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Jefferson Airplane

Biography

Jefferson Airplane
Michael Ochs Archive/Getty

Best known as the hippie revolutionaries who produced Sixties pop nuggets like "White Rabbit" and "Somebody to Love," Jefferson Airplane survived myriad personnel shifts, including the 1984 departure of founder/guiding light Paul Kantner, several name changes. Over its subsequent years, the band morphed from psychedelic rockers to an MOR pop powerhouse and back again.

At the start, the Jefferson Airplane epitomized the burgeoning Haight-Ashbury culture and provided its soundtrack. The band began in 1965 when singer Marty Balin (b. Martyn Jerel Buchwald, Jan. 30, 1942, Cincinnati, OH), formerly with the acoustic group the Town Criers, met guitarist Paul Kantner (b. Mar. 17, 1941, San Francisco, CA) at the Drinking Gourd, a San Francisco club. They were first a folk-rock group, rounded out by lead guitarist Jorma Kaukonen, drummer Skip Spence, singer Signe Anderson, and bassist Bob Harvey , who was soon replaced by Jack Casady. Their first major show was on August 13, christening the Matrix Club, which later became a major outlet for new Bay Area bands. RCA signed the group and Jefferson Airplane Takes Off (Number 128, 1966) went gold.

Anderson left to have a baby and was replaced by Grace Slick (b. Grace Barnett Wing, Oct. 30, 1939, Chicago, IL), a former model and member of the Great Society, a group formed in 1965. The Great Society, which included her husband at the time, Jerry Slick, and brother-in-law Darby, had completed two albums for Columbia that weren't released until after Slick became a star with the Airplane. Spence left the Airplane to form Moby Grape and was replaced by a former jazz drummer, Spencer Dryden (b. Apr. 7, 1944, New York, NY), completing the Airplane's most inventive lineup.

Slick's vocals were stronger and more expressive than Anderson's; she later claimed that she tried to imitate the yowl of the lead guitar. She brought two Great Society songs to the Airplane's second album, Surrealistic Pillow — "Somebody to Love" (Number Five, 1967), co-written by Darby Slick, and her own "White Rabbit" (Number Eight, 1967), which was banned in some areas as a pro-drug song. The album (Number Three, 1967), sold half a million copies. After Bathing at Baxter's (Number 17, 1967) included a nine-minute psychedelic jam-collage, "Spayre Change," and occasioned the group's first battle with RCA over obscene language: The word "shit" was deleted from the lyric sheet. Baxter's had no hit singles and didn't sell well, but the Airplane recouped with the gold Crown of Creation (Number Six, 1968), which included Slick's "Lather" and David Crosby's "Triad," a song about a ménage à trois that had been rejected by Crosby's current group, the Byrds.

The band's ego conflicts already were beginning, however, as Slick stole media attention from Balin (the band's founder), and the songwriting became increasingly divergent. Live, Slick and Balin traded vocals in battles that became increasingly feverish, and the volatile sound of the band in concert was captured on Bless Its Pointed Little Head (Number 17, 1969). By the time the sextet recorded 1969's Volunteers, the Airplane's contract allowed it total "artistic control," which meant that the "Up against the wall, motherfuckers" chorus of "We Can Be Together" appeared intact. The Airplane performed at the Woodstock and Altamont festivals but then had its second major shakeup. Dryden left in 1970 to join the New Riders of the Purple Sage (he was replaced by Joey Covington), and the band stopped touring when Slick became pregnant by Kantner. Anxious to perform, Kaukonen and Casady formed Hot Tuna [see entry] (originally Hot Shit), which later seceded from the Airplane, although, like most band members, they would return.

In the meantime, Kantner and the housebound Slick recorded Blows Against the Empire (Number 20, 1970). Billed as Paul Kantner and Jefferson Starship (the debut of the name), the album featured Jerry Garcia, David Crosby, Graham Nash, and other friends. It became the first musical work nominated for the science-fiction writers' Hugo Award. At the same time, a greatest-hits package entitled The Worst of the Jefferson Airplane (Number 12, 1970) was released. On January 25, 1971, Slick and Kantner's daughter, China, was born; that spring, Balin, who had nothing to do with Blows and contributed only one cowritten composition to Volunteers, left. He formed a short-lived band, Bodacious D.F.

