Bill Thompson, who became the manager of Jefferson Airplane in 1968 and subsequently managed the spinoffs Jefferson Starship, Hot Tuna and Starship, died today, Jan. 12, in Mill Valley, Calif., where he lived for many years. The cause was a heart attack. Thompson was 70.
One of the more colorful managers in rock history, and a beloved figure within the Bay Area music scene, Thompson guided the various bands through both great successes and years-long personal and legal entanglements. He negotiated deals for them with their label, RCA Records, and with concert promoters, including Bill Graham, who briefly managed the Airplane just before he did. As a co-owner of their name and publishing interests, Thompson continued to represent the Airplane’s business long after the band dissolved in 1972. Thompson arranged for the Airplane’s music to be represented in films and commercials and, as part owner of Jefferson Starship, also retained a large financial stake in that group.
William Carl Thompson was born in Oklahoma City on June 22, 1944. He moved to San Francisco to attend college and took a job as a copy boy for the San Francisco Chronicle. He’d befriended an aspiring singer and actor, Marty Balin (then known as Martyn Buchwald), and the two became roommates. Balin formed a folk-rock group, given the unusual name Jefferson Airplane, and hired a manager, Matthew Katz, with Thompson serving as de facto press agent, arranging for the Airplane’s first reviews in the newspaper for which he worked.
Before long the relationship with Katz soured and he was fired (lawsuits stemming from that firing would take a record-setting 22 years to resolve in the courts). Graham took over as the band’s manager but they felt they had more in common with Thompson, who traveled with them to gigs and soothed over issues that arose along the way. When Graham was summarily dismissed as manager, Thompson was the obvious choice to replace him. Thompson bought a palatial home adjacent to Golden Gate Park, which served as the band’s office and hangout, and otherwise represented them in all matters pertaining to business.
With the Airplane’s 1972 split, Thompson carried on, managing both Jefferson Starship—the offshoot that featured Paul Kantner, Grace Slick and, for some of its run, Balin—and Hot Tuna, the blues-rock group formed by Jorma Kaukonen and Jack Casady. Thompson later managed Starship, the highly commercial entity that arose from the ashes of Jefferson Starship following Kantner’s departure.
In the years following the final exit of his bands from RCA Records, Thompson continued to serve as their liaison with the company, assisting on the release of album reissues, administration of the Airplane’s song catalog, licensing deals and otherwise being the go-to guy when anyone in the business world had a need for their music. Thompson later managed other acts but none attained the level of success as the Airplane and their offshoots.
He is survived by his second wife, Stephanie, and a son, Tyrone, from his first marriage.