In 1969, the Jefferson Airplane were San Francisco's most successful bands, and one of the top rock acts in the country. The idea that a couple of members of the group would play a different style of music in a different band was an unprecedented development in rock. Now, of course, every band has a spin-off band or two within hours of their formation, and fans expect that creative musicians need multiple outlets. In 1969, however, the concept was unknown.
Kaukonen and Casady had started playing around Bay Area clubs in about February 1969. The earliest known dates seem to be at The Matrix (January 29 and/or February 19). Initially, Jorma and Jack seemed to have played as an acoustic duo, sometimes abetted by harmonica player Will Scarlett, previously of the Cleanliness And Godliness Skiffle Band. When Jorma and Jack played acoustically (Jorma on acoustic guitar, and Jack on an electric bass), it was similar to the sort of music they played in hotel rooms when the Airplane were on the road. As 1969 wore on, Jorma and Jack sometimes played in an electric configuration as well, with drummer Joey Covington and whichever of their musical friends felt like sitting in. The electric configuration was similar to the sort of loud, intricate blues music Jorma and Jack played during Airplane concerts when Grace and Paul stepped aside.
Throughout 1969, however, the name "Hot Tuna" was never used.The first appearance of the name Hot Tuna may have been on the New Year's Eve 1969/70 poster for Winterland (BG209). When Jorma and Jack had recorded their September 1969 performance at the New Orleans House, they had been billed as Jorma Kaukonen And Jack Casady; a few months earlier in Santa Rosa (June 27-28), the electric configuration had been billed as Jorma Kaukonen, Jack Casady and Joey Covington. By early 1970, however, the name Hot Tuna was known. However, the Airplane were bigger than ever, so when Hot Tuna played a nightclub, they seem to have done it on a rather sub rosa basis. When Hot Tuna came back to the New Orleans House on Tuesday and Wednesday, March 3-4, 1970 there seems to have been little advance notice beyond a reference in Ralph Gleason's column in the San Francisco Chronicle.
Gleason reviewed the band in his column on Monday, March 6 (the Chronicle column is excerpted above). Gleason enthusiastically wrote
One of the best examples of the difference between playing and PLAYING is what happens when Jack Casady, bassist with the Jefferson Airplane and Hot Tuna, is merely picking at the strings of the bass and when he is digging in and playing it.
The other night he stood on the stage at the New Orleans House for a couple of minutes while Hot Tuna was getting itself together and he picked. It sounded pretty and nice and very musicianly. Then he was joined by Jorma Kaukonen, lead guitarist in HT and JA, drummer Joey Covington and a rhythm guitarist whose name I did not catch.
They began to play a walking bass blues introduction, eight to the bar like an old boogie woogie record. They could have swung Mt. Tamalpais right over to Vallejo. They are really something else again.
Hot Tuna is the group that Jack and Jorma have formed and which has already cut an RCA Victor LP due out this month, I believe.Gleason goes on to enthusiastically (and somewhat inaccurately, I think) describe Hot Tuna's music, as well as commenting on the rest of the evening. Drummer Joey Covington sang some numbers (I wonder which ones?), and Marty Balin of the Airplane joined in for a few numbers as well. Marty regularly sang with Jorma and Jack in the "Hot Tuna" sections of Airplane concerts, and while I found his R&B singing to be unimpressive, I still give Marty credit for trying to get outside of the slot he had built for himself in the Airplane.
Its remarkable to consider that in the bare year of the band's existence, Hot Tuna had already been through a variety of iterations, and it was still only an adjunct to the Jefferson Airplane. It had started out in 1969 as an acoustic duo (or trio if Scarlett was present), and had an alternative configuration as a sort of electric power trio with guests. The great Hot Tuna debut album recorded the acoustic configuration, but that lineup had effectively ceased to exist by the time the album was released in July of 1970.
Any New Orleans House patrons in March 1970 who were repeat visitors from the 1969 expecting intricate acoustic blues would have instead heard an electric quartet (Paul Ziegler, formerly of the San Jose band Weird Herald, was the other guitarist). The Spring 1970 configuration of Hot Tuna featured three vocalists (Jorma, Covington and Marty Balin) playing loud, improvised blues, musically on a similar model to the acoustic lineup but with a completely different effect.
The Spring 1970 Hot Tuna remains largely undocumented as well. Covington soon took over the Airplane drum chair from Spencer Dryden (Gleason alludes to this at the end of his review), and for reasons that aren't clear Paul Ziegler did not remain with Hot Tuna. Covington, meanwhile, had met a jazz violinist known as Papa John Creach, and his addition gave Hot Tuna a unique sound that was different from any other electric blues band on the scene in the early 1970s, even though Covington shifted over to the Airplane full time. By the time of the second Hot Tuna album, also recorded live (in 1971 at The Chateau Liberte in Los Gatos), the fully electric Tuna was Jorma, Jack, Papa John, a re-enlisted Will Scarlett and a transplanted Texas drummer named Sammy Piazza.
Where had Piazza come from? According to Airplane historian Craig Fenton, Piazza came out from Texas to drum with a Bay Area band called Dry Creek Road, and through that, he met Jorma and Jack. Ironically enough, Dry Creek Road were opening for Hot Tuna at the March shows at New Orleans House, although it appears that Piazza did not join the group until August 1970 (I assume Piazza met the band when Dry Creek Road opened for the Airplane at Filmore West on September 14-15, 1970).
Hot Tuna's classic debut album and its recently re-released companion (Live At New Orleans House) were a snap shot of a configuration of the group that no longer existed by the time the album was released 9 months later. The March 1970 appearance at New Orleans House also appears to be a configuration that was not repeated, even if it was not so classic as the ones that preceded and followed it. Since the mid-70s, of course, every Hot Tuna show has been taped by somebody, so we have a pretty good idea of the band's evolution right up to the present day, but Gleason's review is all that remains of a long gone lineup.