Grateful Dead Biography
Assembled in 1965 in San Francisco with bluegrass-country enthusiast Jerome "Jerry" Garcia on guitar, "Pigpen" McKernan on keys, Bob Weir also on guitar, Phil Lesh on bass, and Bill Kreutzmann on drums, The Grateful Dead began as a folk and bluegrass outfit. Weir, Garcia, and McKernan originally played together as early as 1964 in an ensemble called Mother McCree's Uptown Jug Champions. From the beginning, the collective's sound reflected the varying influences of its members, including Garcia's bluegrass background and McKernan's penchant for blues. In 1965, after joining with Lesh, the band adopted electric instruments, became known as The Warlocks, and started serving as the house band at Ken Kesey's notorious "acid test" parties before L.S.D. was outlawed. The acid rock and psychedelia popular at the time especially in San Francisco helped the band merge a more modern sound with its affinity for rootsier music. And, of course, the drugs helped make its music that much more intoxicating.
In December of 1965, Garcia took a new name, The Grateful Dead, from a song about a pauper's funeral, and signed with Warner Bros. Mickey Hart joined the group two years later (he left in 1971 and rejoined in 1974). But it wasn't until the group hired lyricist Robert Hunter (who made his debut with the band on 1969's Aoxomoxoa) that The Dead began to develop a consistency in imagery and tone, with his lyrics matching the intricacies of the band's fast-developing interplay. Though the subsequent Live/Dead featured the band's most requested song in "Dark Star," the next two albumsWorkingman's Dead and American Beauty, both released in 1970 were perhaps the band's most potent (and commercially accessible) one-two punch, yielding tracks like "Uncle John's Band," "Casey Jones," "Sugar Magnolia," and, of course, "Truckin'."
With no Top 40 singles and virtually no help from commercial radio, The Dead contented themselves almost entirely on the concert circuit for much of their career and became rock's premier improvisational group. Which, of course, pleased legions of Deadheads. Like the band, followers of The Dead considered the concert, not the album, as essentially important. Such a belief was fortunate, as the band's sporadic studio efforts in the mid- to late '70s were nothing special. Even the introduction of big-name producers Lowell George and Keith Gordon for Terrapin Station and Shakedown Street, respectively, failed to create any significant gain in sales.
On the road, however, sales were no problem at all. The Dead's unprecedented ethic of touring six months of every year took hold throughout the '70s and '80s, when they annually finished among the top-grossing live acts. And while the money rolled in from tickets, the band had a well-deserved reputation for playing benefit concerts, the best known being the time in 1978 when they spent $500,000 to ship equipment to Egypt to play a concert benefiting the Egyptian Department of Antiquities.
Beginning in 1981, The Dead took a six-year hiatus from recording, choosing to spend their time on the road. All was well until 1985, when Garcia's unseemly underside was exposed after he was arrested for free-basing cocaine in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park. The following July, Garcia collapsed into a near-fatal, five-day diabetic coma brought on by excessive drug use. It seemed he had hit rock bottom, but just five months later, he was back onstage with the band and seemingly was on the road to recovery.
The positive vibrations continued with the 1987 release of In the Dark, a victorious return to the studio that yielded the band's biggest hit ever, "Touch of Grey," as well as attracting legions of new fans. The Dead were back, but there remained trouble in paradise. Garcia continued his drug use, and the customarily mellow legion of Deadheads following the band began encountering the long arm of the law. During the 1989 tour, hundreds of fans were arrested in violent clashes with the police, and two fans died, one from an overdose while in police custody, the other from a broken neck of questionable cause.
In fact, throughout its lengthy career, the band was plagued by untimely tragedy. Founding member McKernan died of a stomach hemorrhage in 1973 and was replaced by keyboardist Keith Godchaux (who brought along his wife, Donna, as a backing vocalist). Godchaux himself died in a car accident in 1980. His keyboard replacement, Brent Mydland, died of an overdose a decade later in 1990 (he was replaced by former Tubes keyboardist Vince Welnick). The granddaddy of all Deadheads, Jerry Garcia, died in 1995 of heart failure while in drug rehab, ending an impressive reign of gigs, drugs, and rock and roll. Garcia played his final show with the band July 9, 1995, at Chicago's Soldier's Field. On Dec. 8 of that year, The Grateful Dead officially called it quits.
But The Dead legacy of touring, jamming, and fanatical followings hasn't stopped. It still lives on in bands like Vermont's Phish, Virginia's Dave Matthews Band, and New York's Blues Traveler, all of which are poised to capture the formidable throne left vacant by the king of all jam bands.