The "classic" line-up of Jefferson Airplane remained stable from 1967 to early 1970, and consisted of Marty Balin, Jack Casady, Spencer Dryden, Paul Kantner, Jorma Kaukonen and Grace Slick. The group broke up in 1972, and essentially split into the two bands Hot Tuna and Jefferson Starship. Jefferson Airplane was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1996, and honored with the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2016.
Balin met folk musician Paul Kantner at another local club, The Drinking Gourd. Kantner, a native San Franciscan, had started out performing on the Bay Area folk circuit in the early 1960s, alongside fellow folkies Jerry Garcia, David Crosby and Janis Joplin. Kantner has cited folk groups like the Kingston Trio and the Weavers as strong early influences. He briefly moved to Los Angeles, California, in 1964 to work in a folk duo with future Airplane/Starship member David Freiberg (who subsequently joined Quicksilver Messenger Service).
Kantner next recruited an old friend, blues guitarist Jorma Kaukonen. Originally from Washington, D.C., Kaukonen had moved to California in the early 1960s and met Kantner while at Santa Clara University in 1962. Kaukonen was invited to jam with the new band and although initially reluctant to join he was won over after playing his guitar through a tape delay device that was part of the sound system used by Ken Kesey for his Acid Test parties. Drummer Jerry Peloquin and acoustic bassist Bob Harvey completed the original lineup.
The origin of the group's name is disputed. "Jefferson airplane" is slang for a used paper match splint to hold a marijuana joint that is too short to hold without burning the fingers – an improvised roach clip. A popular conjecture suggests this was the origin of the band's name, but band member Jorma Kaukonen has denied this and stated that the name was invented by his friend Steve Talbot as a parody of blues names such as Blind Lemon Jefferson. A 2007 press release quoted Kaukonen as saying:
"I had this friend [Talbot] in Berkeley who came up with funny names for people," explains Kaukonen. "His name for me was Blind Thomas Jefferson Airplane (for blues pioneer Blind Lemon Jefferson). When the guys were looking for band names and nobody could come up with something, I remember saying, 'You want a silly band name? I got a silly band name for you!'"
Jefferson Airplane in early 1966. From left-Anderson, Casady, Balin, Spence, Kantner and Kaukonen.
The group in 1966 after Spencer Dryden replaced Skip Spence on drums,
The group made its first public appearance as Jefferson Airplane at the opening night of The Matrix on August 13, 1965. The band expanded from its folk roots, drawing inspiration from the Beatles, the Byrds and the Lovin' Spoonful, and gradually developed a more pop-oriented electric sound.
The group's performing skills improved rapidly and they soon gained a strong following in and around San Francisco, aided by reviews from veteran music journalist Ralph J. Gleason, the jazz critic of the San Francisco Chronicle who, after seeing them at the Matrix in late 1965, proclaimed them "one of the best bands ever". Gleason's support raised the band's profile considerably, and within three months their manager Matthew Katz was fielding offers from recording companies, although they had yet to perform outside the Bay Area.
Two significant early concerts featuring the Airplane were held in late 1965. The first was the historic dance at the Longshoremen's Hall in San Francisco on October 16, 1965, the first of many "happenings" in the Bay Area, where Gleason first saw them perform. At this concert they were supported by a local folk-rock group, the Great Society, which featured Grace Slick as lead singer and it was here that Kantner met Slick for the first time. A few weeks later, on November 6, they headlined a benefit concert for the San Francisco Mime Troupe, the first of many promotions by rising Bay Area entrepreneur Bill Graham, who later became the band's manager.
Jefferson Airplane Fillmore poster, February 1966. This was the first non-benefit concert held at the venue.
The group's first single was Balin's "It's No Secret" (a tune he wrote with Otis Redding in mind); the B-side was "Runnin' Round The World", the song that led to the band's first clash with RCA, over the lyric "The nights I've spent with you have been fantastic trips". After their debut LP was completed in March 1966, Skip Spence quit the band and he was eventually replaced by Spencer Dryden, who played his first show with the Airplane at the Berkeley Folk Festival on July 4, 1966. Dryden had previously played with a Los Angeles group called the Ashes, who later became the Peanut Butter Conspiracy.
