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The Grateful Dead Biography

Inductees: Tom Constanten (keyboards; born March 19, 1944), Jerry Garcia (guitar, vocals; born August 1, 1942, died August 9, 1995), Donna Godchaux (vocals; born August 22, 1945), Keith Godchaux (keyboards; born July 14, 1948, died July 21, 1980), Mickey Hart (drums, percussion; born September 11, 1943), Robert Hunter (lyricist; born June 23, 1941), Bill Kreutzmann (drums; born April 7, 1946), Phil Lesh (bass, vocals; born March 15, 1940), Ron “Pigpen” McKernan (keyboards, harmonica, vocals; born September 8, 1945, died March 8, 1973), Brent Mydland (keyboards, vocals; born October 21, 1952, died July 26, 1990), Bob Weir (guitar, vocals; born October 16, 1947), Vince Welnick (keyboards; born February 22, 1951, died June 2, 2006).

The Grateful Dead were the most important band of the psychedelic era and among the most groundbreaking acts in rock and roll history. They broke all the rules while slowly and steadily building a career that carried them from the ballrooms of San Francisco in the Sixties to arenas and stadiums all over the country in the decades that followed. A leaderless democracy, they were fronted by guitarist Jerry Garcia, whose improvisational tangents made him a pied piper to the largest and most devoted cult following in popular music: a massive network of fans known as “Deadheads.” The Dead and their followers did much to keep the spirit of the Sixties alive in modern times. 

The Grateful Dead and their peers on the San Francisco scene – notably Jefferson Airplane, Quicksilver Messenger Service, Big Brother and the Holding Company, and Country Joe and the Fish – raised the consciousness of the rock audience, leading them to an enhanced vision of music in which albums were more important than singles and concerts became marathon exercises in risk-taking.

Heavily steeped in Americana, the group had its roots in blues and bluegrass. From the jazz world, the Grateful Dead leaned to approach music from an improvisational perspective. From the culture of psychedelia – specifically Ken Kesey’s Acid Tests, of which they were a part - the Dead became aware of the infinite possibilities for expression when imagination was given free reign. Led by Garcia’s guitar, the Dead would delve into blues, folk, jazz R&B and avant-garde realms for hours on end. The group’s signature composition was “Dark Star,” which served as a foundation for their most extended and experimental jamming. They performed this epic more than 200 times and never the same way twice, with Garcia’s modal guitar spearheading their explorations into uncharted territory.

“They’ll follow me down any dark alley,” Garcia noted in 1987. “Sometimes there’s light at the end of the tunnel, and sometimes there’s a dark hole. The point is, you don’t get adventure in music unless you’re willing to take chances.” 

The Dead’s career can be viewed in several stages. During the latter half of the Sixties, they were a psychedelic rock band whose music and lifestyle were synonymous with the San Francisco scene. In the Seventies, they moved toward a rootsier sound and style of songwriting while maintaining the lengthy jamming tangents that remained high points of their concerts. In the Eighties, they became a touring juggernaut, attracting a nomadic following of Deadheads that followed them from show to show. An anomalous commercial peak came in 1987 when “Touch of Grey” became a Top 10 hit, further accelerating the influx of younger fans to the band’s increasingly prosperous touring scene. They would appear on Forbes’ list of top-grossing entertainers and for a few years in the early Nineties were the highest-grossing concert attraction in the U.S. The 1995 death of Jerry Garcia abruptly put an end to the Grateful Dead, though various members subsequently regrouped as the Other Ones, The Dead and Furthur.

The roots of the Grateful Dead hark back to the early Sixties and a small community of literature and music-minded proto-hippies in Palo Alto, California, to which Garcia gravitated. It was in this milieu that he befriended Robert Hunter, who would become his lifelong songwriting partner, and Ron McKernan (a.k.a. “Pigpen”), a serious disciple of blues and soul who played keyboards and harmonica. A budding young guitarist named Bob Weir fell in with Garcia’s crew, which gathered at Dana Morgan’s Music Store in Palo Alto (where Garcia gave guitar lessons).

In 1964 Garcia, Weir and McKernan formed Mother McCree's Uptown Jug Champions, a string band that played blues, folk and good-time music. Much of the Grateful Dead’s early repertoire of borrowed tunes, including “Good Morning Little School Girl” and “Viola Lee Blues,” was learned during this time. It was Pigpen’s suggestion - inspired by a newly popular band from England, the Rolling Stones – that they plug in and amplify their sound. They recruited a rhythm section of drummer Bill Kreutzmann (who Garcia knew from the music store, where both taught) and Phil Lesh, a musical prodigy who’d studied jazz, classical and the avant-garde. Though he’d never played bass before, Lesh jumped at the chance to join the band and mastered the instrument quickly. “I knew something great was happening, something bigger than everybody,” he recalled.

