Happy 70th, Grace Slick!
By Harry Funk
A popular saying among those who considered themselves part of the
'60s counterculture went something like, "Never trust anyone over 30."
In that context, it's interesting that quite a few of that era's
iconic figures celebrated the applicable birthday before the calendar
turned to 1970.
One of them was Grace Slick, who rose to fame singing two hit singles
by the San Francisco band Jefferson Airplane, "Somebody to Love" and
"White Rabbit." She turned 30 on Oct. 30, 1969, which of course makes
her 70 today.
Slick became the first female rock star not just for her hits those
two songs from 1967 turned out to be her only lead-vocal forays into
the Top 10 but because of her attitude. She was a lady who was
willing to say anything that was on her mind, to behave just how she
wanted and to question the existing system, all of which endeared her
to like-minded individuals of the day.
Plus, as added incentive for male fans, she was drop-dead gorgeous.
In her autobiography, "Somebody to Love?," she casts herself as an
ugly duckling, wondering why people considered her to be attractive.
But look at the cover of "Surrealistic Pillow," Jefferson Airplane's
best-selling album, or photos from her pre-Airplane stint with a
group called the Great Society, and see for yourself.
I was one of those impressionable young men who took an instant
liking to Grace Slick in what turned out to be kind of a
An "American Bandstand" retrospective in the mid-1970s featured an
excerpt from a Jefferson Airplane performance of "White Rabbit," and
I was enthralled. On screen was a beautiful woman singing a tune that
sounded totally unlike the disco stylings that were in vogue at the
time, accompanied by long-haired musicians and swirling lights and images.
Almost immediately I was buying Airplane albums and attempting to
play them for my classmates, much to their dismay. I learned that the
band was closely aligned with another San Francisco group called the
Grateful Dead, and I started collecting their records, too.
And all that led to a musical fanaticism that continues to this day.
As for the woman who was born by the name of Grace Wing, she
continued her singing career long after her 30th birthday, as
Jefferson Airplane morphed into Jefferson Starship and then simply
into Starship, in a sequence of events that's far too complicated to
Her career as an active musician wound down right around the time she
was about to turn 50, as a reunited Jefferson Airplane played a
series of concerts in 1989. After that, she turned up sporadically
with a reunited Jefferson Starship again, the specifics aren't
worth going into but pretty much has given up the stage.
These days, she's an artist, frequently showing her paintings, and a
vociferous animal-rights activists. Just this week, she released a
voicemail statement imploring Congress to phase out the use of
chimpanzees in invasive experiments and retire federally owned
chimpanzees to sanctuaries.
Perhaps she'll take a break to celebrate No. 70 before keeping up
with the cause.
Grace Slick selected discography
By Harry Funk, Online editor
The Great Society: "Born to Be Burned" (Sundazed Music, 1995)
Grace's first band, which also included husband Jerry on drums and
brother-in-law Darby on guitar, entered the recording studio about
two months after its formation in 1965, to record a demo for San
Francisco-based Autumn Records. The results are predictable: Much of
the material has some potential, but the execution isn't quite there,
despite the production talents of one Sylvester Stewart. (He's now in
the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as Sly Stone.) Autumn did released a
single from these sessions in very limited quantity, the
Eastern-influenced "Free Advice" backed with "Someone to Love," which
became famous at another time and place. Most of "Born to Be Burned"
was released 30 years after the fact and makes for interesting
listening for the roots of not only Grace Slick, but what became
known as the San Francisco Sound of the late '60s.
Grace Slick & the Great Society: "Collector's Item" (Columbia Records)
At the peak of Grace Slick's popularity with Jefferson Airplane,
Columbia released two LPs' worth of live 1966 performances by the
Great Society at San Francisco's Matrix Club, which actually was
opened by Airplane founder Marty Balin as a venue for his new band to
perform. These recordings, combined for a single compact disc, sound
much more focused than the Autumn work and focus squarely on Grace as
lead vocalist. (David Miner, who'd been featured primarily on the
studio recordings, is barely present on the live material.) What
really makes this collection worthwhile is the guitar playing of
Darby Slick, which often has more in common with the playing of John
Coltrane and other jazzmen than standard rock 'n' roll. Then there's
the original version of "White Rabbit," which shares very little in
common with the Airplane version but is a fascinating study nonetheless.
Jefferson Airplane: "Surrealistic Pillow" (RCA Records, 1967)
Jefferson Airplane was the first of the San Francisco bands of the
mid-'60s to land a major record deal and delivered "Jefferson
Airplane Takes Off" as its debut, with Signe Anderson the female
vocalist. By the fall of 1966, Anderson was having trouble balancing
her roles as mother and singer, and she decided to bow out of the
group. Grace Slick replaced her, rather seamlessly, which meant the
end of the Great Society. Just a few weeks after Slick joined the
Airplane, the band was in the studio to record its sophomore effort.
