Slick, Grace Wing

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SLICK, Grace Wing

(b. 30 October 1939 in Chicago, Illinois), lead singer and songwriter for Jefferson Airplane, a band whose acid-rock sound personified the counterculture milieu of San Francisco in the 1960s.

Slick was born Grace Barnett Wing, the elder of two children of Ivan Wing, an investment banker, and Virginia Barnett, a singer and actress and later a homemaker. Slick's father was transferred to California, and the family lived initially in San Francisco before moving to Palo Alto in the early 1950s.

Slick described her childhood and adolescence as a rather normal middle-class existence in postwar America. Just as her mother had, Slick developed a passion for music. Somewhat of a loner as a child, she escaped her conventional lifestyle by visiting museums and dressing in costumes. During her high school years Slick gained a reputation for challenging the authority of her teachers, so her mother moved her from Palo Alto High School to the Castilleja School for Girls.

Following high school graduation in 1957, Slick attended Finch College in New York City. In the fall of 1958 she enrolled at the University of Miami, where she briefly studied art. Returning to California, Slick became a fashion model for I. Magnin's department store, and on 26 August 1961 she married her childhood friend Jerry Slick. The couple moved to San Francisco, where he studied cinematography and she continued her modeling work. In 1963 Slick gave up her modeling career to help her husband prepare his senior film, which won first prize at the Ann Arbor Film Festival.

Meanwhile, Grace and Jerry Slick became involved with the evolving counterculture scene in San Francisco, associating with musicians and experimenting with drugs such as peyote, mescaline, and LSD. After viewing a 1965 performance by the Jefferson Airplane at the Matrix, a club on Fillmore Street in San Francisco, the Slicks were inspired to form their own musical group, which they called the Great Society, a reference to President Lyndon B. Johnson's name for his strategic plan of social and economic reform. The band consisted of Jerry Slick on drums, his brother Darby on guitar and sitar, Brad DuPont on bass, and Grace Slick on keyboards and vocals. The Great Society played at various San Francisco venues including the Matrix, Mother's, the Coffee House, and Fillmore Auditorium, gathering a following based upon the experimental lyrics of such songs as "Somebody to Love," "White Rabbit," "Often as I May," and "Father Bruce." The group was rife with dissension, however, as Grace Slick believed the band was not talented enough musically and lacked a tight sound. Accordingly, when vocalist Signe Anderson left the Jefferson Airplane in September 1968, Slick seized the opportunity to replace Anderson, and departed the Great Society.

Jefferson Airplane, with its combination of folk, blues, and psychedelic rock, had a large following in San Francisco and had already released a debut album, Jefferson Airplane Takes Off (1966), before Slick joined the group. The band consisted of Marty Balin on vocals and harmonica, rhythm guitarist Paul Kantner, lead guitarist Jorma Kaukonen, bassist Jack Casady, and drummer Spencer Dryden. Slick brought to the group a powerful voice and sensuality that had a riveting effect on audiences. According to the San Francisco Chronicle columnist Herb Caen, "When she performed her lyrics like an intricate soliloquy you had to put down your drink and sit up and listen." Slick also brought with her the Great Society songs "Somebody to Love" and "White Rabbit," which became major hits for Jefferson Airplane. "White Rabbit," written by Slick, uses Alice in Wonderland and the rhythm of Ravel's Bolero to attract the growing drug culture with its refrain of "feed your head." These songs appeared on the album Surrealistic Pillow (1967), which was on the Billboard charts for over twenty weeks, rising to the number-three slot.

After Bathing at Baxter's (1968), the group's third album, did not sell as well as the platinum Surrealistic Pillow, in part due to radio censorship in reaction to the explicit sexual lyrics of Slick's "Rejoyce." The group returned to platinum status with Crown of Creation 1968), featuring hit singles "Crown of Creation" and "Greasy Heart," and Volunteers (1969). The album Bless Its Pointed Little Head (1969) and the compilation The Worst of Jefferson Airplane (1970) also made Billboard's Top One Hundred. Meanwhile, the band continued to play throughout the San Francisco area, exemplifying the counterculture values of rebellion, free love, peace, and drugs. The rock impresario Bill Graham, who operated the Fillmore West and East, became the manager of Jefferson Airplane, booking the group nationally and internationally. While on tour Jefferson Airplane played to overflow crowds, and Slick established a reputation for sexuality and explicit language onstage that often provoked local law enforcement. Slick and fellow band members were arrested for drug violations and profanity in various places throughout the United States.

Jefferson Airplane's centrality to the counterculture is evidenced by the band's appearance at some of the quintessential cultural events of the 1960s. In 1967 Jefferson Airplane played at the nation's first major outdoor rock festival in Monterey, California, which drew an audience of more than 300,000 people and sparked a film celebrating the concert. Monterey was described as "three days of music, love, and flowers," but it also marked the increasing commercialization of the rock scene. Slick and Jefferson Airplane were also present at the Woodstock festival (1969), which the singer described as the highlight of the counter-culture's possibilities. But the dark side of the 1960s also became evident later that year when Slick and the Jefferson Airplane joined the Rolling Stones for the Altamont concert outside of San Francisco. Members of the Hell's Angels motorcycle gang, hired to provide security for the concert, accosted the Airplane's Balin when he attempted to intervene with an overly aggressive and inebriated group of Hell's Angels, and one spectator was killed amid the chaos surrounding the concert.

By the late 1960s Slick and the Airplane were becoming increasingly disenchanted and angry with the political establishment. The song "Volunteers" (1969) called for a violent revolution in the United States. As a Finch College alumnus, Slick was asked to a 1969 White House reception sponsored by President Richard M. Nixon's daughter Tricia, who was celebrating her connection with the school. According to Slick, she invited the radical Yippie leader Abbie Hoffman as her escort, and they planned to spike the White House tea with LSD. The Secret Service, however, denied Slick and Hoffman access to the presidential mansion.

Slick also epitomized the 1960s sexual revolution. The dark-haired former fashion model exuded sexuality on the stage, and though she was officially still married, she pursued numerous sexual liaisons—including relationships with members of the band. Her husband, however, did seek a divorce in 1971 after Slick gave birth to Kantner's child, a daughter they named China. She married Skip Johnson on 29 November 1976; they divorced in 1994.

In the early 1970s, as the counterculture movement splintered, Jefferson Airplane also began to disintegrate. The group's founder, Balin, left the band, while Kaukonen and Casady formed the group Hot Tuna. Kantner and Slick continued to record with Jefferson Airplane, including the albums Long John Silver (1972) and 30 Seconds over Wonderland (1973). Seeking to alter its image, the band changed its name to Jefferson Starship in 1974 and convinced Balin to rejoin the group. With a more mellow sound, Jefferson Starship recordings such as Red Octopus (1975) were more commercially successful than even the Airplane's best-selling Surrealistic Pillow. Battling problems with alcohol, Slick left the group after a disastrous concert appearance in Germany on 17 June 1978.

In 1981 Slick rejoined the band, now known simply as the Starship, but she departed again in 1989, touring briefly with the original members of Jefferson Airplane in the early 1990s. She also recorded four solo albums, all of which were commercially unsuccessful.

For more information on Slick see her autobiography (with Andrea Cagan), Somebody to Love?: A Rock and Roll Memoir (1998), and an authorized biography by Barbara Rowes, Grace Slick: The Biography (1980). For information on Jefferson Airplane and the San Francisco music scene see Ralph Gleason, The Jefferson Airplane and the San Francisco Sound (1969), and Charlie Gillett, The Sound of the City: The Rise of Rock and Roll (1970).

Ron Briley

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Slick, Grace Wing

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