An iconic figure in the rock scene of the late 1960s, Grace Slick was a singer and songwriter for the San Francisco band Jefferson Airplane, as well as its offshoot groups Jefferson Starship and Starship. Slick's striking visual presence, powerful voice and predilection for politically pointed, often controversial statements - she once donned blackface for a performance on national television, and schemed to dose Richard Nixon's tea with LSD - minted her as a bona fide star in the largely male-dominated world of rock-n-roll. Though she recorded four well-regarded solo albums between 1970 and 1984, Slick largely collaborated with members of Airplane throughout her four-decade career, including several albums with the band's guitarist Paul Kantner, with whom she had a daughter, future MTV VJ China Kantner. She also participated in the more radio-friendly Starship, which recorded the wildly successful if often pilloried "We Built This City" in 1986. After a lifetime of experiences, including several highly publicized run-ins with the law and stints in rehabilitation for alcoholism, Slick retired from performing in 1988 to begin a second career as an artist. Her impact upon rock music was immeasurable; Slick, alongside her friend and contemporary Janis Joplin, proved that women could equal and at times surpass men as rock musicians, which in turn paved the way for such performers as Patti Smith, Stevie Nicks, Deborah Harry and a generation of female-led rock bands.
Born Grace Barnett Wing on October 30, 1939 in Evanston, IL, she lived a life of privilege as the daughter of investment banker Ivan W. Wing and his wife, Virginia Barnett, an actress-singer who could claim direct lineage to passengers on the Mayflower. Her father's business required the family to relocate several times during her early childhood before they eventually settled in Palo Alto, CA, a charter city south of San Francisco. Even as a child, Slick was at odds with the establishment; she was heavyset as a little girl, then grew slim in her adolescent years, but also became dark-haired, both of which put her at odds with the blonde, willowy Southern California looks of her classmates at Jordan Junior High. She turned to humor as a means of securing a place in that world, which helped her transition to the private, all-girls Castelleja High School. Slick later attended Finch College in New York and the University of Miami in Florida, both largely on a whim, before returning to the Bay Area in 1958. Three years later, she married a childhood friend, Jerry Slick, with whom she relocated to San Diego. There, she worked as a department store model while exercising an artistic side by writing songs, as well as the music for her husband's senior thesis film, which won first prize at the Ann Arbor Film Festival. In 1965, Slick saw a local folk-rock act, the Jefferson Airplane, perform at the legendary Matrix night club, which inspired her to form her own group, The Great Society, which took its name from President Lyndon B. Johnson's term for the American people. In addition to serving as vocalist for the group, which also included her husband and brother-in-law, Slick also wrote many of their original songs. The Great Society recorded just one single, "Somebody to Love," before disbanding in 1966, which was soon followed by the breakup of her marriage.
However, Slick was soon hired by Jefferson Airplane to replace their outgoing singer, Signe Anderson, and she brought both "Somebody" and another original, "White Rabbit," which borrowed imagery from Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland to describe a hallucinogenic drug experience. Both songs were the centerpiece of the Airplane's second album, Surrealistic Pillow (1967), which rose to No. 3 on the Billboard, while their hard-charging version of "Somebody" and "Rabbit" reached No. 3 and No. 8 on the singles chart, respectively. The success of Surrealistic Pillow immediately placed Airplane at the vanguard of the San Francisco rock scene with such established psychedelic acts as the Grateful Dead, Quicksilver Messenger Service, and Big Brother and the Holding Company. Between 1967 and 1972, they released seven albums, including Bathing at Baxter's (1967), Crown of Creation (1968) and Volunteers (1969), all of which landed in the Top 20 on the albums chart. Airplane was also showcased at the biggest rock festivals of the 1960s, including the Monterey Pop International Festival, Woodstock and the disastrous Altamont Free Concert. But as the group's popularity skyrocketed, so did the turmoil between bandmates that ultimately led to the dissolution of the band's original lineup in 1972. Drug consumption in the group was rampant, while Slick also struggled with an alcohol problem that had plagued her since her teenaged years. She also had affairs with most of her bandmates before settling into a relationship with Airplane guitarist Paul Kantner, with whom she had a daughter, China, in 1971. She also showed a gleefully anarchic side in regard to the establishment by plotting to spike President Richard Nixon's tea with LSD during a 1969 trip to the White House and later performing "Crown of Creation" in blackface on "The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour" (CBS, 1967-69). At the same time, she recorded the vocals for a series of animated shorts about counting called "Jazzy Spies," which aired on "Sesame Street." (PBS, 1969- ).
