Their early repertoire was derived mainly from Airplane material that Jorma played and covers of American country and blues artists such as Rev. Gary Davis, Jelly Roll Morton, Bo Carter and Arthur Blake (Blind Blake). In addition to these shows, Jack & Jorma would play as a duo with Jorma on acoustic guitar. Beginning in October 1969, Hot Tuna performed as the opening act to Jefferson Airplane with a combination of both electric and acoustic sets. The band's name came from someone Kaukonen refers to as a "witty wag" who called out, "hot tuna" after hearing the line 'What's that smell like fish, oh baby,' from the song "Keep On Truckin'."
In September 1969, a week of concerts were recorded at New Orleans House in Berkeley and released as a live album in 1970, Hot Tuna. (This album has become affectionately known by the group's fans as the "breaking glass album", because of the sound of breaking beer glasses during the recording of "Uncle Sam Blues".) Jorma's brother Peter Kaukonen soon replaced Kantner on rhythm guitar and Marty Balin joined on vocals for the electric songs.
In September 1970, Hot Tuna performed two acoustic shows without Jefferson Airplane at Pepperland and received good reviews, signifying that Hot Tuna could survive without the other band to support it. As Jefferson Airplane wound down and stopped touring after the Fillmore East shows, Hot Tuna—for whom live performance was always of prime importance—became an independent group consisting of Jorma, Jack, new drummer Sammy Piazza, and Papa John, moving fully to the electric band format. This line-up was first documented on the album First Pull Up, Then Pull Down (1971), which was recorded live at the Chateau Liberte (a club favored by the band) located in the Santa Cruz Mountains near Los Gatos, California. The group also appeared on three tracks from Papa John Creach's debut solo album as well as "Walking the Tou Tou" from his second album Filthy!.
The studio albums Burgers (1972) and The Phosphorescent Rat (1973) followed, with Papa John leaving before Rat was recorded. These two albums featured compositions mainly of Kaukonen original material and included some of the guitarist's most delicate and poetic works. David Crosby sang supporting vocals on the Burgers track "Highway Song," and keyboard player Nick Buck made his first appearance on what would become a semi-permanent tenure during the 1970s. As the band prepared for its 1974 tour in support of Rat, Jorma decided to have the band perform acoustic on the next tour, and Piazza was let go. Kaukonen and Casady then proceeded to record Kaukonen's first solo album, Quah.
Rhythm guitarist Michael Falzarano and drummer Shigemi Komiyama joined core members of Hot Tuna in a first reunion tour in 1983. Kaukonen decided to play very few Hot Tuna songs and instead concentrated on newer material which changed the band to a hard rock and heavy metal direction. The band was not well received at all and fans walked out of shows.
Hot Tuna was reformed again as an acoustic band in 1986 performing classic material, with producer Joey Balin joining on rhythm guitar until 1987. Kantner joined the band in 1987 and 1988 adding some old Jefferson Airplane songs to the setlist. Grace Slick showed up on stage as well for one show at The Fillmore in March, 1988. The band continued into 1989 and Kaukonen and Casady joined the 1989 Jefferson Airplane reunion album and tour, performing acoustic Hot Tuna sets in the middle of each show.
At the end of the Airplane tour, Hot Tuna resumed their electric performances adding drummer Joey Stefko and rhythm guitarist Michael Falzarano to the lineup.
New Yorker Harvey Sorgen soon replaced Stefko on drums and Galen Underwood joined on keyboards for their first album of all new material in almost 14 years, 1990's Pair a Dice Found. Kaukonen and Falzarano both contributed original songs.
Other musicians have come and gone over the group's several incarnations, as Hot Tuna has always been a fluid aggregation, but the name "Hot Tuna" has essentially become shorthand for "Jack Casady, Jorma Kaukonen." From 2004–2009, they have toured with multi-instrumentalist Barry Mitterhoff and drummer Erik Diaz, and have played electric shows with guitarist G. E. Smith. In April 2006, Hot Tuna appeared at Merlefest, America's largest folk music festival. In 2007, they played at Bonnaroo. In August 2009, Skoota Warner officially joined the band as drummer. In November 2010, Hot Tuna performed as a semi-acoustic trio: Casady, Kaukonen, and Mitterhoff at a Midnight Ramble at Levon Helm's Barn studio in Woodstock, New York. For the first half of 2011, blues harmonica player Charlie Musselwhite toured with them.
Throughout their history, Hot Tuna garnered much fan support based on their pro-taping policy, allowing fans to record their live shows. In July 2006, the band changed their stance and no longer permit taping.
In November 2010, Kaukonen announced on his blog that Hot Tuna had begun recording its first studio album in 20 years. The album Steady as She Goes was released by Red House Records on April 5, 2011.
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