Classic Rock Legends: The History of Jefferson Airplane



Jefferson Airplane is considered one of the cornerstones of psychedelic rock who achieved stunning commercial and critical triumph. They formed in San Francisco in 1965 by vocalist Mart Balin during the time when the San Francisco folk scene was booming.

Their productive, vital years spanned from 1965 to 1972 where they played at major rock festivals such as Woodstock and Monterey, recorded and released seven studio albums, and famous singles such as “Somebody To Love” and “White Rabbit.”

The band dissolved in 1970, with its members such as Grace Slick and Paul Kantner (who formed the spin-off band Jefferson Starship together) launching solo careers. Other members Jack Casady and Jorma Kaukonen had formed their own spin-off band Hot Tuna. The group reunited in 1988 for a one-time gig and record release. They were inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall of Fame in 1996.

Origins and early career

Pop singer Marty Balin (born in 1942 in Cincinnati, Ohio) had started a solo career, having released little-known singles for Challenge Records in the early 1960s. Following the Beatles-led British invasion in 1964, Balin saw interest in the emergence of folk and rock and sought to form a group to play that kind of musical fusion. He attracted new investors to help him convert a former pizza restaurant on San Francisco, California’s Fillmore Street into a club. The newly revamped venue would later be named the Matrix.

Next, Balin was looking for potential musicians in order to form his new folk-rock outfit. Eventually he found Paul Kantner (rhythm guitarist/singer born in 1941), Jorma Kaukonen (lead singer/guitarist born in 1949), Signe Toly (singer born in 1941), Bob Harvey (bass) and Jerry Peloquin (drums).

The new band was christened Jefferson Airplane. They made their first official appearance at the Matrix in August 1965. Since that time, the group had been regulars at the club. Folk rock was dominating the charts then, and it’s no surprise that an fledgling band like Jefferson Airplane got positive attention from the press. The band was on the verge of signing with their choice record label when their first personnel shift occurred. In 1965, Peloquin and Harvey were fired and then replaced by drummer/guitarist Skip Spence and new bassist Jack Casady, respectively. Around the same time, Toly married Jerry Anderson, one of the members of the psychedelic group “Merry Pranksters” who also managed the lighting at the Matrix. With this marriage, Toly was now publicly known as Signe Toly Anderson.

This lineup of Anderson, Casady, Balin, Kantner, Kaukonen and Spence signed their first contract with RCA Victor Records, and late in 1965 they commenced their first recording session in neighboring city Los Angeles. Their first singles (all self-composed tracks) such as “It’s No Secret,” “Come Up in Years,” and “Bringing Me Down” failed to chart. Their debut album Jefferson Airplane Takes Off (1966) peaked at #128 on the Billboard 200.

Newer developments occurred in the band. Spence had been replaced by new drummer Spencer Dryden (born in 1938). Anderson, on the other hand, had given birth to a daughter. Anderson’s commitment to raising her family caused her to leave Jefferson Airplane.

Luckily, Jefferson Airplane found a strong replacement in Grace Slick (born in 1939). Slick had been the lead singer of San Francisco band the Great Society which was on the verge of splitting.

Commercial breakthrough

Jefferson Airplane released their second album Surrealistic Pillow in 1967. The singles on that album were “Somebody to Love,” written by Grace’s brother-in-law Darby Slick and “White Rabbit,” using the references from Alice in Wonderlandstories while examining the effects of psychedelic drugs. However, RCA chose “My Best Friend” (which had been written by Spence) as the first single, but that too eventually missed the charts. Surrealistic Pillow‘s release followed later.

The album began its ascent on the charts, thanks growing popularity of two singles “Somebody to Love” and “White Rabbit.” “Somebody to Love” became Jefferson Airplane’s first top ten hit, reaching at #5 on the Billboard Hot 100. “White Rabbit,” meanwhile, peaked at #8 on the same chart (#55 on the UK singles chart) in mid-1967. Surrealistic Pillow reached #3 on the Billboard 200. It eventually went gold.

By that time, Jefferson Airplane finally realized the success they wanted. They began to record another album and embarked on a tour. The first festival where they performed was the Monterey International Pop Festival, famed for its introduction of rock legends such as Jimi Hendrix (and his Jimi Hendrix Experience). Their exposure was further augmented by TV appearances on such shows as The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson and The Ed Sullivan Show.

On the heels of the success of Surrealistic Pillow, the band decided to take a change of direction, like many other psychedelic bands. They adopted a more adventurous, heavier sound, as evident in their third LP After Bathing at Baxter’s at the end of 1967. They would never equal the success of Surrealistic Pillow, although Baxter’sdid well on the chart, peaking at #17. As the band was gaining recognition, band founder Marty Balin’s role in the band became less apparent.

Jefferson Airplane’s fourth album Crown of Creation (1968) became the group’s second and last Top Ten hit album at #6 (the title track, meanwhile, was a minor hit). Their fifth LP, Volunteers, was released in 1969 and went to #13 on the Billboard 200; its title track was also a minor hit. Their first live LP, Bless Its Pointed Little Head, peaked at #17 on the Billboard 200. The group then appeared at Woodstock festival in 1969.

