Jefferson Starship is an American rock band formed in the early 1970s by several members of the former psychedelic rock group Jefferson Airplane. The band has undergone several major changes in personnel and genres through the years while retaining the same Jefferson Starship name. The current Jefferson Starship, led by co-founder Paul Kantner, more closely resembles its original mix of psychedelic and electric folk music than the pop-driven tunes it was widely known for in the early to mid-1980s. It is not to be confused with Starship, a spin-off of the group featuring former co-lead singer Mickey Thomas that also periodically tours. The latter group is most frequently identified with the 1980s pop tunes of the Jefferson Starship.
Paul Kantner/Jefferson Starship
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 "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.
Kantner and Slick with the Planet Earth Rock and Roll Orchestra released two follow-up albums: Sunfighter, an environmentalism-tinged album released in 1971 to celebrate China's birth, and 1973's Baron von Tollbooth & The Chrome Nun, titled after the nicknames David Crosby had given to the couple. Bassist/keyboardist/vocalist David Freiberg was given equal billing alongside Kantner and Slick on the latter album. A founding member of Quicksilver Messenger Service, Freiberg had known and played with Kantner on the folk circuit in the early 1960s and sang background vocals on Blows Against the Empire. Following a marijuana arrest that resulted in his departure from Quicksilver in 1971, he joined Jefferson Airplane as a vocalist for their final tour, documented on the live Thirty Seconds Over Winterland (1973).
Early in 1974, Slick released Manhole, her first solo album. It was on the Manhole album that Kantner and Slick next worked with Pete Sears (who had first played on Papa John Creach's first solo album), who was co-producing a Kathi McDonald album in the same studio. Sears wrote and recorded the song, "Better Lying Down" with Slick, and 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. He later 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.
The next album, Spitfire, was released in June 1976 and while it went platinum, reached No. 3, and included the hit song "With Your Love" (#12), the band considered the album's sales to be relatively disappointing compared to its predecessor and requested an audit from RCA Records, distributor of their Grunt label. RCA subsequently put a reported $500,000 into the next Jefferson Starship project. Earth was released in March 1978, and included the hit songs "Count on Me" (#8) and "Runaway" (#12). Tours of the U.S. and Europe would soon follow.
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.)
In early 1981 Grace Slick returned to the band, rejoining in time to sing on one song, written by Pete and Jeannette Sears, "Stranger", on the group's next album, Modern Times (1981). Modern Times also included the hit song "Find Your Way Back" (#29), as well as the humorous "Stairway to Cleveland", in which the band defended the numerous changes it had undergone in its musical style, personnel, and even name. Slick remained in the band for Jefferson Starship's next two albums, Winds of Change (1982) and Nuclear Furniture (1984). One noted personnel change in the group between the two albums was Dunbar leaving in August 1982, replaced by Donny Baldwin, who had performed with Thomas in the Elvin Bishop Group. Around this time, the band began enthusiastically embracing the rock-video age, making elaborate videos typical of the era's superstar bands. Grace Slick would appear frequently on MTV and such music-oriented television shows as Solid Gold, giving the band a high visibility in the MTV era. Although the Jefferson Starship albums of this era were only modestly successful, they continued to string together hit singles like "Winds of Change" (#38), "Be My Lady" (#28), and "No Way Out" (#23). The band also remained a gold-selling (and thus commercially credible) act and a popular concert draw. During this year, band groupie Patricia Lang helped establish a large "groupie following" with over one million fans using BBS services, which at the time was very progressive. It is believed to be one of the first uses of online services for gathering a large fan base support.
In June 1984, Paul Kantner, the last remaining founding member of Jefferson Airplane, left Jefferson Starship, and then took legal action over the Jefferson Starship name against his former bandmates. Kantner settled out of court and signed an agreement that neither party would use the names "Jefferson" or "Airplane" unless all members of Jefferson Airplane, Inc. (Bill Thompson, Paul Kantner, Grace Slick, Jorma Kaukonen, Jack Casady) agreed. The band briefly changed its name to Starship Jefferson while legal proceedings occurred, but ultimately the name was reduced to Starship. Freiberg stayed with the band after the lawsuit and attended the first studio sessions for the next album. He became frustrated with the sessions because all the keyboard work in the studio was being done by Peter Wolf (who had played on the sessions for Nuclear Furniture and briefly joined the band on the road for the follow-up tour) and that was the instrument Freiberg was supposed to be playing. He left the band and the next album was finished with the five remaining members. In 1984, Gabriel Katona (who had previously played in Rare Earth and Player) joined the band to play keyboards and saxophone on the road with them through the end of 1986.
The next album, Knee Deep in the Hoopla was released in October 1985 and scored two No. 1 hits. The first was "We Built This City", written by Bernie Taupin, Martin Page, Dennis Lambert, and Peter Wolf and was engineered by Grammy-winning producer Bill Bottrell and arranged by Bottrell and Jasun Martz; the second was "Sara". The album itself reached No. 7, went platinum, and spawned two more singles: "Tomorrow Doesn't Matter Tonight" (#26), and "Before I Go" (#68). The band had not had a No.1 hit record since the original Jefferson Starship released Red Octopus in 1975.
