An interview with guitarist Jorma Kaukonen and music from across his career was featured on the March 30 edition of Greasy Tracks.
Heavily influenced by Rev. Gary Davis, Kaukonen was drawn to the burgeoning blues, bluegrass and folk scenes of the early 1960s, especially in New York City where he saw such acts as Bill Monroe and The Foggy Mountain Boys, featuring Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs, performing in Greenwich Village.
Kaukonen eventually moved to California where he enrolled at the University of Santa Clara and fell in with a group of young musicians — Janis Joplin, Jerry Garcia, Paul Kantner, Ron “Pigpen” McKernan and Richmond “Steve” Talbott — many of whom would become household names, especially in the psychedelic rock and blues genre which blossomed in the later 1960s.
“Paul (Kantner) would introduce me to the gaggle of characters who would become Jefferson Airplane, Jack Casady would join us from D.C. and the rest truly became history,” Kaukonen said. “I owe that cast of luminous characters a huge debt of gratitude for starting my train rolling in such a momentous way.”
The Jefferson Airplane formed in 1965 and recorded its debut album, The Jefferson Airplane Takes Off in 1966 with a line-up — Kaukonen, Casady, Kantner (guitar/vocals), Marty Balin (vocals), Signe Toly Anderson (vocals) and Skip Spence (drums) — that would be the core of the band for its classic recordings.
By fall 1966, Great Society singer Grace Slick replaced Anderson and Spence was fired, only to emerge as a guitarist in Moby Grape which he helped form, opening the door for Spencer Dryden who took over on drums. What followed proved to be the best-known works in the Airplane canon: Surrealistic Pillow, After Bathing At Baxter’s, Crown of Creation and Volunteers as well as appearances at such legendary events as the debut Monterey Pop Festival in 1967; the inaugural Isle of White Festival where they headlined in 1968; and Woodstock in 1969.
In addition to his inimitable style of playing which became a trademark of the Airplane’s sound, Kaukonen contributed a number of stellar songs — many of which he still performs — including, “Embryonic Journey,” “Third Week In The Chelsea,” “Star Track” “Good Shepherd,” “Feel So Good” and “Trial By Fire.”
Hot Tuna emerged in early 1969 when Kaukonen, Casady, Kantner and drummer Joey Covington played a handful of dates when the Airplane took time off. There would be a handful of different line-ups in the early years of the band, sometimes just Kaukonen and Casady playing acoustic such as on their debut record, the self-titled 1970 release with tracks culled from a handful of shows recorded at a small Bay Area club with Will Scarlett joining on harp.
Their first studio record, Burgers, came out in 1972 at which time the Airplane was as good as being grounded, effectively playing its final concerts that September. The group reluctantly reunited in 1989, releasing an album and undertaking a brief tour, highlighted by a mid-set Hot Tuna appearance during each show. In 1996, the Airplane was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Hot Tuna, be it in a scaled-down acoustic format or an electric line-up known for putting on marathon shows — some topping five hours in length — became the focal point for Kaukonen and Casady as they released a handful of studio and live albums in the 1970s.