January 11, 2005 – Spencer Dryden was born in New York City on April 7, 1938. His father, a British actor and director, was a half-brother of Charlie Chaplin but Dryden carefully concealed his relationship to his celebrious uncle, preferring his talents to stand on their own merits, rather than on any potentially nepotistic influences of his uncle Charlie’s name.
His parents divorced in 1943, but Spencer fondly recalled playing at his famous uncle’s Hollywood studio as a child. In the late 40s Spencer became friends with jazz fan Lloyd Miller also born in 1938 and living down the street on Royal Boulevard in Rossmoyne in Glendale. Miller said they should start a band and encouraged Spence to play drums. Since Spence didn’t have a drum set, Miller fashioned Dryden’s first drum by thumb tacking an old inner tube over a wooden barrel with no ends. Miller would pump his player piano, play cornet or clarinet and Spence would bang out beats on the drum.
One day Lloyd walked up to the end of Royal to Spence’s house and heard a full drum set which Spence had acquired and was playing Baby Dodd’s solos to perfection even the difficult nerve sticks. Soon they had recruited trumpet player Buzz Leifer a Glendale High acquaintance of Spence’s, a trombone player and a friend of Lloyd’s Faith Jackson on piano and a banjo player. The band called the Smog City Six would rehearse in Lloyd’s garage but soon his parents complained so they went on the road to appear on neighborhood lawns for short concerts until they had to flee from potential cops.
Soon they were a sought after occurrence for their blitzkrieg lawn jams. Their final New Orleans jazz gig was for the spring festival at Miller’s school Flintridge Prep after which Spence ‘went modern’ and began playing cool jazz in Hollywood and Los Angeles. Miller also added modern jazz to his styles and the two jammed a few more times at Miller’s before losing contact.
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 actually sit in with the bands.
Such early experience no doubt came in handy when Spencer made the switch to rock ‘n’ roll in the early ’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, Dryden 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,” he recalls. “All the drummers were getting snapped up,” due to the burgeoning Bay Area music scene.
Introduction to Haight-Ashbury
Katz refused to tell Dryden 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).
Dryden’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 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.
Beyond Jefferson Airplane
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. Without Slick, Dryden 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. The Era of Love and Peace had come to an End.
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.
Dryden did not participate in Jefferson Airplane’s 1989 reunion. In 1996, Dryden was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame along with the rest of Jefferson Airplane, playing with the band for the first time since 1970. He joined the group onstage for the last time in 2003, with the Jefferson Starship Galactic Reunion.
He lived in relative obscurity, reportedly living in a small house on rented property with a few acres in Penngrove, California. He needed hip replacement and heart surgeries in the few years before his death. In 2004, several musicians, led by Bob Weir of the Grateful Dead and Warren Haynes (Gov’t Mule and the Allman Brothers Band), raised US$36,000 to help pay Dryden’s medical bills. He also had lost his home due to a fire in 2003. Later, in 2004, he was diagnosed with cancer. The benefit re-kindled Spencer’s friendship with Jefferson Airplane band member Jorma Kaukonen, who remembered him fondly for the way he said, Aww, MAN!! It was not until 2005 that Kaukonen became aware that Spencer was the nephew of Charlie Chaplin. Spencer’s last public appearance was with Jefferson Airplane band members in 2004, at a DVD party for the release of the group’s Fly documentary.
Dryden died from colon cancer (intestinal cancer which spread to his liver) on January 11, 2005. He was 66 years 9 months 4 days old
The song “Lather”, appearing on the Airplane’s Crown of Creation, is said to have been written by Grace Slick on the occasion of Dryden’s thirtieth birthday. Its lyrics tell of a boy who stays as young as possible until one day when he is shattered when time forces him to grow up. The instrumental sections are wild and purposefully discordant.
On the news of his death, Slick and other band members wrote tributes to Spencer Dryden that appeared on the group’s website. Slick’s ends with this: “Lather was 30 years old today, they took away all of his toys.“ – Grace Slick.