Grateful Dead

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The Grateful Dead was an American psychedelia-influenced rock band. Formed in 1965 in San Francisco from the remnants of another band, "Mother McCree's Uptown Jug Champions," the Grateful Dead were known for their unique and eclectic songwriting style—which fused elements of rock, folk music, bluegrass, blues, country, and jazz—and for live performances of long modal jams. The band's numerous fans, called Deadheads, were renowned for their dedication to the band's music; many followed the Grateful Dead from concert to concert for years, and often referred to the band simply as The Dead.

The Grateful Dead's career began under the name "The Warlocks" in Palo Alto, California. Eventually, they moved to the Haight-Ashbury section of San Francisco. Many bands from this area, such as Jefferson Airplane, Big Brother & the Holding Company, and Santana, went on to national fame, giving San Francisco an image as a center for the hippie counterculture of the era. (Also see entry for the San Francisco Sound.) Of these bands, the Grateful Dead had the most "musicianly" background, including banjo and guitar player Jerry Garcia, blues musician "Pigpen" McKernan, the classically trained Phil Lesh and drummer Bill Kreutzmann [1]. In addition, the Grateful Dead most embodied "all the elements of the San Francisco scene and came, therefore, to represent the counterculture to the rest of the country" [2].

The Grateful Dead (a name chosen at random from a dictionary—some claim it was a Funk & Wagnalls, others an Oxford Dictionary—by Jerry Garcia) became the de facto resident band of Ken Kesey's Merry Pranksters, with the early sound heavily influenced by Kesey's LSD-soaked Acid Tests, as well as R&B. Their musical influences varied widely with input from the psychedelic music of the era, combined with blues, jazz, rock and roll, and bluegrass. These various influences were distilled into a diverse and psychedelic whole that made the Grateful Dead, along with Cream, "the pioneering Godfathers of the jam band world." [3].


De facto bandleader Jerry Garcia was the lead guitarist for the band—although he was often seen both by the public and the media as 'leader' or a primary spokesperson for the Grateful Dead, it was a role he reluctantly found himself placed into, especially since Garcia and the other group members saw themselves as equal participants and contributors to their collective musical and creative output. Jerry was a native of San Francisco and grew up in the Excelsior District. One of the main influences on his musical style was bluegrass music, and Garcia also performed—on banjo, his other great instrumental love—in the Bluegrass band Old and in the Way with mandolinist David Grisman. Classically-trained trumpeter Phil Lesh played bass guitar. Bob Weir, the youngest original member of the group, played rhythm guitar. Ron "Pigpen" McKernan played keyboards, harmonica and was also a group vocalist until shortly before his death in 1973 at the age of 27. All of the previously mentioned Grateful Dead members shared in vocal performance of songs, although none of them had a particularly strong or tuneful voice. 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. Hart quit the Grateful Dead in 1971, embarrassed by the actions of his father, Dead money manager Lenny Hart (about whom the song "He's Gone" is said to have been penned), leaving Kreutzmann once again as the sole percussionist. Hart rejoined the Dead for good in 1975. Tom "TC" Constanten played keyboards alongside Pigpen from 1968 to 1970. 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 Dead as a backing vocalist. Keith and Donna left the band in 1979, and Brent Mydland joined as keyboardist and vocalist. Keith Godchaux died in a car accident in 1980. Brent Mydland was the keyboardist for the Dead for 11 years until his death in 1990. He became the third Dead keyboardist to die. Almost immediately, former Tubes keyboardist Vince Welnick joined on keyboards and vocals. For a year and a half, Welnick was often joined by special guest Bruce Hornsby on piano. Robert Hunter and John Perry Barlow were the band's primary lyricists. Owsley "Bear" Stanley was the Grateful Dead's soundman for many years; he was also one of the largest suppliers of LSD.


Early photo of The Grateful Dead at their communal home in the
Haight-Ashbury district of
San Francisco, late 60's.

