The legendary player behind Jefferson Airplane and Hot Tuna revisits his illustrious career on his 75th birthday.
In 1969, the well-respected music critic Ralph J. Gleason interviewed 25-year-old Jack Casady for his book The Jefferson Airplane and the San Francisco Sound. In his introduction to the Q&A, Gleason wrote: “For one who gets such a huge, driving sound from the bass, he is a smallish man, habitually concealed behind huge suede coats, dark glasses, and ponchos. But there is nothing shy about the way he plays or talks. He considers what he says carefully, his mind works uniquely and provocatively, and he knows what he is about.”
Fifty years later, as he celebrates his 75th birthday, Jack Casady still knows what he is about — which is playing great bass, often with his longtime musical partner, guitarist Jorma Kaukonen, in Hot Tuna, the band they formed as a sideline to the Airplane in 1969. The lengthy collaboration between the two goes back even further than that, to their boyhood days in Washington, D.C. They began to play together when Casady was still in junior high and Kaukonen, three years older, in high school. “It is interesting that Jack and myself became partners in crime,” writes Kaukonen in his autobiography, Been So Long. “He was younger than me in a time when that meant something. Our slight age difference meant nothing to our friendship. Music called to both of us and we answered it.”
Casady’s musical career began when he was 12 years old and discovered his father’s Washburn guitar in the attic. “After my parents heard me playing it,” he recalls, “they said, ‘If he wants to play it, we’ll get him some lessons.’ That started me off.” By the time he was 15, Casady was playing in local clubs, using a fake ID to pass for 18, the legal drinking age at the time. He worked with Kaukonen on some of those gigs, playing lead on his ’58 Telecaster — “I wish I had that guitar today,” he says — while Kaukonen sang and played rhythm on his acoustic guitar.
“My opportunity to play bass came when I filled in for a guy who was playing a Fender Precision Bass,” Jack says. “This was in 1960, when I was 16. Danny Gatton and I were buddies. He was a year younger than me and a wunderkind on guitar. That summer, a job opened up, three or four weeks in a club — this golden opportunity to work every night — and his bass player got sick. Danny asked me to fill in. I’d never played bass, but he said, ‘Jack, how hard can it be? It’s only got four strings.’ So there it began.”
Casady took to bass immediately — “I loved the sonic area” — but struggled with the neck on the P-Bass. He addressed that problem by going to Chuck Levin’s Music Center in Washington and ordering a Jazz Bass, a new Fender model that had just come on the market. “My hands are not very big, and the neck was more narrow. Also, it had two pickups, which gives you more tonal variations.” Jack was soon getting calls for gigs as both a guitarist and bassist, “and my work quota expanded exponentially.”
After graduating from high school, Casady went to Florida, where he played both rock & roll gigs and cocktail-lounge jazz. After six months, he returned to D.C., where he was teaching guitar and taking college courses when he got a call from Kaukonen in California. “That was in 1965,” Casady says. “I was invited to come out and join the just-formed Jefferson Airplane.” Unfortunately, just before he headed west, his Jazz Bass was stolen. “So when I went to San Francisco, I didn’t have a bass. I borrowed basses until I bought a new Jazz Bass. It was different from the ’60; Fender had dropped the concentric pots. It had a single volume and two tones, and at first I didn’t like it as much. After a couple of months, I decided I wanted to get more low end, so I had a Precision pickup added, butted right up against the neck. That’s the one I used to record the first three [Airplane] albums.”
The first album, Jefferson Airplane Takes Off, was released in September 1966; it featured vocalist Signe Anderson along with Casady, Kaukonen, vocalist Marty Balin, guitarist Paul Kantner, and drummer Skip Spence. By the time the second album, Surrealistic Pillow, was released in February 1967, Grace Slick had replaced Anderson — bringing with her two songs from her previous band, the Great Society: “White Rabbit” and “Somebody to Love.” Spence was also gone, replaced by Spencer Dryden. That “classic” lineup of the Jefferson Airplane recorded the third album, After Bathing at Baxter’s, which was released at the end of 1967.
