Paul Kantner, a co-founding member and singer-guitarist of Jefferson Airplane and later Jefferson Starship, has died. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, Kantner suffered a heart attack earlier this week and passed away Thursday from multiple organ failure and septic shock. He was 74 years old.
Alongside Marty Balin, Kantner formed Jefferson Airplane in 1965. Rumor has it that the band’s name was inspired by a slang term for a marijuana roach clip. Their pro-drug stance and psych-folk-rock sound quickly made them a fixture in San Francisco’s fledgling counterculture scene, where they performed alongside acts like Jerry Garcia, David Crosby, and Janis Joplin. They were taken under the wings of concert promoter Bill Graham, who promptly booked them to play San Francisco’s Fillmore. A record contract with RCA Victor soon followed.
Jefferson Airplane released their first album, Jefferson Airplane Takes Off, in October 1966. A month later, singer Grace Slick joined the band. She proved instrumental in their commercial success; she wrote one of Jefferson Airplane’s greatest hits, “White Rabbit”, while her brother-in-law Darby Slick penned another fan favorite, “Somebody to Love”. Both songs appeared on the band’s sophomore album, Surrealistic Pillow, which peaked at No. 3 on the album charts. The band supported the release with several television appearances, as well as a performance at Monterrey Pop Festival.
In the subsequent years, Jefferson Airplane released a handful of albums and performed alongside the likes of Grateful Dead and The Doors. In 1969, they appeared at Woodstock. Ultimately, inner band drama, including Kantner’s tumultuous romantic relationship with Slick, and drug usage led to the band’s dissolution, with Kantner going on to participate in a new project dubbed The Planet Earth Rock and Roll Orchestra. Their first album, Blows Against The Empire, featured contributions from David Crosby and Graham Nash, Grateful Dead members Jerry Garcia, Bill Kreutzmann, and Mickey Hart, and members of Jefferson Airplane.
In 1974, Kantner formed Jefferson Starship with Slick, David Freiberg, Craig Chaquico, Pete Sears, and Papa John Creach. They released their debut LP Dragon Fly in 1974. Balin, who contributed to a track on Dragon Fly, officially joined the band’s lineup for 1976’s Spitfire, an album which went platinum and peaked at No. 3 on the charts. However, the group’s early success eventually subsided; in 1978, Slick was fired from the band due to ongoing issues with alcohol abuse, and Balin departed shortly thereafter.
Jefferson Starship remained Kantner’s primary focus over the ensuing decades, though he did reunite with the members of Jefferson Airplane on two occasions, including their induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1996.
Aside from his music, Kantner was a major advocate for the use of psychedelic drugs such as LSD for mind expansion and spiritual growth, and also supported the legalization of marijuana.