SAN FRANCISCO (CBS SF) — Founding member of the pioneering psychedelic ’60s San Francisco rock group the Jefferson Airplane Paul Kantner has died at age 74, according to reports.
Kantner, who drew upon his passion for politics and science fiction to help write such rock classics as “Wooden Ships” and “Volunteers,” died on Thursday of organ failure and septic shock. He had been admitted to a San Francisco hospital after falling ill earlier in the week, his former girlfriend and publicist Cynthia Bowman, the mother of one of his three children, told The Associated Press.
The guitarist and songwriter had survived close brushes with death as a younger man, including a motorcycle accident during the early 1960s and a 1980 cerebral hemorrhage, and he recovered from a heart attack last year.
Born in San Francisco and a resident of the city his whole life, Kantner rose to fame as the leader, guitarist and principle songwriter for both the Jefferson Airplane and subsequent band the Jefferson Starship.
Along with the Grateful Dead, Kantner’s band the Jefferson Airplane became one of the biggest bands to emerge from the psychedelic-rock scene during the Summer of Love in 1967.
Few bands were so identified with San Francisco or so well-embodied the idealism and hedonism of the late ’60s as Jefferson Airplane, its message boldly stated on buttons and bumper stickers that read “THE JEFFERSON AIRPLANE LOVES YOU.”
The Airplane advocated sex, psychedelic drugs, rebellion and a communal lifestyle, operating out of an eccentric, Colonial Revival house near Haight-Ashbury.
Formed in 1965 after Kantner met up with singer Marty Balin playing the San Francisco folk circuit, the band would add second lead singer Signe Anderson and Kantner’s friend, blues guitarist Jorma Kaukonen, before developing from their folk-rock roots to explore the psychedelic electric rock sound that they made famous. Bassist Jack Casady would also be a key member after he joined.
The addition of Grace Slick after Anderson left the band in late 1966 gave the Jefferson Airplane their powerful dual-vocalist sound heard on such early hits as “Somebody to Love” and “White Rabbit” from the group’s breakout album Surrealistic Pillow in 1967. That was the same year that budding San Francisco rock impresario Bill Graham would become the band’s manager.
The band would play at such landmark San Francisco events as Golden Gate Park’s legendary “Human Be-In” that preceded the Summer of Love as well as such major ’60s rock festivals as the Monterey Pop Festival, Woodstock and the infamous Altamont Speedway Free Festival with the Rolling Stones.
The band would last through a revolving door of personnel changes as the ’60s became the ’70s, with Balin departing before the release of the 1971 album Bark. The Jefferson Airplane would disintegrate in acrimony with Kantner and Slick splintering off to form the Jefferson Starship while Kaukonen and Casady continued with their already active side project Hot Tuna.
The Jefferson Starship would score more hits over the course of a decade including “Miracles” (penned by Balin, who returned to the fold after Airplane broke up), “Jane,” “We Built This City” and their last major hit “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now” in 1987.
The Jefferson Airplane reunited its classic line-up for a final album and tour in 1989 and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1996. Kantner would continue to perform and record with various line-ups of the Jefferson Starship through 2013.
Earliest reports of his health issues surfaced last year after a March post on the Jefferson Starship Facebook page that said he was hospitalized with a likely heart attack. He did manage to return to the stage to play with the band later in the year.
“He was the first guy I picked for the band and he was the first guy who taught me how to roll a joint,” Balin wrote of Kantner on his Facebook page. “And although I know he liked to play the devil’s advocate, I am sure he has earned his wings now”
The Jefferson Airplane is being honored by the Recording Academy with a Lifetime Achievement Award this year. A statement released by Academy President and CEO Neil Portnow read in part, “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.”
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