J is for Jefferson Airplane

Jefferson Airplane formed in 1965 in the San Francisco Bay area, and they soon became a household name with appearances on radio, television, and their top selling albums.  The band featured Grace Slick (vocals), Marty Balin (vocals and guitar), Paul Kantner (vocals and guitar), Jorma Kaukonen (guitar), Jack Casady (bass), and Spencer Dryden (drums).  Founding members also included Signe Toly Anderson and Skip Spence.  Later lineups of Jefferson Airplane included Joey Covington on Drums, and Papa John Creach on violins.  Jefferson Airplane went on several successful tours including performances at the Berkeley Folk Festival, Monterey Jazz Festival, they blew the minds of the fans at the Monterey Pop Festival, wowed people Woodstock, and they got attacked at Altamont.  Around 1973, they disbanded, forming a generation of new bands including Jefferson Starship, Hot Tuna, and more.  In 1989, a short reunion occurred, and in 1996 the band was inducted to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.  In 2016, they earned a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.

In the early 60s Marty Balin was cast in a local production of West Side Story, where he was spotted by the singer Johnny Mathis, who urged him to pursue a singing career.  The initial idea for the group that became Jefferson Airplane came from 23-year-old Balin, a San Francisco-raised singer who had recorded a couple of unsuccessful singles for Challenge Records in 1962 when he was just 20.  He recorded a catchy single by The Champs called ‘Tequila’, where he was backed by the Wrecking Crew of Glen Campbell, Barney Kessel, Red Callender, Jack Nitzsche and Hal Blaine, although his debut went unnoticed.  Balin was his stage name, as he was born Martyn Jerel Buchwald.  In 1963, Marty become a member of a folk group called the Town Criers along with Bill Collins, Jan Ellickson and Larry Vargo, performing at the Drinking Gourd but they broke up in 1964.  In 1965, he was briefly a member of the Gateway Singers.

When the Beatles led the British Invasion of 1964, Balin saw the merging of folk with rock in early 1965 and decided to form a group to play the hybrid style as well as open a club for the group to play in.  He and his father interested three investors in converting a pizza restaurant on Fillmore Street into a 100-seat venue called the Matrix, which became San Francisco’s first folk night club.  Marty persuaded the partners to put up $3,000 apiece to finance the opening of The Matrix, giving them 75% ownership, while he retained 25% for creating and managing it.  The Matrix was actually a pizza parlor that served beer, rather than a bar per se, and dancing was not actually allowed by law.  Their band was the house band, as this was their club, so this allowed them to rehearse there during the week without having to set up and take down their equipment each time, which worked out ideal for them.

Paul Kantner was raised in Catholic and military schools, and he was introduced to marijuana around 1959 by future Airplane lead guitarist Jorma Kaukonen when they were both students at Santa Clara University.  Kantner then went to San Jose State College which he described as a party school and that is where he taught himself guitar and banjo.  There he met David Freiberg and David Crosby and they started a little folk nightclub, where they would sell marijuana from under the bar.  Dino Valenti who was later in Quicksilver Messenger Service got him to try LSD on Halloween night in 1962.  Kantner set out to make a splash on the San Francisco folk circuit, where he was booked with Mother McCree’s Uptown Jug Champions and David Crosby.

Marty Balin wanted to form an electric band, so he went to the Drinking Gourd to look for potential bandmembers from the local musicians at the folk club, which was kind of funky bar that served sandwiches and had a small stage.  One night he saw Paul Kantner was playing there.  Balin had never heard Kantner play, but when he saw this long-haired guy carrying a 12-string and a banjo, and he walked straight up to him and suggested they form a band.  Balin also met Signe Toly there when she was performing there.

