Jefferson Starship’s Craig Chaquico Sues Ex-Bandmates

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Craig Chaquico today (Photo by Maggie McGurk)

Update (Aug. 11, 2017): A federal judge has ruled that Craig Chaquico, a founding member of Jefferson Starship, may pursue part of his lawsuit seeking to stop former bandmates from using the band’s name. U.S. Magistrate Judge Maria-Elena James said the guitarist may pursue a breach of contract claim against David Freiberg, Donny Baldwin and other current members of the band. At issue are performances and merchandising since January 2016, when co-founder Paul Kantner died.

Our original report…
In late April, Craig Chaquico, the original lead guitarist of the bands Jefferson Starship and Starship, filed a lawsuit seeking to stop two former bandmates and the current touring version of Jefferson Starship from continuing to use that name. Chaquico claims in his lawsuit that the two—bassist/keyboardist/vocalist David Freiberg and drummer Donny Baldwin—are using the Jefferson Starship name without permission, and that they have used his image to promote shows through early 2018, as well as sell merchandise with photos of the original band, including Chaquico. He claims they are misleading fans by doing so.

A little background: In 1972, Jefferson Airplane, the legendary ’60s San Francisco band, split up. Two years later, Airplane members Paul Kantner and Grace Slick—along with six other musicians—formed a new group, Jefferson Starship. They included Freiberg, who had been in the very last Airplane lineup, and Chaquico.

Related: Marty Balin joins Jefferson Starship, 1974

While the group underwent personnel changes over the years, with some members coming and going, and some leaving permanently, Chaquico was the only consistent member of the band. Freiberg remained with Jefferson Starship until 1984. That same year, Kantner left the group. The remaining members—Slick, Baldwin, singer Mickey Thomas and bassist/keyboardist Pete Sears, as well as Chaquico—renamed themselves Starship in 1985 and went on to enjoy great commercial success, with hits such as “We Built This City” and “Nothing Can Stop Us Now.” By the end of the band, in 1989, with Slick and Sears having exited, Chaquico was the only musician remaining from the original Jefferson Starship lineup. He has since maintained a prolific and successful solo career both as an acoustic and electric guitarist and bandleader.

A mid-’70s lineup of Jefferson Starship. Top row, l. to r.: Pete Sears, Paul Kantner, Grace Slick, Johny Barbata. Front row, l. to r.: David Freiberg, Marty Balin, Craig Chaquico

In 1989, most of the prime-era Jefferson Airplane members reunited for a tour. Three years later, Kantner put together a new iteration of Jefferson Starship, which also experienced frequent lineup shifts. Lawsuits were filed at various times regarding the continued usage of the band’s name, and an agreement was made so that Kantner could continue to perform with his band as Jefferson Starship.

Kantner died in 2016, and since that time, the remaining members of his final Jefferson Starship lineup having continued without him. The brunt of Chaquico’s lawsuit is that they no longer have the right to do so.

Best Classic Bands spoke with Craig Chaquico.

Let’s start with the basics. What is this lawsuit about and why did you file it? Who are the plaintiffs and what do you feel they did wrong?
Craig Chaquico: The lawsuit is about using the name Jefferson Starship after it was retired in 1985 and having the current band lineup passing themselves off as the original songwriters and recording artists that went by the name Jefferson Starship. Seven of the eight original members are not in this tribute version to Jefferson Starship (and tribute to Jefferson Airplane, by the way) and they did not write or record any of Jefferson Starship and Starship’s hit albums and songs. As the only member on every single one of these albums and songs, this misrepresentation means a lot to me and to the fans of the original music.

You filed this as a breach of contract. In what way is Jefferson Starship in breach?
All of the band members, including David Freiberg and Donny Baldwin, agreed in ’85 that the name would be retired for future use in connection with live performances, recordings and merchandise. Now Freiberg and Baldwin are performing with others who have no connection to the original group, using the name in violation of that agreement. If any of the members who signed the ’85 agreement want to use the name, they need the permission of all the other members who signed the agreement and Freiberg and Baldwin do not have my permission.

Watch a live version of Jefferson Starship’s hit “Ride the Tiger”

And to follow up on that, why is this suit happening now? Why did you wait until this particular time?
In 1993, I was the first to consider giving Paul Kantner permission to use the name for his solo projects, which he had begun doing in violation of the ’85 agreement. By then, both names, Jefferson Starship and Starship, had been retired, and everyone was doing their separate solo projects anyway. I gave him permission to use the name because he invited me into the band originally and the eight of us started it together. We went way back, and he was always the other guitar player onstage with me when we had two guitars. However, my permission was specific to Paul; I did not give Freiberg or Baldwin permission to use the name. Once Paul passed away, in 2016, no one had the right to use the name anymore. We tried to resolve this without litigation, but unfortunately we were ultimately forced to go down this road.

