Introduction to the Grateful Dead

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The Grateful Dead has an eclectic blending of rock, blues, folk, country, improvisational jazz and psychedelic music and closely associated with the psychedelia/hippie movement in the 1960s. Because of their improvisational techniques, they are credited with launching what are called “jam bands”.

The band began in 1965 in Palo Alto, California. The Grateful Dead earned their unique reputation by participating in such events as Monterey Pop Festival and The Woodstock Festival. During the 1970s, the Dead released well-received records, such the albums Workingman’s Dead, and American Beauty.

With their reputation spreading and number of followers growing, the Grateful Dead increased their touring schedule and extended their talents into several solo/side projects; they also enhanced their equipment, updating them with state-of-the-art sound system. They also augmented their traveling entourage and staff, leading the Grateful Dead as a successful corporate enterprise. “Touch Of Grey” was their only song that hit the10 – but their legions of fans even grew larger

One of the band’s founding members Pigpen died in 1973; for his exception all of the core members stayed intact most of the time until Garcia’s death in 1995. Before that, the band had been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame in 1994. After Garcia died, the Grateful Dead officially disbanded, but the music and legacy lived on.

Formation of the Grateful Dead

The Grateful Dead’s core lineup consisted of guitarist/vocalist/“the official spokesman” Jerry Garcia (b. 1942 – 1995), guitarist Bob Weir (b. 1947), keyboardist Ron “Pigpen” McKennan (b. 1945 – d. 1973), bassist Phil Lesh (b. 1940) , and drummer Bill Kreutzmann (b. 1946), but over the long years of their existence their lineup would experience several changes.

Their roots originated in Palo Alto, California in 1960, where Garcia met and became friends with Robert Hunter (b. 1941), who would be the Grateful Dead’s prime lyricist and the only non-performing member. Garcia also met Lesh, another musical aspirant. Two years later Garcia formed his first band named Mother McCree’s Uptown Jug along with Weir and McKernan; it was then renamed the Warlocks, having also included drummer Kretuzmann.

The Warlocks made such noise that Ken Kasey (known as the author of One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest) invited the band in his Acid Test series of parties that glorified the use of LSD. By the end of 1965 the Warlocks changed their name to the Grateful Dead, taken from a name found by Garcia in a folklore “dictionary.” The “Acid King” Owsley Stanley provided the Dead with financial backing and helped them find a shelter as well as bought them their sound equipment. Soon the Dead were making rounds in the local scene through their free concerts.

San Francisco’s Summer Of Love became a social and cultural phenomenon in 1967, generating the hippie counterculture movement. The Grateful Dead became the phenomenon’s biggest figures as they started to make a name in the Bay Area music scene, fleshing out their eclectic musical styles such as rock, blues, jazz, and country. They headlined such large music events as the Monterey Pop Festival and the Woodstock Festival.

The Grateful Dead were signed to Warner Brothers, and released their self-titled debut LP in 1967. The band then welcomed another drummer, Mickey Hart, expanding the band into a sextet. The band released their following two albums, Aoxomoxoa and Anthem of the Sun which comparatively did fairly well in capturing the band’s free-form jamming style. However, as the band were too bent on lengthy experimenting in the studio, it cost them a hundred grand and left them in debt to Warner Brothers.

In 1969 the band went on to record Live/Dead, which was their first official live album; it was a considerable success as it best caught the band in their usually improvisational character.

Music Popularity

The Grateful Dead have been known for their live performances more than their studio work, had several songs that gained significant popularity. While they did not frequently chart in the conventional sense, their impact on music and culture was profound. Some of their most notable songs include:

  1. “Truckin'” (1970): Known for its catchy refrain, “What a long, strange trip it’s been,” this song became a counterculture anthem and is one of their most recognizable tracks.
  2. “Touch of Grey” (1987): This song is notable for being the Grateful Dead’s only top 40 hit on the Billboard Hot 100. Its MTV music video was also very popular, introducing the band to a new generation of fans.
  3. “Casey Jones” (1970): Featured on the album “Workingman’s Dead,” this song, with its memorable chorus, is a fan favorite and was a staple in their live performances.
  4. “Uncle John’s Band” (1970): Also from “Workingman’s Dead,” this song is known for its harmonies and became one of their most well-known and beloved songs.
  5. “Ripple” (1970): A folk-style song from the album “American Beauty,” “Ripple” is appreciated for its poetic lyrics and melody.
  6. “Sugar Magnolia” (1970): Another track from “American Beauty,” this song is celebrated for its upbeat, joyful rhythm and was a live concert staple.
  7. “Friend of the Devil” (1970): From “American Beauty,” this song is a classic example of the Grateful Dead’s blend of folk, country, and rock.
  8. “Scarlet Begonias” (1974): First appearing on the album “From the Mars Hotel,” this song became a highlight in their live performances, often paired in a medley with “Fire on the Mountain.”
  9. “Fire on the Mountain” (1978): Though released later in their career, this song quickly became a favorite among fans, especially when played live in conjunction with “Scarlet Begonias.”
  10. “Dark Star” (1968): Known for its improvisational style, “Dark Star” is a quintessential Grateful Dead experience, showcasing their ability to explore and expand musical boundaries in a live setting.

The Grateful Dead’s legacy is defined more by the experience of their concerts and the devoted following of “Deadheads” than by traditional measures of commercial success. Their songs are celebrated for their lyrical depth, musical innovation, and the unique experience they provided in live performances.