They still needed another guitarist, so Kantner suggested his friend Jorma Kaukonen, who was making a reputation for himself as a solo performer around the clubs.  Balin and Kantner had already decided they needed a female voice, and folk singer Signe Toly with her powerful female voice fit the bill perfectly.  They became a six-piece band completed by bass player Bob Harvey and drummer Jerry Peloquin.  Jefferson Airplane made their debut at the Matrix on August 13, 1965 and they began performing at the club regularly.  They attracted favorable press attention, and by September, Jefferson Airplane was being wooed by several labels.  At the same time, the band was already undergoing changes.  Peloquin was fired following an altercation with Kantner and he was replaced by Skip Spence.

Spence considered himself a guitarist, not a drummer, but he had some drumming experience.  In September, Signe Toly married Jerry Anderson, who handled lights at the Matrix, and she became known as Signe Anderson.  Kaukonen was not enamored with the bass player Bob Harvey who played double bass, and when he discovered that his high-school buddy back in Washington DC, Jack Casady, had started playing electric bass, in October he lured him over to California.  Their unusual name was suggested by Kaukonen, who had once jokingly been dubbed “Blind Thomas Jefferson Airplane” by a friend in reference to the blues singer Blind Lemon Jefferson.  On November 15, 1965, this lineup, Balin, Kantner, Anderson, Kaukonen, and Casady.

They soon acquired a loyal following and attracted the attention of promoter Bill Graham, whom Balin had met in the early 60s.  By the end of the year a contract had been arranged with RCA and the group gained international attention thanks to Donovan’s song ‘The Fat Angel’, which came out on his 1966 Sunshine Superman album.  In this song Donovan Leitch sings, “Fly Jefferson Airplane, get you there on time.”

1966 was a year of growth and change.  After a couple of singles, they released their debut album Jefferson Airplane Takes Off in September 1966, which was a promising start.  Their music encompassed folk, blues and Byrds-style chiming guitar.  It was dominated by Balin’s expansive ballads, as he wrote or co-wrote eight of the 11 tracks, and there was little sign of the influence of LSD unless you listened closely.  RCA complained that some of the lyrics were clearly an incitement to sex and/or drugs.  The record pressing plant was halted and the was track pulled.  RCA then listened to the rest of the album, and demanded alterations to the lyrics of two other songs.  But Jefferson Airplane would get their revenge when they made their next album, as they did not hold back on drug references.

The album Jefferson Airplane Takes Off hardly made a blip on the public’s radar and it struggled to make it to No. 128 on the Billboard chart, and was forgotten by winter.  But within six months, Jefferson Airplane would become one of rock’s best bands, altering the course of rock music in the process.  This take-off occurred after two crucial personnel changes later in the year.  Skip Spence missed a gig when he decided to go to Mexico and they were able to get Spencer Dryden as his replacement.  Spence left for good to pilot Moby Grape in May, and Anderson quit in October because she didn’t think that it was feasible to bring her newborn child with her on the road.  They were replaced by Spencer Dryden and Grace Slick.

There were only two other girl singers in San Francisco, Janis Joplin who was arrested in San Francisco for shoplifting in 1963, and the well-bred Grace Slick.  In 1964, Joplin and Jorma Kaukonen recorded a number of blues standards, which incidentally featured Kaukonen’s wife Margareta using a typewriter in the background, so she had a relationship with the group.  Grace had been working as a model in the couturier department of I Magnin’s department store in San Francisco, which concentrated on high fashion and specialty goods luxury before forming a band called The Great Society.  Slick immediately accepted the offer to join, as The Great Society were disintegrating and her marriage was falling apart.  The song ‘Somebody To Love’ was written by Grace’s brother-in-law Darby one night on an acid trip after being dumped by his girlfriend.

Grace Wing was born Grace Barnett Wing, on October 30, 1939 and she was raised in an upper middle-class family in San Francisco.  She became interested in classical music and art and by the age of 16 she started drinking alcohol and smoking cigarettes.  In 1957 she discovered marijuana.  In 1961 she married Jerry Slick, a film student at San Francisco State College.  The couple met a British chemist named Baxter in 1964 who introduced them to peyote, and they soon tried LSD.  In August 1965, Slick read an article in the San Francisco Chronicle about the newly formed Jefferson Airplane and then she went to watch them live at The Matrix.  As a result, Slick who sang and played guitar formed a group called The Great Society, which was named after LBJ’s disdained social program which had goals of ending poverty, reducing crime, abolishing inequality and improving the environment.  In September 1966, Great Society played at a benefit show at the Fillmore where they sharing the bill with Jefferson Airplane.  Airplane bassist Jack Casady had seen Grace several times and wanted her to be part of their group.

