Jefferson Airplane’s Paul Kantner dies at 74

Jefferson Starships' Paul Kantner performs on June 20, 2001.

Jefferson Starships’ Paul Kantner performs on June 20, 2001.

(Shawn Baldwin / Associated Press)

Paul Kantner, the Jefferson Airplane guitarist, songwriter and fixture of the San Francisco ‘60s rock scene, died Thursday of septic shock and organ failure, according to his publicist, who confirmed his death with the San Francisco Chronicle. He was 74.

“Paul was a key architect in the development of what became known as the San Francisco Sound,” wrote Recording Academy President Neil Portnow in a statement released Thursday. “The music community has lost a true icon, and we share our deepest condolences with Paul’s family and friends.”

Kantner’s sound -- a blues-based, psychedelic style -- formed the backbone of Jefferson Airplane, a band best known for such hits as “White Rabbit” and “Somebody to Love.”


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He cofounded the group with Marty Balin at the onset of the San Francisco hippie movement. After releasing their debut album, “The Jefferson Airplane Takes Off” in 1966, they soon recruited singer Grace Slick to add powerhouse vocals to their acid-tripping rock sounds that also featured lead guitarist Jorma Kaukonen, bassist Jack Casady and Spencer Dryden, who replaced the band’s original drummer, Skip Spence.

The band’s 1967 album “Surrealistic Pillow” is considered a high point of the psychedelic era. The group came to define the local scene and played the first headline gig at legendary rock promoter Bill Graham’s venue the Fillmore Auditorium.

“With the Airplane we thought we could do it all,” he told the music journalist Harvey Kubernik, author of the forthcoming book “1967- The Complete Rock History of the Summer of Love.” “It was a reaction against the corporate structure trying to impose certain limits on you. We revolted against that, which was the other extreme, which is doing it totally ourselves. And it was like putting a five-year-old in an automobile reeling down the street. It may make it down the street but the car may get a few dents along the way.”

They performed one of the most acclaimed sets at Woodstock in 1969, though like many in their scene, saw their movement cut short by the violence at the Altamont festival just months later. At a concert headlined by the Rolling Stones and seen in the 1970 documentary “Gimme Shelter,” Balin was attacked during Jefferson Airplane’s set by a member of the Hell’s Angels, who were hired as security.

Kantner and Slick re-formed the group as Jefferson Starship in 1974, after the band was derailed in its prime by infighting and legal troubles. Kantner officially left that group in 1985, though he toured and recorded under similar monikers for years after. The group also briefly reunited under its original name in 1989.


Kantner was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame along with Jefferson Airplane in 1996. He had suffered heart attacks last year and earlier this week, amid other health problems. He is survived by sons Gareth and Alexander and daughter China.

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