With Jefferson Airplane, Paul Kantner pioneered what became known as the San Francisco sound in the mid-1960s, with such hits as “Somebody to Love” and “White Rabbit.”
Paul Kantner, one of the giants of the San Francisco music scene, died Thursday of multiple organ failure. Kantner, a founding member of the Jefferson Airplane, was 74 and had suffered a heart attack this week.
His death was confirmed by longtime publicist and friend, Cynthia Bowman, who said he died of multiple organ failure and septic shock.
Kantner suffered from a string of health problems in recent years, including a heart attack in March 2015.
With Jefferson Airplane, Kantner pioneered what became known as the San Francisco sound in the mid-1960s, with such hits as “Somebody to Love” and “White Rabbit.”
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The Airplane was renowned for thrilling vocal gymnastics by singers Marty Balin, Grace Slick and Kantner, the psychedelic blues-rock sound developed by guitarist Jorma Kaukonen and bass player Jack Casady and the LSD-spiked, ‘60s-era revolutionary fervor of its lyrics.
The band was formed in a Union Street bar called the Drinking Gourd, when Balin met Kantner and expressed his interest in forming a “folk-rock” band. It didn’t take long for the Airplane to attract a sizable local following, enough so that when fledgling promoter Bill Graham opened his legendary Fillmore Auditorium, the Jefferson Airplane served as the first headliner.
The Airplane was the first of the so-called “San Francisco sound” bands to sign a recording contract with a major label, and in August of 1966, its debut album, “The Jefferson Airplane Takes Off,” was released. Slick joined the band a year later and songs like “Somebody to Love” and “White Rabbit” became national hits as the love children came streaming into San Francisco.
The group quickly became an integral part of the ’60s rock scene, from the Matrix club to Golden Gate Park’s “Human Be-In” to Monterey Pop. The Airplane’s high point may have been its sterling early-morning performance at Woodstock, while its nadir may have come only months later, at the violence-plagued Altamont concert, when Balin was knocked unconscious by the rampaging Hells Angels.
After the band was grounded by feuds and a lawsuit, Kantner and Slick transformed the band into Jefferson Starship in 1974, taking the name from a Kantner solo album.
When Kantner left the Starship in 1985, he accepted an $80,000 settlement in exchange for a promise not to use the names “Jefferson” or “Airplane” without Slick’s consent.
Slick stayed with the Starship and had a hit with “We Built This City” before the band folded in the late 1980s.
A sometimes prickly, often sarcastic musician who kept his own counsel and routinely enraged his old bandmates — they sued him for trademark infringement (and settled) after he started his own version of Jefferson Starship in 1991 — Kantner lived to become something of a landmark on the San Francisco music scene, the only member of the band still living in town.
“Somebody once said, if you want to go crazy go to San Francisco,” he said. “Nobody will notice.”
Kantner was inducted in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1996 for his work with the Jefferson Airplane during the band’s glory years — from the breakthrough 1967 “Surrealistic Pillow” album through Woodstock and Altamont.
“We never made plans,” said Kantner. “Well, we made plans, but they went awry. It was good to have a plan in case they didn’t go awry.”
He maintained a strenuous touring schedule, performing regularly with some version of the Jefferson Starship name. His group sometimes included Balin, as well as David Freiberg of the Quicksilver Messenger Service, another leading Bay Area band from the ’60s.
“When I look back on it, that’s probably longer than any of the other bands I’ve been in,” Kantner said.
Paul Lorin Kantner was born in San Francisco on March 17, 1941.
His father, a traveling salesman, sent Kantner to military school after his mother’s death. He sought escape in science fiction books and music, before being inspired by Pete Seeger to follow a path as a folk singer. He attended Santa Clara University and San Jose State College before dropping out to pursue music.
When not on the road with his band, Kantner was a fixture at Caffe Trieste in North Beach.
“I’ve always loved San Francisco better than anywhere,” he said. “It’s always had its problems, but just the weather alone, the views. This corner alone has proved so nourishing.”
Kantner is survived by three children; sons Gareth and Alexander, and daughter China.
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