Jefferson Airplane Biography

Along with the Grateful Dead, the Jefferson Airplane is regarded as the most successful San Francisco band of the late 60s. The band was formed in August 1965 by Marty Balin (Martyn Jerel Buchwald, 30 January 1942, Cincinnati, Ohio, USA; vocals/guitar). The other members in the original line-up were Paul Kantner (b. 17 March 1941, San Francisco, California, USA; guitar/vocals) and Jorma Kaukonen (b. 23 December 1940, Washington, DC, USA; guitar/vocals). Bob Harvey and Jerry Peloquin gave way to Skip Spence (b. Alexander Lee Spence, 18 April 1946, Windsor, Ontario, Canada, d. 16 April 1999, Santa Cruz, California, USA) and Signe Anderson (b. Signe Toly Anderson, 15 September 1941, Seattle, Washington, USA). Their replacements, Spencer Dryden (b. 7 April 1938, New York City, New York, USA, d. 11 January 2005, Penngrove, California, USA; drums) and Jack Casady (b. John William Casady, 13 April 1944, Washington, DC, USA), made up a seminal band that blended folk and rock into what became known as west coast rock. Kantner, already a familiar face on the local folk circuit and Balin, formerly of the Town Criers and co-owner of the Matrix club, soon became highly popular locally, playing gigs and benefits organized by promoter Bill Graham. Eventually they became regulars at the Fillmore Auditorium and the Carousel Ballroom, both a short distance from their magnificent Victorian communal home at 2400 Fulton Street in the Haight Ashbury district.

Anderson departed shortly after the release of Jefferson Airplane’s moderately successful debut Takes Off and was replaced in October 1966 by Grace Slick (b. Grace Barnett Wing, 30 October 1939, Evanston, Illinois, USA; vocals). Slick was already well known with her former band, the Great Society, and donated two of their songs, ‘White Rabbit’ and ‘Somebody To Love’, to the Jefferson Airplane. Both titles were on their influential second album, Surrealistic Pillow, and both became US Top 10 hits. They have now achieved classic status as definitive songs from that era. The lyrics of ‘White Rabbit’ combined the harmless tale of Alice In Wonderland with an LSD trip. Their reputation was enhanced by a strong performance at the legendary Monterey Pop Festival in 1967. This national success continued with the erratic After Bathing At Baxters and the brilliant Crown Of Creation. The latter showed the various writers in the band maturing and developing their own styles. Balin’s ‘If You Feel’, Kaukonen’s ‘Ice Cream Phoenix’ and Slick’s tragi-comic ‘Lather’ gave the record great variety. This album also contained ‘Triad’, a song their friend David Crosby had been unable to include on a Byrds album.

Jefferson Airplane maintained a busy schedule and released a well-recorded live album, Bless Its Pointed Little Head, in 1969. The same year, they appeared at another milestone in musical history: the Woodstock Festival. Later that year they were present at the infamous Altamont Festival, where a group of Hells Angels killed a young spectator and attacked Balin. Slick and Kantner had now become lovers and their hippie ideals and political views were a major influence on the same year’s Volunteers. While it was an excellent album, it marked the decline of Balin’s role in the band. Additionally, Dryden departed and the offshoot Hot Tuna began to take up more of Casady and Kaukonen’s time. Wizened fiddler Papa John Creach (b. John Henry Creach, 28 May 1917, Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania, USA, d. 22 February 1994, Los Angeles, California, USA; violin) joined the band full-time in 1970, although he still continued to play with Hot Tuna. Kantner released a concept album, Blows Against The Empire, bearing the name Paul Kantner/Jefferson Starship. The ‘Starship’ consisted of various Airplane members, plus Jerry Garcia, David Crosby, Graham Nash, et al. This majestic album was nominated for the science fiction Hugo Award. Slick, meanwhile, gave birth to a daughter, China, who later in the year graced the cover of Slick And Kantner’s Sunfighter.

Following a greatest hits selection, Worst Of, and the departure of Balin, Jefferson Airplane released the cleverly packaged Bark. Complete with brown paper bag, the album offered some odd moments, notably Slick’s ‘Never Argue With A German’, sung in spoof German, and new drummer Joey Covington’s 50s-sounding a cappella piece ‘Thunk’. It also marked the first release on the band’s own Grunt label. 1972’s disappointing Long John Silver was followed by a gutsy live outing, 30 Seconds Over Winterland. This was the last album to bear the Jefferson Airplane name, although an interesting compilation comprising single releases and studio out-takes later appeared as Early Flight.

Hot Tuna became Casady and Kaukonen’s main interest and Slick and Kantner released further ‘solo’ albums before adopting the Jefferson Starship title and releasing a series of well-received albums. Kantner, Balin and Casady regrouped briefly as the KBC Band in 1986. The Jefferson Airplane title was resurrected in 1989 when Slick, Kaukonen, Casady, Balin and Kantner re-formed and released Jefferson Airplane to an indifferent audience. By the early 90s Hot Tuna had re-formed, Kantner was rebuilding his Jefferson Starship and Slick had apparently retired from the music business. Most of the main protagonists reunited in 1996 to perform at the band’s induction into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.

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