By May 1965, the classic five-man lineup of Garcia, Weir, Lesh, McKernan and Kreutzmann was in place. Renaming themselves the Warlocks, they took a decidedly more electric approach. Half a year later, after realizing there was another group called the Warlocks, they became the Grateful Dead. The name suggested itself when Garcia opened up a dictionary and his eyes fell upon those words. “It was a truly weird moment,” he later noted. Implicit in that name was the promise of adventure and risk – qualities that would become hallmarks of the Grateful Dead’s approach to music.

The Dead provided a kind of cultural glue, serving to link the literary and philosophical leanings of Fifties beatniks with the musical awakening of the Sixties counterculture. Both movements flourished in the enlightened environs of the Bay Area. The Grateful Dead were retained to provide musical settings for novelist Ken Kesey’s legendary Acid Tests. From there, they began honing their concert alchemy at San Francisco’s venues, notably the Fillmore and the Avalon Ballroom. They were signed to Warner Bros. Records by Joe Smith, the company’s president, after he caught a show at the Avalon in August 1966.

During their lifespan, the Grateful Dead ranged between five and seven members. In 1967, they expanded to a sextet with the addition of a second drummer, Mickey Hart. In 1968, they added keyboardist Tom Constanten, expanding to a septet. In terms of personnel, the keyboard role was always the band’s most unstable. Somewhat eerily, four of the Grateful Dead’s keyboardists – Ron “Pigpen” McKernan, Keith Godchaux, Brent Mydland and Vince Welnick – died prematurely.

The Grateful Dead fused rock and roll energy with the psychedelic experience to fashion an endlessly fascinating labyrinth of sound. Their self-titled first album, recorded in three days, sprinted through their blues and bluegrass repertoire with speed and energy. Anthem of the Sun (1968) was their transcendently psychedelic, quasi-symphonic magnum opus. Aoxomomoxoa was another highly experimental piece of work. As good as these early albums were, they could not match the Grateful Dead when they were at their best in concert, and the group would frequently turn to live albums as the truest representation of their experience. (A popular bumpersticker read: "There Is Nothing Like a Grateful Dead Concert.")

Live/Dead, compiled from shows performed in San Francisco between January 26 and March 2, 1969, remains a career highlight. It documented the fairly regimented yet highly improvisational program they performed at that time. The lineup included “Dark Star” (the ultimate Grateful Dead performance piece), “St. Stephen” and “The Eleven” (performed in 11/4 time). After exploring the outer reaches of psychedelic consciousness, the Dead would return to earth with an energetic rendition of Bobby “Blue” Bland’s “Turn On Your Lovelight” (a showcase for Pigpen’s soulful vocals), followed by the bluesy, mournful “Death Don’t Have No Mercy” (from the repertoire of Rev. Gary Davis) and a gospel-style finale (“And We Bid You Goodnight”). The programming mirrored the stages of an acid trip – ascendancy, peaking and return to reality – and it’s been noted that this logic became embedded in the two-set structure of the Grateful Dead’s concerts for the duration of their career. As drummer Mickey Hart famously noted, “We’re in the transportation business – we move minds.”

In the wake of the Sixties and the slow demise of the San Francisco scene, the Grateful Dead took a turn toward a more acoustic, back-to-basics style on Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty (both from 1970). Both were more thoughtful, folk-oriented albums that revealed the band members’ improved songwriting ability and sage-like overview of America’s past, present and future. Much of the material was written by Garcia and lyricist Robert Hunter, and they included some of their best-loved songs: “Truckin’,” “Uncle John’s Band,” “Casey Jones” and “Sugar Magnolia.” These albums were influenced by the often acoustic, harmony-laden music of Crosby, Stills and Nash (who taught the Dead how to harmonize) and the Band (whose highly influential first two albums had a rustic, rootsy tone).

The Dead followed those studio albums with the consecutive live releases Grateful Dead (a.k.a. “Skull and Roses") and Europe ’72. At this point they felt so strongly that their work was best captured in concert that a number of new songs were unveiled on live rather than studio recordings. These included such staples as Grateful Dead’s “Wharf Rat” and “Bertha” and Europe ’72’s “Jack Straw,” “He’s Gone” and “Tennessee Jed.” Both albums also contained a raft of covers that revealed the Dead’s growing allegiance to roots music. There were songs by country singers Marty Robbins (“El Paso”), Merle Haggard (“Mama Tried”) and Hank Williams (“You Win Again”), as well as the Wild West tall tale “Me and My Uncle,” penned by John Phillips (of the Mamas and the Papas).

