Darby Slick

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Darby Slick played guitar in the Great Society, the band his sister-in-law, Grace Slick, sang in before joining the Jefferson Airplane. He also wrote "Somebody to Love," which Grace Slick introduced into…
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Darby Slick played guitar in the Great Society, the band his sister-in-law, Grace Slick, sang in before joining the Jefferson Airplane. He also wrote "Somebody to Love," which Grace Slick introduced into the Jefferson Airplane's repertoire, and sang lead on when the Airplane recorded it for a Top Ten hit. More important, though, Slick was a skilled and distinctive guitarist and songwriter who made a substantial contribution to the birth of San Francisco psychedelic rock, particularly through his mix of rock and Indian styles. He is more obscure than he should be because the Great Society broke up after issuing just one rare single, although several albums' worth of live and demo recordings have subsequently become available.

Slick's brother, Jerry Slick, married Grace Wing (who had been their childhood neighbor in Palo Alto, CA) in 1961. When Darby, Jerry, and Grace decided to form a band in the mid-'60s, they had little musical experience. Darby Slick was at this point the best musician of the trio, getting a surf-psychedelic tone from his Silvertone guitar that helped set the band apart from the other ensembles springing up in the San Francisco Bay Area. When the Great Society, completed by other musicians, began to perform and record for Autumn Records, their best original material was penned by Grace and Darby Slick. In addition to composing "Somebody to Love," Darby also wrote tunes such as "Darkly Smiling" and "Everybody Knows," that demonstrated a knack for bittersweet melodies. As a guitarist he wove modal, Eastern-influenced jams into songs such as "Grimly Forming," "Arbitration," "White Rabbit," and their cover of "Sally Go 'Round the Roses." All of those songs can be heard on Collector's Item, a CD of live 1966 performances.

"Somebody to Love," under the title "Someone to Love," was issued as a single on the North Beach label (a subsidiary of Autumn) in 1966, but barely heard or distributed. Darby Slick also wrote the B-side, "Free Advice," an all-out fusion of Indian ragas and rock. Although the Great Society attracted major-label interest, they broke up in late 1966 when Grace Slick replaced Signe Anderson in the Jefferson Airplane. The group might have split anyway, however, as Darby Slick and bassist Peter Vandergelder were getting heavily into Indian music, and thinking of going to India to study with Ali Akbar Khan. Darby did make it to India, but came back to San Francisco after about six months. By that time, "Somebody to Love" had become a huge hit for the Jefferson Airplane. However, many listeners naturally assumed it was a Grace Slick composition, because the songwriting credit on the Surrealistic Pillow album read simply "Slick," and there was only one Slick in the Airplane.

After returning to California, Darby Slick played for a couple of years with Hair, which according to the '60s San Francisco rock history fanzine Cream Puff War played "a multi-racial blend of experimental soul/R&B, similar to the then-popular Loading Zone." After Hair broke up, he and Hair lead singer Jean Piersol made a couple of singles and an unreleased album for the Chess subsidiary Cadet Concept. Slick then again immersed himself in Indian music, studying with Ali Akbar Khan for 12 years. In the '90s he recorded an album with his son on which he used a fretless guitar of his own invention, combining qualities of the guitar and the sarod. He also did an instrumental solo album, King of the Fretless Guitar. His autobiography, Don't You Want Somebody to Love, published by a small press in 1991, is devoted almost wholly to his experiences in the Great Society and his subsequent trip to India.