In 1974, a young guitarist named Craig Chaquico joined the newly formed Jefferson Starship, and remained with band through the transition to Starship. He left the band in 1991 and has been performing as a contemporary jazz guitarist ever since.
Craig Chaquico will be playing at the Westin Mission Hills Golf Resort and Spa on Saturday, March 2.
During a recent interview, Chaquico explained how he became a founding member of Jefferson Starship.
“Jefferson Airplane broke up and stopped performing together in 1972. … Jorma Kaukonen and Jack Casady did Hot Tuna, and Grace Slick and Paul Kantner did solo records,” Chaquico said. “I actually played on their solo records, and my own band had a recording contract on their label. The idea was to maybe start a new band, and we went out on tour as Jefferson Starship before we recorded anything. My band opened, and I played in both bands. After that, I expected to go back to college, but we were like, ‘Man, we all had such a great time playing together! Let’s form Jefferson Starship and do an album.’ I said, ‘Shit yeah! Let’s do that!’ After that first tour, we went into the studio and recorded Dragon Fly. Everything that I played on went gold and platinum.”
Chaquico was a teenager when Jefferson Starship began, and he wound up putting off school.
“That was sort of my higher education; I was learning from the best,” he said. “When we did the first Jefferson Starship album, there were eight members, and each of the members had distinct personalities. I don’t think any record executive thought anything was going to happen for us. … The solo albums were interesting, but they weren’t commercial success stories. I don’t think they expected gold and platinum albums from us. They looked at our band like, ‘Whatever!’ But think about it: What record executive in 1974 would say, ‘Hey, I’ve got an idea! Let’s get a black violin player in his 50s, a pot-smoking guitar player in his teens, and put them together with some Jefferson Airplane and Quicksilver Messenger Service people, add a member of the Turtles, and then put Pete Sears in this band!’? That was the beauty of it. We weren’t a A&R person-conceived band.”
The band became Starship and released the huge hit yet oft-maligned “We Built This City” in 1985.
“Starship was very pop, and it started to rely a lot on keyboards and not so much on guitar,” Chaquico said. “I’m a team player, and I’ll play on every song whether it has a lot of lead guitar or not. We started doing songs like ‘We Built This City,’ which has gotten a lot of bad press over the years, but if you listen to the beginning of that song … all of that computerized stuff and rocket science was pretty new. … Peter Wolf was our producer, and he co-wrote a lot of our songs. The original idea for the song was how there were no places for rock ’n’ roll bands to play anymore, (as pop) was turning into a lot of DJs and disco. The idea was a protest against computerized music, but it was the biggest computerized song on the radio, which I found ironic.”
While Starship enjoyed popular success, headlining shows with Foreigner and Fleetwood Mac, the band started to receive critical backlash.
“To me, it was like trying to send Apollo 13 around the moon and bring it back safely—it was high-tech computers everywhere,” Chaquico said. “It was interesting to me, but that period of time had its good things and its bad things. We had three No. 1 singles in three consecutive years, in the course of about 15 months. That was the good part. We got to go to Japan and Europe to play concerts—but it had a double-edged sword, and it bit us in the ass. We got criticized for ‘We Built This City,’ and it made No. 1 on the list of 50 Worst Songs in the World or something like that. Peter Wolf was also on the list at No. 3 for (producing) Wang Chung’s ‘Everybody (Have Fun) Tonight.’ I called Peter and said, ‘Dude, you’re on two of the worst songs of the world, and I’m only on one!’ On one level, we have to be proud, but it also bit us in the ass.”
Members eventually started leaving the band, and Chaquico had to decide whether to stay in a band that was decreasing the presence of guitar.
“I was told by the management not to write any songs, because we weren’t going to do any more rock,” he said. “At that point, I said, ‘All right, guys, I have to bail. Because what do you need me for?’ I didn’t ask for a lot of money—just to make sure I received my royalties for the earlier stuff. They broke up, didn’t have another hit and were dropped from the label.”
Becoming a successful jazz musician didn’t happen without difficulty, and he had problems getting his first solo album, Acoustic Highway, a label to release it in 1993.
“My now-ex-wife became pregnant. During the pregnancy, acoustic guitar started becoming more welcoming around the house. I thought maybe I should mellow things out,” Chaquico said about the transition to jazz. “I started playing more and more acoustic guitar, and it was suggested to me that I just record that. Ozzie Ahlers, who used to play in the Jerry Garcia Band, started working with me, and when my rock band didn’t pan out, he heard me playing acoustic guitar and had some ideas. He gave me a demo of his keyboard ideas. We started recording our acoustic music, and everyone passed on it, because they didn’t know what it was.
“I went to a new age label, and they said it had some rock and blues, and I should play it for a rock label. I went to a rock label, and they said they heard more new age. I went to a blues label, and they said it sounded more like jazz and rock. But a new age label called Higher Octave liked it and said, ‘We like it the way it is. We hear all that stuff, but we like it.’ They put me together with a great producer to remix it. It ended up being Billboard’s No. 1 New Age Album of the Year.”
Craig Chaquico will perform at 7 p.m., Saturday, March 2, at Westin Mission Hills Golf Resort and Spa, 71333 Dinah Shore Drive, in Rancho Mirage. Tickets are $50 to $90. For tickets or more information, call 951-696-0184, or visit tix.com/Event.aspx?EventCode=1114738.