Grace was accompanied by her husband Jerry Slick (drums), Jerry’s brother Darby Slick (lead guitar), David Miner (bass guitar) and Bard DuPont on the saxophone and a variety of woodwinds.  On October 15, 1965, the band made its debut performance at a venue known as the Coffee Gallery, and soon after Slick composed the psychedelic piece ‘White Rabbit’.  A legend says, Jerry locked Grace in their bedroom and would not let her out until she wrote a song.  A few hours later, she wrote this masterpiece, which was a reflection on the hallucinatory effects of psychedelic drugs.  This became an instant favorite among the band’s followers.

Grace soon began spending time smoking pot and making music with Jerry’s brother, Darby.  Sly Stone was their producer for a short time, calling himself then Sylvester Stewart, and he was a R&B disc jockey at the time and they worked together to record the song ‘Free Advice’.  The young producer was a notorious perfectionist and it took the group 53 takes to get the final one.  Along with her voice and good looks, Grace brought two songs that would enable Jefferson Airplane to really take off, ‘Somebody To Love’ and her own ‘White Rabbit’.

On Jan. 14, 1967, a gathering known as the “Human Be-In” took place in Golden Gate Park, drawing a crowd of over 20,000 people.  This is where LSD advocate Timothy Leary gave a speech coining his infamous phrase “turn on, tune in, drop out” and Big Brother and the Holding Company, the Grateful Dead, and Jefferson Airplane all gave free performances.  The Hippie movement formed around 1967, which advocated harmony with nature, communal living, artistic experimentation particularly in music, and the widespread use of recreational drugs.  Hippies came from everywhere to celebrate the “summer of love” and they were empowered by the Vietnam War.

Surrealistic Pillow was their second album, released on February 1, 1967 and it is the first album by the band with vocalist Grace Slick and drummer Spencer Dryden.  This album was all about peace and love and it was released before the Summer of Love.  The Airplane brought in their pal Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead, and billed him as their “musical and spiritual adviser”, to act as de facto producer for most of the record.  According to Kantner, Garcia lent “his particular Grateful madness to the whole project.”  Garcia actually spent more time on Surrealistic Pillow than he did recording the Dead’s first album, although his acoustic guitar playing went unaccredited till 2003.  Besides being the spiritual advisor, Jerry Garcia also played guitar on ‘Today’, ‘Comin’ Back to Me’, ‘Plastic Fantastic Lover’, ‘In the Morning’, and ‘J. P. P. McStep B. Blues’.

Grace sang and played keyboards and the recorder (a flute-like woodwind musical instrument) on this, after she replaced Signe Anderson who had just given birth to her daughter Lilith.  The drummer Skip Spence did play on one song on this Surrealistic Pillow album which was his song ‘My Best Friend’, but he had basically stopped attending rehearsals and was replaced by new drummer Spencer Dryden.  Rhythm guitarist, and occasional vocalist Paul Kantner along with Jorma Kaukonen who played lead guitar and sang and Jack Casady on bass rounded out the group.

Surrealistic Pillow became Jefferson Airplane’s first gold album and Marty Balin selected the name Surrealistic Pillow, after he heard Garcia say the music was “as surrealistic as a pillow”.  In 2003, the album was ranked number 146 on Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the “500 Greatest Albums of All Time”.  The biggest hits on this album were, ‘White Rabbit’ and ‘Somebody To Love’ and in January 2017, ‘Somebody to Love’ received a gold certification from the Recording Industry Association of America, while ‘White Rabbit’ received a platinum certification.

