The Grateful Dead was an American “Rock and Roll” band known primarily for its long, live musical improvisation and loyal base of fans, the “Deadheads.”
The band formed in the early 1960’s in San Francisco, California as “Mother McCree’s Uptown Jug Champions” and in 1965 became “The Warlocks.” Legend has it that as the band was searching for a new name, they found “Grateful Dead” by randomly turning to a page in a dictionary. The term was described as coming from a folk legend concerning the death of a man with debts and how the community gathered together to raise the funds to pay off his debts so the family would not suffer. Throughout the band’s existence, they would take this stance of giving by creating foundations that would give back to the communities in which they lived and performed.
Playing In The Band
Jerry Garcia(lead guitar), Bob Weir(guitar), Phil Lesh(bass), Ron 'Pigpen' McKernan(keyboards), Bill Kreutzmann(drums), Tom Constanten(keyboards), Mickey Hart(drums), Keith Godchaux(keyboards), Donna Godchaux(vocals), Brent Mydland(keyboards) and Vince Welnick(keyboards). It should be mentioned that lyricists Robert Hunter and Robert Barlowe contributed greatly to the success of the band although they were not "official" members.
The music of the early 60’s San Francisco beat scene consisted primarily of folk music that centered on the socially conscious changes taking place in the world. The Grateful Dead were one of the leading acts to come out of this scene and make a mark in popular culture. Other bands from the area included The Jefferson Airplane, Moby Grape, Big Brother and The Holding Company and The Charlatans.
By 1965, The Dead became the “house band” at several “acid tests” conducted by author Ken Kesey. The acid tests were gatherings where participants would indulge in large amounts of the then-legal drug, LSD and become part of a great hallucinogenic experiment as recounted in Tom Wolfe’s novel “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.”
The folk-oriented music of the early band took knew shape and became what is commonly known as “acid rock.” This mixture of folk, blues and rock and roll would become long improvisations that wandered anywhere from five-minutes to over an hour.
In 1967, as the “Summer of Love” was reaching its apex, the band released it’s first album, a self-titled compilation that was an attempt to capture their “live” feel. But this album, along with most of The Dead’s collection of LPs would not do justice to what the band could do in concert.
Despite the lack of radio play and critical acclaim, the cult status of the band could not be denied and concerts would consistently sell out as “Deadheads” followed the band from city to city creating what the late mythologist, Joseph Campbell, called “The Last Great Tribe.”
Deadheads are a devoted mix of fans that not only made up half of the “living concert” of The Dead, but created traveling cities of vans, cars and buses that filled parking lots of venues meeting, greeting, sharing and vending their way to the next show.
The band allowed and even encouraged fans to record the shows and “trading tapes” became a popular pastime of Deadheads and is considered one of the main reasons the band's popularity grew even if the studio albums failed. Fans would even keep and distribute setlists of each show, making The Dead one of the most well documented bands in history.
It was the Deadheads’ devotion that allowed The Grateful Dead to become one of the all-time highest grossing live acts without significant pop chart success. But, it was also the Deadheads’ appearance and penchant for recreational drug use that gave the band and its followers negative labels throughout the media and even host cities.
The Music Never Stopped
The band continued to thrive from the support of its followers and survived the death of original member, Ron “PigPen” McKernan to create albums such as “Workingman’s Dead,” “American Beauty,” and “Aoxomoxoa.”
With Keith Godchaux as PigPen’s replacement and Godchaux’s wife, Donna, on vocals, the band embarked on endeavors such as a European tour, the ill-fated “Wall of Sound” experiment and a live concert between the pyramids in Egypt.
“Musical Differences” were behind the departure of the Godchauxs in 1979 and the keyboard replacement would be Brent Mydland. With new life on keys, the band charged through the eighties making their first significant mark on the U.S. charts with 1980’s “Alabama Getaway.” But it wasn’t until 1987 and the release of the album “In The Dark” that the Grateful Dead finally achieved commercial success. “Touch Of Grey” reached the top five of the singles charts and introduced the 25-year old band to a new audience.
In 1990, Mydland died of a morphine and cocaine overdose and the band recruited singer/songwriter Bruce Hornsby to fill in until replacement keyboardist, Vince Welnik settled in.
In the meantime, Garcia continued to battle his own addiction to heroin and suffered two comas that consequently halted tours.
And We Bid You Goodnight
Thirty years after a dictionary yielded the name Grateful Dead, the band’s leader, Jerry Garcia, died of a heart attack while staying at a drug rehabilitation center just outside of San Francisco on August 9, 1995.
The band may have ended, but individual members continue to make music in their own groups and some even perform together on Dead-like tours and at festivals. The Grateful Dead also live on in a large collection of recordings made by the band that are continually being released.