Spencer Dryden: Jefferson Airplane’s Dynamic Rhythm Machine

Spencer Dryden was the drummer of San Francisco psychedelic rock icons Jefferson Airplane. After graduating from the Army & Navy Academy in Carlsbad, California, in 1955, Dryden played in some early rock ’n’ roll bands, but showed a preference for jazz. He was drumming at Hollywood’s Pink Pussycat strip club when legendary session ace Earl Palmer recommended him to the manager of the Airplane.

In 1966, Dryden replaced original Airplane drummer Skip Spence, who played on the group’s first album, Jefferson Airplane Takes Off, before leaving to form Moby Grape. Dryden played on the Airplane’s most famous recordings, including Surrealistic Pillow, After Bathing At Baxter’s, Bless Its Pointed Little Head, Crown Of Creation, and Volunteers. He also performed with the group at the historic music festivals Monterey Pop, Woodstock, and Altamont.

Dryden’s drumming was a major ingredient of the Airplane’s distinctive sound. His rudimental snare drum on “White Rabbit” was a key element to that song’s hypnotic effect, and the parts he contributed to songs like “Somebody To Love” and “Volunteers” gave them their intensity and drive. Advertisement

Dryden left Jefferson Airplane in 1970, and in 1971 replaced Mickey Hart in a Grateful Dead side project called New Riders Of The Purple Sage. From 1971 through 1978 he made several recordings with the New Riders, including their 1973 gold album The Adventures Of Panama Red. In the 1980s Dryden joined with former members of Country Joe & the Fish, Big Brother & the Holding Company, and Quicksilver Messenger Service in psychedelic retro-rock group the Dinosaurs.

Health problems forced Dryden to retire from musical activities in the 1990s. In 1996 he was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame for his work with Jefferson Airplane during the band’s glory years, but was unable to perform with the group at the celebratory event. Dryden died in 2005 following a battle with colon cancer. He was sixty-six.

“Spencer had a flow,” said Mickey Hart of the Dead. “He had a way of going, an impulse power that was irresistible and unique. He was capable of creating a churning, loving rhythm machine for ecstatic dancing.” Advertisement