Cher, Bette, Tina, Madonna Still Strutting Their Stuff

Jefferson Airplane's Grace Slick, who shocked audiences in the 1960s by jumping offstage drunk to pick a fan's nose and once exposed herself sans undies, has little faith in aging rockers.

The iconic beauty left the music scene at age 48 after her 1985 hit "We Built This City on Rock and Roll," topping off her career as a lead singer for the Airplane and its later incarnations.

Slick, whose brash style in the masculine world of rock was a role model for today's greatest female performers, confessed in a 1998 VH1 documentary that "all rock 'n' rollers over the age of 50 look stupid and should retire."

Now 68, Slick told ABCNEWS.com, "It's sad somehow when you watch people who are doing things that my daughter calls 'age inappropriate.'

"They can sing almost anything but rock and roll and rap," said Slick, who lives in California as a painter. "When [a rapper] gets old he'll look sappy holding his crotch and making finger signs and wearing 'bling' and talking about my 'b***h.'"

But today's sold-out concerts by some of her contemporaries suggest that Slick has miscalculated the staying power of aging female rockers.

Grande Dames Still Touring

The grande dames of rock and pop -- Tina Turner, Cher, Bette Midler and Madonna -- are still recording, touring and commanding astronomical ticket prices at the biggest venues with fan bases that cross all age barriers.

So, too, are Stevie Nicks, Joan Jett, Pat Benatar, Gladys Knight, Dolly Parton and many more. Only one publicist, Liz Rosenberg, who represents Nicks, Cher and Madonna, commented on Slick's classic off-color invective.

"What an ageist statement to make," Rosenberg told ABCNEWS.com. "I find all these women totally inspiring as their fans obviously do as well. Tell Grace to get out on the road this summer and see if any of these 'grand dames' perform. I think she will change her mind. And tell her to bring her daughter with her."

For more than a decade, Slick and Turner dominated Billboard's Hot 100 list as the oldest female vocalists. The R&B singer, who was 44 with her 1984 hit "What's Love Got to Do With It" gave way to Slick, at 47, with "Nothing's Going to Stop Us Now." Pop vocalist Cher beat both records in 1999 at the age of 53 with her hit "Believe."

Cher, at 62, kicks off her debut at Caesar's Palace in Las Vegas this weekend in new Bob Mackie costumes and a show that includes 18 dancers and aerialists. The over-the-top singer is one of Billboard's Top 40 "greatest artists of all time," selling 200 million albums since she emerged as part of the Sonny and Cher duo in 1965.

Bette Midler, also 62, will headline Las Vegas this summer to sold-out audiences. "I put her in a category with Elton John for her universal appeal," said Elizabeth Stetson, 60, of Mountain View, Calif., whose 40-something friends and 22-year-old daughter are equally devoted fans.

"She's vibrant, enthusiastic, fun and upbeat and has the ability to attract and excite a crowd," she said.

Turner, at 68, is one month older than Slick and can still pack the house. She began as the other half of the "Ike and Tina Turner Revue" in the mid-1960s, but a decade later went solo. She has thrived long after she said she would retire at her Twenty Four Seven Millennium Tour in 2000. At 65, she released a career retrospective album that reached No. 2 on the U.S. album chart -- her best showing ever.

Turner: 'Force of Nature'

"Tina Turner is such a force of nature," said Tamara Conniff, Billboard's editorial director. "She is gorgeous, and the last tour she was literally onstage with dancers who were 20 years old and she out-danced them."

Turner's up-by-the-bootstraps background appeals to Leslie Fisher, 44, a marketing professional from Oakland, Calif. "She's a woman who struck out on her own and achieved success," she said. "I can relate to that being a black middle-aged, divorced, self-made woman.

"I also like that she can still be sexy and have great legs at her age, and there is a sense of strength and pride about her," said Fisher. "She's doin' it, is successful and doesn't make any excuses about it, but at the same time isn't arrogant about it either."