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“I’d never heard a bass like that,” said Grace Slick, recalling her first impression of Casady’s playing. “Jack had this roaring, growling thing that would start at the bottom and twine all the way up.” (The quote is in Jeff Tamarkin’s liner notes for the box set Jefferson Airplane Loves You.) Where did that “roaring, growling thing” come from? Not from listening to other rock bass players. “Rock & roll was pretty bad and all,” the young Casady told Ralph Gleason. “I didn’t like any of it.” Although he had been playing Buddy Holly songs and other early rock tunes with Kaukonen in his D.C. days, Casady preferred classical music and jazz. “All my heroes were stand-up bass players,” he says, citing such jazz greats as Charles Mingus and Scott LaFaro. “The only guy that I heard doing something different [on electric bass] was in James Brown’s band, when I saw him play in the late ’50s, using a Fender bass.” Given the time period, that bassist was probably Bernard Odum. (“Later,” Casady told Anthony Jackson and Chris Jisi in a 1993 Bass Player interview, “I admired many of my peers — Phil Lesh, of course, John Entwistle, Paul McCartney, and Jack Bruce, who appealed to me because he was also playing melodies with a vengeance.”)
The jazz influence can be heard in Jack’s early work with the Airplane, where he often played long, fluid runs that “twined all the way up” rather than sticking to root-5 lines or basic blues patterns. “I was always chasing the jazz bass players. That’s why I think, later on, I drifted into the hollowbody bass, because I liked that tone.” The instrument that he “drifted into” was a short-scale Guild Starfire Bass II, which he began to use in late 1967. “I liked to use a more melodic approach, and that more open and acoustic-like sound with the Guild gave me the opportunity to develop in that direction.”
As much as he liked the Guild, Casady felt the electronics could be better. He connected with Augustus Owsley Stanley (a.k.a. Bear) from the Grateful Dead’s technical-support crew, and the experiments began. The new circuitry Owsley installed included a resonance filter and emitter-followers to lower pickup impedance; this modified Guild was Casady’s main instrument in 1968 and most of 1969 — until, shortly after the Airplane played at Woodstock, it was stolen. He immediately bought another Starfire Bass and sent it to Ron Wickersham, another member of the group of technical experts were who were working with the San Francisco bands. Wickersham installed an updated, active version of the new circuits. It was this bass that Jack played on the first Hot Tuna album, recorded in late 1969.
The second key component in the Casady sound was the Versatone Pan-O-Flex, a 35-watt tube amplifier with a unique design. Designed by G. Robert Hall, the amp has two channels, one for bass and one for treble, and the two outputs are mixed into a single 12-inch speaker. “We were recording at Sunset in late ’67,” recalls Casady, “and Carol Kaye was using that [amp] in an adjacent studio. [Producer] Al Schmitt’s brother, Richie, who was the second engineer on a lot of our sessions, told me about the amp. He said, ‘Listen, there’s this little amp that’s got a 12-inch speaker in it, and it sounds gorgeous.’ Of course, Carol was using it at low volume, with a Fender bass and a pick and a whole different approach than I had; I was using my fingers and a hollowbody bass. But I found out that when I cranked that amp up, I could get grit and sustain out of it — really nice, smooth, full harmonic sustain.”
The combination of the modified bass and the unusual amp came together on the fourth Airplane album, Crown of Creation, released in September 1968. On that LP, as Dan Schwartz wrote in a sidebar to the Jackson/Jisi Bass Player interview, in 1993, “Jack is a dominating force. The Guild-overdriving-the-Versatone sound is omnipresent.” Onstage, Casady miked the Versatone and controlled it with a volume pedal, using it like an effect. His main rig at the time was a system with Fender Showman heads as preamps for McIntosh tube power amps driving “two cabinets with two 15s or an 18 or twin 12s, or whatever we put together in combinations.”