Was it his death that, in your opinion, makes the difference here? Is it because you feel there is no Jefferson Starship without Paul?
All I would add to the prior answer is that, for years, I tried to get the original guys all together in the same band as the fans kept asking me for that. Nobody said no, a bunch of guys said yes, including David, but then David opted out. We never heard back from Mickey. David told me recently, “I like playing with this band better than I liked playing with Jefferson Starship.”

From what I understand, the trademark Jefferson Starship was co-owned by Grace Slick—who had a majority interest in the name—and the band’s late manager, Bill Thompson. There has already been a lawsuit on the usage of the name by Paul and in the end Paul lost but Grace licensed him to keep using it. Is that accurate, and if so, why do you think it’s wrong for the current band to keep using the name? If that’s not accurate, please clarify.
Our case is not based on the ownership of the trademark, but the agreement between all of us to retire the name and not use it for live performances, recordings and merchandise. I feel it’s wrong for Freiberg and Baldwin to continue using the name for the reasons I mentioned earlier—I just do not think that the current band without Paul, and with only one out of eight original members (and that one was not even on all of the hits and was not even in Starship), represents the legacy of the music. I’m concerned about fans going to their shows that are being promoted as if it was the real Jefferson Starship and thinking they are seeing the core JS lineup in concert as well as buying merchandise from a tribute band that is the original JS artwork and music.

If Grace does indeed have a controlling interest in the band’s name, why do you feel you have a legal case here?
I don’t necessarily agree that Grace has a controlling interest in the name, but regardless, the case is based in our contractual promise to one another to not use the name regardless of who actually owns the trademark in the name itself. Freiberg and Baldwin are violating that agreement by using the name without the permission of all the members who signed the agreement in ’85.

What do you hope to gain from this legal action? Are you seeking a financial settlement or is this about something else to you?
Good question. This is not about the money or getting a financial settlement. I want to preserve the legacy of the band and think that in order to do so they need to stop performing using the JS name. The current lineup lacks enough connection to the original music to perform using the name and I do not want to see fans of the band being duped into going to shows thinking they are going to see the core lineup. The fact that the band uses images of the original lineup makes it even more dishonest and confusing to the fans and this has to stop.

Do you feel that your own reputation as a musician is being damaged by these musicians continuing to use the name Jefferson Starship?
It diminishes my contribution to the most significant creative period of both bands, and it profits off of my work while inhibiting my ability to get some of the same shows if people think they are getting the original Jefferson Starship instead of hiring just one of its members.

What would you like to say directly to David and Donny?
I would say, “I’m flattered that you still play the music that I helped create in your tribute band. Just call it what it is and don’t palm yourself off as anything like the band members who actually created the music that you are imitating.”

Changing the subject, you haven’t been part of the group for decades and have had a prolific solo career. Can you tell our readers what you are up to these days?
After being on the top of the charts for over four decades now, I enjoy playing my music from the glory days of Jefferson Starship and Starship and then segueing into my million-selling, Billboard #1, Grammy-nominated (I love being able to say that every chance I get, haha), solo instrumental music and blues, with my band of 25 years: Jim Reitzel on bass and Wade Olson on drums, and now joined by national touring vocalists Joan Burton and Jesse Bradman. I wrote ’em, so I figure I can play ’em again whenever I want to.

I understand you’re planning an exciting reunion. What can you tell us?
On June 24, for the first time, three of the original Jefferson Starship founding members—myself, [bassist/keyboardist] Pete Sears and Johny Barbata—will be reuniting when we play music spanning five decades. The last time we played together in 1978, Grace got drunk, the show was canceled, we lost all of our gear, two of our lead singers left (Grace and Marty Balin), and our first drummer (Barbata) was in a tragic Porsche accident, and the band almost broke up. What could possibly go wrong this time?

What else do you have planned?
Along the “Jefferson” vein, on May 20, I am joining the Jefferson State Choral Coalition at Southern Oregon University to perform some of the hit songs I wrote with Jefferson Starship, Starship and as a solo artist, along with their magnificent vocal interpretations and arrangements.

And after a successful federal court experience over the rightful ownership of my stolen ’59 Gibson Sunburst Les Paul, that I played on all of the first four Jefferson Starship albums along with the ’57 Goldtop (that we are still in search of), I hope to play it again on some upcoming recordings and live performances, given the constraints of logistics, security and insurance hassles for such a historic instrument.

And then I am working on my own personal “Jefferson Stateship” musical postcard, from the National Parks that are included as part of the Circle of Discovery in the State of Jefferson (Northern California/Southern Oregon), with a different one of my hit songs recorded in a special location of each the seven parks this summer and fall, accompanied by who knows what symphony of nature and spirits upon the wind who may join me.

The Starship hit “We Built This City” has been named in a few polls as the worst rock song ever. What’s your reaction to that?
I think that’s total b.s. because I know that we’ve recorded a lot worse songs than that, and I wrote ’em! Seriously, though, if there had been any more guitar in that song, it would’ve ruined it, haha.

