Jefferson Starship is an American rock band formed in the early 1970s by several members of the former Jefferson Airplane. The band has undergone several major changes in personnel and genres through the years while retaining the same Jefferson Starship name. It is not to be confused with Starship, a spin-off of the group featuring former co-lead singer Mickey Thomas that also periodically tours.
In 1970, while Jefferson Airplane was on break from touring, singer-guitarist Paul Kantner recorded Blows Against the Empire. This was a concept album featuring an ad hoc group of musicians (centered on Kantner, Grace Slick, Joey Covington, and Jack Casady of Jefferson Airplane; Crosby & Nash; and members of Grateful Dead and Santana) credited on the LP as “Paul Kantner & Jefferson Starship”, marking the first use of that name. This agglomeration was informally known as the Planet Earth Rock and Roll Orchestra, a moniker later used on a Kantner album in the early 1980s.
On Blows Against the Empire, Kantner and Slick sang about a group of people escaping Earth in a hijacked starship. In 1971, the album was nominated for the prestigious science fiction prize, the Hugo Award, a rare honor for a musical recording. Rolling Stone calls it “a sci-fi song suite that now suffers from concept-album creakiness but at its time boasted an experimental edge”. It was while that album was being made that Kantner sealed his love affair with Grace Slick; their daughter China Kantner (who made a name for herself as an MTV veejay in the 1980s) was born shortly thereafter.
Kantner and Slick with the Planet Earth Rock and Roll Orchestra released two follow-up albums: Sunfighter, an environmentalism-tinged album released in 1971 to celebrate China’s birth, and 1973’s Baron von Tollbooth & The Chrome Nun, titled after the nicknames David Crosby had given to the couple. Bassist/keyboardist/vocalist David Freiberg was given equal billing alongside Kantner and Slick on the latter album. A founding member of Quicksilver Messenger Service, Freiberg had known and played with Kantner on the folk circuit in the early 1960s and sang background vocals on Blows Against the Empire. Following a marijuana arrest that resulted in his departure from Quicksilver in 1971, he joined Jefferson Airplane as a vocalist for their final tour, documented on the live Thirty Seconds Over Winterland (1973).
Early in 1974, Slick released Manhole, her first solo album. It was on that album that Kantner and Slick next worked with Pete Sears (who had first played on Papa John Creach’s first solo album). Pete was co-producing a Kathi McDonald album in the same studio. Sears wrote the music to Grace’s raunchy lyrics “Better Lying Down,” recorded the song, and also played bass on the song “Epic #38”. It was during this session at Wally Heider studios in San Francisco that Paul first asked Pete to play with a new band he was forming that was later christened Jefferson Starship. Sears had worked on three of Rod Stewart’s early British recordings, and had to go back to England to play on Smiler, Stewart’s last album made in London, so Jorma Kaukonen’s brother Peter Kaukonen first played with the band early in 1974 before Sears returned to the States and replaced him in Jefferson Starship in June 1974.
Kantner is credited with discovering during this time the teenage guitarist Craig Chaquico, who first appeared on Sunfighter and played with Kantner, Slick and their bands and then with Starship through 1990. After leaving the group, Chaquico embarked on a successful solo career as a smooth jazz artist.