While the Airplane was on tour in 1968, Jack joined Jimi Hendrix in the studio for a jam that was released as the 15-minute track “Voodoo Chile” on the album Electric Ladyland. Casady had met Hendrix at the Monterey Pop festival, and he says the recording of that track was something of a chance encounter. “When Jimi was recording Electric Ladyland,” he told Jackson and Jisi in the Bass Player interview, “we came through New York, and a bunch of musicians, including Steve Winwood, went down to see him. Around 4 AM, Jimi decided we should do some playing — fortunately, I had my Guild with me. He broke out a blues tune that we ran through three or four times and then recorded.”
The tremendous sound that Casady got from his late-’60s gear can be heard to full effect on Bless Its Pointed Little Head, the live Airplane album cut at the Fillmores, East and West, late in 1968. In a 1992 “Classic Revisited” review in Bass Player, I praised the “raw power” of Casady’s sound on the album and stated that five cuts should be required listening for all bass players: “3/5’s of a Mile in Ten Seconds,” “It’s No Secret,” “Other Side of This Life,” “Plastic Fantastic Lover,” and (especially) “Somebody to Love.” Summing up, I wrote that “Casady roars through these tunes like an express train, driving the rhythm with chromatic runs, punching out accents, climbing and pushing and scrambling until he climaxes with thunderous chords. He doesn’t solo, because there’s no point — the songs are really just extended bass solos with the rest of the band hanging on for the ride.”
Chris Jisi transcribed the bass line from the live version of “Somebody to Love” in a 2011 issue of Bass Player. Jack offered this commentary: “When we originally learned and recorded ‘Somebody to Love,’ I felt it needed it needed some continuous movement to add a sense of aggression, excitement, and flow. So we kind of reversed roles; instead of me laying a consistent pattern beneath lead guitar lines, I would move through the changes with a constantly evolving, connecting walking bass line against Spencer’s furious backbeat and Jorma’s accented fills. For the live album we wanted to show the kind of energy we were getting at concerts that the whole San Francisco scene was built around; we were using the songs to expand our awareness on our instruments, and ‘Somebody’ was no exception.” The live album captured the Jefferson Airplane “in absolutely top form,” as Kaukonen wrote in his autobiography, and Casady’s bass playing was the driving force.
In 1969, while they were working on material for their next studio album, Volunteers, the Airplane played a memorable Sunday-morning set at the Woodstock festival. “Nobody was prepared for what it actually ended up being,” says Casady, reflecting on the legendary event, which will celebrate its 50th anniversary this year. Along with a concert, the anniversary events will include a special exhibit at the Bethel Woods Center for the Arts, which will include Casady’s first modified Guild bass. In 2017, 48 years after it was stolen, Casady was able to recover the bass, thanks to a Facebook contact. “So it will be on display,” he says, “along with the very shirt that I wore at Woodstock. Isn’t that great?”
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In the early ’70s, as the various personalities in the Airplane began to fly apart, Casady and Kaukonen decided to use their hotel-room blues jams as the basis for a band they called Hot Tuna. (Rumor has it they wanted to call the band Hot Shit, but RCA Records said no.) They have performed with various lineups in the ensuing years, but the core of Hot Tuna has always been the duo that first played together as teenagers in Washington. The band’s eponymous debut album was recorded at the New Orleans House in Berkeley, California, in September 1969, with Kaukonen on acoustic guitar and Casady playing his Guild-and-Versatone rig. It’s just the two of them, along with harmonica player Will Scarlett, and it remains an enduring classic. (The CD version, released in 2012, has 18 additional tracks along with the ten that appeared on the original vinyl LP.)
