The members of Jefferson Starship past and present have been exploring the mysteries of music for more than 1000 collective years. Give or take. But who’s counting?
Jefferson Starship was among the most successful arena rock bands of the 1970s and early ’80s, an even greater commercial entity than its predecessor, Jefferson Airplane, the band out of which it evolved. Many Jefferson Airplane fans decried the group’s new, more mainstream musical direction, especially after Airplane singers Grace Slick and Marty Balin departed in 1978. But with shifting personnel, Jefferson Starship managed to please its new fans and some old ones over a period of a decade before it shifted gears into even more overtly pop territory and changed names again to become simply Starship.
The new band began with the remaining elements of the old one: Kantner on rhythm guitar and vocals; Slick on vocals; Freiberg on vocals and keyboards; Papa John Creach (born John Henry Creach in Beaver Falls, PA, May 18, 1917; died February 22, 1994) on electric violin; and John Barbata (born in Passaic, NJ, April 1, 1945) on drums. Chaquico, still a teenager, but at least out of high school, was the logical choice for lead guitarist. Jorma Kaukonen‘s brother Peter (who had appeared on Blows Against the Empire, Sunfighter, and Manhole) was brought in on bass. The band began rehearsals in January 1974 and opened its first tour in Chicago on March 19. The tour ran through April, after which the band prepared to go into the studio. Peter Kaukonen did not work out, however, and he was replaced in June by British veteran Pete Sears (born May 27, 1948), who had worked on Manhole.
During the recording sessions in July, Kantner reunited with Marty Balin to write the power ballad “Caroline,” which Balinagreed to sing on the album. Kantner and Slick hedged their bets by putting their names on either side of the name “Jefferson Starship” on the cover of the album, Dragon Fly, when it was released in October 1974. They needn’t have worried. Even though the single “Ride the Tiger” petered out at number 84, Dragon Fly just missed the Top Ten and went gold within six months, selling as well as Jefferson Airplanealbums generally did. Balin joined the band on-stage at its performance at the Winterland ballroom in San Francisco on November 24 (four years after his final Jefferson Airplane appearance) and then agreed to join Jefferson Starship as a permanent member.
With Balin aboard, the eight-member Jefferson Starshipwent back into the studio in February 1975 to record its second album and came out in June with Red Octopus, which turned out to be the best-selling album of the entire Jefferson Airplane/Jefferson Starship/Starship career, largely due to the presence of Balin‘s ballad “Miracles,” which became a Top Ten hit. (Slick and Sears‘ “Play on Love” was also a singles chart entry.) The album first hit number one (which no Jefferson Airplane album had ever done) in September, and bounced in and out of the top spot for the next two months. Eventually, it sold over two million copies. (At this point, Creach quietly exited the band.)
Red Octopus set a pattern for the next two Jefferson Starship albums. Balin, whose love songs had dominated the early days of Jefferson Airplane, but who had been shunted aside by the more political and abstract interests of other bandmembers, returned to a major role thanks to the commercial success of “Miracles.” Unlike Jefferson Airplane, which valued the individual expression of its members, however bizarre, Jefferson Starship was interested in making commercial music, even if it was written by people outside the band. Spitfire, released in June 1976, was another million-seller, boasting the Balin-sung Top 20 hit “With Your Love.” Earth, released in February 1978, also went platinum, spurred by the Top Ten hit “Count on Me” and its Top 20 follow-up, “Runaway.”
The commercial success masked increasing personnel problems, however, and those problems came out during the band’s European tour in June 1978, when Slick, suffering from some combination of illness and substance abuse problems, missed shows and gave substandard performances. She left the tour early, and at its conclusion Balin also quit the band. After the remaining members returned home to regroup, Barbata was involved in a serious automobile accident that forced him to drop out. This left remaining members Kantner, Freiberg, Chaquico, and Sears to figure out what to do next. In January 1979, they brought in veteran rock drummer Aynsley Dunbar (born in Liverpool, England, January 10, 1946) to replace Barbata. In April, Mickey Thomas (born in Cairo, GA, December 3, 1949), who possessed the soaring tenor voice behind the Elvin Bishop Group‘s 1976 hit “Fooled Around and Fell in Love,” was drafted in to replace both Slick and Balin. This revamped sextet went into the studio in June 1979, and in October the pointedly titled fifth Jefferson Starship album, Freedom at Point Zero, was released. Critics carped that, with Balin and Slick gone, and Thomas installed, the band’s sound was indistinguishable from that of arena rock stalwarts like Boston, Foreigner, and Journey. But, of course, those bands were selling in the millions, whatever the critics thought, and Chaquico even took the comparisons as a compliment. The album spawned a Top 20 hit in “Jane” and, while it did not match the success of its predecessors, it reached the Top Ten and went gold, validating the new version of the band, at least in commercial terms.