The band, Jefferson Airplane, is often considered to be the first of the psychedelic rock (also known as acid rock) groups that sprouted from San Francisco to achieve wide-spread recognition. The group was originally formed in the summer of 1965 by Marty Balin (1943), a singer and songwriter.
The facts on the origin of the band's name are disputed. One argument is that Jefferson Airplane got its name from the mythical blues player Blind Thomas Jefferson Airplane. Of course, there was never such a person, but the name was intended as a joke on Balin's good friend, Blind Lemon Jefferson. Another argument is that the name comes from a slang term for a used paper match splint to hold a marijuana joint to avoid burning one's fingers. Either way, over its years of existence, which would last into the 1980's, Jefferson Airplane would become essentially three separate yet intermixing bands.
The first band is the original Jefferson Airplane. The blues playing acoustic band, Hot Tuna would branch out of Jefferson Airplane while still remaining a part of Airplane. Finally, the original band seemingly morphed into Jefferson Starship (also simply Starship) while containing only a few of the original members.
In addition to Marty Balin, the original Jefferson Airplane included Paul Kantner (1941), a guitar player, Jorma Kaukonen, (1940), guitar and vocals, Signe Anderson, a singer, and sidemen Bob Harvey and Jerry Peloquin. Throughout the band's career, it would see many changes in its members. Within only a few months of forming, the band revamped its composition and lost Peloquin and Harvey, replacing them with Jack Cassady (1944), a bass player and Skip Spence, a drummer. Perhaps the key change in personnel came when Signe Anderson left the band after having a baby. She was replaced by vocalist Grace Slick (1943) who had been a member of a rival band, The Great Society. Grace would bring with her The Great Society number "Somebody to Love" that became a hit for Airplane, as well as writing another hit, "White Rabbit."
In 1966, the band's first album, "Jefferson Airplane Takes Off", was released under the RCA label but did not get the response that had been hoped for. This album, which was released prior to Anderson leaving the band, compelled Skip Spence to depart and found the band Moby Grape. Grace Slick was brought in at this time and drummer Spencer Dryden (1943) replaced Spence.
Under this formation, the band went on to produce the successful "Surrealistic Pillow" album in 1967 that included "Somebody to Love" and "White Rabbit", a song with allusions to drug use based on Lewis Carroll's "Alice In Wonderland." The song ends with the classic hippie slogan: "Feed Your Head."
After the release of this album, Jefferson Airplane became widely known and were featured in articles in the magazines Time, Newsweek, Life, and Look. The group's pro-drug, free love messages captured the mood of the famous summer of love (1967).
Jefferson Airplane promoted a way of life that would be called the "hippie" lifestyle and their lyrics and personal lives were fraught with the implications of drugs. After the great success of "Surrealistic Pillow" and after touring the country, RCA gave the band unlimited studio time to produce another album. "After Bathing at Baxter's", released in 1967, was the result of Airplane's effort. Unfortunately, this experimental, non-commercial album only reached number 17 in the charts and sold merely 350,000 copies.
Up until this time, Bill Graham had served as the band's manager. Graham's constant pressure for Jefferson Airplane to be touring incessantly caused the band to fire him. Bill Thompson then took over the management about the same time that the band was taking its profits to purchase a large home located at 2400 Fulton Street in San Francisco. This house, called The Airplane House, became the main headquarters for the band as well as a residence for several of the band members.
In 1968, the band saw its fourth album released, "Crown of Creation." While it had no hit singles, it did reach #6 in the charts. At the same time this album was released, Airplane began touring Europe with The Doors. Frustrated because they didn't believe Airplane focused enough on the blues, Jorma and Jack recruited drummer Joey Covington and formed the group Hot Tuna, which would release several albums on its own.
1969 saw the release of Jefferson Airplane's first live album, "Bless Its Pointed Little Head", that rose to #17 in the charts. Around this same time, some trouble with the law occurred when Jack, Paul and manager Bill Thompson were arrested for marijuana possession. Partially as a response to their legal troubles, the next album to be released, "Volunteers", had a strong political undercurrent.
In the summer of 1969 Airplane performed at the famous Woodstock festival, where they were enthusiastically received, along with a number of other important bands. In December of the same year, Jefferson Airplane played at the Rolling Stones' disastrous concert at Altamont. Here, unlike the peaceful and loving vibes of Woodstock, a fight broke out among the Hell's Angels security squad and the audience. Marty was knocked unconscious when he rushed to the aid of a fan being harassed by an Angel. The evening came to a head when a young black man flashed a gun and was subsequently stabbed to death by a member of the security group.
The Altamont concert may have served as a harbinger for the year of 1970 when the band began to fall apart. Spencer was fired from Airplane due to some long-standing differing points of view. He was replaced by Hot Tuna drummer, Joey Covington. After a concert in November 1970, the band's founder, Marty Balin left the band. Another unofficial new member joined the band, Papa John Creach, a violinist. The group was fined more than $200,000 for using obscenity at a concert in Oklahoma, and Kantner was arrested another time for marijuana possession.
About this same time what would become Jefferson Starship was beginning to emerge as Paul released the "Blows Against the Empire" album that had a science-fiction theme. Jack and Jorma were are still occupied with Hot Tuna, which released its second album, "First Pull Up, Then Pull Down" in July of 1970.
Grace was facing her own problems after having given birth to Paul's baby and resorted to excessive alcohol and drug use. The baby was first named God, but because of the controversy it caused, her name was changed to China. The band, while somewhat in disarray due to injuries Grace suffered in an auto accident, began its own record label, Grunt, a subsidiary of RCA. A seventh album, "Bark", was released in September of 1970.
Following this album came the "Long John Silver" album with Hot Tuna remaining very active on the side. The band saw yet another new member in John Barbata, a drummer who had previously worked with The Turtles and Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young.
Eventually, Jefferson Starship replaced the disjointed Jefferson Airplane in the early 1970's. Starship continued to be fruitful throughout the remainder of the 1970's and 1980's.
Page author: N.G. & C.F.