Original Jefferson Airplane vocalist Signe Anderson dead at 74


Signe Toly Anderson, a vocalist and original member of the Jefferson Airplane who left the band after its first record and was replaced by Grace Slick, has died.

Anderson died Thursday at her home in Beaverton, Oregon, according to her daughter, Onateska Ladybug Sherwood. Anderson was 74 and had been suffering from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Anderson, who survived cancer in her 30s, died on the same day that another Airplane member, Paul Kantner, died.

Born Signe Toly in Seattle and raised in Portland, Oregon, after her parents divorced, she was a folk and jazz singer who had performed in groups since high school. She moved to San Francisco in her 20s and began appearing at a popular folk club, the Drinking Gourd. Vocalist Marty Balin heard her sing and asked her to join what became the Jefferson Airplane, which soon became a top local act and in 1966 released “The Jefferson Airplane Takes Off.” Strongly influenced by the folk-rock sound of the time, “Takes Off” was a word-of-mouth hit that combined original songs and covers, including a showcase for Anderson and her soulful contralto, “Chauffeur Blues.”

But by the time the album came out, Anderson had given birth to her first child and she departed after a show at the Fillmore in October 1966, a concert bootlegged for years and released officially in 2010. Given a standing ovation after Balin announced from the stage that she was leaving, Anderson told the audience, “I want you all to wear smiles and daisies and box balloons. I love you all. Thank you and goodbye.”

The switch from Anderson to Slick, formerly of the San Francisco group the Great Society, proved momentous for the Airplane and for rock history. Slick brought with her two future standards, “Somebody to Love” and “White Rabbit,” and a fierce vocal style and confrontational attitude. The next album, “Surrealistic Pillow,” was a landmark of psychedelic rock that made the Airplane superstars and representatives of the “San Francisco Sound.”

“You have to look at the priorities in your life, the reality in your life,” Anderson told radio station KGON in Portland in 2011, remembering the ordeals of bringing her baby on tour. “I had to wait in the San Francisco airport in July of 1966 for 36 hours before we got on the airplane and flew to Chicago. All the diapers were gone.”

“I don’t regret having left,” she added.

Anderson was a footnote in the Airplane’s history, but was regarded with respect and affection by fans, and stayed in touch with Kantner, Balin and other band members with whom she performed on occasion over the following decades. In one way at least she proved irreplaceable: The Airplane dropped “Chauffeur Blues” from its live shows.

On Facebook, bassist Jack Casady remembered her as “a real sweetheart with a terrific contralto voice.” Airplane guitarist Jorma Kaukonen wrote on his blog that Anderson was “our den mother in the early days of the Airplane” a voice of reason for “our dysfunctional little family.” Balin, writing on Facebook, imagined that she and Kantner “woke up in heaven and said ‘Hey what are you doing here? Let’s start a band.'”

Anderson was married twice, to Merry Prankster Jerry Anderson and to Michael Alois Ettlin, who died in 2011. She is survived by two children and three grandchildren.