The TWO groovy ladies who flew Jefferson Airplane to astonishing heights: Signe Toly Anderson and Grace Slick.
Pictured: Original Jefferson Airplane vocalist Signe Toly Anderson (left) and Grace Slick (right.)
I first heard Jefferson Airplane via the coolest middle school band teacher EVER. I took his beginner-level guitar class in the 8th grade to fill an arts credit. I don’t remember any of the chords we were taught...which is a damn shame, 13-year-old me could really wail on a 12-string. But I do remember the history of rock-and-roll section of his class. One day, he played us the video of Jefferson Airplane performing “White Rabbit” at Woodstock. I was floored. Then I was hooked.
It would be a long time after that class before I’d fully submerge myself into rock-and-roll, but I never forgot the wild-eyed lady with the commanding vibrato.
So you can imagine my surprise when I learned there was a time in the band’s history before Grace Slick! And she was in a group before Jefferson Airplane too! So here’s a tale of the two ladies who got psych-rock titan group Jefferson Airplane off the ground, and the certain something everyone forgets about their greatest hit.
The Airplane Takes Off
Signe (pronounced SIG-nee) Toly Anderson was born Signe Toly in Seattle. She was a jazz singer performing in the Bay Area music scene when singer-songwriter Marty Balin attended one of her shows. He asked her to join a group with himself, lead guitarist Jorma Kaukonen, and rhythm guitarist Paul Kantner. She agreed, and with the addition of bass and drums, Jefferson Airplane was born. Apparently the name came from a joke about what stupid thing they could name their band! According to Kaukonen, he said something to the affect of “You want something really silly? Try Jefferson Airplane.”
Pictured: The Jefferson Airplane lineup, circa 1966. From L-R: Paul Kantner, drummer Skip Spence, Marty Balin, Signe Anderson, Jorma Kaukonen and bassist Jack Casady.
Silly as it is, the name became the perfect metaphor for how Jefferson Airplane worked as a group. It was a whole crew of people working with equal hand in making music. There wasn’t really one “head honcho” or one frontman singing all the songs. Instead it was Marty, Paul, Jorma and Signe all harmonizing; like co-pilots flying a plane. They became the house band at the Matrix nightclub, cementing themselves as instrumental to the “San Fransisco sound.” Signe was essential to Jefferson Airplane’s early folk-rock sound and look. Her soulful voice added rich dimension to blues tunes like “Tobacco Road." Her signature prairie-style pigtails with hair bows made it into nearly every press photo she took with the band. In 1966 they released their debut album, Jefferson Airplane Takes Off. You can hear Signe most prominently on her signature song, “Chauffeur Blues.” It’s a lovely record that I highly recommend you listen to.
Above: “Chauffeur Blues,” featuring Signe Toly Anderson, performed by Jefferson Airplane. This recording comes from their first LP, Jefferson Airplane Takes Off (1966.)
But her time with the Jefferson Airplane flight crew was short. In the summer of 1966, Signe gave birth to her first child with then-husband and Merry Pranksters founder Jerry Anderson. Unfortunately, back in the ’60s it was near-impossible to be a new or expecting mother and a working musician at the same time. It’s almost unfathomable for us to think of today; especially seeing pop artists like Maren Morris performing full stadium shows while pregnant. Joan Baez would perform Woodstock pregnant just a few short years after the heyday of Jefferson Airplane. But ultimately, Signe decided it’d be near-impossible to bring a newborn baby on the road with her successful band. In the fall, she made the decision to leave the band to start her family. She bid her adoring fans farewell with:
“I want you all to wear smiles and daisies and box balloons. I love you all. Thank you and goodbye.”
Pictured: Signe Anderson circa 1966, sporting her signature pigtails.
After Signe’s departure from Jefferson Airplane, it was decided there’d need to be a change in pilots. In order to best perform the group’s old songs, as well as write new ones that’d appeal to their cult fan base, a new female vocalist was needed. Sherry Snow of San Fran folk duo Blackburn & Snow was briefly considered, but she declined her invitation. The future of the Airplane hung in the balance, but one thing was certain: the role Anderson’s powerful mezzo voice played in their songs would be tough to fill.
Enter Grace Slick.
Go Ask Alice
“I was born in the year of the rabbit and all kinds of white rabbit stuff has happened to me. It’s almost witchcraft.” – Grace Slick
Pictured: Grace Slick, from a 1967 group photo of Jefferson Airplane.
You guys...Grace Slick’s life story is fascinating. It’s not every day that a former department store model becomes a figurehead of the counterculture!
