Jefferson Airplane: Artist Profile

Jefferson Airplane Profile

Photo: By RCA Records (eBay item photo front photo back) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Believe it or not, Jefferson Airplane’s beginnings can be traced back to a pizza place on Fillmore Street in San Francisco. The year is 1965 and a young musician named Marty Balin gathered together a group of investors to purchase a pizza parlor with the idea to turn it into a music venue called The Matrix. In Balin’s mind the key to his new club’s success was a house band that would draw people from all over the Bay area. Balin set about putting together just such a group.

The first person Balin enlisted was local musician and San Franciscan native, Paul Kantner, who had been working the folk circuit in the early 60’s with the likes of Jerry Garcia and David Crosby. Together Kantner and Balin recruited female singer, Signe Toly Anderson, and blues guitarist Jorma Kaukonen, a friend of Kantner’s from Santa Clara University. Drummer Jerry Peloquin and bassist Bob Harvey finished out the line-up and The Matrix house band was born. Everyone agreed that a good name was the first order of business. According to Kaukonen the name Jefferson Airplane was a parody of blues legend, Blind Lemon Jefferson.

The Matrix officially opened on March 13th, 1965 with Jefferson Airplane’s first public appearance as the house band. Within weeks Peloquin quit over his dislike of the band’s drug use. Soon after Harvey was asked to leave due to playing ability. Skip Spence, later of Moby Grape fame, came in on drums and an old friend of Kaukonen’s, Jack Casady, was recruited on bass.

With regular performances at the Matrix, the Airplane’s prowess improved greatly and the band developed a loyal following in San Francisco. Ralph Gleason of the San Francisco Chronicle wrote extensively about the group declaring them “one of the best bands ever”, which greatly increased the band’s profile. Within a few short months they were entertaining offers from record labels despite having never played outside the Bay area.

In November of 1965 the Airplane signed a contract with RCA Victor, which brought them the enormous sum of $25,000. Their first album, Jefferson Airplane Takes Off, was recorded in the spring of 1966, after which Skip Spence was replaced by drummer Spencer Dryden. Jefferson Airplane Takes Off was officially released in September of 1966 and despite having no national presence or having never performed outside the Bay area, the album would go on to receive a gold record award.

In October, Anderson announced she was leaving the band after the birth of her daughter. Kantner and company quickly approached local singer, Grace Slick, whose band, The Great Society, had opened for the Airplane many times. Slick’s first appearance was with the band on October 16th, 1966; one night after Anderson’s final performance. A former model and powerful singer, Slick was the missing piece to the puzzle. Moving forward, the band set about recording what would become their breakout record.

Surrealistic Pillow was recorded in less than two weeks for just over $8,000. Released in February of 1967, it peaked at number three behind the power of two singles: “White Rabbit and Somebody to Love,” both written by newcomer Slick. Rabbit hit number eight while “Somebody to Love,” climbed to number five. Suddenly, a national sensation, the band catapulted to international fame with their widely publicized appearance at the Monterey International Pop Festival in June of that year. Surrealistic Pillow was on its way to selling a million copies and would spend a year on Billboard’s charts.

The next record, After Bathing at Baxters, took four months to record and represented a major shift from the folk and pop songs of the first two albums to a mélange of long, ethereal, psychedelic rock compositions. After Bathing at Baxters also marked the official shift to Kantner and Slick as the main songwriting force behind the band. A major European tour followed including an infamous performance in Amsterdam where an allegedly drugged out Jim Morrison stumbled onto stage and passed out while the Airplane played “Plastic Fantastic Lover.” Slick and Morrison shared a brief romantic relationship on the tour as well.

Crown of Creation, the band’s fourth LP was released in September of ’68 and rushed to number six, despite no hit singles. RCA followed up quickly with a live album entitled Bless Its Pointed Little Head, which climbed to number seventeen by mid-year.

Following a performance at the Woodstock festival that summer, the band’s next album, Volunteers, was released in November. The album reached number thirteen on the charts partially on the strength of the band’s appearance at the Altamont Free Concert. Jefferson Airplane was the only band to perform at all three of the most famous festivals of the 1960’s: Altamont, Woodstock, and Monterey.

1970 saw the switch from Spencer Dryden to Joey Covington on drums and the release of the group’s first compilation, The Worst of Jefferson Airplane, which continued their unbroken run of chart success by reaching number 12.

In 1971, two major events occurred that affected the band’s trajectory. First, founder Marty Balin quit citing differences with the two cliques that were developing inside the Airplane. With Kantner and Slick on one side and Kaukonen and Casady on the other, Balin was the odd man out. The second incident was a car crash that nearly took Grace Slick’s life. Despite these hurdles the band managed to record and release Bark, their next album that made it to number 11.

Alcohol and drug abuse, especially by Grace Slick, were taking their toll and Jefferson Airplane began to show signs of real struggle. Missed live dates and unfulfilled contracts were becoming more and more common. The group managed one more album, Long John Silver, and a tour was scheduled to follow. The record hit number 20 as Jefferson Airplane finished the tour with two dates at the Winterland, in San Francisco. They would be the last performance by Jefferson Airplane for nearly twenty years. However, the musicians in San Francisco’s most famous band were far from done.

Casady and Kaukonen had been performing as Hot Tuna for years but the break-up of the Airplane meant they could dedicate themselves to the project fully. Slick and Kantner formed Jefferson Starship with other former members of the Airplane including the founding father, Marty Balin.

Members of both bands would trade back and forth over the years recording, performing, and writing in various combinations for over a decade. In 1989 the original line-up, minus Spencer Dryden, reunited for a tour and an album entitled, Jefferson Airplane. In 1996 the band was inducted into the Hall of Fame and in 2016 they garnered a lifetime achievement Grammy.

While many members continue to perform in one group or another the core of Jefferson Airplane officially died with Paul Kantner on January 28th of this year. In an odd bit of serendipity original singer, Signe Anderson died on January 28th of this year, just hours after Kantner. With Kantner’s passing, we say goodbye forever to one of America’s first and foremost psychedelic rock bands that came out of San Francisco in the nineteen sixties.

Jefferson Airplane: Artist Profile

Written by Michael Quinn

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