New Wave's Deborah (formerly Debbie of Blondie) Harry, now 62, continues to tour in the United States and abroad, and released a new album in 2006. Joan Jett, soon 50, still performs with her quarter-century-old band, the Blackhearts. Gibson recently modeled a signature guitar for the "Godmother of Punk," a first for a female artist, according to Jett's publicist Jenn Nuccio.

"A lot of the women in this school of performing had to work their asses off to get good," Conniff said. "They played in the clubs and were booed and told they were no good and made it through that kind of adversity."

They've also been good businesswomen. Take Dolly Parton, 62, who has parlayed her country singing career into a theme park and appearances on TV's "American Idol." Her latest album, "Backwoods Barbie," reached No. 2 on the country charts this year. Jett has her own Sirius radio show and is producing a documentary on her early years.

"Will the women of today have careers when they are 50?" Conniff asked. "It's pretty unlikely. We don't really have a good farm club to build strong stage performances. And [the younger artists] crash and burn."

"Queen of Pop" Madonna, who's approaching 50 and appears in a photo spread in May's Vanity Fair, is still churning out her own material, touring and showing off her well-sculpted biceps. Her Sticky and Sweet world tour kicks off in the United States in October, including three sold-out shows at Madison Square Garden.

"I feel good about what I'm doing," she recently told ABC's "Nightline." "It's given me a feeling of accomplishment for living this long and to still be able to do what I want to do and feel as good as I do. It's a blessing."

These older rockers have "really strong self images," Conniff said. And many of their careers have been bouyed by a long-time gay following that has bolstered their success. "The gay community is strong on dance-club mixes and audience participation, and those men are very giving back."

But the staying power of these stars transcends any one fan group, said Frank Rizzo, arts editor for the Hartford Courant, who covered the rock scene in the 1970s and 1980s.

"The advent of rock 'n' roll changed everything," he said. "It connects across generations.

"Elvis paved the way, even when he was fat and bloaty. Rock 'n' roll is an American music form that is no longer a passing fad. It's intergenerational. Each has his own favorite, but these people are the classics."

'Big Money With Boys'

While the "big money is still with the boys," he said, the music industry has been kinder to older women than Hollywood has.

"Ageism isn't quite the barrier to women that it is in movies, where youth is the only currency that's viable," he said. "In the world of rock 'n' roll, getting down and dirty, you don't have to still be quite as gorgeous as long as there's verve and charisma."

Still, some younger fans worry about that verve when these rockers hit their seventh decade, possibly agreeing with Grace Slick's own convictions about aging performers.

"A sense of perspective is more valuable than Botox or other methods of wishful arrested development," said New York City musician Alex Clifford, 24. "So we don't have 70-year-olds preening around onstage pretending they still have it."

Today, Slick has transitioned gracefully from '60s rock icon to artist. Her "Wonderland" series of fantasy paintings are, in some ways, an homage to her days as the queen of psychedelia.

Her musical tastes, though classic, are more masculine -- Sting, Peter Gabriel, "American Idol" winner David Cook and the Gypsy Kings. Though Slick still has a strong voice, she refuses to sing publicly again.

"Rock 'n' roll is for young kids," Andrea Cagan, who co-wrote Slick's 1999 memoir, "Somebody to Love," told ABCNEWS.com. "Grace knows these stars make hundreds of millions of dollars, but it's incredibly embarrassing to see older people flapping their cellulite around stage."

Slick is equally disparaging of the crowds that flock to those concerts: "Whoever can show up without being wheeled in with an oxygen tent," she said. "People try to relive what their youth was like."

The self-described "fat, white-haired" Slick, who can at once swear like a sailor and purr like a grandmother, said she has no regrets about her career.

"The only thing you regret when you get old is what you didn't do," she said in her warm, husky voice. "I regret I didn't nail Jimmy Hendrix or Peter O'Toole, Richard Harris or Richard Burton. I missed out drinking and whooping with the British guys."

Brad Martin contributed to this report.

-- This embed didnt make it to copy for story id = 4956277. -- This embed didnt make it to copy for story id = 4956277.
Join the Discussion
You are using an outdated version of Internet Explorer. Please click here to upgrade your browser in order to comment.
blog comments powered by Disqus
 
You Might Also Like...