One of many names of a group that has been recording and performing for over 55 years, but who are they now and what are they doing?
Jefferson Airplane, Jefferson Starship, Starship, Jefferson Starship, whatever you know them as or whatever they are, are/were/still are an American rock/soft rock/pop rock group that can trace its roots back to the early 1960’s. But it wasn’t until the 1980’s, when they racked up three US chart toppers and won an Academy Award nomination, that they enjoyed their greatest exposure and success.
Jefferson Airplane was formed in 1965 by Paul Kantner (vocals and guitar), Jorma Kaukonen (guitar and vocals), Marty Balin (percussion, guitar and vocals), Signe Anderson (vocals), Bob Harvey (bass), Jerry Peloquin (drums) and Skip Spence (drums and percussion). Anderson, Harvey and Peloquin all left after the first year and midway through recording their first album “Jefferson Airplane Takes Off”. They were replaced by Jack Casady, Spencer Dryden and a new vocalist Grace Slick, who had previously sung with the group The Great Society. “Jefferson Airplane Takes Off” was released in August 1966 and ‘graced’ the US albums chart briefly where it peaked at No.128. Three singles were released “It’s No Secret”, “Come Up The Years” and “Bringing Me Down” but made no appearance on the singles chart.
Recording for their second album “Surrealistic Pillow” began at the same time as the group were touring and promoting their debut long player and was released in February 1967, only five months later. The first single “My Best Friend” peaked at No.103 Stateside, but it was the follow up “Somebody To Love” that finally broke the group when it reached No.5 in May 1967. It was followed by “White Rabbit” that peaked at No.8 later that year. “Surrealistic Pillow” eventually reached No.3 in America and has been certified Platinum by the Recording Industry Association of America for sales of over one million copies.
Over the next five years Jefferson Airplane released a further four albums “Crown Of Creation” (1968 US No.6), “Volunteers” (1969 US No.13, US No.34), “Bark” (1971 US No.11, UK No.42) and “Long John Silver” (1972 US No.20, UK No.30) all of which are certified Gold in the US for sales of over 500,000 copies. Further line up changes occurred in 1970 when Balin and Dryden left with Joey Covington, John Creach, John Barbata and David Freiberg joining the group, but despite success in the charts and playing live, the group called it a day in the Winter of 1972.
However, Kantner, Slick, Covington, Barbata and Casady, together with Craig Chaquico and Pete Sears formed a new group called Jefferson Starship. This new incarnation would span the next ten years during which time eight studio albums would be released including the US No.1 album “Red Octopus” (1975) and the Platinum certified top five US and UK albums “Spitfire” (1976) and “Earth” (1978). Chart hit singles during this period included “Miracles” (1975), “With Your Love” (1976), “Count On Me” (1978), “Jane” (1979) and “Find Your Way Back” (1981). Grace Slick left the group in 1978, returning in 1981 and was replaced by Mickey Thomas on lead vocals, who remained with the group upon Slick’s return. However, Kantner left the group in 1984 and then sued the remaining members for money he was owed from releases and to prevent them from using the title of ‘Jefferson Starship’. He won a cash settlement but the name Jefferson Starship became the property of Slick (51%) and Bill Thompson (49%).
Mickey Thomas, together with Grace Slick, Sears, Freiberg, Chaquico and Donny Baldwin regrouped in 1985 under the shortened title of Starship and released the album “Knee Deep In The Hoopla” that September, reaching No.7 in the US and selling over a million copies. It was preceded by the single “We Built This City” which became many of the former members of Jefferson Airplane/Starship’s first US chart topping single as well as reaching the top spot in Canada.
A further US/Canadian No.1 came later that year with “Sara” and the album also featured the singles “Tomorrow Doesn’t Matter Tonight” (US No.26) and “Before I Go” (US No.68) in 1986.
Two years later the group recorded the song “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now”, written by Diane Warren and Albert Hammond, for the film ‘Mannequin’. It would give them their third US chart topper as well as topping the UK singles chart for four weeks in April/May 1987, making Grace Slick the oldest female singer to get a US/UK chart topper at the age of 47 years and 9 months, a record that was beaten in 1998 by Cher with her single “Believe“. The song became one of the biggest sellers of the year and at the 1988 Academy Award ceremony, was nominated in the category of Best Original Song, losing out to “I’ve Had The Time Of My Life” from ‘Dirty Dancing’.
“Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now” became a multi million seller the world over and one of THE biggest hits of the 1980’s. Their album “No Protection” was a huge hit as well, with “It’s Not Over (Til It’s Over)” breaking the US top ten in August 1987, with “Beat Patrol” and “Set The Night To Music” also being released from the album.
Starship released “Love Among The Cannibals” in 1989, but Grace Slick left the group prior to its recording, rejoining a reformed Jefferson Airplane for a new album and world tour that same year! “Love Among The Cannibals” made the US top 100 and included the singles “It’s Not Enough” (US No.12), “Wild Again” (US No.73) and “I Didn’t Mean To Stay All Night” (US No.75), Mickey Thomas taking lead vocals on both the album and all of its singles.
And that was it for Starship. Jefferson Airplane released their self titled comeback album the same year as “Love Among The Cannibals”, peaking at No.85 on the Billboard 200 and containing the singles “Summer Of Love” and “Planes”. After a hiatus of seven years, the group reformed again in 1996 when they were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but mostly retired soon after. Jefferson Starship reformed in 1992 and remain active to this day with David Freiberg, Donny Baldwin, Chris Smith and new vocalist Cathy Richardson, who joined the band in 2008. The group Starship also continue to perform with Mickey Thomas still as lead singer but with a new line up (since 2006) of band members. They released the album “Loveless Fascination” in 2013.
Paul Kantner, founder of Jefferson Airplane and Jefferson Starship, died in 2016 at the age of 74, the same year that Signe Toly Anderson of Jefferson Airplane died at the age of 74 as well. Marty Balin died in 2018 aged 76. Other members of the group have also sadly died over the years, leaving only Jorma Kaukonen, Bob Harvey and Jack Cadasy from the original line up left. Spencer Dryden, who joined the group in 1966, died in 2005 and Joey Covington (1970-72) died in 2013. David Freiberg of both groups, now aged 80, continues to tour and perform with Jefferson Starship and Mickey Thomas (now aged 69) of Starship also continues to tour and appear with the group. So what of Grace Slick herself?
As she approaches her 80th year, Grace retired from performing in 2010. The condition of her health is often reported following numerous stays in hospital for surgery and even being induced in a coma for two months in 2006 following a tracheotomy. In 1999 she was ranked as the twentieth greatest female of Rock and Roll in a VH1 poll.
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