When Jefferson Airplane Auditioned for Phil Spector: ‘Man, Let’s Get Out of Here!’

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Jefferson Airplane in 1965 (l. to r.): Bob Harvey, Signe Anderson, Marty Balin (on floor), Jerry Peloquin (drums), Paul Kantner, Jorma Kaukonen

In 1965, a new band called Jefferson Airplane was making waves in the San Francisco Bay Area. Word reached a famous record producer down in Los Angeles. The following story has never before been published in its entirety. With the news that Phil Spector has passed away, Best Classic Bands presents the full tale of their meeting for the first time.

Marty Balin, one of Jefferson Airplane’s lead singers and the band’s co-founder, had arranged—without the knowledge of the Airplane’s’s then-manager, Matthew Katz—for the band to audition for Phil Spector in Los Angeles. Spector’s sister had heard the commotion about the group up in San Francisco and had called Balin to see if they might be interested in playing for Phil. Being a brand-new band, of course they were!

The call had taken place in the late summer of 1965, barely a month after the group’s first public performance, and just a week after Ralph J. Gleason’s column in the San Francisco Chronicle raving about the new band. A number of record executives were already looking at the group as a possible signing, but none were as high-profile in the industry as Phil Spector. The New York native was still considered the finest pop record producer in America, maybe the world, and had been for a few years. His string of successful records with the Ronettes, the Crystals and, more recently, the Righteous Brothers, was lauded as monumental, and his trademark “Wall of Sound” technique was emulated by dozens of competitors, among them the massively successful Beach Boys and Four Seasons. To be taken under Spector’s wing could be a major coup for the band.

The Airplane, accompanied by Katz, flew to L.A.

Phil Spector

What they weren’t yet aware of when they boarded the plane was that Spector was also known to be something of an eccentric, a reclusive character who was notoriously difficult to deal with. In later years, several of the artists he worked with, among them his then-wife Ronnie Spector of the Ronettes, would tell tales of brutal treatment by their mentor. According to recollections from those who knew him, Spector was always surrounded by bodyguards, was rumored to flash around firearms, and was a taskmaster in the studio. (He would, of course, famously spend his final years in prison, having been convicted of murdering actress Lana Clarkson.)

Related: Phil Spector dies at 81

But here, on September 20, 1965, was the new sound out of San Francisco, mild-mannered Jefferson Airplane, unproven, unknown and waiting for Phil Spector to size them up. The band members remembered it well. In interviews conducted by this author for his Jefferson Airplane biography, Got a Revolution!, they flashed back to their memorable meeting with the so-called “Tycoon of Teen.”

Listen to a rare Airplane demo recording of “The Other Side of This Life” featuring vocalist Signe Anderson

Jorma Kaukonen (lead guitarist): We went to Phil’s place and of course Phil Spector was [acting like] Phil Spector. We set up in his huge house in Beverly Hills, and I remember he had his bodyguards and the whole deal. He had a…I don’t remember if it was a pellet pistol or a real pistol. Probably was a pellet pistol. He was shooting and stuff. Made me uncomfortable and I left after we played.

Marty Balin: When Jorma and I tried to leave and his bodyguard showed us his gun, we said, “Get out of the way. What are you gonna do? Shoot us?” He [Spector] was a little strange. He was always looking in the mirror and while he was talking to us he was looking at the part in his hair. And then, under this stairway, he had all these drawers that came out, full of all this great grass. And he never offered us one joint. So I looked at Jorma and said, “Man, let’s get out of here.” So he and I walked out. I said, “We can’t take this guy.”

Related: When the Airplane were on American Bandstand

Bob Harvey (original bassist): Matthew wanted him to produce the band. I’ve never seen a more paranoid bastard in my life [than Spector]. I mean, heavies with 45s. He’s out there in space! He didn’t want us in the room where he was at, in the big room, so he had us play out in the hall. And it was pretty strange. But he and [guitarist/singer/songwriter Paul] Kantner hit it off. They talked and talked and talked. The rest of us went back to the cars and packed up the instruments and everything, and he and Kantner talked for another 45 minutes, inside there alone. And it seemed like just because of the rapport that he had going there with Kantner that maybe something was going to happen because of it. If you could put up with his insanity, good things could come out of it. As long as you could cope.

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Paul Kantner: It was interesting, given his reputation. But he didn’t like us.