The mind melting, musical meandering, memorable, melancholic lyrics in ‘Comin’ Back To Me’, reflect the ultra-gentle, stoned-out bliss of the San Francisco Haight-Ashbury scene at the time.  Marty Balin said the song was created while he indulged in some primo-grade marijuana that was given to him by blues singer Paul Butterfield.  Balin said that he was at his motel when Paul Butterfield came up to him and said, “Hey Marty, smoke this man, it’s the best stuff you’ll ever smoke.”  So, he smoked it and he said that he couldn’t find his legs, it was like Woah!  He did find his guitar and sat down and in five minutes this song came out.

In May 1967, Look magazine did a five-page feature piece on the band, titled, “Jefferson Airplane Loves You.”  This article helped send Jefferson Airplane to the front of San Francisco music scene, where they became a lead group among those offering the “love-rock-psychedelic” sound.  Also, that month, the group appeared as musical guests on CBS-TV’s The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour.  In June 1967, Jefferson Airplane played on the second evening of the “Monterey Pop Festival” in Monterey, California.  That month, they also performed on Dick Clark’s American Bandstand TV show, then located in California.  By June 1968, the Jefferson Airplane appeared on the cover of Life magazine, as one of seven rock groups featured in a multi-page spread on “The New Rock”.

After Bathing at Baxter’s was their third studio album, which was also released in 1967 as a stereo and a mono.  It was significantly less successful than its predecessor and it peaked at number 17 on the Billboard album chart.  It contained 11 songs which were mostly insignificant although they featured a darker, heavier, riskier sound which was a product of the free hand and nearly unlimited studio time granted to the band after their previous chart success.  The album is organized into five suites, Streetmasse, The War Is Over, Hymn to an Older Generation, How Suite It Is and Shizoforest Love Suite, and the separate tracks flow seamlessly into one another.

Crown of Creation was their fourth studio album, released in 1968 and it peaked at No. 6 on the Billboard Pop Charts and earned a RIAA gold certification.  Prior to recording, the group had their manager and promoter Bill Thompson purchase a large 20-room, three-story, home directly across from Golden Gate Park in San Francisco where the members would live communally.  The home became known as “The Airplane House” or simply “The Mansion” which included a refurbished basement with a built-in recording studio.

David Crosby wrote the song ‘Triad’ which was the only track not at least partly composed by an Airplane member.  Crosby’s group The Byrds previously rejected this song feeling that it was too risqué because it was about a ménage à trois which is otherwise known as a three-way.  This type of thing did happen to Crosby throughout his career and he said that he explored about every avenue of sex that he heard of.  In the late 1990s-early 2000s, he was involved for some time with both Melissa Etheridge and her partner, Julie Cypher, and was the biological father of their two children.  Slick felt that if two women want to live with the same man, that nobody should care.  Grace said that Marty was remote off stage, not being able to relate or connect with the others and he was the only one in the band that she didn’t screw.

Volunteers was their fifth studio album, released in 1969 and it was controversial because of its revolutionary and anti-war lyrics along with the use of profanity.  The album peaked at #38 in the UK and reached #13 in the US.  The title song ‘Volunteers’ was written by Paul Kantner and Marty Balin, and it became a call to take a stand against the US government and the war in Vietnam.  Volunteers was the last album they recorded before massive personnel changes altered their original psychedelic rock sound.  Jefferson Airplane played this song at Woodstock six months before the record of this song came out.  As Vietnam hatred raged across the nation, ‘Volunteers’ served as a middle finger to the establishment, which became a rebellious move, made by a band that was growing more defiant every day.

Guest musicians on this album included Jerry Garcia on pedal steel guitar, veteran session pianist Nicky Hopkins, future Airplane drummer Joey Covington on percussion, David Crosby blended in the sounds of sailboat noises on ‘Wooden Ships’ and Stephen Stills played Hammond organ on ‘Turn My Life Down’.  ‘Wooden Ships’ was written and composed in 1968 in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, on a 60-foot schooner named the Mayan, owned by David Crosby, who composed the music, while Paul Kantner and Steven Stills wrote most of the lyrics.  While Crosby was staying on his newly purchased schooner, Stephen Stills and Paul Kantner, unbeknownst to each other, decided to drop in on him at the same time.  Both Jefferson Airplane and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young performed the song in their respective sets at the 1969 Woodstock Festival.

