It is a little known fact that the drummer for Jefferson Airplane, Spencer Dryden, was Charlie Chaplin’s nephew. Spencer was the son of Charlie’s half-brother, Wheeler Dryden, & his wife, Alyce.  As a young boy, Spencer spent weekends with his father at the Chaplin Studios as well as Christmases at Charlie’s home in Beverly Hills. One famous story has 5-year-old Spencer reading “A Night Before Christmas” during a Chaplin family gathering.

Following the death of Wheeler Dryden in 1957, Spencer’s uncle, Syd Chaplin, wrote to his friend, R. J. Minney: “Wheeler had bought his son a car & gave him $25 every week to maintain it.  I would have helped the boy through college, but he has no other ambition than to become a drummer in a night club orchestra & I am not interested in that….” 1

The cover of Surrealistic Pillow (1967). Spencer is holding the banjo. 

Spencer was with Jefferson Airplane from 1966-1970 and played on some of their most famous recordings, including “Somebody To Love” & “White Rabbit”.  The song “Lather” from 1968’s Crown of Creation was written for Spencer on his 30th birthday by his former lover, Grace Slick. Spencer also played with the band at the Woodstock music festival in 1969. He kept his famous uncle a secret from his bandmates for years because he wanted to be known for his own accomplishments, not as Chaplin’s nephew.

Spencer was reportedly living in poverty the last years of his life. He died of cancer in 2005.

After Spencer left Jefferson Airplane, he played drums for the band New Riders Of the Purple Sage,
which included members of the Grateful Dead. Here he is with Jerry Garcia.


  1. Thank you for the memories, Jess…Surrealistic Pillow, Crown of Creation, Volunteers – I loved those albums as a kid. And speaking of NRPS, I saw them in 1973, along with Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen! 😉

  2. It was a thrill. I went with a girlfriend, and since neither of us was driving yet, a young couple that we both babysat for took us. It was at the U. of Maryland's Cole Field House — a relatively small venue in those days. Incidentally, a couple of years later, I was in class one morning at UM and heard the rumor that the Grateful Dead were going to be playing a free concert at the Cole Field House that afternoon! I couldn't go because I had to go to work. I've lived to regret that I didn't just call in sick that day, since I never had the opportunity to see the Dead after that. [sigh]P.S. It's great to talk to someone who knows about Commander Cody! 😉

  3. I would have regretted that as well! Plus it was a free concert! My husband, Chris, saw them around 1970. I think that would have been a great time to see them live.

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