The First Lady of Rock: Grace Slick
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The First Lady of Rock: Grace Slick

"One pill makes you larger, and one pill makes you small. And the ones that mother gives you, donÂ’t do anything at all . . . " To AmericaÂ’s counterculture of the 1960s, these lyric and the woman who sang them came to represent a disenchanted generation embracing the creation of a utopian society--if only through the use of drugs, free love, and rock & roll music.

One pill makes you larger, and one pill makes you small.  And the ones that mother gives you, don’t do anything at all . . .

To America’s counterculture of the 1960s, these lyric and the woman who sang them came to represent a disenchanted generation embracing the creation of a utopian society--if only through the use of drugs, free love, and rock & roll music. 

Centered in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury District (though the movement quickly stirred a compliment movement in New York’s Greenwich Village), Free love, Be-ins, Sit-ins, Passive Resistance, Make Love Not War, Free Parks, and Revolution quickly became the catch-phrases of the Hippie movement, with "White Rabbit" becoming the anthem on everyone’s lips, and the sexy Grace Slick the ultimate icon. 

“First Lady of Rock,” Grace Slick (born Grace Barnett Wing; aka “The Acid Queen” and “The Chrome Nun”) was born on October 30, 1939 in Evanston, Illinois.  After living in Chicago, Los Angeles, and then San Francisco, her family settled in Palo Alto, California in the early 1950s where Grace attended Palo Alto Senior High School before switching to Castilleja High School, a private all-girls school.  After graduation, she attended the prestigious finishing school, Finch College in New York from 1957 to 1958, and then from 1958 to 1959, University of Miami in Coral Gables, Florida.

Grace’s music career began in San Francisco in 1965 after she and husband Jerry Slick were drawn to the music of The Beatles, and were inspired to form their own band somewhat modeled after the newly-formed Jefferson Airplane, a group they’d seen perform at The Matrix, a popular San Francisco hangout. 

Subsequently, Grace and her husband formed a band called The Great Society (named after the social reform program of the same name), with Grace on vocals, guitar, piano, and recorder, as well as writing or co-writing most of the band's songs.  By early 1966, The Great Society had become one of the most popular psychedelic acts in the Bay area.  Recording original material from the onset, they released "Somebody to Love" in the San Francisco Bay area--receiving an over-night following.

That fall, Jefferson Airplane singer Signe Toly Anderson left the band, so Airplane asked Grace to take her place.  (Rock legend says that Bill Thompson, the Airplane’s road manager, bought Grace’s contract from her previous manager for $750.)  Happy to join a popular, well-organized band, Grace brought two of her Great Society songs with her, "White Rabbit” and "Somebody to Love” (both of which were extraordinarily popular and would become monstrous hits for Airplane).  With Grace now leading the band’s direction (virtually usurping lead singer Marty Balin), Airplane took on a decidedly psychedelic direction as their first studio album, Surrealistic Pillow abundantly illustrates. 

By 1967, Surrealistic Pillow and the singles it produced (“Somebody to Love,” “My Best Friend,” and “White Rabbit”) were phenomenal successes, with Airplane quickly becoming one of the most popular bands in the country.  Hippies began to flock to Haight-Ashbury just to see Grace and the Airplane perform.  She was immediately established as the preeminent female rock singer in the US--and later, one of the most prominent female rock musicians of all time.  Nine months after Grace joined the band, she found herself a rocketing star fronting a band with two huge top ten hits.

As one of the first songs to sneak drug references past radio censors, “White Rabbit” (which even Marty Balin is said to have called a flat-out “masterpiece”) set the atmosphere for the Hippie movement of ‘67 and ‘68, receiving virtual non-stop airplay during the late '60s (and well in the '70s).  Though undocumented, it has long been said that Grace intended “White Rabbit” to be a swat at parents who read stories like “Alice in Wonderland” to their children, which depict girls like Alice using drug-like substances in order to change themselves, and then wonder why their kids grow up thinking it's okay to use drugs.

After Jefferson Airplane broke up (reportedly due to personal and professional conflicts), Grace and the other members regrouped as Jefferson Starship during the early 1970s--a band which proved to be even more popular than Airplane.  Dragonfly (1974), Red Octopus (1975), Spitfire (1976) and Earth (1978) were unqualified monster sellers--with Grace writing many of the most popular songs including the rough and edgy rock & roll anthem, “Ride the Tiger.” 