Bark was their sixth studio album released in 1971 and the first without band founder Marty Balin (who departed the band during the recording process but made no contributions to the sessions) and the first with violinist Papa John Creach.  Drummer Spencer Dryden had been replaced by Joey Covington.  Lead guitarist Jorma Kaukonen has four songwriting credits on this album, indicative of his growing importance as a composer.  At the time of the album’s release, he and bassist Jack Casady had already recorded two albums for their spin-off blues group Hot Tuna.  The album was a success upon its release, reaching #11 on the charts and it eventually went gold.

Long John Silver was their seventh studio album released in 1972, and their last album of all new material until 1989.  Joey Covington left the band during the sessions playing drums on only two songs, veteran session drummer John Barbata (formerly of The Turtles and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young) replaced Covington, playing on the rest of the songs except one where Hot Tuna’s Sammy Piazza filled in.  Jorma and Jack still deliver, but this album could make even a diehard Jefferson Airplane fan fall fast asleep and maybe it was not such a bad idea for this group to take a 17-year rest period.  There was not one true standout track on this album and it felt like their essential spark had burnt out.

Jefferson Airplane was their eighth and final studio album released in 1989.  The crew of Marty Balin, Paul Kantner, Grace Slick, Jorma Kaukonen and Jack Casady all returned and drums and percussion were played by Kenny Aronoff who played drums for John Mellencamp, except Efrain Toro played percussion on the Balin composed song ‘Summer Of Love’.  The album and the accompanying tour would mark the last time that Jefferson Airplane would perform together until their 1996 induction to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

The other additional musicians that played on ‘Summer Of Love’ included Nicky Hopkins, Charles Judge and David Paich on keyboards, Michael Landau and Jorma’s younger brother Peter Kaukonen played guitars, Mike Porcaro played bass, Steve Porcaro did keyboard programming and Mark Volman and Howard Kaylan known as Flo & Eddie sang background vocals. Peter Kaukonen played, toured, and recorded with Jefferson Airplane, Jefferson Starship, Hot Tuna, Johnny Winter, Link Wray, Terry Allen, Ruthann Friedman (author of “Windy”), as well as his own band, Black Kangaroo.

Jefferson Airplane was able to achieve national recognition and they were remarkably productive between 1965 and 1972 releasing seven studio albums, five of which went gold, but they disbanded in 1972.  Kaukonen and Casady had begun to play separately as Hot Tuna while maintaining their membership in Jefferson Airplane.  Spencer Dryden was fired by Jefferson Airplane and replaced by Joey Covington, but he became a member of the New Riders of the Purple Sage and performed and recorded with them from late 1970 until 1977.  Kantner and Slick became a couple and had a child, China Kantner (who went on to be an MTV VJ in her teens).  Long-standing ego clashes with Kantner and Slick forced Balin out of Jefferson Airplane in 1971, as they found his style was too quiet and sentimental for their increasingly acid-rock direction that they were headed towards, but in early 1975, he rejoined the newly rechristened Jefferson Starship.

15 thoughts on “J is for Jefferson Airplane

  1. Lots of new info in here for me. “White Rabbit” is a masterpiece and stands the test of time. “The ones that mother gives you don’t do anything at all.” speaks volumes to the evils parents visit upon their children (in the guise of “it’s for your own good.”) I like the Volunteers song. I had no idea there was a connection between Wooden Ships and Jefferson Airplane.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I don’t know how I missed this one today. Great post Jim. After Marty left my interest went down. did like a few 70s singles by Jefferson Starship. I didn’t know Balin was a founding member.

    Liked by 1 person

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