Related: 17 #1 hits worse than “We Built This City”

What was your own favorite lineup of Jefferson Starship or Starship, and why?
Well, it would be the original lineup of Jefferson Starship, with lots of guitar solos and instrumentals, along with Pete Sears and Johny Barbata, and then the first albums with [singer] Mickey [Thomas] and [drummer] Aynsley [Dunbar] as Jefferson Starship, but I also have a warm place in my heart for all of the sampled pop vocal bullshit that we did when Starship became famous on its own. Hah!

Watch Jefferson Starship play an acoustic version of “Count On Me” in 1978

Jeff Tamarkin

6 Comments so far

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  1. Citizensfo
    #1 Citizensfo 5 May, 2017, 20:39

    Seems to me Craig and his famous self is leaving out the real reason for his success ?
    That being the original Jefferson Airplane any of their reincarnations of the Jefferson Anything is most definitely tied at the hip to the Airplane . So be it and all his famous hits and and famous self and all the egomania allowed.

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  2. Enkidu
    #2 Enkidu 5 May, 2017, 21:31

    Maybe it sounds strange, but as a serious fan of Jefferson Airplane, I’ve always regarded Craig Chaquico as something of an interloper. While no fan of rock music could ever fault Chaquico’s technical virtuosity (he reminds me a lot of Alvin Lee), the “sound” that made the Airplane so unique had as much to do with Jorma Kaukonen and Jack Casady as Grace, Marty or Paul. Jorma and Jack’s departure was followed by the other core members with four brilliant efforts: Blows Against the Empire, Sunfighter, Manhole and Baron Von Tollbooth and the Chrome Nun. While the first four Jefferson Starship albums were certainly satisfying in their own ways, as JS became a “rock” band, they were never as daring artistically as the Airplane had been—and despite the absence of Grace, Marty and Paul, Jack and Jorma’s Hot Tuna seemed to carry the Airplane legacy forward more successfully than Jefferson Starship, sonically speaking. Chaquico’s characterization of the new lineup of Jefferson Starship as little more than a “tribute band” is met in my gut with a certain sense of irony, because in so many ways it could be argued that Jefferson Starship was a “tribute band” of Jefferson Airplane. It’s notable that Grace herself endorsed Kathy Richardson as the new band’s female singer, and also notable that Freiberg played with late Jefferson Airplane, the four in-between albums, and Jefferson Starship, so the legacy is still pretty intact, regardless of what Chaquico claims. Just wish he’d say, “Let’s wait and see if they’re good enough” to merit the name. The Jefferson Family was always very broad, and fluid, with people like Pete Sears and Papa John playing with both Tuna and Jefferson Starship. Mickey Thomas’s band, Starship, so trashed the legacy of Jeffersons Airplane and Starship that “We Built this City” became as iconic for truly trashy pop-rock, as “White Rabbit” had been for defining the late 1960s. To Chaquico, I’d say, “Chill, Man,” or better yet, join the band! And bring on Pete and Johnny, too.

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  3. David
    #3 David 6 May, 2017, 16:25

    Craig Chaquico deserves to be heard in this case. I hope he is successful with His suit and that His own Solo Success continues as He did write those songs and has built a career away from The Starship totally on his Own! Go Craig!

    Reply this comment
  4. Seederman
    #4 Seederman 9 May, 2017, 05:59

    Chaquico is being a little disingenuous here. I doubt anyone goes to see Jefferson Starship in 2017 thinking they are going to see the “original band”. Very few people go to see them anyway. For better or worse, since its reformation in 1992, the evolution of the band’s lineup has been organic. Chris Smith has been in Jefferson Starship for 20 years now, longer than Chaquico was, and does a good job. Freberg has more than 20 years in the and, cumulatively. Going all the way back to the first Airplane album, this collective has *never* had a stable lineup. Grace doesn’t seem bothered by the band’s continued existence (maybe she is, but she hasn’t said anything). Chaquico is fighting over acorns here; can Jefferson Starship even fill a 500 seat theater in 2017? I’d love to see this alien Jefferson Starship record a new studio album next, continuing this strange, random, evolution into something far removed from the Airplane and the 60’s. It’s interesting (well, a little bit) to watch…

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  5. Peter D
    #5 Peter D 4 June, 2017, 10:11

    Interesting comments. Airplane was the raw foundation, but Jefferson Starship created some of the greatest music of that era. Sophisticated arrangements – guitars, keyboard and vocals a joy to still listen to. In my opinion it has aged better than the earlier stuff. Craig was central to that effort. Desert Island stuff – I’d take my JS ones over Airplane and I love the Airplane stuff (along with Great Society – the true base of some of Airplane’s best) and know Airplane’s place in Rock History. Finally – Craig is one of the nicest and most grounded people around. I don’t see this as a ego driven thing at all. I believe him when he says it’s not about the money. And, I very much love his solo work showing his creative forces are alive and well and his guitar work a treat whenever played.

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  6. Old guy
    #6 Old guy 27 June, 2017, 12:21

    Fan since the 60s. If Grace is ok by it so am I! Grace and Paul are forever the heart of Jefferson Airplane/Starship but the band has always been a project of many different musicians.

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