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The Grateful Dead was an American rock band formed in 1965 in Palo Alto, California. Ranging from quintet to septet, the band is known for its unique and eclectic style, which fused elements of rock, psychedelia, experimental music, modal jazz, country, folk, bluegrass, blues, reggae, and space rock, for live performances of lengthy instrumental jams, and for their devoted fan base, known as "Deadheads". "Their music," writes Lenny Kaye, "touches on ground that most other groups don't even know exists." These various influences were distilled into a diverse and psychedelic whole that made the Grateful Dead "the pioneering Godfathers of the jam band world". The band was ranked 57th by Rolling Stone magazine in its The Greatest Artists of All Time issue. The band was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1994 and a recording of their May 8, 1977 performance at Cornell University's Barton Hall was added to the National Recording Registry of the Library of Congress in 2012. The Grateful Dead have sold more than 35 million albums worldwide.
The Grateful Dead was founded in the San Francisco Bay Area amid the rise of the counterculture of the 1960s. The founding members were Jerry Garcia (lead guitar, vocals), Bob Weir (rhythm guitar, vocals), Ron "Pigpen" McKernan (keyboards, harmonica, vocals), Phil Lesh (bass, vocals), and Bill Kreutzmann (drums). Members of the Grateful Dead had played together in various San Francisco bands, including Mother McCree's Uptown Jug Champions and the Warlocks. Lesh was the last member to join the Warlocks before they became the Grateful Dead; he replaced Dana Morgan Jr., who had played bass for a few gigs. Drummer Mickey Hart and nonperforming lyricist Robert Hunter joined in 1967. With the exception of McKernan, who died in 1973, and Hart, who took time off from 1971 to 1974, the core of the band stayed together for its entire 30-year history. The other official members of the band are Tom Constanten (keyboards; 1968–1970), John Perry Barlow (nonperforming lyricist; 1971–1995), Keith Godchaux (keyboards; 1971–1979), Donna Godchaux (vocals; 1972–1979), Brent Mydland (keyboards, vocals; 1979–1990), and Vince Welnick (keyboards, vocals; 1990–1995). Pianist Bruce Hornsby was a touring member from 1990 to 1992, as well as guesting with the band on occasion before and after the tours.
After the death of Jerry Garcia in 1995, former members of the band, along with other musicians, toured as the Other Ones in 1998, 2000, and 2002, and the Dead in 2003, 2004, and 2009. In 2015, the four surviving core members marked the band's 50th anniversary in a series of concerts that were billed as their last performances together. There have also been several spin-offs featuring one or more core members, such as Dead & Company, Furthur, the Rhythm Devils, Phil Lesh & Friends, RatDog, and Billy & the Kids.
The Grateful Dead began their career as the Warlocks, a group formed in early 1965 from the remnants of a Palo Alto, California jug band called Mother McCree's Uptown Jug Champions. The band's first show was at Magoo's Pizza located at 639 Santa Cruz Avenue in suburban Menlo Park, California, on May 5, 1965. They were initially known as the Warlocks; coincidentally, the Velvet Underground (similarly influenced by avant-garde music) was also using that name on the East Coast. The show was not recorded but the set list has been preserved. Gigging as a bar band, the group quickly changed its name after finding out that another band of the same name (not the Velvet Underground, who by then had also changed their name) had signed a recording contract. The first show under the new name Grateful Dead was in San Jose, California on December 4, 1965, at one of Ken Kesey's Acid Tests. Earlier demo tapes have survived, but the first of over 2,000 concerts known to have been recorded by the band's fans was a show at the Fillmore Auditorium in San Francisco on January 8, 1966. Later that month, the Grateful Dead played at the Trips Festival, an early psychedelic rock concert.
The name "Grateful Dead" was chosen from a dictionary. According to Phil Lesh, in his autobiography (pp. 62), "... [Jerry Garcia] picked up an old Britannica World Language Dictionary ... [and] ... In that silvery elf-voice he said to me, 'Hey, man, how about the Grateful Dead?'" The definition there was "the soul of a dead person, or his angel, showing gratitude to someone who, as an act of charity, arranged their burial." According to Alan Trist, director of the Grateful Dead's music publisher company Ice Nine, Garcia found the name in the Funk & Wagnalls Folklore Dictionary, when his finger landed on that phrase while playing a game of Fictionary. In the Garcia biography, Captain Trips, author Sandy Troy states that the band was smoking the psychedelic DMT at the time. The term "grateful dead" appears in folktales of a variety of cultures. In mid-1969, Phil Lesh told another version of the story to Carol Maw, a young Texan visiting with the band in Marin County who also ended up going on the road with them to the Fillmore East and Woodstock. In this version, Phil said, "Jerry found the name spontaneously when he picked up a dictionary and the pages fell open. The words 'grateful' and 'dead' appeared straight opposite each other across the crack between the pages in unrelated text."
Other supporting personnel who signed on early included Rock Scully, who heard of the band from Kesey and signed on as manager after meeting them at the Big Beat Acid Test; Stewart Brand, "with his side show of taped music and slides of Indian life, a multimedia presentation" at the Big Beat and then, expanded, at the Trips Festival; and Owsley Stanley, the "Acid King" whose LSD supplied the tests and who, in early 1966, became the band's financial backer, renting them a house on the fringes of Watts and buying them sound equipment. "We were living solely off of Owsley's good graces at that time. ... [His] trip was he wanted to design equipment for us, and we were going to have to be in sort of a lab situation for him to do it," said Garcia.