The small-group, intimate setting is ideal for appreciating the sophistication and subtlety of Casady’s style, as well as his beautiful, liquid tone. It’s difficult to select outstanding tracks, as Jack plays with consistent brilliance throughout, but my personal favorites include the versions of “Hesitation Blues,” “Death Don’t Have No Mercy,” and the instrumental “Mann’s Fate” that appeared on the original LP. “I’ve been very fortunate to play with a fingerstyle guitarist the caliber of Jorma all these years,” said Casady in the 1993 Bass Player interview, “because I’m constantly treated to interesting contrapuntal lines. It frees me and takes the bass out of the realm of a linear instrument … Jorma’s approach allows me to play chords, to pick up and finish phrases he starts, and to play melodies while he provides accompaniment.” Casady cites the instrumental “Water Song” from Burgers, the third Hot Tuna album, as “the best recorded example of the melodic bass concept I’ve developed in this context.”
In 1971, Casady collaborated with the “dream team” of technical experts that Owsley had assembled in the creation of an entirely new kind of bass. The builders took the name Alembic — an operation that was, as I wrote in my book American Basses, “more of a concept than a company.” The key players were Ron Wickersham and his wife, Susan; audio engineer Bob Matthews; and musician/sound mixer/luthier Rick Turner. “I’d hang out and give them ideas,” says Casady. They wanted to build a bass that not only suited Jack’s playing style but was an “experimental platform” — one with modular electronics that would allow them to try different combinations of pickups and onboard circuits. “It was supposed to take only a couple months, but it ended up taking, I don’t know, something like 15 months to put together.”
The result was the bass known as Alembic #1, a neck-through-body, medium-scale instrument that was the first high-end electric bass. It had a body carved from exotic woods, an elaborate inlaid fingerboard, interchangeable custom pickups sliding on brass rails, and modular circuit boards, designed by Ron Wickersham, modeled on those found in recording consoles. It didn’t look or sound like any electric bass that had ever been made before. Casady began to use it in early 1972, and it was his main bass for about three years until it was damaged and, reportedly, did not sound the same even after repairs. (For more on Alembic #1, see my Partners column in Bass Magazine issue 2.)
Casady moved on from the Alembic to several other basses, including a Flying-V instrument built by Glenn Quann, and basses made by Modulus Graphite and Stars Guitars. Then, in 1985, he discovered an early-’70s Gibson Les Paul Signature Bass — a long-scale, semi-hollow bass with a single low-impedance pickup. Reminiscent of the Guilds Jack had used earlier, with the acoustic properties he preferred, the Les Paul immediately became his main instrument. In 1997, it was the inspiration for the Epiphone Jack Casady Signature Bass, which has a similar configuration and an improved pickup, designed by Casady. Originally made in Korea and later China, the Casady Bass has proven to be a popular model, and in 2017 Epiphone celebrated its 20th anniversary on the market with a special limited-edition version.
In 1996, Casady was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a member of the Jefferson Airplane. The event, perhaps predictably, was not without controversy. Grace Slick didn’t attend, and the other band members rejected the idea of having Joan Osborne take her place. There was a question about who would play drums, as Spencer Dryden was no longer an active musician; that problem was solved by having Prairie Prince join Dryden onstage for a double-drum setup. In the end, the band played three songs, capped by a rousing version of “Volunteers” — and Casady stuck around afterwards to join in a jam led by Arlo Guthrie and Pete Seeger. “That was great,” Jack says. “Pete Seeger is one of my all-time heroes.”
In 2011, Casady received a Bass Player Lifetime Achievement Award at Bass Player LIVE!, presented by Anthony Jackson, after which he performed with Kaukonen and mandolinist Barry Mitterhoff. More honors came in 2016, when the Airplane received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, although by that time Paul Kantner, Spencer Dryden, and Signe Anderson had died.
While Casady’s post-Airplane career has focused on Hot Tuna, he has been featured in a number of other settings over the years, including a power-pop outfit called SVT and side projects with David Crosby, Warren Zevon, Peter Rowan, and others. He has also played in several Airplane-spinoff projects, including a short-lived 1989 reunion that produced an album and tour, as well as the KBC Band (with Marty Balin and Paul Kantner) and various versions of Jefferson Starship. In 2003, he released a solo album, Dream Factor, that showcased 11 of his compositions including the bass tour-de-force “Outside.” And a second solo album is in the works. “I’ve got about 15 songs. It’s got some vocal bits and pieces, but it’s primarily an instrumental album. I hope to be able to put it out sometime this year.”