In August the Airplane formed its own label, Grunt, distributed by RCA. The band's reunited effort, Bark (Number 11, 1971), saw them with Covington and all of Hot Tuna, including violinist Papa John Creach, who had first performed with Hot Tuna at a Winterland show in 1970. The band had grown apart, though, and Hot Tuna and Kantner-Slick were each writing for their own offshoot projects. In December 1971 Slick and Kantner released Sunfighter (Number 89, 1971) under both their names, with baby China as cover girl. (China grew up to become an MTV VJ and an actor.)

In July 1972 this version of the Airplane recorded its last studio album, Long John Silver (Number 20), with some drumming from ex-Turtle John Barbata. In August 1972 at a free concert in New York's Central Park, the band introduced ex–Quicksilver Messenger Service bassist, keyboardist, and vocalist David Freiberg to the ranks. The Airplane unofficially retired at that point. By that September, Casady and Kaukonen had decided to go full-time with Hot Tuna, though they appeared on the live album Thirty Seconds Over Winterland (Number 52, 1973), which came out in April 1973. Slick, Kantner, and Freiberg recorded Baron Von Tollbooth and the Chrome Nun (Number 120, 1973), one of the band's least popular efforts. Slick's equally disappointing solo debut, Manhole (Number 127), appeared in January 1974. By then, she had developed a serious drinking problem, and the band was hoping that the Tuna players would return. They did not.

Finally, in February 1974 Slick and Kantner officially formed the Jefferson Starship (no strict relation to the group on Blows), with Freiberg, Creach, Barbata, and 19-year-old lead guitarist Craig Chaquico. Chaquico had played with the Grunt band Steelwind with his high school English teacher Jack Traylor, and on Slick and Kantner's collaborative albums beginning with Sunfighter. The new group also included Peter Kangaroo (Jorma's brother), though in June he was replaced by Pete Sears, a British sessionman who had played on Rod Stewart's records and had been a member of Copperhead. On Dragon Fly (Number 11, 1974), Balin made a guest appearance on his and Kantner's song "Caroline." The album went gold.

Balin tentatively rejoined the band in January 1975, and the group's next big breakthrough came with Red Octopus, its first Number One album, hitting that position several times during the year and selling 4 million copies. Balin's ballad "Miracles" was a Number Three single. The band was more popular than ever, but in Slick's opinion the music had become bland and corporate, and her rivalry with Balin had not diminished. The group's followup album, 1976's Spitfire, went Number Three and platinum, its first album to do so. But after the successful Earth (Number Five, 1978; also platinum), both Slick and Balin left.

By then, Slick and Kantner's romance had ended; in November 1976, she married the band's 24-year-old lighting director, Skip Johnson. Her alcoholism forced her to quit the band in the middle of a European tour, leading to a crowd riot in Germany when she did not appear. Her solo albums were neither great critical nor great commercial successes, although throughout the years, her distinctive singing style never changed. In 1980 Balin produced a rock opera entitled Rock Justice in San Francisco. He did a solo album of MOR love songs and in 1981 had a hit single with "Hearts."

With its two lead singers gone, the group's future again seemed in question, but in 1979 Mickey Thomas, best known as lead vocalist on the Elvin Bishop hit "Fooled Around and Fell in Love," joined, and Barbata was replaced by Aynsley Dunbar, a former Frank Zappa and David Bowie sideman who had just left Journey. The new lineup's Freedom at Point Zero (Number Ten, 1979) went gold on the strength of its Number 14 hit, "Jane."

