Before she became one of the most iconic women in rock history, Grace Slick was the frontwoman in the Bay Area acid rock band, The Great Society, alongside her then-husband, Gerald ‘Jerry’ Slick. This wouldn’t last for long, though. After being in the band for only a year, Slick joined Jefferson Airplane, and her legacy was set in stone.
Slick first heard about the newly formed Jefferson Airplane when she read an article about them in San Francisco Chronicle in August 1965. At this point, she only saw music as a part-time occupation, but after going to watch Jefferson Airplane at the city’s iconic club, The Matrix, she was galvanised. She wanted to pursue music as a full-time career.
It was after that show that Slick formed The Great Society. Shortly after their first performance in October that year, Slick composed the LSD inspired piece entitled ‘White Rabbit’. Little did she know that this would become her magnum opus a couple of years later.
The Great Society quickly became one of the Bay Area’s most exciting and widely lauded bands. However, by autumn 1966, she would leave the band for Jefferson Airplane, and Slick’s life and career would be set on their path to becoming legendary. Strangely, from that moment on, The Great Society were always tied to Jefferson Airplane. Via inspiring Slick to form the band or developing the piece ‘White Rabbit‘ as a countercultural anthem, in many ways, you could not have one without the other.
Establishing herself as one of the Bay Area’s best and most captivating frontwomen and vocalists, Slick had built a following by the time she was formally invited into Jefferson Airplane on October 16, 1966. Demonstrating our earlier point, without her work in The Great Society, she would not have joined the Airplane.
“I was up in the balcony at the Avalon Ballroom (in San Francisco) watching the crowd down below as they were moving out after an Airplane concert when Jack Casady, their bass player, came up to talk for a while,” Slick recalled in her 1998 memoir Somebody To Love?, before adding: “Seemingly out of nowhere, Jack said, ‘What do you think about singing with Airplane?'”, to which Slick recalled: “My reaction to Jack was a calm (trying to be cool), ‘Yeah, that might work.'”
If The Great Society were Championship football, then the offer to join Jefferson Airplane was like being asked to sign for Manchester City. The Airplane were San Francisco’s hottest band and already had a recording contract and a debut album, Jefferson Airplane Takes Off. Slick had joined the major leagues.
Two factors conspired with each other, which culminated in her accepting the job offer. One was that the Slick’s marriage was falling apart by this point, and the other was that Airplane’s first vocalist, Signe Toly Anderson, decided to quit the band to raise her newborn baby. It was the band’s second album, 1967’s Surrealistic Pillow, featuring Slick’s unique compositions, where the their career really took off.
“What was I really thinking?” Slick wrote. “ARE YOU KIDDING! FINALLY I’M GOING TO BE ON THE FUCKING VARSITY SQUAD!’ I didn’t say that out loud, but for me this was an initiation, an invitation to hold what I’d always thought was a lofty position reserved only for supermodels, movie stars and great physical beauties ad nauseam. It felt like the flat-chested, kinky-brown-haired sarcastic bitch was breaking down another barrier in Barbie Land.”
Her first appearance with Jefferson Airplane came in mid-October 1966 at the Fillmore Auditorium. Anderson’s final appearance came on October 15th, and Slick made her debut the following evening. The two-set show featured five songs from the band’s debut album, previews of some Surrealistic Pillow songs and covers. Although she is confident as hell, Slick has noted that she was “scared shitless” before her first Airplane show.
“I’d imagined my first performance with Airplane would be well-rehearsed, that when I replaced Signe it would be pat changeover,” Slick wrote. “But there I was, ready to start singing, with very little preparation and, hence, no self-assurance. Even so, I stepped out on stage with plenty of attitude, calculated, looking casual. I gave the audience a smile and a solemn look that said, ‘I know I’m new. I know you’re used to Signe, but I’m here now.'”
Paul Kanter, the rhythm guitarist of Jefferson Airplane, remembered that not everyone was so happy about Slick’s entry into the band. These qualms mainly came from their label, RCA. “When Signe left there were a lot of people saying, ‘Oh, my God, the Airplane is dead’,” he told Jefferson Airplane biographer Jeff Tamarkin.
Other rhythm guitarist and vocalist, Mary Balin told Tamarkin: “She was just like we were: drugged-out, drinking, free and ballsy and outrageous.” He appended, “She just fit in great.”
Casady continued that “Grace would lead us in different directions. I could play a lot more aggressive basslines than I could to some of the things that Signe would do, which were much more folk-oriented. Here was something I could sink my teeth into.”
The introduction of Grace Slick into the band ranks among some of the best decisions ever made in music. Up there with Red Hot Chili Peppers hiring the young John Frusciante or Led Zeppelin hiring John Bonham, it helped to truly crystallise a band who would go on to soundtrack the hazy dream of the counterculture.