As Jefferson Airplane wound down in the early 1970s, its members began branching out with various side projects. Slick would join Kantner on several solo and joint efforts, including Kantner's Top 20 concept album Blows Against the Empire (1970), which was billed as "Jefferson Starship," though its lineup, comprised of members of the Grateful Dead, Crosby, Stills & Nash and the Electric Flag, would bear no resemblance to the group Kantner and Slick would form under that moniker four years later. Slick and Kantner would collaborate on several other projects, including 1971's Sunfighter and Baron Von Tollbooth and the Chrome Nun (1973), the latter taking its name from David Crosby's nicknames for Kantner and Slick. The projects bookended the end of Jefferson Airplane's original lineup in 1972, and was soon followed by the release of Slick's official solo album, Manhole (1974). That same year, she joined Kantner in a group they dubbed Jefferson Starship, after the group of players on Blows Against the Empire. This lineup, which featured former Airplane members like singer-songwriter Marty Balin and new players, proved remarkably successful in the mid- to late-1970s, scoring two platinum records with Red Octopus (1975) and Spitfire (1976) and three Top 20 hits, including the No. 3 single "Miracles."
However, with this second wave of popularity also came a serious problem in the form of Slick's alcoholism, which had gone unchecked for nearly two decades and resulted in several arrests for driving under the influence. After physically and verbally assaulting audience members at a 1978 concert in Germany, Slick was asked to leave the group. She promptly checked into a rehabilitation facility, where she gained sobriety and soon returned to music, releasing two solo albums, including the Grammy-nominated, Top 40 LP Dreams (1980), before returning to the Jefferson Starship fold in 1981. Three years later, Kantner left the act, which soon renamed itself Starship. The new configuration, fronted by singer Mickey Thomas, took a decidedly pop-friendly approach - one that did not sit well with fans of the original band - as evidenced by their much-maligned, keyboard-driven singles "We Built This City" and "Sara," both of which topped the charts in 1985 and 1986, respectively, while their accompanying album, Knee Deep in the Hoopla (1985), was a Top 10 hit on the Billboard 200. A third No. 1 hit, "Nothing's Gonna Stop Us Now," followed in 1987, which made the 47-year-old Slick the oldest female vocalist to sing on a chart-topping single until Cher broke her record in 1999 with "Believe," which she released at the age of 52.
After releasing a second Starship album, No Protection, Slick quit the group, citing her age, which was at least a decade older than the other members, and her opinion that rock was a genre best reserved for younger performers. However, she briefly reversed her stance by reuniting with most of the original Jefferson Airplane lineup for a self-titled album in 1989 and a successful tour. Slick officially retired from active performing the following year, which preceded a lengthy period of personal triumphs and tragedies. The breakup of her second marriage, a subsequent abusive relationship and a house fire spurred her to take up painting, which soon became her primary creative outlet. Her work was soon showcased at galleries across the country, as well as in her 1998 autobiography, Somebody to Love? A Rock-and-Roll Memoir. She was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a member of Jefferson Airplane in 1996, and though committed to retirement, appeared with her former bandmates, who were performing as Jefferson Starship, at a 2001 concert in Los Angeles in which she donned a burqa as a statement about the 9-11 terrorist attacks and subsequent national atmosphere of mistrust. In 2006, Slick suffered from diverticulitis, which developed complications that required her to undergo both a tracheotomy and an induced coma for two months. After major physical rehabilitation, she returned to health and her flourishing art career.
By Paul Gaita