Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music



Perhaps the quintessential USA rock band, the longest survivors of the San Francisco hippy era. They began in psychedelic/acid-rock and absorbed country rock, but were mainly one of the most improvisatory of all rock bands. Their first and only top ten USA hit was 'Touch Of Grey' '87, and only six of 28 albums reached higher than no. 25 on the Billboard chart up to 1992, but they were one of the highest-grossing live acts in the business for many years. Jerry Garcia (b Jerome John Garcia, 1 August 1942; d 9 August 1995) began on guitar at 15; added banjo and played in folk groups in the early 1960s, drifting through the Wildwood Boys and Hart Valley Drifters, meeting Robert Hunter along the way (b Robert Burns, 23 June 1941, Arroyo Grande CA; d 23 September 2019, San Rafael CA; he took his stepfather's name; he  became the Dead's lyricist, and among the most successful in terms of number of songs written and/or recorded, yet one of the least well known of rock writers. By 1964 Garcia’s group was called Mother McCree's Uptown Jug Champions, including Ron 'Pigpen' McKernan (b 8 September 1945, San Bruno CA; d 8 March 1973), keyboards, harmonica, vocals; Bob Weir (b Robert Hall, 16 October 1947), John 'Marmaduke' Dawson (b 1945), guitars, vocals, both b San Francisco, as was Garcia, who later added pedal steel to his bag: one of the secrets of the band's longevity was its willingness to experiment. They became the Warlocks '65, without Dawson but adding Phil Lesh (b Philip Chapman, 15 March 1940, Berkeley), bass, vocals; Bill Kreutzmann (b 7 April 1946, Palo Alto), drums; adopted electric instruments and took part in public LSD parties before LSD was outlawed, later chronicled in Tom Wolfe's Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. Garcia said he found the name Grateful Dead in the Oxford English Dictionary; they signed with WB in 1967. Grateful Dead '67 was a conventional rock album with energy-laden R&B style; Mickey Hart joined on percussion, stayed through 1970, came back again in 1975. Anthem Of The Sun '68 and Aoxomoxoa '69 were experimental and patchy, 'St Stephen' and 'China Cat Sunflower' the best cuts. Studio time left them in debt to the label; two-disc Live Dead '70 was better and 'Dark Star' became a rock classic.

The next LPs were acoustic country-rock style, with Hunter's songs, and Garcia one of the first rock artists to take up pedal steel: Workingman's Dead included their first minor hit 'Uncle John's Band' (also 'New Speedway Boogie', their reaction to the the Rolling Stones' debâcle at Altamont). American Beauty included 'Truckin' and 'Box Of Rain': good sellers made the label happy and are still their best albums for non-aficionados. Vintage Dead (live from SF Avalon Ballroom) and Historic Dead were both recorded '66, released '70-1 on Sunflower, deservedly poor sellers; two-disc Grateful Dead '71, three-disc Europe '72 (both live) were among their biggest hits. Pigpen was a heavy drinker, ill and out of action '71, rejoined for tour of Europe but died of liver disease. Keith Godchaux (b 14 July 1948, SF) joined on keyboards, wife Donna on backing vocals; they stayed until 1979, replaced by Brent Mydland (b 1953, d 26 July 1990 of a drug overdose; Keith died after a car crash 23 July 1980). History Of The Grateful Dead Vol. 1 (live at Fillmore East early '70, released '73) and best-of albums Skeletons From The Closet, What A Long Strange Trip It's Been were released on WB, but their loyal following (called Deadheads) enabled them to finance their own Grateful Dead label, with subsidiary Round Records for solo projects, beginning with studio LPs Wake Of The Flood '73, Grateful Dead From The Mars Hotel '74 and Blues For Allah '75, their best sellers at no. 18, 16, 12 in LP chart respectively. A two-disc live set Steal Your Face '76 had been made at San Francisco's Winterland '74 (concerts were filmed, The Grateful Dead Movie released '77). LSD proselytiser Owsley Stanley had helped with the band's expenses in the early years, and helped create the their sound system, a superb thing of its kind featuring a multi-story wall of loudspeakers, and also initiated the live recordings. The hirsute Stanley's nickname was Bear; when the band released History Of The Grateful Dead Vol. 1 the album was also called 'Bear's Choice'.

Much of this was seen as self-indulgent floundering by many critics, but fans, like the band, regard the concert as important, not the record, which is only a souvenir, an artefact: unlike many contemporaries they retained their hippy ideals. Nevertheless LPs on Arista were improved by outside producers: Keith Olsen (Fleetwood Mac) for Terrapin Station '77 (with horns, strings and chorus arranged by Paul Buckmaster) and Lowell George (Little Feat) for Shakedown Street '78. Go To Heaven '80 had minor hit single 'Alabama Getaway', last of five Hot 100 entries; two-disc sets Reckoning and Dead Set were recorded live '80, released '82. They continued touring, tried stirring the musical pot with a disco beat; the influence of Lesh (an experienced composer of electronic music) resulted in atonal aspects of jazzish improvisations. The band kept busy and innovative in many areas: they had 23 tons of equipment, and a large entourage from the beginning; in 1974 their state-of-the-art sound system allowed them to play as loud as they wanted but with excellent sound. They always had a well-deserved reputation for playing benefits: they spent $500,000 shipping equipment to the Great Pyramids in Egypt in 1978 on the best-known occasion, a benefit for the Egyptian Department of Antiquities. From their Rex Foundation, Lesh distributed his share to benefit British contemporary music, for example to the Robert Simpson Society for recordings of music by the symphonist, and a grant to help develop a method of using a computer in the physical act of composition after Simpson had a stroke in 1993.

