On this Sunday’s The Sixties in 60 radio show on The Barrel of Rock, I played a “lost” recording of Grace Slick with The Great Society. The recording wasn’t really lost, of course, since nothing is really lost in the age of the internet where you can find anything you want with a thorough search, but in the old days it would have been considered, at the very least, rare.
The recording was of Slick performing her signature song “White Rabbit,” not long before she left the band to join Jefferson Airplane. What makes the recording interesting is that it’s a slice of history from the acid and pot fueled San Francisco music scene that arose in the mid-to-late 1960s, which gave rise to acid rock and lay the foundation for many of the rock genres that followed.
Although there are few people who have heard the recordings The Great Society left behind (and fewer still who can remember seeing them live before they broke up 46 years ago), the band is an integral part of the mythos of the San Francisco hippie-era, and not only because the band had been Slick’s ground zero as a performer.
During its brief life (the band was only together for about a year), The Great Society played all the major major venues in San Francisco, including the Matrix, the Fillmore, and the Avalon Ballroom, and opened for all the city’s major bands, including Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead.
The Great Society and the San Francisco Music Scene
The band got started when Slick, along with her then husband Jerry Slick and his brother Darby Slick, enlisted David Miner and Bard DuPont to form the band in 1965. Slick said in a 2008 interview with Plum TV that her decision to become a performer was influenced by seeing Jefferson Airplane perform at the Matrix club, where the Airplane was the house band.
“When I went to see Jefferson Airplane play, I was working as a model at I. Magnin’s in San Francisco,” she said. “I went to see them and I thought, ‘That’s way better than what I’m doing, because I have to stand on my feet all day, and they get to hang around, smoke dope, and play songs for a couple of hours a night.’ My mother was a singer, I thought. I can do that — and oddly enough, I can do that.”
The whole San Francisco music scene was coming together quickly in 1965, with Jefferson Airplane, the Grateful Dead, Quicksilver Messenger Service, Big Brother and the Holding Company, and others all getting started that year. It was also the year that the Fillmore became an important venue for rock bands, as did The Matrix on Fillmore Street.
The latter venue, a small club put together by Marty Balin and music critic Ralph J. Gleason (who penned a column for the Chronicle and would later become a co-founder of Rolling Stone), opened its doors in October of 1965, not long after Balin and Paul Kantner recruited Signe Toly Anderson, Jorma Kaukonen, Bob Harvey, and Jerry Peloquin to form Jefferson Airplane.
The Airplane’s rise was astronomical. The Matrix opened in October 1965 with the Airplane as the house band, and within a month after that the group reportedly turned down offers from Capitol, Valiant, Fantasy, Elektra, and London, all major record labels at the time. When they eventually agreed to sign with RCA, their contract included a then unheard of $25,000 advance. All of this came after the group had initially recorded a demo for Columbia, which had been immediately rejected by the label.
During the same month that The Matrix opened, The Great Society made its debut performance at the Coffee Gallery in the city’s North Beach neighborhood. The band quickly became ingrained in the local “hip” music scene and became a regular at The Matrix, where they often opened for the Airplane and other successful local bands.
Slick’s brother-in-law Darby, who played lead guitar, quickly became the band’s driving force, as he was the member with the most musical expertise. His interest was in Indian music, and he pushed the band (evidently meeting with some resistance from the band) to add Indian elements to the band’s sound. Bard DuPont, the band’s bassist, actually couldn’t play bass, but the Slicks thought he looked good on stage and took him on as bass player after he promised to learn how to play.
In February, 1966 The Great Society released its first and only single, a recording of “Somebody to Love” (then titled “Someone to Love”) that was written by Darby Slick. The record was recorded and released by Autumn Records, a local label started by local KYA radio DJ Tom Donahue, that had earlier put the Beau Brummels debut single, “Laugh, Laugh,” on the national charts. “Someone to Love” was released on the company’s Northbeach label, and garnered little interest outside the Bay Area.
Dupont was fired from the band in March 1966 (“…because his bass playing never matched his good looks,” one writer has written) and was replaced by Peter van Gelder, who was also influenced by Indian music, which resulted in the band moving more in that direction.
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By this time, the group seemed poised for national exposure, by way of a recording contract with Columbia Records, the same label that had unceremoniously turned down the Airplane. Before that deal came to fruition, however, Slick announced she was leaving the band to join Jefferson Airplane to replace Signe Anderson, whose voice had been featured on the band’s debut Jefferson Airplane Takes Off album. Anderson had given birth to a daughter in May 1966, and in October announced her departure from the band in order to raise her child.
The remaining members of The Great Society decided that the band couldn’t survive without Slick’s contributions and disbanded soon afterward.
Life After Breakup
During the brief period when The Great Society and Columbia were working together, the label recorded several of the bands performances at The Matrix, but after the band broke up all plans were shelved. That changed in 1967 when Jefferson Airplane placed their recordings of “Somebody to Love” and “White Rabbit” on Billboards Hot 100.
When Columbia realized that it had recordings of both of those songs, with Grace Slick’s voice, it put together an album from those recordings under the title, Conspicuous Only in Its Absence, which was released in March, 1968. The album contained nine songs, including “Somebody to Love” and “White Rabbit,” and reached No. 166 on the Billboard Top LPs chart. Columbia also released a single from the album, “Sally, Go ‘Round the Roses” backed with “Didn’t Think So,” which failed to chart.
Later in 1968, Columbia released additional Great Society recordings on an album called How It Was. In 1971, these two albums were repackaged as a double album called Collector’s Item, which remains available today.
Superior to the Columbia recordings, however, but available only for streaming, are recordings of three songs (“Somebody to Love,” “White Rabbit,” and “Father Bruce”) owned by Bill Graham Archives from a June 10, 1966 concert at the Fillmore.