Original manager Matthew Katz was fired in August, sparking a long-running legal battle that continued until 1987, and Balin's friend and roommate Bill Thompson was installed as road manager and temporary band manager. It was Thompson, a friend and staunch supporter of the band and a former Chronicle staffer, who had convinced reviewers Ralph Gleason and John Wasserman to see the band at the Longshoreman's Hall. Thanks to Gleason's influence, Thompson was able to book the group for appearances at the Berkeley Folk Festival and at the Monterey Jazz Festival.
The group's debut LP Jefferson Airplane Takes Off was released in September 1966. The folk-music-influenced album included John D. Loudermilk's "Tobacco Road" and Dino Valente's "Let's Get Together", as well as original ballads "It's No Secret" and "Come Up the Years". Despite the fact that the group had neither performed outside the Bay Area nor appeared on TV, the album garnered considerable attention in the United States and sold well enough to earn a gold record award. RCA initially pressed only 15,000 copies, but it sold more than 10,000 in San Francisco alone, prompting the label to reprint it. For the re-pressing, the company deleted "Runnin' Round This World" (which had appeared on early mono pressings), because executives objected to the word "trip" in the lyrics. For similar reasons, RCA also substituted altered versions for two other tracks: "Let Me In", changing the line "you shut your door; you know where" to "you shut your door; now it ain't fair." In the same song, they also switched the lyric "Don't tell me you want money" to "Don't tell me it ain't funny". "Run Around" was also edited, changing the line "flowers that sway as you lay under me" to "flowers that sway as you stay here by me". The original pressings of the LP featuring "Runnin' 'Round The World" and the uncensored versions of "Let Me In" and "Run Around" are now worth thousands of dollars on the collectors' market.
Slick's recruitment proved pivotal to the Airplane's commercial breakthrough—she possessed a powerful and supple contralto voice that complemented Balin's and was well-suited to the group's amplified psychedelic music, and, a former model, her good looks and stage presence greatly enhanced the group's live impact. “White Rabbit” was written by Grace Slick while she was still with The Great Society. The first album Slick recorded with Jefferson Airplane was Surrealistic Pillow, and Slick provided two songs from her previous group: her own "White Rabbit" and "Somebody to Love", written by her brother-in-law Darby Slick. Both songs became breakout successes for Jefferson Airplane and have ever since been associated with that band.
1971 was a year of major upheaval for Jefferson Airplane. Grace Slick and Paul Kantner had begun a relationship during 1970, and on January 25, 1971, their daughter China Wing Kantner ("Wing" was Slick's maiden name) was born. Slick's divorce from her first husband had come through shortly before this, but she and Kantner agreed that they did not wish to marry.
On May 13, 1971, Grace Slick was injured in a near-fatal automobile crash when her car slammed into a wall in a tunnel near the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. The accident happened while she was drag racing with Jorma Kaukonen; both were driving at over 100 miles per hour, and Kaukonen claims that he "saved her life" by pulling her from the car. Slick's recuperation took a few months, forcing the Airplane to curtail their concert and touring commitments. In the meantime, Slick recorded a comic song about this incident, "Never Argue With A German If You're Tired", which appeared on Bark.
In 1996, Jefferson Airplane was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, with Balin, Casady, Dryden, Kantner and Kaukonen attending as well as performing. Grace Slick was absent, as she was unable to travel for medical reasons. In 2004, the film Fly Jefferson Airplane (directed by Bob Sarles) was released on DVD. It covers the years 1965–1972 and includes then-recent interviews with band members and thirteen complete songs.
Jorma Kaukonen and Jack Casady performed a set at the 2015 Lockn' Festival to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Jefferson Airplane. They were joined by G. E. Smith, Rachael Price, Larry Campbell and Teresa Williams. In 2016, Jefferson Airplane was given the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.
Both Signe Anderson and Paul Kantner died on January 28, 2016. May they rest in peace.
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