Grace Slick's Sly Stone–Produced Experimental Rock Band the Great Society
The privileged daughter of an investment banker and descendant of Mayflower settlers, Grace Slick spent the early Sixties earning a living as a model at San Francisco's I. Magin department store. "I was on the third floor, the couture department, wearing $10,000 dresses," she recalled in a 2015 interview with Forbes. "You wear one, wander around. All the rich people come up and feel the material, ask how much it is, and then you go change." The job brought in money while her husband, Gerald "Jerry" Slick, an aspiring filmmaker, studied at San Francisco State, but she found the work dull and uninspired. "Modeling is something you can do if you don't know how to do anything else," she drolly noted of her early career.
Jerry's short films provided an outlet for some of Slick's first songs, but she never seriously considered pursuing music until she saw the newly-formed Jefferson Airplane – then featuring vocalist Signe Toly Anderson – performing at the Matrix, a creative hive for the nascent psychedelic scene. "I went to see Jefferson Airplane play and I thought, 'Gee, that's way better. I could do that,'" she recalled. "My mom was a singer. They only have to work a couple of hours a night, can drink and hang out and hustle people. So I stopped modeling and formed a group with my husband and his brother [Darby] called the Great Society." Their name was a sarcastic nod to President Johnson's sweeping plans for liberal social reform, signaling their high-minded ideals. "It was way more interesting to sing rock & roll than to wander around changing clothes every 10 minutes."
The band rehearsed throughout the early fall and developed a distinctive sound, fusing Indian modes and free-jazz experimentation with straight-ahead garage rock. Slick contributed a song called "White Rabbit," owning debts to Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland and jazz pianist Gil Evans – plus LSD. "I took acid and listened to Miles Davis' Sketches of Spain album for 24 hours straight until it burned into my brain," she once said of its genesis.
Following the Great Society's debut at a North Beach coffee house that October, they scored a deal with a small independent label, Autumn Records. For their first single they were paired with a young producer named Sly Stewart (later known as Sly Stone) who rapidly grew frustrated by the 53 takes it required to complete the recording. The result, 1966's "Someone to Love" backed by "Free Advice" was ignored outside of San Francisco. Despite their loyal local following Slick started to feel constrained by the group's limitations. "She wanted to sing with a tighter band and better musicians," Jerry said in Barbara Rowes' Grace Slick: The Biography. "She wanted to work with other vocalists to weave intricate harmonies into the fabric of the songs." Specifically, she wanted to work with Jefferson Airplane, which had evolved into the chief San Francisco group.
The feeling was mutual. Jefferson Airplane often shared a bill with the Great Society, and its members were aware of Slick's immense talent. When Anderson opted to retire from performing in September 1966 to care for her newborn child, Airplane bassist Jack Casady approached Slick to see if she wanted to be their new singer. Intrigued by their major label deal with RCA, it didn't take long for her to decide. Slick brought her operatic contralto, elegant good looks and forceful charisma to Jefferson Airplane, as well as two songs from her Great Society days. "Someone to Love" (retitled "Somebody to Love") and "White Rabbit" would become the band's first Top 10 hits on the national charts.