The group's momentum ground to a halt in 1980 after Kantner suffered a brain hemorrhage that, despite its severity, left no permanent damage. The next year came Modern Times (Number 26, 1981), which featured Slick on one track; she rejoined the band in February 1981, and the Jefferson Starship again ascended with a string of Top 40 hits: "Be My Lady" (Number 28, 1982), "Winds of Change" (Number 38, 1983), and "No Way Out" (Number 23, 1984).

Professing his disdain for the group's more commercial direction, Kantner left in 1984, taking with him the "Jefferson" part of its name. Then known simply as Starship, the group enjoyed even greater commercial success. From the platinum Number Seven Knee Deep in the Hoopla came "We Built This City" (Number One, 1985), "Sara" (Number One, 1986), and "Tomorrow Doesn't Matter Tonight" (Number 26, 1986).

No Protection (Number 12, 1987) included the group's third Number One hit, 1987's "Nothing's Gonna Stop Us Now," and "It's Not Over ('Til It's Over)" (Number Nine, 1987), which was later adopted as the theme song of Major League Baseball. The group's last Top 40 single, "It's Not Enough," appeared in 1989. The core trio of Thomas, Chaquico, and Baldwin, abetted by Brett Bloomfield and Mark Morgan, attempted to keep the ship aloft, but in 1990 the group called it quits. Thomas formed yet another band, Starship With Mickey Thomas, whose only links to the original dynasty were himself and latecomer Bloomfield.

In the meantime, in 1989, Kantner, Slick, Balin, Casady, and Kaukonen revived the early Jefferson Airplane lineup and released Jefferson Airplane (Number 85, 1989). Before that, Kantner, Balin, and Casady had formed the KBC Band; its self-titled LP went to Number 75 in 1986.

With Starship now disbanded, Kantner reclaimed the Jefferson Starship moniker and put together a new lineup in 1991, which included Airplane/Starship stalwarts Casady and Creach as well as Tim Gorman (who had worked with the Who and the Jefferson Airplane), ex-Tube Prairie Prince, former KBC member Slick Aguilar, and lead singer Darby Gould, whom Kantner discovered fronting her band World Entertainment War. Gould was joined by vocalist Diana Mangano. The next year, Balin joined. This group, dubbed by Kantner Jefferson Starship - The Next Generation, toured in the early Nineties to positive reviews. With Slick (who had by then retired from performing) guesting on several songs, the band recorded the live Deep Space/Virgin Sky, which consisted of new material as well as "covers" of classic Airplane and Starship tracks. The album Windows of Heaven first came out in Germany in 1998 but was remixed for its American release in 1999.

In 2000 Balin, Kantner, and Casady started touring as Jefferson Airplane's Volunteers and were promptly sued by Jefferson Airplane manager and shareholder of Jefferson Airplane Inc., Bill Thompson, for using the name without permission. Adding to the confusion, Mickey Thomas has been touring as Starship Featuring Mickey Thomas since 1992. The Kantner/Freiberg/Aguilar version of Jefferson Starship continued touring in the 2000s, with yet another female vocalist, Cathy Richardson, and other revolving-door members and famous guests including early Grateful Dead keyboardist Tom Constanten. In 2008 the group released Jefferson's Tree of Liberty, an album of mostly protest folk cover songs including Woody Guthrie's "Pastures of Plenty," Phil Ochs' "I Ain't Marchin' Anymore" and Bob Dylan's "Chimes of Freedom."

Slick has remained true to her vow not to perform anymore and now dedicates herself to painting. Invoking health reasons, she declined to appear with Jefferson Airplane when it performed at its induction into the Rock And Roll Hall of Fame in January 1996 (though she guested on ex–4 Non Blondes singer Linda Perry's album In Flight later that same year). In 1998 she published her autobiography, Somebody to Love?

Skip Spence, Jefferson Airplane's original drummer died of lung cancer on April 16, 1999. Six years later, his successor and former Slick boyfriend Spencer Dryden succumbed to colon cancer on January 10, 2005.

Portions of this biography appeared in The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll (Simon & Schuster, 2001). Mark Kemp contributed to this article.

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