Friday, July 5, 2013

The Other Guy(s): Jefferson Airplane

Jefferson Airplane: Chauffeur’s Blues

Obviously, I like this theme, so I’m back with a third entry. And to pile it on, it is about two “other guys,” one of whom isn’t a guy.

When I was in high school, my friend Chris and I worked our way back from the then-popular Jefferson Starship through the discography of the Jefferson Airplane. I remember hours spent in the cutout bins at Korvette’s in Nanuet flipping through records to find their music. If you are a casual fan of the band, you know about Grace Slick’s powerful vocals, and maybe even Marty Balin’s blue-eyed soul singing or Paul Kantner’s folkier sounds. Or maybe you are a fan of their interesting harmonies, or the few songs that Jorma Kaukonen sang before moving full time to Hot Tuna. Four vocalists is pretty good for a single band, and these days it is rare to find a popular group that allows more than one, or sometimes two, singers to take regular lead vocals.

But the Airplane had even more singers. The Jefferson Airplane discography (not including live albums, solo projects and compilations) consists of 7 albums released between 1966 and 1972 (plus a reunion album from 1989). And although Kantner, Kaukonen and bass player Jack Casady were constants, Slick joined after their first album, Balin was there at the start, but left before the sixth album was done, and there were a number of drummers and other members that played with the band.

So, before Grace Slick, there was Signe Toly Anderson (no relation to previous “Other Guy” subject Jon). In the early days of the band, and on their debut record, Jefferson Airplane Takes Off, her role was mostly to sing backup and harmony. She left the band in 1966, following the birth of her daughter Lillith (and possibly because other members of the band didn’t get along with her husband.) On October 15, 1966, the Airplane played the Fillmore, and at the end of the show, Balin announced that Anderson was leaving the band. Anderson’s farewell to the audience is a classic Sixties statement—“I want you all to wear smiles and daisies and box balloons. I love you all. Thank you and goodbye.” The band then played “Chauffeur’s Blues,” with Anderson on lead vocals, followed by one more song. The next night Slick performed with the band.

Anderson returned to Oregon, where she raised a family and sang with a jazz band before suffering from a number of health problems. She has made occasional appearances at reunion shows, with the KBC Band (Kantner, Balin, Casady), and with later incarnations of Jefferson Starship.

Jefferson Airplane: Pretty As You Feel

Fast forward to 1970, when the Airplane were recording the followup to their last great record, Volunteers. Drummer Spencer Dryden, who had joined the band after the first record, had left, ultimately to end up in the New Riders of the Purple Sage.  He was replaced by Joey Covington, a self-taught drummer who had played with Hot Tuna, in unrecorded performances. Then Balin left the band, and they were looking to replace his material on the album, which became Bark. Covington was jamming one night with Kaukonen, Casady, Carlos Santana and percussionist Michael Shrieve on a piece that was given the working title of “Shitty As You Feel,” and little was expected of it. But the engineer, Pat “Maurice” Ieraci thought otherwise, and the title was changed to something more printable. Slick and Kantner overdubbed vocals, Papa John Creach added some fiddle, and a good song emerged. “Pretty As You Feel,” with Covington’s lead vocal, was released as a single and hit 60 on the Billboard chart, the last charting single for the Jefferson Airplane.

Covington left the band in 1972 for a relatively obscure solo career and as a sideman, and passed away last month at the age of 67 in a car accident.

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