During the transitional period of the early 1970s, when Jefferson Airplane was in the process of disbanding, singer-guitarist Paul Kantner recorded Blows Against the Empire. This was a concept album featuring an ad hoc group of musicians (centered on Kantner, Grace Slick, Joey Covington, and Jack Casady of Jefferson Airplane; Crosby & Nash; and members of Grateful Dead and Santana) credited on the LP as "Paul Kantner/Jefferson Starship", marking the first use of that name. This agglomeration was informally known as the Planet Earth Rock and Roll Orchestra, a moniker later used on a Kantner album in the early 1980s.
In Blows Against the Empire, Kantner and Slick sang about a group of people escaping Earth in a hijacked starship. In 1971, the album was nominated for the prestigious science fiction prize, the Hugo Award, a rare honor for a musical recording. Rolling Stone calls it "a sci-fi song suite that now suffers from concept-album creakiness but at its time boasted an experimental edge". It was while that album was being made that Kantner sealed his love affair with Grace Slick; their daughter China Kantner (who made a name for herself as an MTV veejay in the 1980s) was born shortly thereafter.
Early in 1974, Slick released Manhole, her first solo album. It was on that album that Kantner and Slick next worked with Pete Sears (who had first played on Papa John Creach's first solo album). Pete was co-producing a Kathi McDonald album in the same studio. Sears wrote the music to Grace's raunchy lyrics "Better Lying Down," recorded the song, and also played bass on the song "Epic #38". It was during this session at Wally Heider studios in San Francisco that Paul first asked Pete to play with a new band he was forming that was later christened Jefferson Starship. Sears had worked on three of Rod Stewart's early British recordings, and had to go back to England to play on Smiler, Stewart's last album made in London, so Jorma Kaukonen's brother Peter Kaukonen first played with the band early in 1974 before Sears returned to the States and replaced him in Jefferson Starship in June 1974.
Kantner is credited with discovering during this time the teenage guitarist Craig Chaquico, who first appeared on Sunfighter and played with Kantner, Slick and their bands and then with Starship through 1990. After leaving the group, Chaquico embarked on a successful solo career as a smooth jazz artist.
By 1973, with Kaukonen and Casady now devoting their full attention to Hot Tuna, the musicians on Baron von Tollbooth & the Chrome Nun formed the core of a new lineup that was formally reborn as "Jefferson Starship" in 1974. Kantner, Slick, and Freiberg were charter members. The line-up also included late-Airplane holdovers drummer John Barbata and fiddler Papa John Creach (who also played with Hot Tuna), Jorma Kaukonen's brother Peter, who, after the group's 1974 spring tour, was replaced by Pete Sears (who, like Freiberg, played bass and keyboards) and twenty-year-old guitarist Craig Chaquico. Marty Balin contributed the haunting ballad "Caroline" to their first album Dragon Fly, but did not join the band again until January 1975. Balin stayed with the group for nearly the remainder of the decade. This line-up proved to be the band's most commercially successful so far. Balin's ballad "Miracles" helped 1975's Red Octopus reach multiple-platinum status and No. 1 in the Billboard charts. Creach left the band in August 1975 to pursue a solo career.
Balin's reluctance to tour had kept the band off the road for over a year, and Slick's alcoholism increasingly became a problem, which led to two consecutive nights of disastrous concerts in Germany in June 1978. On the first night, fans ransacked the stage when Slick and the band failed to appear. On the second night, Slick, in a drunken stupor, shocked the audience by swearing and making sexual references throughout most of her songs. She also reminded the audience that their country had lost World War II, repeatedly asking "Who won the war?", and implied that all residents of Germany were responsible for the wartime atrocities. After the debacle, Kantner asked for Slick's resignation from the band.
Towards the end of 1978, Jefferson Starship (now without Grace Slick) recorded "Light the Sky on Fire" for Star Wars Holiday Special and their forthcoming greatest hits album Gold. Gold, highlighting their work from 1974's Dragon Fly through to 1978's Earth, was released early the following year. "Light the Sky on Fire" (backed with Sears' and Slick's "Hyperdrive", from Dragon Fly) was included as a bonus single in the original packaging of album. (When Gold was issued on CD, both tracks were included on the album.) The album originally had a shortened single version of the hit Miracles; early pressings of the CD repeated this, but later editions had the full-length version from the album Red Octopus.
In October 1978 Balin too left the group, leaving Kantner and company to find a new lead singer in Mickey Thomas (who had sung lead on Elvin Bishop's "Fooled Around and Fell in Love"). Thomas joined the group in April 1979. Barbata had been seriously injured in a car accident in October 1978 and was replaced by Aynsley Dunbar, who had previously played with Journey.