In June of 1984, Airplane member Paul Kantner (the last remaining founding member of Jefferson Airplane) left Jefferson Starship and then took legal action over the use of the  “Jefferson Starship” name against his former bandmates (including Grace Slick), with all parties ultimately agreeing not to use the names "Jefferson" or "Airplane" unless all members of Jefferson Airplane were involved.  The band briefly changed its name to Starship Jefferson but then ultimately settled on simply, Starship.

In 1988, Grace left Starship and after a brief reunion tour with Jefferson Airplane, retired from the music business.  Grace--ever the outspoken representative of her generation--stated in a 1998 VH1 interview on a Behind the Music documentary featuring Jefferson Airplane, that the main reason she retired was that "all rock & rollers over the age of fifty look stupid and should retire.”  Even so, she has made a few appearances over the years with Paul Kantner's revamped Jefferson Starship, during one of which she came on stage initially covered in a black, head-to-toe burqa which she removed to reveal an American flag and the words "No Fear,” announcing, "The outfit is not about Islam, it's about repression; this flag is not about politics, it's about liberty!"

After retiring from music (as well as recovering from a house fire and divorce), Grace began drawing and painting, and has created many renditions of her fellow 1960s musicians including Janis Joplin and Jerry Garcia.  In 2000 she began displaying and selling her artwork, and as of November of that year had sold nearly sixty paintings priced from $1,100 to $8,700.  With her shoulder-length hair having gone from black to white, she attends many of her art openings across the US, and those who purchase a piece of her art usually get a photo, an opportunity to reminisce, and a personalized autograph on the back of their art.

Grace was married twice, first to cinematographer Gerald "Jerry" Slick from 1961 to 1971, and then to stage lighting designer Skip Johnson from 1976 to 1994.  She has one daughter, China Wing Kantner (born January 25, 1971), with former Airplane guitarist Paul Kantner with whom she had a relationship from 1969 through 1975. 

 Notes, Trivia, and Unapologetic Infamy:

>  While appearing on the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour in 1968, Grace donned blackface and raised her fist in a Black Panther salute to indicate her solidarity and anti-social views.

>  In typical Grace fashion, rather than get her blouse drenched during one rainy outdoors concert, she performed topless.  (She also exposed her boob during a CREEM magazine interview and allowed the photo to accompany the article.)

>  During an Airplane concert, she referred to the wealthy audience as “filthy jewels,” which because of her inebriated condition, was misunderstood as “filthy Jews,” a characterization that took months to live down.

>  Grace provided vocals for a piece known as “Jazzy Spies,” a series of animated shorts about the numbers 2 through 10 which aired on Sesame Street beginning on November 10, 1969.

>  One of Grace’s most (in)famous incidents occurred in April of 1970 when she was invited to a reception hosted by President Richard Nixon’s daughter, Tricia, at the White House.  Although the organizers initially had no idea who Grace was or of her political views, when she attempted to enter with her personal “bodyguard”—’60s radical Abbie Hoffman--she was barred from attending.  Grace later stated that had they been allowed in, she and Abbie were planning to spike Nixon’s tea with LSD.

>  In August 1972, Grace and Paul Kantner were both arrested in Akron, Ohio during an altercation with police following a concert.  According to Grace, she had wandered on stage during an argument between the police and the band’s road manager without her glasses, and in an attempt to steady herself, had inadvertently grabbed onto a policeman’s uniform--which got her pepper-sprayed.  Then when Paul ran to her defense, he was pushed to the floor by police and arrested.

>  In 1978, Grace was dragged off the stage of a local San Francisco game show for supposedly “abusing the contestants.”

>  Many of Grace’s songs were psychedelic interpretations of literary classics; some attacked middle-class repression, others criticized human arrogance.  “Lather” (1968) was written to express the anxieties of growing older.

>  Over the years, Grace has been the subject of two biographies: the first, Grace Slick, the Biography, written by Barbara Rowes, was published in 1980, and the second, Somebody to Love?  A Rock and Roll Memoir, co-authored with Andrea Cagan, was published in 1998.  (In the first she said she learned how to let it out and damn the censorship from Mick Jagger.) 

