Primary Instrument: Vocalist
The year was 1967 and she had wanderlust. It was also the Summer of Love. Among the bands that spent their infancy in San Francisco were Jefferson Airplane, the Grateful Dead, the Paul Butterfield Blues Band and the Steve Miller Blues Band.
They were heady days. A new psychedelic form of rock ’n’ roll was everywhere. It was a time of anti- war marches and flower power. Line-ups of dream bands at famed venues such as the Fillmore West, the Carousel Ballroom, Winterland and Haight Theatre were ubiquitous. “When I moved there it was the right time,” Parsons recalls. “But I was the most abnormal of hippies, I never was cool.”
Cool or not, she snagged a singing job at the Drinking Gourd, where Marty Balin and Paul Kanter, of Jefferson Airplane, met and decided to form a band. Other musicians performed there, and the Smothers Brothers used its tiny stage to work on their comedy act. Located in the heart of San Francisco’s Cow Hollow section, “It was the hippest coffee shop,” she says. Parsons’ first song was Leonard Cohen’s Suzanne, which she performed a cappella.
On her second night, a guitarist, with very long hair, sat in with her. “I got 10 bucks and all I could eat or drink. They were all hippies. I wanted to be one so bad, but I didn’t know what it was. I still wore a pointed, padded bra. They told me ‘you’ve got to burn your bra,’ and I did.
As more people heard the lovely and vivacious Parsons, more musicians joined her. Eventually they formed a band called AnExchange. Jack Schaeffer joined the band. He was notorious for playing five different horns, wearing leather shorts and thigh high boots.
“He was the hippie of all hippies,” Parsons says. There were two guitars, horns, and then, as rock became more folk oriented, they added drums, a bass and piano.
By then the band was based in Marin County, just north of San Francisco. Parsons lived in Sausalito and swore she’d never leave. Press clippings from the day inevitably referred to her as “lovely and talented.”
In its peak year of 1972, AnExchange opened for Ike and Tina Turner at the Circle Star Theatre in San Francisco. Ike was late, he and Tina were fighting, the microphone power failed. A San Francisco Examiner reviewer called the Ike and Tina Turner Revue “sloppy.” He added that AnExchange, which was forced to play extra numbers while the Turners carried on backstage, “sounded beautiful. Singer Patty Parsons is a talented beauty with an impressive voice.”
AnExchange also opened for the Everly Brothers, and for Joan Baez at the Edmonton Folk Festival. The good reviews and comparisons to Janis Joplin’s singing style mounted. They were on the brink of stardom, everyone said. Everyone was wrong. Though they were popular in their realm, Parsons says, “We thought it would all fall in place, but we never had good management.”
Around the same time, members of the Jefferson Airplane band came to see her sing at the Ancient Mariner in Mill Valley. The band was reforming under a new name, Jefferson Starship.
“They asked, ‘Would I join them.’ I looked a little like Grace,” the now blonde-headed choir mistress says, referring to Airplane’s tempestuous lead singer and songwriter Grace Slick, who had briefly retired.
However, AnExchange propitiously gained a new fan. He was Dick Anderson of the Sun Valley Company, and after hearing them sing at another San Francisco coffeehouse, the Coal Yard, he invited them to play at The Ram Restaurant that winter.
“I’d come crawling in from skiing, take a nap Joe Cannon was playing après ski, and when I heard him starting his finale, Bye Bye Miss American Pie, I’d know it was time for me to get up and sing.”
In its peak year of 1972, AnExchange opened for Ike and Tina Turner at the Circle Star Theatre in San Francisco.
In a town of eccentrics and ski bums who bombed down Baldy in jeans and tee shirts, the longhaired hippies from San Francisco fit right in. Schaeffer, in particular, was known for wearing his miniscule cut-off jean shorts on the mountain.
An Exchange spent the next several winter seasons doing what Parsons calls the ski resort tour: Sun Valley, Aspen and Steamboat Springs. After the first year they performed at other Wood River Valley venues, including the Limelight Room of the Sun Valley Inn, and what was then Slavey’s and The Prospector. The band continued to protect her from the evils of the day. “It was like I was their little sister.”
In 1979, the band, now back in the Bay Area, called a rehearsal. Patty didn’t show up. “I never went back. San Francisco had gotten too crowded. It broke my heart, but I made the right choice.”
But music wasn’t far away from her thoughts. “I decided I wanted to do theater. I had a trained voice, I had done rock ’n’ roll, a lot of angst, Janis, Joni Mitchell. But I went back and started over, doing theater.”
Meanwhile, she became Wygle’s musical director at Laughing Stock. “I can’t get enough of Kathy Wylge,” she says. “She saw me through hard times, remembered my band and always treated me with professional rapport. We have mutual admiration for each other’s work. She’s also been loyal. I feel like I’ll always have it until I say I won’t.”
Among the shows she’s been the musical director of are Mame, Oklahoma, The King & I, Sound of Music, Cabaret, Man of La Mancha, Damn Yankees, Oliver and Annie,.
“I like being a director. I love to teach. I get such a kick out of it. And I have a passion to do my music.” In 2002 she was asked to start the Wood River Jewish Community’s choir.
“The church has been my home. They’ve seen me through good and bad, they’re the ones who’ve made it possible.” As well as having her own choir room in the new and renovated Church of the Big Wood, she has produced and directed “The Promise” for over 20 years. This original production, written originally by a friend of Parsons, features seasonal music, dancers and over 100 singers.