In early 1987, "Nothing's Gonna Stop Us Now" was featured in the film Mannequin and hit No. 1, although only Slick and Thomas (plus Craig Chaquico's guitar solo) appeared on it. At that time, the song made Slick the oldest female vocalist to sing on a number-one Billboard Hot 100 hit, at the age of 47 (she held this record until Cher broke it at the age of 52, in 1999 with "Believe"). The following year, the band's song "Wild Again" (which reached No.73 on the Billboard singles chart) was used in the movie Cocktail.
By the time No Protection was released, bassist and keyboardist Pete Sears had left the band. Sears went on to play keyboards with former Jefferson Airplane members Jorma Kaukonen and Jack Casady in Hot Tuna for ten years. Starship's No Protection was not released until well after "Nothing's Gonna Stop Us Now" (its most popular single) had peaked on the charts, and went gold; in addition to "Nothing's Gonna Stop Us Now" (#1), it featured the singles "It's Not Over ('Til It's Over)" (#9), and "Beat Patrol" (#46). The last song on the album, "Set The Night To Music", would later become a huge hit when re-recorded as a duet between Roberta Flack and Maxi Priest. For the No Protection tour, Brett Bloomfield was brought in to replace Sears and Mark Morgan was their new stage keyboardist.
Grace Slick left Starship in 1988, going on to join the reformed Jefferson Airplane, for one album in 1989, before announcing that she was retiring from music. As Kantner, Sears and Freiberg had left the band, all the new and remaining members were more than a decade younger than she was. To this day Slick maintains that old(er) people "don't belong on a rock and roll stage".
With Thomas the sole lead singer, the revamped lineup released Love Among the Cannibals in August 1989 and went on another tour to support the album. On September 24, 1989, while the band was in Scranton, Pennsylvania for a show, Donny Baldwin and Mickey Thomas got into an altercation during which Thomas was injured. Shortly after, Baldwin left the band to pursue other career interests. The remainder of the tour was postponed until a replacement drummer could be found.
After Thomas was well enough to tour, the band continued to tour in support of Cannibals. A replacement drummer, Kenny Stayripolous, was found and two female backup singers, Christina Marie Saxton and Melisa Kary, were recruited after Grace's departure. After the Cannibals tour wound up in 1990, Chaquico, the last remaining original Jefferson Starship member, handed in his notice. Thomas attributes the comparative lack of commercial success of the last album to the interruption of the tour, among other factors. Cannibals remains his personal favorite Starship album.
Early the following year, RCA assembled a greatest hits album, Greatest Hits (Ten Years and Change 1979-1991), which featured two new tracks, one with Thomas & Chaquico (recorded before Craig had left) and the other featuring only Thomas and session players. For a brief period it was thought that Thomas would continue forward as Starship, but manager Bill Thompson then decided it was over and told RCA that the band was done making records. Thomas revived Starship in 1992 as "Mickey Thomas' Starship" before settling on Starship featuring Mickey Thomas with different personnel and has toured steadily ever since.
In November 2010, Mickey Thomas announced on his website that a new Starship album, Loveless Fascination, would be released in the summer or fall of 2011. The album was eventually released on 17 September 2013.
Guitarist Mark Abrahamian, 46, died from a heart attack following a concert on September 2, 2012. He had been on tour with the group since 2000.
The Next Generation
In 1992, Kantner established Jefferson Starship – The Next Generation (a nod to the television series Star Trek: The Next Generation), a group that 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.
The success of this project prompted Kantner to reinvent his electric band, and Jefferson Starship took off once again. In addition to Aguilar and Gorman, Kantner recruited former collaborators Jack Casady and blues violinist Papa John Creach; former Tubes drummer Prairie Prince; and former World Entertainment War vocalist Darby Gould.
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 March and May 2008, tracks were recorded for the new studio album released on September 2, 2008, Jefferson's Tree of Liberty. In addition to the current members, Grace Slick made contributions to the bonus track on the album, and Marty Balin and Jack Casady appear on a recording originally made for Windows of Heaven.
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.
As of 2012, Jefferson Starship continues to tour with a lineup of Paul Kantner (vocals, guitar), David Freiberg (vocals, guitar), Cathy Richardson (vocals), Slick Aguilar (lead guitar), Chris Smith (keyboards) and Donny Baldwin (drums). The band sometimes features guest musicians such as Balin, Gould, Gorman, and original Jefferson Starship bassist and Keyboardist Pete Sears.
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.
- Official Starship Featuring Mickey Thomas Web Site
- Official Jefferson Starship web site
- 2008 studio release Jefferson's Tree of Liberty Myspace page
- Jefferson Starship collection at the Internet Archive's live music archive
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