The dissolution of the 1967-1970 classic lineup

From 1967 to 1970 the band’s configuration remained stable. In 1970, lineup changes occurred once again. Early that year Spencer was dismissed from the group and was replaced by Joey Covington (born in 1945). Kaukonen and Casady formed their own group separate from Jefferson Airplane called Hot Tuna. Kantner, Slick, and Casady took on a project that resulted in an album called Blows Against The Empire where they unofficially billed themselves as Jefferson Starship (the project would later evolve as a real band by 1974). They still retained their membership in their first band. Blues violinst Papa John Creach, a friend of Covington’s, became the oldest member yet at 53 when he joined the group in 1970.

As the band’s musical approach was changing, founder Marty Balin resigned from Jefferson Airplane and sold off his shares to the group in late 1970 (his departure was officially announced in April the following year). That same year RCA had released their first compilation album and sarcastically named it The Worst of Jefferson Airplane. It went to #12 on the Billboard 200, eventually going gold and then platinum.

The end of the Airplane and side/solo projects

The members had also begun focusing on side projects while still remaining with band. In 1971, RCA re-signed Jefferson Airplane to its subsidiary label Grunt. Their first album for Grunt, Bark, was released and just missed the top 10; eventually it went gold. Grunt also issued albums by Hot Tuna as well as some separate works by the band members.

By the early 1970s, members of Jefferson Airplane had become more focused on their side projects. Hot Tuna continued to put out a few albums. Kantner and Slick, who had married and now had a daughter, collaborated and released an album together Sunfire in late 1971.

In 1972, Jefferson Airplane released their last studio album Long John Silver, amid more personnel changes. It went to #20 on the Billboard 200 and went gold. In September of that year, they performed together for the last time in San Francisco, effectively marking their end as a group.

Various incarnations, a new album and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction

Despite this, many former Jefferson Airplane members still continued to collaborate with each other on many of their solo/side projects. Kaukonen and Casady continued with Hot Tuna. Kantner, Slick and Freiberg collaborated on an LP Baron von Tollbooth & the Chrome Nun in 1973. Jefferson Starship went on to hit the charts with their successful albums.

They went through various reincarnations in the 1970s and 1980s. In 1989, Kantner, Slick, Casady and Kaukonen got together to embark another tour as well as release a new self-titled Jefferson Airplane album. It featured the singles “Summer of Love” (#15 adult contemporary) and “Planes” (#24 rock). While the album was only a modest success, the tour was otherwise well-received.

In 1996, the classic Jefferson Airplane lineup was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Balin, Kantner, Casady, Kaukonen and Dryden were present at the induction and performed for the last time as Jefferson Airplane. Slick, who was also supposed to join them, wasn’t able to attend the event due to medical reasons.

The following releases have all been of archival nature, the latest album being 2010’sReturn to the Matrix. A DVD titled Fly Jefferson Airplane had been released in 2004.

Spin-off act #1: Hot Tuna

Hot Tuna was formed in 1969 during Jefferson Airplane’s time off from touring. Kaukonen and Casady were the founding members of the first of Jefferson Airplane spin-off acts.

Hot Tuna released their self-titled debut album in 1970. In 1974, Kaukonen and Casady were no longer interested to reunite with Jefferson Airplane, and by the time their fourth album The Phosprescent Rat was released, the two men officially quit their original group. This led their ex-Airplane member Kantner to continue touring with Jefferson Airplane. But since Jefferson Airplane was co-owned by him and his other ex-members Kaukonen, Casady and Slick (as well as their ex-manager Bill Thompson), Kantner re-named the group as Jefferson Starship.

Hot Tuna split in 1977 but reconvened in 1983 for their first reunion tour. In 1986 they re-formed as an acoustic act, but at the end of the decade (following Jefferson’s Airplane’s reunion tour) Hot Tuna went back to being electric. Since the 1990s Hot Tuna has been performing both electric and acoustic styles.

Kaukonen and Casady, up to the present day, are still very much leading Hot Tuna after its several incarnations. The blues-rock group has earned a cult status especially among the jam band aficionados.

Spin off act #2: Jefferson Starship

As Jefferson Airplane was in the process of splitting up in the early 1970s, Paul Kantner recorded a concept album Blows Against the Empire, which was to be credited to Jefferson Starship, then an unofficial name. This project featured his fellow Jefferson Airplane members Slick, Casady and latter-day member David Freiberg, as well as other artists from the Grateful Dead and Santana. Jefferson Starship evolved into a real band by 1974, and in 1975 Balin joined the group where he remained until near the end of the decade. The band prided itself in bringing progressive rock inspired by science fiction themes.

Unlike its predecessor Jefferson Airplane, Jefferson Starship was more interested in making commercial records. Result is the Top 40 success of their albums Dragon Fly(1975), Red Octopus (which went to #1 in 1975), Spitfire (1976), Earth (1978), Gold(1979), Modern Times (1981), Winds of Change (1982) and Nuclear Furniture(1984). Several personnel changes (and a lawsuit) later, the band is still active as of 2014, with Kantner and Freiberg the only remaining original members along with new musicians.

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