Main career (1967–1995)
One of the group's earliest major performances in 1967 was the Mantra-Rock Dance—a musical event held on January 29, 1967, at the Avalon Ballroom by the San Francisco Hare Krishna temple. The Grateful Dead performed at the event along with the Hare Krishna founder Bhaktivedanta Swami, poet Allen Ginsberg, bands Moby Grape and Big Brother and the Holding Company with Janis Joplin, donating proceeds to the Krishna temple. The band's first LP, The Grateful Dead, was released on Warner Brothers in 1967.
Classically trained trumpeter Phil Lesh performed on bass guitar. Bob Weir, the youngest original member of the group, played rhythm guitar. Ron "Pigpen" McKernan played keyboards and harmonica until shortly before his death in 1973 at the age of 27. Garcia, Weir, and McKernan shared the lead vocal duties more or less equally; Lesh only sang a few leads but his tenor was a key part of the band's three-part vocal harmonies. Bill Kreutzmann played drums, and in September 1967 was joined by a second drummer, New York native Mickey Hart, who also played a wide variety of other percussion instruments.
1970 included tour dates in New Orleans, Louisiana, where the band performed at The Warehouse for two nights. On January 31, 1970, the local police raided their hotel on Bourbon Street, and arrested and charged a total of 19 people with possession of various drugs. The second night's concert was performed as scheduled after bail was posted. Eventually the charges were dismissed, with the exception of those against sound engineer Owsley Stanley, who was already facing charges in California for manufacturing LSD. This event was later memorialized in the lyrics of the song "Truckin'", a single from American Beauty which reached number 64 on the charts.
Mickey Hart took time off from the Grateful Dead beginning in February 1971, leaving Kreutzmann once again as the sole percussionist. Hart rejoined the Grateful Dead for good in October 1974. Tom "TC" Constanten was added as a second keyboardist from 1968 to 1970, while Pigpen also played various percussion instruments and sang.
After Constanten's departure, Pigpen reclaimed his position as sole keyboardist. Less than two years later, in late 1971, Pigpen was joined by another keyboardist, Keith Godchaux, who played grand piano alongside Pigpen's Hammond B-3 organ. In early 1972, Keith's wife, Donna Jean Godchaux, joined the Grateful Dead as a backing vocalist.
Following the Grateful Dead's "Europe '72" tour, Pigpen's health had deteriorated to the point that he could no longer tour with the band. His final concert appearance was June 17, 1972, at the Hollywood Bowl, in Los Angeles; he died in March 1973 of complications from liver damage.
The death of Pigpen did not slow the band down, and they continued with their new members. They soon formed their own record group, Grateful Dead Records. Later that year, they released their next studio album, the jazz-influenced Wake of the Flood. It became their biggest commercial success thus far. Meanwhile, capitalizing on Flood’s success, the band soon went back to the studio, and the next year, 1974, released another album, From the Mars Hotel. Not long after that album’s release however, the Dead decided to take a hiatus from live touring.
In September 1975 the Dead released their eighth studio album, Blues for Allah. Their hiatus was short-lived, though, as they resumed touring in June 1976. That same year, they signed with Arista Records. Their new contract soon produced Terrapin Station in 1977. Although things appeared to be going well for the band, problems were arising with their two newest members, Keith and Donna Jean Godchaux. The pair were frequently fighting, and Keith's heroin addiction was affecting his playing. Both of these issues were causing complications with touring, and they agreed to leave the band in February 1979.
Following the departure of the Godchauxs, Brent Mydland joined as keyboardist and vocalist and was considered "the perfect fit". The Godchauxs then formed the Heart of Gold Band before Keith died in a car accident in 1980. Mydland was the keyboardist for the Grateful Dead for 11 years until his death by narcotics overdose in July 1990, becoming the third keyboardist to die.
During the 1980s the band transformed as the talents of Mydland helped power the group. Shortly after Mydland found his place in the early 1980s, Garcia's health began to decline. His drug habits caused him to lose his liveliness on stage. After beginning to gradually curtail his opiate usage in 1985, Garcia slipped into a diabetic coma for several days in July 1986. After he recovered, the band released In the Dark in July 1987, which resulted as their best selling studio album release, and also produced their only top-10 chart single, "Touch of Grey". Also that year, the group toured with Bob Dylan, as documented on the album Dylan & the Dead.
Inspired by Garcia's improved health and a successful album, the band's energy and chemistry peaked in the late 1980s and 1990. Performances were vigorous and as a result, every show exceeded its maximum audience capacity. The band's "high time" came to a sudden halt when Mydland died after the summer tour in 1990. The band now had to rebuild; Vince Welnick, former keyboardist for the Tubes, joined as a band member, while Bruce Hornsby, who had a successful career with his own band the Range, joined as a touring member. Both performed on keyboards and vocals - Welnick until the band's end, and Hornsby mainly from 1990 to 1992.