After the 1979 release of Freedom at Point Zero (which spawned the hit single "Jane" (#14)), the new lineup toured, augmented by saxophonist Steve Schuster. (Schuster, along with horn player David Farey, had played on Jefferson Starship's 1978 tour, and he had also appeared on Freedom At Point Zero.)
After the release of Nuclear Furniture, Kantner, the last remaining founding member of Jefferson Airplane, left the band due to disputes over the group's artistic direction. "I think we would be terrible failures trying to write pop songs all the time. … The band became more mundane and not quite as challenging and not quite as much of a thing to be proud of", said Kantner. He took legal action preventing the remaining members from using the name Jefferson Starship. As a result, they renamed themselves Starship, and continued to tour and record music until 1990, after which the group became "Starship featuring Mickey Thomas", a vehicle for Mickey Thomas.
In 1992, Kantner reestablished the group as "Jefferson Starship – The Next Generation," a nod to the television series Star Trek: The Next Generation. This version of the band would, at times, include various former Jefferson Airplane, Jefferson Starship and Starship members, to tour and perform. After the first couple of years, the band dropped the use of "The Next Generation", and began to perform as Jefferson Starship. The revived band grew out of Paul Kantner’s decision, following the "Unplugged" trend, to hit the road in 1991 with an acoustic ensemble called Paul Kantner’s Wooden Ships, a trio that included Slick Aguilar and Tim Gorman from the KBC Band, a previous group centered on former Jefferson Airplane/Starship members.
In 1993 Marty Balin rejoined Jefferson Starship, ending a 15-year hiatus from the group. Papa John died in February 1994, weeks after touring Europe. Concurrently a young vocalist, Diana Mangano, joined the group as Gould's replacement after a brief spell by original Jefferson Airplane singer Signe Toly Anderson.
In 1995 Jefferson Starship released Deep Space / Virgin Sky, a live album recorded at the House of Blues in West Hollywood, California on January 21, 1995. The album featured eight new and seven classic tunes. Grace Slick joined the band for five songs, "Lawman", "Wooden Ships", "Somebody To Love" and "White Rabbit" and "Volunteers". In 1999 Jefferson Starship released the studio album Windows of Heaven, which featured Slick on background vocals on one song, "I'm On Fire".
Balin continued as a full-time member of the reunited band until 2003 and still occasionally joins them in concert. Casady remained a member until 2000 and has also (since 1983) played with Jorma Kaukonen in a reunited Hot Tuna. Gorman left in 1995 and was replaced by Gary Cambra (from The Tubes), Barry Flast and then T Lavitz, who stayed with the band for the recording of Windows of Heaven but was replaced by former Supremes keyboardist Chris Smith before the album's release. In 2005, twenty years after leaving, David Freiberg rejoined the group. Jefferson Starship played three songs on NBC's The Today Show on June 30, 2007.
Mangano was replaced by vocalist Cathy Richardson in early 2008, and Prince was replaced by the reinstated Baldwin.
In July and August 2008, they played a two-part UK tour, including three nights at the 100 Club in London and an appearance at the Rhythm Festival.
In 2009 they toured as part of the Heroes of Woodstock tour with Jeff Pevar (Jazz Is Dead, Crosby, Pevar & Raymond) on bass. Other musicians included in this tour were Canned Heat, Ten Years After, Country Joe McDonald, Tom Constanten, Big Brother and the Holding Company, Melanie, John Sebastian, Mountain, Quicksilver Messenger Service and Levon Helm Band, although not all artists appeared at every show.
On June 5, 2011 Jefferson Starship (Kantner, Freiberg, Richardson and Smith) performed with the Contemporary Youth Orchestra at Jacobs Pavilion at Nautica in Cleveland, OH. The show was broadcast live on HDNet for the HDNet Concert Series.
In November of 2015, a new lead vocalist, Rachel Rose, was phased in sharing the stage with one-time Jefferson Starship vocalist Darby Gould.
Following Kantner's death in 2016, Jefferson Starship continues to tour with a lineup of David Freiberg (vocals, guitar), Donny Baldwin (drums), Rachel Rose (vocals), and Chris Smith (keyboards), along with lead guitarist Jude Gold (who replaced longtime guitarist Slick Aguilar in 2012 due to Aguilar's battle with Hepatitis C). The band sometimes features guest musicians such as Balin, Gould, Gorman, and original Jefferson Starship bassist and keyboardist Pete Sears.
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