Grateful Dead Band Members

The Grateful Dead known for their unique blend of rock, folk, blues, and psychedelic music, had several members over its three-decade existence. Here’s an introduction to the core members:

  1. Jerry Garcia (Guitar, Vocals): A founding member, Garcia was the de facto leader of the band. Known for his distinctive guitar playing and soulful voice, he was also a primary songwriter. His death in 1995 marked the end of the Grateful Dead as a touring band.
  2. Bob Weir (Guitar, Vocals): Another founding member, Weir played rhythm guitar and sang. He also contributed to the band’s songwriting and was known for his energetic stage presence.
  3. Phil Lesh (Bass, Vocals): Lesh, a classically trained musician, brought a unique approach to the bass guitar, contributing to the Dead’s improvisational style. He also contributed to vocals and songwriting.
  4. Bill Kreutzmann (Drums): Kreutzmann was one of the band’s drummers from its inception. His drumming was a key part of the Grateful Dead’s rhythm section and sound.
  5. Mickey Hart (Drums): Hart joined the band in 1967, forming a dual drumming team with Kreutzmann that became a signature element of the Dead’s sound. He left the band in 1971 but rejoined in 1974.
  6. Ron “Pigpen” McKernan (Keyboards, Harmonica, Vocals): A founding member, Pigpen was known for his bluesy style and harmonica playing. He contributed significantly to the band’s early sound but died in 1973.
  7. Keith Godchaux (Keyboards): Joined in 1971 after Pigpen’s health started to decline. He played with the band until 1979 and was known for his fluid piano playing.
  8. Donna Jean Godchaux (Vocals): Joined the Grateful Dead with her husband Keith in the 1970s. Her vocals added a new dimension to the band’s sound.
  9. Brent Mydland (Keyboards, Vocals): Joined in 1979 after Keith Godchaux left the band. He became a fan favorite for his soulful voice and keyboard skills. He remained with the band until his death in 1990.
  10. Vince Welnick (Keyboards, Vocals): The last keyboard player for the Grateful Dead, joining in 1990 after Brent Mydland’s death and staying until the band’s dissolution in 1995.

The Grateful Dead’s lineup was notable not just for its musical abilities but also for the distinct personalities and styles each member brought to the band. Their collaborative and improvisational approach to music-making, along with their dedication to live performance, made them a unique and enduring force in the world of rock music.

 

Grateful Dead members in the early 1980s: Brent Mydland, Bob Weir, and Jerry Garcia watch Bill Kreutzmann

Essentially a Live Act

The following year The Grateful Dead recorded two albums, Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty, which would provide them the repertoire for their future live gigs. These two albums spawned singles such as “Uncle John’s Band” and “Truckin’,” which performed relatively well on the Hot 100.

Despite the minor success of their studio releases, the Grateful Dead remained essentially a live act, and a successful one at that. Their cult fame slowly was expanding across the country, and internationally as well. The band were followed by their legions of dyed-in-the-wool fans, known as the Deadheads, who morphed themselves into a sort of community as well as becoming a focal interest of the band’s events just as the band and music itself. These dedicated Deadheads would also tape the band’s live performances that were broadcast on FM radio, and share the home-recorded tapes with other fans – which was all right with the Grateful Dead themselves as long as these taped recordings were not for sale.

Shifting and Expanding Concert Entourage

Tragedy struck in the band as their original keyboardist McKernan, who had been an alcoholic since in his teens, died of liver failure in 1973. McKernan was replaced by Keith Godchaux who brought along his wife Donna, and she eventually became one of the band’s backing vocalists.

In 1974 the group founded their own record label Grateful Dead Records, and released their first album under that imprint Wake Of The Flood, and in the following year released Mars Hotel before taking a break off the road; around this time members of the band pursued their own solo efforts. The Dead returned in 1976, starting off another live tour. Then they signed to Arista Records and released another album called Terrapin Station, which peaked at #28 on the pop album chart although many fans see this as their weakest effort ever. The Godchauxs departed from the band following the death of Keith Godchaux from a car crash in 1980. He was replaced by Brent Mydland as the band’s new keyboardist.

The band released no new material, instead focusing on their live tours. Their entourage eventually expanded, which included friends and family members who also got employed as part of the staff. As they were working for the band, they were also given benefits such as health insurance. This led to the Grateful Dead as one successful commercial enterprise as well.

Over the years since their inception, the Grateful Dead had kept their reputation as a cult band. That would change when their single, “Touch Of Grey” (from their album In The Dark) became an unexpected hit on the Hot 100, peaking at #9 in 1987. The single became their only Top 10 hit ever in their career. They were thrust into the mainstream MTV culture, and a new influx of fans arrived in droves. The late 1980s and the early 1990s came to be considered the band’s peak periods.

Getting Thrust into the Mainstream

Over the years since their inception, the Grateful Dead had kept their reputation as a cult band. That would change when their single, “Touch Of Grey” (from their album In The Dark) became an unexpected hit on the Hot 100, peaking at #9 in 1987. The single became their only Top 10 hit ever in their career. They were thrust into the mainstream MTV culture, and a new influx of fans arrived in droves. The late 1980s and the early 1990s came to be considered the band’s peak periods.

Death of Jerry Garcia and the Aftermath of his Passing

Mydland’s death in 1990 from substance abuse signaled the band to reform once more. And as for Garcia – who had experienced a near-fatal coma in 1986 – he was again hospitalized in 1992 from an aggravating heart condition. His illness led to the cancellation of the Dead’s upcoming tours. On August 9, 1995, Garcia was found dead in a rehab clinic room, eight days after his 53rd birthday.

Garcia’s death led to the ultimate demise of the band. Weir, Lesh and other musicians formed a group called The Other Ones. Kreutzmann would later join the band but Lesh eventually departed. The Other Ones later became The Dead in 2003. Even though the Grateful Dead was no more, the surviving band members nevertheless make sure that the legacy of Garcia and the band’s music shall live on.

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