>  During her hospital stay after giving birth to daughter China, Grace sarcastically told one of the attending nurses, who Grace described as “annoyingly sanctimonious,” that she intended to name the child "god,” with a lowercase "g,” because she "wished for the child to be humble.”  The nurse took Grace seriously, reporting the incident to authorities and the press--causing a stir adding to her already outrageous legend. 

>  In 2006, Grace suffered a serious episode with diverticulitis.  After initial surgery, she had a relapse, requiring further surgery and a tracheotomy.  She was reportedly placed in an induced coma for two months after which she had to learn to walk again.

>  In 2006, Grace gave a speech at the inauguration of the new Virgin America airline, which had named their first aircraft "Jefferson Airplane.”

>  Although Grace generally resists the music business, she performed on "Knock Me Out,” a track on Linda Perry’s 1996 solo debut, In Flight, which was subsequently used on The Crow: City of Angels soundtrack.

>  Though often thought to have followed in Janis Joplin‘s footsteps, Grace was actually a contemporary of Janis who helped establish the psychedelic rock scene into which Janis and her band Big Brother became a part. 

>  Grace has the rather unusual distinction of being named the oldest female vocalist on the Billboard Hot 100 chart for the single "We Built This City," which reached #1 on November 16, 1985, shortly after her 46th birthday.

>  Grace was nominated for a Grammy in 1980 as Best Rock Female Vocalist for her solo album Dreams.

>  Grace was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1996 (as a member of Jefferson Airplane).

>  Grace is ranked #20 on VH1's 100 Greatest Women of Rock ‘N’ Roll.

>  In 1993, Grace provided the narration for the Stephen King short story "You Know They Got a Hell of a Band" on his Nightmares & Dreamscapes audiobook.

>  The songs "Somebody to Love" and "White Rabbit" appear on Rolling Stone's top 500 greatest songs of all time.

>  Grace was nicknamed "The Chrome Nun" by David Crosby, who also referred to Paul Kantner as "Baron von Tollbooth.”  Their nicknames were used as the title of an album she made with Paul Kantner and David Freiberg titled Baron Von Tollbooth and the Chrome Nun.

Discography (Partial)

Solo albums:

Manhole (1973)

Dreams (1980)

Welcome to the Wrecking Ball! (1981) 

Software (1984)

The Best of Grace Slick (1999) (compilation album includes tracks from Jefferson Airplane, Jefferson Starship, and Starship)

With The Great Society:

How it Was (1968)

Born to Be Burned (1995)

With Jefferson Airplane:

Surrealistic Pillow (1967)

After Bathing at Baxter's (1967)

Crown of Creation (1968)

Bless Its Pointed Little Head (1969)

Volunteers (1969)

Bark (1971)

Long John Silver (1972)

Thirty Seconds Over Winterland (1973)

Early Flight (1974)

Jefferson Airplane (1989)

With Jefferson Starship:

Dragon Fly (1974)

Red Octopus (1975)

Spitfire (1976)

Earth (1978)

Modern Times (1981)

Winds of Change (1982)

Nuclear Furniture (1984)

With Starship:

Knee Deep in the Hoopla (1985)

No Protection (1987)

With Paul Kantner:

Blows Against the Empire (1970)

Sunfighter (1971)

Baron von Tollbooth and the Chrome Nun (1973)

Planet Earth Rock and Roll Orchestra (1983)


Slick, Grace; Andrea Cagan (1998-09-01). Somebody to Love? A Rock-and-Roll Memoir, New York, New York: Warner Books

Personal albums and rock memorabilia archives

Images via unless credited otherwise

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Comments (8)
Ranked #1 in Popular Culture

Ha ha, thanks for posting, James! This is brilliant! A great account of a great woman, and the information is fascinating. I used to show that second clip to students during lessons on 60s design. I love the photos too, how beautiful she was.

Indeed, old buddy! Indeed! And thanks!

It just makes me so aware of how music has changed...

Me too.

Very interesting account and music. Thanks Sir

My pleasure!

I am not really familiar with her. But this is an enjoyable article...

Thank you kindly, P. Guims. Grace is an integral part of American culture.