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Between Rock And A Hot Place : Ex-airplane Papa John: Still Riffin' And Rollin'

September 03, 1986|ZAN STEWART

You can take Papa John Creach out of the rock band, but you can't take the rock out of Papa John Creach.

The band in question is, of course, Jefferson Airplane/Starship, of which Creach was a member from 1970 to 1975. And while the 69-year-old violinist no longer plays with that group, in many fans' minds he's still one of the gang.

"People still come up to me when I play at nightclubs and ask for my autograph," Creach said during a conversation at the home he shares with Gretchen, his wife of 27 years. "They tell me, 'Oh, I saw you in Boston,' or 'I heard you in Cleveland.' It goes on and on."

Though the violinist plays mostly straight-ahead jazz these days (he will play at the Hyatt on Sunset tonight, Thursday and Saturday, Mischa's on Friday and the West Hollywood Street Festival, Sunday), he still makes occasional forays into the pop world his Airplane/Starship experience opened up.

"Earlier this year I played Charlie Daniels' Volunteer Jam in Nashville," he said. "That was my 12th year, and this time there were 20,000 people. And a few months ago I played in New Jersey with Hot Tuna (the small group started in 1970 by then-Airplane members guitarist Jorma Kaukonen and bassist Jack Casady). So I still get a taste of that."

Creach was never exactly a jazz purist. Before a lengthy job at the now-defunct Parisian Room in the late '60s, "where I was able to go with straight-ahead jazz all the time," the violinist played just about anything . "I worked wherever we could find a gig to let it roll," he laughed. "I played Polish dances, German dances, where it was all German music--anything."

Earlier in his career, Creach performed popular music with the Chocolate Music Bars in the '30s, worked lounges in Palm Springs and Newport and was a member of the Shipmates, the group that entertained aboard the SS Catalina on its voyages between San Pedro and Avalon.

It was Creach's open-minded attitude about music that made his success with the Airplane possible. "I've always been listening to more than one thing," he pointed out. "And I've got great big ears. So any direction you want to go in, just give me the beat and I'll go with you."

Creach saw joining the Airplane as both an opportunity and a test. "I wanted to do bigger things, play to bigger crowds, make more money," he said. "But I also wanted to see if I could handle it, and if I would like it."

He did, and, for the first time in his career, basked in the adulation given pop heroes. "(The crowds) were admiring me a lot, saying, 'What's this old man doing up there playing with these kids?' "

Creach, at 53, wasn't that old when drummer Joey Covington, whom the violinist had known and played with in Los Angeles, persuaded Airplane members like Grace Slick, Marty Balin and Paul Kanter to give Creach a shot at the big time. Certainly not too old to learn a few new tricks.

"When I joined, the volume level was a big switch," he said. "I wasn't used to it. So the first thing I did was get earplugs.

"And because we were playing such big rooms--I had been used to working for 200-250 people and now I was regularly playing to 7,000 and once played to 100,000 in Central Park--I started using big amps, big, huge fellas that took two men to carry them."

Another large aspect of his rock days were the paychecks. "The band was making well over $50,000 a night," said Gretchen Creach, who was around for part of the interview.

Eventually, the life style got to Creach. "I was playing and recording with the Airplane, Hot Tuna and my own band," he said. "Just as soon as I'd get off the road with one, I'd be gone again. It was like I'd never get to lie down on my bed. I was losing too much weight. So when the Airplane broke up (1973) and Jorma wanted to go on out as a single, I said, 'No sweat.' I was tired of it."

Although Creach played a year with the new Jefferson Starship, he left in 1975 and returned to jazz about five years ago because he "wanted to get back to some good music. Not that rock isn't good, but I wanted to play in the jazz style again."

Still, he carries a gigantic repertoire ("I can play jazz, blues, sweet music, boogie, rock--I know maybe 3,000 tunes from memory") and now and then dusts off numbers from his days with the Airplane. "I don't play them regularly," he said, "but if somebody requests one of those songs, like 'Jazz/Fusion,' then I'll play it for them."

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