Two Society songs, "Somebody to Love" and "White Rabbit," made the
final cut; the rest is history. Although both those songs hit the Top
10 and secured what eventually became solid Classic Rock status,
RCA's first single off the album was a light, harmony-filled song
called "My Best Friend," written by onetime Airplane drummer
Alexander "Skip" Spence, who later became one of the key members of
Moby Grape. But that's another story. Of interest to Grateful Dead
fans, Jerry Garcia is listed as "spiritual advisor" on the cover of
"Surrealistic Pillow," and he plays guitar on certain songs, although
there's some debate as to how much of an active role he took in the
Jefferson Airplane: "After Bathing at Baxter's" (RCA Records, 1967)
Jeff Tamarkin wrote in "Got a Revolution! The Turbulent Flight of
Jefferson Airplane" that the band's third album may have been the
first ever to be recorded without any consideration as to whether it
would sell a single copy. The musicians took about six months to
record "Baxter's," which is full of fuzz-tone guitar, obtuse lyrics
and often strident harmony vocals. The result is not an easy listen,
even considering the musical experimentation of that particular era.
Grace's two compositions, "rejoyce" and "Two Heads," bore nothing in
common to her two hit singles besides her voice. That must have been
a big disappointment to RCA executives, as they chose to release two
songs by guitarist Paul Kantner as the "Baxter's" singles. Neither
did particularly well.
Jefferson Airplane: "Crown of Creation" (RCA Records, 1968)
For its next RCA single, Jefferson Airplane went back to Grace Slick
and her composition "Greasy Heart." The hard-edged admonition to
female phonies features searing guitar playing by Jorma Kaukonen, but
sales didn't come close to matching the stellar performance. At any
rate, many more people heard the song when it ended up on the album
the Airplane released later in the year, one that sold quite a bit
better than "Baxter's." Slick's "Lather," which opens "Crown of
Creation," is an absurdist "tribute" to Airplane drummer Spencer
Dryden, who'd turned 30. Grace's highlight on the album, though, is
her definitive reading of David Crosby's "Triad," which describes a
menage a trois and was rejected by the Byrds for Crosby's final album
with that band, "The Notorious Byrd Brothers."
Jefferson Airplane: "Bless Its Pointed Little Head" (RCA Records, 1969)
The era of the live record arrived with this sonically superior
offering, which captures the band at possibly its peak with no studio
overdubs. In its third incarnation, "Somebody to Love" becomes an
even harder rocker, with Jack Casady's bass pushing Slick to
elaborate on her vocal delivery. Grace's other lead vocal is her
improvisation atop a longtime Airplane concert instrumental usually
called "Thing," which appears on this album as "Bear Melt." The story
is that someone left a plastic jar of honey on a stove, and ... hey,
this was the '60s!
Jefferson Airplane: "Volunteers" (RCA Records, 1969)
Jefferson Airplane recorded five albums with its "classic" lineup of
Balin, Kantner, Kaukonen, Casady, Slick and Dryden, and "Volunteers"
was the final one, released just before the close of the decade.
Kaukonen's version of the traditional "Good Shepherd" is worth the
price of admission alone, but so are Slick's "Eskimo Blue Day" and
"Hey Fredrick." The latter is one of the high points of the
Airplane's canon, transitioning from a doom-evoking opening section
featuring Grace's mystifying lyrics to an all-out jam with Kaukonen,
Casady and pianist Nicky Hopkins producing metallic alchemy. What a
way to end an era.
Jefferson Airplane: "Have You Seen the Saucers" / "Mexico" (RCA Records, 1970)
Another sales flop, this single is significant for several reasons.
It marked founder Marty Balin's final studio effort with Jefferson
Airplane (not counting a half-hearted 1989 reunion.) Kantner's
science fiction-themed "Saucers" paves the way for the direction he
took with his first solo album, "Blows Against the Empire," which
also introduced the moniker Jefferson Starship. And Slick's "Mexico"
is an explicit rail against the government's anti-marijuana Operation
Intercept, a theme that prevented the single from receiving just
about any airplay.
Jefferson Airplane: "Long John Silver" (Grunt Records, 1972)
The Airplane was pretty much done as a cohesive unit by the time this
album was recorded, and it would be the band's final studio effort
until the substandard 1989 reunion offering. What's significant about
"Silver" is Slick's lead vocals on five songs, far more than she'd
had on any other Airplane release. The best among that batch is "Eat
Starch Mom," which seemingly pokes fun at the concept of health food
and features Kaukonen and Casady rocking at their hardest.
Grace Slick: "Manhole" (Grunt Records, 1974)
The first of four records naming Grace Slick as solo artist,
"Manhole" also is the best, representing a transitional phase between
Jefferson Airplane and Jefferson Starship. That's not to say it's up
to previous standards: The ostensible title track, "Theme from the
Movie 'Manhole" (the film is nonexistent), meanders for more than 15
minutes. But the more compact songs are generally worthy,
particularly "Better Lying Down," in which Slick graphically outlines
the general plight of women accompanied by bluesy piano from future
Starship mainstay Pete Sears.
Jefferson Starship: "Dragonfly" (Grunt Records, 1974)
Slick, Kantner and former Quicksilver Messenger Service bassist David
Freiberg formed the nucleus of a band that eventually would eclipse
Jefferson Airplane in terms of sales. The Starship's debut is the
"The Best of Grace Slick" (RCA Records, 1999)
Grace had long since retired from the music business when RCA culled
material from her long and varied career for a retrospective. It
includes the previously unreleased "Do You Remember Me," recorded by
Starship. Unfortunately, that's the same aggregation that recorded
the execrable "We Built This City," which also is on this disc, as is
the equally unlistenable '80s hit "Nothing's Gonna Stop Us Now."
Fortunately, most of the material is worthwhile enough to put Grace
Slick on display for what she is: a rock legend.