SLICK, GRACE (Grace Wing) (1939– ) Singer, Songwriter
More than any vocalist, Grace Slick defined the psychedelic rock sound of the late 1960s. She was born Grace Wing on October 30, 1939, in Evanston, Illinois, though she spent much of her youth in Palo Alto, California. Both Grace’s musical talent and rebellious nature were evident in her early years. Her parents tried to nurture the former with guitar and piano lessons, while squelching the latter by sending her to New York City’s Finch College, a conservative school where First Daughter Tricia Nixon was one of her classmates. At 20, Wing married film student Jerry Slick. For a brief time she worked as a fioor model at the I. Magnin department store in San Francisco, though she had little ambition to be anything other than a housewife. Frequenting San Francisco clubs, Grace Slick set out on a new path after seeing the successful local rock group Jefferson Airplane. As she later explained, “I realized they made more for two hours than I made in a week, and they had a lot more fun.” She soon formed her own band, the Great Society, with her husband and her brother-in-law Darby. With Slick’s riveting vocals as the main attraction, the band played in San Francisco for the next year. Among their popular songs were “Somebody to Love,” written by Darby Slick, and “White Rabbit,” composed by Grace Slick, drawing inspiration from Maurice Ravel’s “Bolero” and Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland.
In 1966 the members of Jefferson Airplane then Paul Kanter, Marty Balin, Jorma Kaukonen, Jack Casady, and Spencer Dryden—asked Slick to join the band. With Jefferson Airplane poised for national success, she had no trouble abandoning the Great Society to become the group’s vocalist. The next year, Jefferson Airplane released the classic album Surrealistic Pillow (1967). It featured “Somebody to Love” and “White Rabbit,” both of which became radio hits. “White Rabbit,” particularly, emerged as a generational anthem. Even though it promoted drug use for mind-expansion, its lyrics were enigmatic enough to protect it from censorship. Rivaling JANIS JOPLIN, Slick became one of the most famous women in rock. Her voice was hard and loud, much better equipped to compete with an electric guitar than that of most female singers. To Slick, however, it was her energy rather than her sound that made her stage presence magnetic. Summing up her talents, she once said, “I always had more drive and fire than voice.”
In followup albums such as After Bathing at Baxter’s (1967) and Volunteers (1969), Jefferson Airplane became more political and more strident. Tensions within the band escalated as well. Jorma Kaukonen and Jack Casady left to form Hot Tuna, while Marty Balin began to work on his own material. Romantically involved with Kanter, Slick continued to record with him under the Jefferson Airplane name. In 1971, Slick divorced her first husband and gave birth to a daughter by Kanter. They initially called the baby god but later renamed her China.
By 1974, Kanter had also renamed his band Jefferson Starship. Creating a much more mainstream pop-rock sound, the group, then also featuring Marty Balin, recorded the successful album Red Octopus (1975), which included the hit ballad “Miracles.” Slick felt uncomfortable with the band’s new, softer style and she angered her bandmates with her alcohol-fueled aggressive behavior. In 1976, she married the group’s lighting director, Skip Johnson. With his encouragement, Slick broke from Jefferson Starship to record several solo albums, including Dreams (1980) and Welcome to the Wrecking Ball (1981). In the early 1980s, however, she rejoined the group, now called merely Starship. Slick sang supporting vocals on the band’s mid-decade top 40 hits “We Built This City” (1985), “Sara” (1986), and “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now” (1987) before quitting again in 1988. After a 1989 Jefferson Airplane reunion tour, she retired from performing. Explaining her decision, she said, “Rock ‘n’ roll is still a young person’s medium, and an older women just can’t get away with [it]. "In the early 1990s, Slick experienced a series of personal setbacks. Her house burned to the ground in 1993. At about the same time, she and Johnson divorced after 18 years of marriage. Slick also found herself in the tabloids in 1994, when she was arrested for pointing a rifie at a sheriff ’s deputy who was trying to break up a drunken argument between Slick and her boyfriend.
In 1998, Slick recounted her life story in Somebody to Lovefi, which a reviewer for the New York Times described as “messy, muddled, indulgent, and occasionally amusing.” She has since devoted herself to her new passions—campaigning against laboratory animal research and painting. Much of her artwork includes portraits of Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Jerry Garcia, and other 1960s pop icons. Now sober and out of the rock and roll scene, she admits that her life is much more sedate, but insists her raucous personality remains intact. As Slick said in a 1993 interview, “The bus may be different but it’s the same trip.”
Gleason, Ralph J. The Jefferson Airplane and the San Francisco Sound. New York: Ballantine Books, 1969.
Slick, Grace, with Andrew Cagan. Somebody to Lovefi: ARock and Roll Memoir. New York: Warner Books, 1998.
Recommended Recorded and Videotaped Performances
Jefferson Airplane, Jefferson Starship, Starship: Hits. RCA, CD set, 1998.
Monterey Pop (1967). Rhino, VHS, 1997.
Surrealistic Pillow (1967). RCA, CD, 1988.