Casady’s work with Hot Tuna can be broken down into two periods. The first began with the eponymous live album recorded in 1969 and included five studio albums, the last being Hoppkorv, released in 1976. A year later, the group broke up when Kaukonen, as he put it in his autobiography, “just walked away” because of personal problems. After a brief reunion in 1983, Jack and Jorma were back together again for good in 1986, touring regularly and recording a new studio album, Pair a Dice Found, released in 1990. Another studio album, Steady as She Goes, followed in 2011. When Tuna is not touring, Casady retreats to his home on the Isle of Jersey, one of the English Channel Islands. “When I’m not out there playing,” he says, “I like to do a lot of hiking and just generally keep in good health.” He also makes regular visits to teach master classes at Kaukonen’s Fur Peace Ranch in Ohio.
Hot Tuna continues to keep a busy touring schedule, doing both acoustic and electric shows, sometimes with guest artists. On the acoustic shows, Jack features a custom acoustic bass guitar built for him by luthier Tom Ribbecke and named “Diana” in honor of his late wife, who died in 2012. “I wanted a bass where I can sit across from Jorma playing acoustic fingerpicking guitar and it will sound like a bass, not a baritone guitar, with actual low end coming out of the instrument. We worked on it for a year and a half, and it just sounds gorgeous.”
Hot Tuna’s Spring 2019 tour included four special acoustic shows to celebrate Casady’s 75th birthday on April 13. At those shows, Jack says, “I was just playing my bass guitar and doing what I like to do … I think that as you grow older, you’ve got more to say and in a different way.” The tour resumed in June, with both acoustic and electric shows scheduled for the rest of 2019.
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Anthony Jackson, in his inimitable style, summed up his praise of Jack Casady in the 1993 Bass Player article by saying: “As I’ve insisted many times, the bass guitar has few true giants — the Dickheads of the Month excepted — and Jack Casady remains in the first row.” That’s still true. While Hot Tuna may not be a hot topic on social media today, Jack remains a formidable musical presence. His influence has been wide. It can be heard in the bass players of succeeding generations who have absorbed his unique combination of a melodic approach learned from jazz and the relentless drive of the James Brown rhythm section, whether they are aware of it or not. As he looks down the road, Jack Casady has no intention of retiring or even slowing down. “People have asked me over and over, ‘What’s your best show?’ or ‘What’s your favorite show?’ and it’s really the one I’m about to play.”
Jack Casady’s Discography
“I can’t remember all the albums I’ve played on,” says Jack Casady with a chuckle. “I’ve never tried to put together a discography.” By my count, there are more than 50, not counting various compilations, reissues, and bootlegs.
If you need to know where to start, here are some suggestions:
With Jefferson Airplane
Crown of Creation
Bless Its Pointed Little Head
and/or the box set Jefferson Airplane Loves You
With Hot Tuna
Live at Sweetwater, Vol. One
Keep on Truckin’: The Very Best of Hot Tuna
Steady as She Goes
With Jimi Hendrix
Basses Epiphone Jack Casady Signature Model (various versions, including the Limited Edition 20th Anniversary Model); Ribbecke “Diana” acoustic bass guitar
Strings Epiphone, Dean Markley Blue Steels (.045–.105); Ribbecke, Rotosound stainless steel, extra long scale, custom set (.050–.110)
Amps Epiphone, Aguilar DB 680 tube preamp and DB 728 tube power amp with Aguilar GS 410 cabinet with four 10s + tweeter, plus Versatone Pan-O-Flex with Ernie Ball VP JR volume pedal; Ribbecke, DPA microphone to house system and Alessandro “Basset Hound” head with Aguilar DB 285 JC cabinet (“Little Jack”) with two 8’s and one 6.5 midrange driver