Jefferson Airplane co-founder Paul Kantner dead at 74

Paul Kantner and Jefferson Airplane
Tim Ellis/Flickr
Paul Kantner, a founding member of the 1960s San Francisco-based pyschedelic rock group Jefferson Airplane, died last Thursday. The New York Times reports the cause of death was “multiple organ failure brought on by septic shock,” according to his publicist. Kantner, who was a guitarist, vocalist, and songwriter for the band, was 74.

Kantner’s passing away is one more in a string of rock icon deaths this year. David Bowie passed away on January 10, after an 18 month battle with cancer and just two days after his 69th birthday. Eight days later Eagles co-founder Glenn Frey succumbed to his own ailments at the age of 67. Coincidentally, Kantner’s former Jefferson Airplane bandmate Signe Anderson died the same day he did, after a long struggle with her health.

Along with lead singer Marty Balin, Kantner co-wrote some of the Airplane’s biggest hits, including Today, Young Girl Sunday Blues, and Volunteers. He was also behind most of the songs on the band’s third album, the universally acclaimed After Bathing at Baxter’s. He contributed to the title track of the fourth album Crown of Creation.

Kantner’s musicianship connected the bold, innovative sounds from the other band members. “Paul was the catalyst that brought the whole thing together,” said the band’s lead guitarist Jorma Kaukonen. “He had the transcendental vision, and he hung onto it like a bulldog. The band would not have been what it was without him.”

Tensions within the band and a clash of creative directions caused Jefferson Airplane to break up in 1972. But even before then, Kantner released a concept album under the name of Paul Kantner and Jefferson Starship. The album, Blows Against the Empire, featured a star-studded lineup including members of some of the greatest rock acts in history. Grace Slick, Jerry Garcia, Bill Kreutzmann, Mickey Hart, Joey Covington, Jack Casady, David Crosby, and Graham Nash all contributed to the album.

Kantner later assembled a new group, Jefferson Starship, which put out nine albums between 1974 and 2008, and remains active to this day. The lineup changed with each album over the years and included many guest musicians for recording and touring, with members of the original Jefferson Airplane also contributing.

Kantner left Jefferson Starship in 1984, and the group spun off as Starship, which is still recording and touring. Starship’s hits include We Built This City and Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now. Kantner rejoined Jefferston Starship when it came together again in the early 1990s.

Kantner’s early relationship with bandmate Grace Slick produced a child, actress China Isler. Kantner also has two sons from another marriage. Recently, the news broke that Jefferson Airplane will be receiving a Lifetime Achievement Grammy Award in February.

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