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PAUL KANTNER,
1941-2016

Paul Kantner, a co-founder of Jefferson Airplane,  originator of the Jefferson Starship and a central figure in the San Francisco scene of the 1960s, died Thursday (1/28) of multiple organ failure and septic shock. He was 74. 

Kantner, who worked with his Jefferson Airplane bandmates in various incarnations for nearly 50 years, suffered a heart attack last year and had various other lingering health issues.

The Airplane's musicians had diverse sets of unique skills that complemented one another. Kantner was the steady rhythm guitarist and a prolific songwriter who gave the band its artier side. While Grace Slick and Marty Balin wrote and sang the band's hits, Kantner played the experimental alchemist with songs such as “Volunteers,” “The Ballad of You & Me & Pooneil” and “Crown of Creation” and writing much of their third, and often considered best, album, After Bathing at Baxter's.

With Balin and Slick out front, the Airplane's look and politics came to represent West Coast counterculture, and well-documented appearances at the Monterey International Pop Festival, Woodstock and the Altamont Speedway festival gave them national media exposure. At the same time, they worked San Francisco venues such as the Fillmore more than any other band, partly due to them being managed by Bill Graham.

The Jefferson Airplane, which Kantner started with Balin in 1965, is on the list of acts receiving Lifetime Achievement honors from the Recording Academy this year.

"Paul Kantner was a folk/rock giant and integral part of the 1960s rock scene," reads a statement from Recording Academy chief Neil Portnow. "Paul was a key architect in the development of what became known as the San Francisco Sound. A multifaceted singer, songwriter, guitarist, and performer, he was essential to the success of such classic Airplane songs as 'Somebody To Love' and 'White Rabbit.' 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."

Kantner was an established Bay Area folk guitarist when he met Balin, a pop singer looking to create a fol-rock band. Wanting a female voice in the group, they brought in Signe Anderson and tried several bassists and drummers, eventually settling on Skip Spence and Jack Casady, a friend of lead guitarist Jorma Kaukonen. Kaukonen, a blues devotee, was dubbed by a friend Blind Lemon Jefferson Airplane, which led to the band's moniker.

Soon after the lineup was set, RCA signed the band and by December—just four months after their debut gig at The Matrix in San Francisco—they were recording in Los Angeles.

A Jet Age Sound” were the words written across the back of the band's debut album Takes Off, largely a document of their live sets at the time. It was the first album from a San Francisco band at the time when The Grateful Dead, Quicksilver Messenger Service and The Charlatans were defining the city's psychedelic scene.

I went through a million different guys til I saw Paul,” Balin wrote on the liner note of Takes Off. “He had a 12-string, a banjo, hair down to here and an old cap. I just went up to him 'let's get together.' I hadn't heard him but I knew he was good.”

Kantner co-wrote five of the album's 11 tracks. The band brought in Grace Slick and drummer Spencer Dryden for their second album, Surrealistic Pillow, which became the first international hit by a San Francisco band. It included their first top 10 single, “White Rabbit.”

The group broke up in the early 1970s at which time Kantner made a solo album, Blows Against the Empire, a science-fiction themed recorded about people escaping Earth. Using songs intended for the Airplane's eighth studio album, it was the first time the name Jefferson Starship was used, and the list of musicians was a collection of well-known friends: Jerry Garcia, David Crosby, Graham Nash, Bill Kreutzman, Mickey Hart, Slick and others.

Kantner and Slick continued to work together on the albums Sunfighter and Baron von Tollbooth and the Chrome Nun, and, with David Freiberg, formalized their union under the banner of Jefferson Starship. Balin joined the band for 1975's Red Octopus, which delivered the smash “Miracles.”

Slick and Balin left the band in 1978, leaving Kantner as the only Airplane member in Starship until he departed in 1984; Slick returned that year, and the band shortened the name to Starship.

He resumed working with Balin and Casady two years later, forming the KBC Band. In 1993, Kantner created Jefferson Starship: The Next Generation, which continues to record and tour.

Kantner is survived by three children: his daughter with Slick, China Isler, and two sons, Gareth and Alexander.

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