After Signe’s departure from Jefferson Airplane, bassist Jack Casady heard of Grace's band The Great Society and invited her to join. Grace much preferred how the Airplane ran themselves in a professional manner over the casual energy of her group. She agreed to join and the rest is rock-and-roll history! With her addition to the flight crew came the disbanding of The Great Society.
She brought her signature song from her old group. It’s pretty underground. You probably haven’t heard it.
Above: The Great Society’s “White Rabbit,” recorded live some time in 1966.
I mean, just listen to that recording! It’s jaw-dropping! The Great Society arrangement really needs the 6 minutes to go on the full journey. And you can totally hear the jazz influence happening. Jazz music and psychedelic rock wrote each others’ histories – I’d love to write about their symbiotic relationship if anyone’s interested.
I often hear “White Rabbit” referred to as a “drug culture anthem” of the ’60s. But when you subscribe to just that interpretation, a huge chunk of the song is left out. Sure, “One pill makes you larger and one pill makes you small” is pretty weighty towards the drug interpretation. But then the very next line isn’t accounted for: “And the ones that Mother gives you don’t do anything at all.”
The ’50s were a dark time sugar-coated into sweet Americana. I find it morbidly fascinating. Doctors were prescribing housewives some serious drugs just to get them through their days. Uppers for the energy to complete chores and raise houses full of kids, downers to sleep, and god knows what else to stay thin. And if a woman were to be depressed? She’d be shipped off for a lobotomy. It’s the premise of a horror movie. It blows my mind.
All of this was washed down with milkshakes, cherry red Coupes, and croonin’ Elvis. That illusion worked so well, it’s still how people see the ’50s!
But here’s the thing: those parents who settled down and had the nuclear family by 1950 were faced with a dissatisfied 17-year-old when the Summer of Love rolled around. Those kids were smart. They saw through the ruse their parents’ generation had set up: “Why are Mom and Dad so against marijuana and LSD when they’ve been on pills for 20 years?” It’s hypocritical to trash the “drug culture” of the ’60s without realizing that culture in the ’50s was the same if not worse!
Grace Slick saw through the illusion too. “White Rabbit” is a calling-out of that double-standard. “Feed your head” doesn’t just mean “do psychedelics!” Grace said it also means, “read some books, pay attention.” One of the song’s principle – and most forgotten – messages is to pay attention to the hypocrisy around you.
Pictured: The classic lineup of Jefferson Airplane, photographed for the Surrealistic Pillow (1967) album art. From L-R: Jack Casady, Grace Slick, Marty Balin, Jorma Kaukonen, Paul Kantner and drummer Spencer Dryden.
As great as “White Rabbit” is, Grace was so much more to Jefferson Airplane than that song.
Like Signe before her, Grace’s presence became the beating heart of the band. Her influence pushed their sound from folk to psych-rock. She got the band a lot more involved in politics as well; aligning them with anti-establishment and anti-racist causes. And of course we cannot forget the obligatory rock-and-roll antics she partook in. Highlights included drag racing through the streets of San Fransisco and plotting to dose Nixon with LSD. I am not making this up, this was a real thing that Grace attempted! And OF COURSE Abbie Hoffman was involved, he’s involved in everything somehow!!
Jefferson Airplane’s greatness long outlasted the Summer of Love. One of the band’s finest performances is on Thirty Seconds Over Winterland. Yes, I’m a Toaster Cover Lover! This album was recorded in 1972, long after the heyday of psych rock had come and gone. “Milk Train” has some of the best Grace vocals, hands-down.
Above: “Milk Train” as performed by Jefferson Airplane at the Winterland Ballroom in September 1972. Really wish they’d done more shows with a fiddle.
Somebodies To Love
Is there any way to determine which lady of Jefferson Airplane was “better?” I don’t think so. The reason so many listeners prefer Grace is because...well...there’s just more music with her.
Signe Toly Anderson is just as important as Grace Slick to Jefferson Airplane because she’s a huge reason the group off the ground. Without that prominent female vocal component, they would’ve been just another psych band. Once Signe decided her flight was over, Grace joined the crew. Her fierce presence, and the songs she brought with her from her Great Society days, took Jefferson Airplane to their greatest potential. I’m really glad Grace Slick getting the recognition she deserves in the rock-and-roll canon. I hope one day Signe will be remembered similarly for her contributions to the Airplane.
The world of rock-and-roll was not unlike Alice’s adventures in Wonderland. Best put by Grace Slick herself, “Alice was on her own, and she was in a very strange place, but she kept on going and she followed her curiosity...a lot of women could have taken a message from that story about how you can push your own agenda.” It’s tough to be an unapologetic woman in a boys’ club like rock-and-roll. Props to Grace and Signe for doing it so well.
Wear smiles and daisies and box balloons, and feed your head.