For patriots, the name ‘Jefferson’ conjures the image of the Declaration of Independence. For rockers, the name ‘Jefferson,’ (along with Airplane,) conjures the image of The White Rabbit. The band’s moniker alludes to Lemon Jefferson.
The man known as the “father of the Texas Blues,” Lemon Jefferson, born in 1893, in Couchman, Texas, was the youngest of seven children. Unable to help his sharecropping family- he was blind since birth- with a tin-cup for tips, he strummed his guitar on desegregated street corners and brothels. Paramount Records-that brought the blues out of the ghetto and into the nightclubs and the homes of America-hired him for their label. Through its patronage, Lemon became one of the 1920s best-selling entertainers. He served as muse for Huddie Ledbetter, (Leadbelly,) B. B. King, Elvis Presley, the Beatles, and Bob Dylan. In 1980, Blind Lemon Jefferson-as music lore remembers him-was an inductee in the Blues Foundation Hall of Fame. The most prevalent account of his 1929 death is he perished from exposure during a Chicago blizzard. Legend holds that his frozen hand clutched his guitar. Paramount pianist, Will Ezall, escorted Lemon’s body to Texas for internment in the Wortham Negro Cemetery where the musician ended up in an unmarked grave. In 1997, the Texas State Historical Society honored Lemon with a granite headstone inscribed with his most famous lyric, “Lord, it’s one kind of favor I’ll ask of you. See that my grave is kept clean.”
The genesis of an iconic 60s group occurred in the Matrix Club in Fillmore Street, near Haight Ashbury. To attract customers, owner Marty Balin formed an in-house band. Group member Jorma Kaukonen suggested its name, the Jefferson Airplane, a nod to the mythical Blind Lemon Jefferson.
“Sex, drugs, rock ‘roll, freedom, art, literature, poetry, Haight Street-it was just heaven on earth” was how its drummer, Paul Kantner, described swinging San Francisco-words that also applied to the Jefferson Airplane’s music, a mating of folk music, the blues, and rock ‘n’ roll. Soon the Airplane was flying high-they performed at the Berkeley Folk Festival, Monterey Jazz Festival and Woodstock, and appeared in Newsweek, Time, and Life magazines. Part of the magnetic draw was lead singer Grace Slick who penned the lyric, “When the truth is found to be lies/And all the joy within you dies/Don’t you want somebody to love?” Her onstage chemistry with Martin led to speculation they were a couple. Not the case. As Grace explained, “Marty was just not really chummy. He was the only one in the band I didn’t screw.” Another high-profile conquest was Jim Morrison after they ran into one another in Amsterdam. Grace, outrageous even by hippie standards, made Janis Joplin look like a Girl Scout. On one occasion, Grace had planned to put LSD in the tea at Tricia Nixon’s party at the White House. The plan went awry, “I was with Abbie Hoffman and I had my invitation, but they took one look at us-.”
With the money rolling in, Paul and Grace, who began living together and had daughter China, purchased Jefferson House that included a $2,000 dining room table converted from a medieval torture rack. The air was heady with marijuana fumes.
Alcohol and drugs led to the landing of the Jefferson Airplane as did Grace’s pregnancy. She observed, “It’s hard to babysit while you’re hallucinating.” After twenty years, the band made a comeback. In 1996 they earned their niche in the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame, and in 2016 they garnered a lifetime achievement Grammy. No doubt Lemon Jefferson was a spiritual stowaway in the second stage of the band’s life when they reinvented themselves as The Jefferson Starship.