Meanwhile the splinter group New Riders of the Purple Sage had surfaced in 1969 at the Dead's country rock stage, with Garcia, Dawson, Hart, Lesh, Dave Nelson (see their entry). Weir's solo debut was the thinly disguised Dead album Ace; on Garcia's solo Garcia he played everything except drums, and Hart made Rolling Thunder with Garcia, Grace Slick, Steven Stills and a horn section, all '72 on WB. Garcia gigged around during layoffs, made Hooteroll? with Howard Wales on Douglas '71, Live At The Keystone late '73 (three volumes on Fantasy by a quartet featuring keyboardist Merle Saunders, who died 24 October 2008 aged 74), solos Compliments Of Garcia '74 and Reflections '76 on Round. Hunter made Tales Of The Great Rum Runners '74, Tiger Rose '75 on Round; Jack O'Roses '81 on Relix. Other Round LPs/groups included Old And In The Way with Garcia, David Grisman and Peter Rowan, Keith And Donna (Godchaux) and Seastones with Lesh, all '75 and Kingfish with Weir. The Dead's labels were wound up because of distribution problems. Further projects included Garcia's Cats Under The Stars (written by Hunter), Weir's Heaven Help The Fool with Mydland, Bobby Cochran on guitar, both '78, and Bobby And The Midnights '80 with Weir, Cochran, Mydland and Billy Cobham, all on Arista. In The Dark '87 was the Dead's first studio album for seven years and their surprise biggest hit ever, at no. 6 USA; Built To Last '87 went top 30 (a limited edition of this called Dead In A Deck came with a deck of cards and a booklet) and Without A Net '90 was a two-disc live set, all on Arista. Meanwhile a short tour with Bob Dylan ’87 resulted in a shambolic live album Dylan & The Dead which is generally regarded as a low point in all their careers. On the Dead’s own label One From The Vault '91 was live from '75 and Two From The Vault '92 from '68, while something called Infrared Roses had Wynton Marsalis on it. Hart scored part of film Apocalypse Now '79; leftover bits using his collection of percussion instruments were issued on The Rhythm Devils Play River Music '80 on Passport, later expanded as The Apocalypse Now Sessions on Rykodisc. Hart's Rolling Thunder was reissued on Arista; his other projects included the Gyuto Monks of Tibet on Freedom Chants From The Roof Of The World, the Diga Rhythm Band's Diga '76, his own At The Edge, Music To Be Born By, Däfos, Planet Drum (Grammy '91 in World Music category) and Mystery Box '96, all on Rykodisc, sidepeople such as Airto, Purim, Olatunji etc.

Garcia had collapsed July '86 from exhaustion, the effects of obesity and an abscessed tooth, all combining to reveal unsuspected diabetes: he was grateful that he was not dead and had to rest for a while whether he liked it or not. Lesh's songwriting collaborator Bobby Peterson died in early 1987. Garcia collapsed again in 1991, then died of a heart attack in a drug clinic (he'd told friends he was going scuba diving in Hawaii): it was the end of the road at last. A double album Hundred Year Hall recorded on tour in Europe '72 included a 17-minute 'Truckin' and a 37-minute druggy delirium of 'Cryptical Envelopment'; Dick's Picks was a series of live concert recordings chosen by Dick Latvala, the Dead's sound man, available only through the post in the USA, from Ace in UK. Greyfolded is a technical tour-de-force: Toronto producer John Oswald (see his entry) raided the vaults for 100 different versions of 'Dark Star' from '69 to '93, cutting, splicing and folding them, speeded up, slowed down and played backwards, into almost two hours of choirs of Garcias, as many as 15 different recordings meshing at once, the 'Dark Star' that Deadheads had always wanted. Lesh produced Dozin' At The Knick, a three-CD set of live Dead on Arista, and was working on a symphonic piece using 21 Dead songs in seven movements, working title Keys To The Rain. Recordings were still being released: Garcia guested on guitarist Sanjay Mishra's Blue Incantation '97 on Rykodisc.

Among books, Dark Star by Robert Greenfield was described as an oral history of Garcia, while A Long Strange Trip by Dennis McNally in 2002 was a bumper history of the band at over 600 pages The title came from Hunter's most famous line: 'What a long strange trip it's been.') A Dead reunion finally happened on the first weekend of August 2002: 35,000 Deadheads descended on Troy, Wisconsin to hear the new band, called The Other Ones, with Jimmy Herring succeeding Garcia on guitar. 'He's great, ' said Hart; 'He's a sweetheart. He doesn't play anything like Jerry, and best of all, I don't think he's even a fan.' Herring stayed with the band, renamed The Dead, in 2003-4; in 2006 he became lead guitarist of Widespread Panic.