Various group members also launched solo albums during this time frame. Jerry Garcia was first with his self-titled solo album Garcia, which appeared in January 1972. Bob Weir’s Ace, released in June 1972, was a Grateful Dead album in all but name, as Weir’s bandmates contributed liberally to what was the most Dead-like of all their solo projects.

In 1973, the group released Wake of the Flood, their first studio album in three years and first release following the expiration of their contract with Warner Bros. It was issued on the group’s own Grateful Dead Records. They also created an affiliated label, Round Records, for solo projects. Both were distributed by United Artists. In March 1974, the group debuted a massive, state-of-the-art sound system, dubbed the Wall of Sound. It was both a sonic breakthrough and practical albatross whose setup time and cost of transport made it almost prohibitively expensive. The group released From the Mars Hotel in June, but that October – exhausted from constant touring and rethinking the costly boondoggle of their sound system – they went on an extended hiatus, exiting with five nights of “farewell” shows at San Francisco’s Winterland. Among other things, Jerry Garcia spent the next two years editing The Grateful Dead Movie, a 90-minute concert documentary assembled from the Winterland stand.

The group performed only four times in 1975, though they did release one of their more inspired studio albums, Blues for Allah, that year. The Grateful Dead returned to the touring life in June 1976. Deadheads consider 1977 to be the band’s standout year as a live band. Having folded their own labels, the Dead signed to Clive Davis’ Arista Records toward the end of 1976. Over the next several years, they issued the studio albums Terrapin Station (1977), Shakedown Street (1978) and Go to Heaven (1980). Terrapin Station contained the seven-part sidelong epic “Terrapin Station.” Shakedown Street was notable for its choice of producer: Lowell George, guitarist and frontman for Little Feat. Following Go to Heaven, there would not be another album of new music from the Grateful Dead for seven years.

Over the latter half of their career, Garcia was periodically beset with substance-abuse problems, a state of affairs that came to a head with his arrest on drug possession charges in 1985, and his collapse into a diabetic coma in 1986. His recovery included having to relearn how to play the guitar. His health improved in the wake of those crises, and a revitalized Grateful Dead entered a period of heightened activity that included the 1987 album In the Dark and the Top 10 single ("Touch of Grey"). The group issued its final studio album, Built to Last, in 1989.

Drugs continued to haunt the Grateful Dead, who lost keyboardist Brent Mydland to a fatal overdose in 1990. Mydland was succeeded, temporarily, by Bruce Hornsby and replaced by Vince Welnick. Garcia died on August 9, 1995, at a drug-treatment facility in Forest Knolls, California. The Grateful Dead’s final concert had taken place a month earlier, at Chicago’s Soldier Field on July 9, 1995.

The Dead could not survive the loss of Garcia, but the music lives on. Three dozen vintage concerts were released as part of the “Dick’s Picks” series, named for Dick Latvala, the group’s longtime tape archivist. (Latvala, who died in 1999, was succeeded in that role by David Lemieux.) Various other concerts have seen commercial release, including performances at Fillmore East, Fillmore West, across Europe and at the base of the Egyptian pyramids. Between 1991 and 2007, 53 live Grateful Dead concerts were released. Inspired by the Dead’s example, other artists – from Neil Young and Bob Dylan to Pearl Jam and Phish – have followed suit to varying degrees, opening their own concert vaults with fan-oriented releases.

Individually, the surviving members have continued to make music. Mickey Hart has pursued a highly successful career as a rhythmatist and ethnomusicologist, recording and compiling numerous volumes of world music. Bob Weir formed Ratdog. Phil Lesh toured with a revolving cast of musicians known as Phil and Friends. Bill Kreutzmann’s other projects have included BK3 and 7 Walkers.

Beginning in 1996, several “Furthur Festivals” – involving Dead-related ensembles and kindred spirits – kept the spirit alive. Weir, Lesh, Hart and Bruce Hornsby toured as the Other Ones in 1998. They were joined by Bill Kreutzmann for tours in 2000 and 2002. Calling themselves The Dead, the four surviving members – Weir, Lesh, Hart and Bill Kreutzmann – again regrouped with supporting musicians in 2003, 2004 and 2009. Lesh and Weir have soldiered on with the group Furthur.

Ultimately, the Grateful Dead’s triumph was to create an alternative form of music and alternatives to music-business conventions that succeeded on their own uncompromising terms. Much about the Grateful Dead was improvised or left to chance. Theirs was a laissez-faire anarchy that assumed things would work out as the cosmos intended. This faith in a universal order, gleaned from the start at Kesey’s Acid Tests, freed them to pursue music without the usual constraints. The Grateful Dead illuminated the world with their music, transforming culture and consciousness as well. In so doing, they became an improbably durable and influential institution. As Phil Lesh said at the Grateful Dead’s induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1994: "Sometimes you don't merely have to endure. You can prevail."

 

The Grateful Dead