Signe Toly Anderson (original female lead singer): I remember his stone-cold entrance hall. I had to sit there for two hours while we waited for him because he wasn’t available. Excuuuse me.

While they were in L.A., the Airplane also auditioned for several other labels, including Capitol, Columbia and Colpix. Ultimately, they signed with RCA, beginning a relationship that would last more than two decades, through  changes of style, personnel and even band names. They never saw Phil Spector again.

Related: Links to 100s of current classic rock tours

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Jeff Tamarkin
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  1. Alias Pink Puzz
    #1 Alias Pink Puzz 17 January, 2021, 16:35

    Phil didn’t like the Airplane? That’s a serious lapse in taste. He may have realized they would have been impossible to work with. The Airplane quickly concluded he was nuts. And if the Jefferson Airplane felt you were too out there?

    Reply this comment
    • Lou
      Lou 18 January, 2021, 05:37

      The band didn’t need him. He may have adulterated their sound and turned it into something else more commercial on many songs. I think he could have enhanced Balin’s sound though on his solo work.

      Reply this comment
    • bluesriot
      bluesriot 18 January, 2021, 11:40

      lol yeah if u were too far out for the airplane, fuggedaboutit. and quite apparently phil was a dyed in the wool looney

      Reply this comment
    • Roky
      Roky 19 January, 2021, 18:11

      Glad he’s dead and soon to be forgotten.

      Reply this comment
  2. Da Mick
    #2 Da Mick 18 January, 2021, 01:10

    Well, as he wouldn’t share his dope, that was it as far as they were concerned. LOL. Spector’s eccentricities aside, that was the right choice for both parties, as the Airplane had their own wall of sound going on. They didn’t need their signature textures to become any more garbled by his production techniques. Spector was obviously more suited to producing with studio musicians who created backgrounds for vocalists, than he was with actual musical groups. “All Things Must Pass,” with its massive amount of Harrison’s musical friends that were involved in its recording, was actually very similar to the type of records Spector became famous for, utilizing layers of instruments on top of each other, all ensconced in reverb, to the point where they pretty much lost any kind of distinct individual sound.

    Reply this comment
  3. Rabit i.
    #3 Rabit i. 18 January, 2021, 12:12

    Jefferson Airplane are the ground breakers in the San Francisco sound.

    Reply this comment
  4. Moishe Pippick
    #4 Moishe Pippick 18 January, 2021, 19:01

    Never even imagined that crossover before and I’m a big fan of both (well Spectors music, not him). I wonder what he made of the Doors!

    Reply this comment
  5. Joe
    #5 Joe 19 January, 2021, 02:49

    They wrote a different kind of pop sound.
    I still like their popular songs.
    Go ask Alice etc. In truth however I’m still mainly just into grace slick singing with band back up. I’ve never been really impressed with the band singing together. The harmony seemed off to me. I still feel grace was the hottest rock goddess on the face of the planet.

    Reply this comment
  6. Mickey
    #6 Mickey 19 January, 2021, 08:56

    Getting rid of Phil was relatively easy, how’d they get rid of Steve Katz?

    Reply this comment
    • Jeff Tamarkin
      Jeff Tamarkin Author 19 January, 2021, 17:33

      I think you mean Matthew Katz. Steve Katz was in the Blues Project and Blood, Sweat & Tears. The Airplane got rid of Matthew Katz only after 22 years in court. That is not a typo–22 years!

      Reply this comment
  7. beatseeker
    #7 beatseeker 19 January, 2021, 09:24

    MORE ECHO! MORE REVERB!
    goodbye phil… best ears in the biz…

    Reply this comment
  8. Cisley
    #8 Cisley 19 January, 2021, 11:53

    For me the best part of this article was the video of Jefferson Airplane singing “It’s No Secret” with both Marty and Signe. Their first album, “Jefferson Airplane Takes Off” was and still is one of my favorite albums ever. What voices.

    Reply this comment
    • 122intheshade
      122intheshade 20 January, 2021, 14:19

      The liner notes to the “Takes Off” reissue (stereo/mono on one CD) has the story of the Airplane setting up in the RCA studios. They ask the engineer, “Would you like to get a mic level?” “No, we’re good”. Signe launches into “Chauffeur Blues”. And blows out the board!

      Reply this comment

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