. “We could all read music. We all knew the classics, we knew blues, we knew folk music — we had a lot of groundwork first.”
In the mid 1990s, Anderson suffered further serious health problems, including a broken neck and bypass surgery, which led to serious financial problems for her family. She made guest appearances with the KBC Band, Jefferson Starship and Airplane spinoff Hot Tuna. Anderson’s husband, Michael Alois Ettlin, died at the age of 62, on February 21, 2011.
Anderson died at her home in Beaverton, Oregon at the age of 74 on January 28, 2016, from the effects of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). She died on the same day as Airplane co-founder Paul Kantner and both were 74.
Airplane lead guitarist Jorma Kaukonen wrote on his blog: “Signe was one of the strongest people I have ever met. “She was our den mother in the early days of the Airplane… a voice of reason on more occasions than one… an important member of our dysfunctional little family. I always looked forward to seeing her when we played the Aladdin in Portland. She never complained and was always a joy. Flights of angels sing thee to thy rest sister. You will always live in my heart…”
Airplane bassist Jack Casady wrote on Facebook that he’d been in touch with Anderson the week prior to her death, when she moved from her home to a hospice. “She was a real sweetheart with a terrific contralto voice coming from a solid folk background,” he recalled. “Listen to how she made the three part harmonies of ‘JA Takes Off’ (first album) sound so thick. Her wonderful tone between Paul’s and Marty’s.” Casady added “A sad day… for those of us still here.”
Signe Toly Anderson had stayed in touch with Paul Kantner, Marty Balin and other former bandmates and performed with them on occasion.
Mr. Balin, writing on Facebook, imagined that she and Mr. Kantner “woke up in heaven and said: “Hey what are you doing here? Let’s start a band.”