Paul Kantner, rhythm guitarist, songwriter, and the leader of Jefferson Airplane and later Jefferson Starship, died on January 28 2016 at the age of 74. The cause was multiple organ failure and septic shock following a heart attack he had a few days beforehand.
Paul Kantner was born on March 17 1941 in San Francisco, California. His mother died when he was only eight years old. He was initially educated by the Christian Brothers and then later a Jesuit school in Santa Clara, California. It was while he was attending Santa Clara University and later San Jose State College that he taught himself both guitar and banjo. He left school to begin performing on the San Francisco folk music circuit. It was when he was performing at The Drinking Gourd in San Francisco in 1965 that he met Marty Balin. Together they formed the band Jefferson Airplane. Its original line up consisted of lead vocalist Signe Toly Anderson, guitarist Jorma Kaukonen, drummer Jerry Peloquin, and bassist Bob Harvey.
As Jefferson Airplane made their name in the San Francisco area, there would be some changes. The group drifted away from their original folk rock sound to a more electric sound. Jerry Peloquin left the band to be replaced by Skip Spence and then Spencer Dryden. Bob Harvey was replaced by Jack Casady. Jefferson Airplane's first album, Jefferson Airplane Takes Off, was released on August 15 1966. The album only went to no. 128 on the Billboard albums chart. None of the singles hit the Billboard Hot 100.
Signe Toly Anderson left Jefferson Airplane following the birth of her first child and three months after the release of Jefferson Airplane Takes Off. She was replaced by Grace Slick, whose earlier band, The Great Society, had often supported Jefferson Airplane. In fact, Jefferson Airplane's first two major hits were inherited from The Great Society. "Somebody to Love" had originally been recorded by The Great Society, but had little impact outside the Bay Area. Recorded by Jefferson Airplane, it went to no. 5 on the Billboard Hot 100. "White Rabbit" had been performed by The Great Society, but had never been recorded. Jefferson Airplane's version went to no. 8 on the Billboard Hot 100. The band's second album, Surrealistic Pillow, went to no. 3 on the Billboard album chart.
Jefferson Airplane never saw another single with the success of "Somebody to Love" or "White Rabbit", although the band's albums continued to do well. From the late Sixties into the early Seventies, Jefferson Airplane's albums always made the top twenty of the Billboard album chart, with Crown of Creation reaching no. 6.
While still part of Jefferson Airplane, Paul Kantner did other work as well. In 1969 he played with fellow Airplane members Jorma Kaukonen and bassist Jack Casady's blues band Hot Tuna. In 1970 Paul Kantner and Grace Slick recorded the concept album Blows Against the Empire under the name "Paul Kantner and the Jefferson Starship". The album did very well, reaching no. 20 on the Billboard album chart. Paul Kantner and Grace Slick released two more albums together in the early Seventies: Sunfighter in 1971 and Baron von Tollbooth and the Chrome Nun in 1973.
Jefferson Airplane was the only band to play at all three of the major music festivals of the late Sixties: the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967, as well as Woodstock and Altamont in 1969. Unfortunately by the late Sixties tension had developed within the band. Spencer Dryden was voted out of the band in 1970. He was replaced by Joey Covington. Marty Balin left the band in 1971 following the death of his friend Janis Joplin. While it was never formally announced, Jefferson Airplane more or less ceased to exist in late 1972 after two shows at Winterland in San Francisco on September 21 and September 22.
It was in 1974 that Paul Kantner, Grace Slick, and David Freiberg (formerly of Quicksilver Messenger Service) formed Jefferson Starship, the band's name taken from the ad hoc group of musicians on Paul Kantner and Grace Slick's album Blows Against the Empire. While Marty Balin contributed the song "Caroline" to the band's first album, Dragon Fly, he would not formally join the band until early 1975. Jefferson Starship proved very successful in the Seventies. Their debut album went to no. 11 on the Billboard album chart. Their second album, Red Octopus, went to no. 1. Their third album Earth and their fourth album Freedom at Point Zero went to no. 5 and 11 respectively. The band also saw some success with their singles, with "Miracles" going to no. 3 and other singles reaching the top ten.
The band would see some changes over time. Grace Slick was forced to resign from the band in 1978, while Marty Balin left in 1978. Grace Slick returned to the band in 1981. While all of this was taking place Jefferson Starship began to move away from the progressive rock and psychedelia of earlier albums towards a more commercial sound. At the same time their albums did not perform as well. Modern Times and Winds of Change only peaked at no. 26, while Nuclear Furniture only peaked at no. 28.
Paul Kantner eventually came to the conclusion that the band had become too commercial and left Jefferson Starship in 1984. At the same time he took legal action to prevent the band from continuing to use the names "Jefferson Starship" or "Jefferson Airplane". Paul Kantner won the suit and as a result the band had to continue under the name "Starship".
In 1983 Mr. Kantner released his last solo album Planet Earth Rock and Roll Orchestra. Paul Kantner then formed the KBC Band with Marty Balin and Jack Casady. The KBC Band released only one eponymous album in 1986. From 1987 to 1988 he played with Hot Tuna.
In 1989 Jefferson Airplane reunited for a tour and a new, self-titled album. While the tour did well, the album was only a moderate success. It was in 1992 that Paul Kantner formed Jefferson Starship--the Next Generation, known informally as "Jefferson Starship". Both Jack Casady and Marty Balin would be members of the new band. This new version of Jefferson Starship would release two albums: Windows of Heaven in 1998 and Jefferson's Tree of Liberty in 2008.
As the leader of both Jefferson Airplane and Jefferson Starship, Paul Kantner had an enormous impact on rock music. He wrote a number of songs for both bands, some of which number among their best known: "The Ballad of You and Me and Pooneil", "Crown of Creation", "Volunteers", and "Ride the Tiger". He played a large role in Jefferson Airplane's move to psychedelia in the late Sixties and later he was responsible for the progressive sound of Jefferson Starship. Indeed, it is probably no coincidence that Starship sounded considerably different from Jefferson Starship, let alone Jefferson Airplane. Indeed, following Paul Kantner's death Mickey Hart of The Grateful Dead said of him,, "He was kind of the backbone of that band. It was always about Grace and Jack and Jorma, I don’t think he got the credit he deserved."