Paul Kantner, who co-founded San Francisco’s iconic Jefferson Airplane, and later created the Jefferson Starship, has died at age 74, the group’s publicist told the San Francisco Chronicle Jan. 28. The paper reported that Kantner had suffered a heart attack earlier this week and died from multiple organ failure and septic shock.
The Airplane was formed in 1965 after Marty Balin wanted a group to play at his club, the Matrix, and recruited Kantner, guitarist Jorma Kaukonen and singer Signe Anderson. The band’s first gig was Aug. 13, 1965. Jack Casady took over on bass in a revision of the rhythm section that put Skip Spence on drums. Spencer Dryden and Grace Slick replaced the departing Spence and Anderson in 1966.
The group released its first album, “Jefferson Airplane Takes Off,” in 1966. The group’s first chart single, 1967’s “Somebody To Love,” was a huge success, peaking at No. 5 on the Billboard singles chart. The follow-up, “White Rabbit,” hit No. 8. The album that featured those songs, “Surrealistic Pillow,” went to No. 3 on the Billboard album charts. The group played the Monterey Pop, Woodstock and Altamont music festivals. A string of the Airplane’s albums, from “After Bathing At Baxter’s,” the 1967 follow-up to “Pillow,” to 1972’s Long John Silver,” all hit in the Top 25.
The Jefferson Starship idea first got a foothold in 1970 in the “Blows Against the Empire” album credited to Kantner and the Starship. Kantner and Slick formally re-launched the Airplane as Jefferson Starship in 1973 and the group hit the top 10 with the softer toned “Miracles” which hit No. 3 in 1975. Their album that year, “Red Octopus,” hit No. 1 on the Billboard album chart. It and the two follow-ups, “Spitfire” and “Earth” were all Top 10 million sellers. Kantner was inducted into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame with the band in 1996 by the Grateful Dead’s Phil Lesh and Mickey Hart. Kantner and Slick had a daughter together, China, in 1971. She made her first appearance on the cover of a Kantner-Slick album, “Starfighter,” and later became an MTV VJ.
Kantner previously had suffered a heart attack in March, 2015. He also suffered a brain hemorrhage in 1981, according to People magazine. His death comes just a couple of weeks before the Airplane were to receive a Lifetime Achievement Award at this year’s Grammy Awards on Feb. 15.
“So many memories rushing through my mind now,” said the Airplane’s Marty Balin in a statement. “So many moments that he and I opened new worlds. He was the first guy I picked for the band and he was the first guy who taught me how to roll a joint. And although I know he liked to play the devil’s advocate, I am sure he has earned his wings now.’ Sai Ram ‘Go with God.’” “Our dear Paul” was posted with a picture of Kantner on the Jefferson Starship Facebook page. “An honor to have been in your Planet Earth Orchestra. RIP buddy,” wrote Howard Kaylen of the Turtles and Flo and Eddie on Facebook.
Neil Portnow, president and CEO of the Recording Academy, issued a statement today. “Paul Kantner was a folk/rock giant and integral part of the 1960s rock scene. A founding member of Jefferson Airplane, who are receiving our Lifetime Achievement Award this year, Paul was a key architect in the development of what became known as the San Francisco Sound. A multifaceted singer, songwriter, guitarist, and performer, he was essential to the success of such classic Airplane songs as ‘Somebody To Love’ and ‘White Rabbit.’ The music community has lost a true icon, and we share our deepest condolences with Paul’s family and friends, and with those who had the privilege of collaborating with him.”