The Grateful Dead are well-known for their near constant touring throughout their long career in music. They promoted a sense of community among their fans, who became known as Deadheads, many of whom followed their tours for months or years on end. In their early years, the band was also dedicated to their community, the Haight-Ashbury area of San Francisco, making available free food, lodging, music and health care to all comers; they were the "first among equals in giving unselfishly of themselves to hippie culture, performing 'more free concerts than any band in the history of music'" [4].

Original lineup of The Grateful Dead, 1971.

With the exception of 1975, when the band was on "hiatus" and played only four concerts together, the Grateful Dead toured regularly around the USA from the winter of 1965 until July 9, 1995—with a few detours to Canada, Europe and three nights at the Great Pyramid of Giza in Egypt in 1978. Their numerous studio albums were generally collections of new songs that had been initially played in concert. The band was famous for its extended jams, which showcased both individual improvisation as well as a distinctive "group-mind" improvisation where each of the band members improvised individually, while still blending together as a cohesive musical unit, often engaging in extended improvisational flights of fancy. A hallmark of their concert sets were continuous sets of music where each song would blend into the next (a segue). Musically this may be illustrated in that the band not only improvised within the form of a song, yet also improvised with the forms.

Wall of Sound

The Wall of Sound was an enormous sound system designed specifically for the Grateful Dead. The band were never satisfied with the house system anywhere they played, so in their early days, soundman Owsley "Bear" Stanley designed a PA and monitor system for them. Though his ideas of sound reproduction and broadcasting were nothing short of brilliant, Stanley's sound systems were delicate and finicky, and constantly brought shows to a halt with technical issues. After Stanley was placed in jail for LSD production in 1970, the group briefly used house PAs, but ultimately found them to be less reliable than the systems concieved by their former soundman. In 1971, the band purchased their first solid sound system from Alembic Inc Studios. Because of this, Alembic would play an integral role in the research, development, and production of the Wall of Sound. The band also welcomed Dan Healy into the fold on a permenant basis that year; Healy was a superior engineer to Stanley and would mix the Grateful Dead's live sound until 1993.

The desire driving the development of the Wall of Sound was for a distortion-free sound system that could serve as its own monitor system. After Owsley Stanley was released from prison in late 1972, he, along with Dan Healey, and Mark Raizene of the Grateful Dead's sound crew, and Ron Wickersham, Rick Turner, and John Curl of Alembic Inc accomplished this by essentially combining eleven separate sound systems. Vocals, lead guitar, rhythm guitar, and piano each had their own channel and set of speakers. Phil Lesh's bass was quadraphonic, and each string had its own channel and set of speakers. One channel amplified the bass drum, and two channels amplified the other drums and cymbals in stereo. Because each speaker was producing the sound of just one instrument or vocalist, the sound was exceptionally clear and intermodulation distortion between instruments was nonexistent.

The Wall of Sound was designed to act as its own monitor system, and it was therefore assembled behind the band so the members could hear exactly what their audience was hearing. Because of this, a special microphone system had to be designed to prevent feedback. The Dead used matched pairs of condenser microphones spaced 60mm apart and run out-of-phase. The vocalist sang into the top microphone, and the lower mic picked up whatever other sound was present in the stage environment. The signals were summed, the sound that was common to both mics (the sound from the Wall) was cancelled, and only the vocals were amplified.

The Wall of Sound used 89 300-Watt solid state and three 350-Watt tube amplifiers to produce 26,400 total Watts RMS of audio power. It was capable of producing acceptable sound at a quarter mile, and excellent sound for up to six hundred feet, when the sound began to be distorted by wind. It was the largest portable sound system ever built (although "portable" is a relative term). Four semi trucks and 21 crew members were required to haul and set up the 75-ton Wall.

Though the initial framework and a rudimentary form of the system was unveiled in February 1973 (ominously, every speaker tweeter blew as the band began their first number), the Grateful Dead did not begin to tour with the full system until a year later in 1974. With era considerations taken into account, the Wall of Sound was very efficient, but it did have its pitfalls in addition to its sheer size. Synthesist Ned Lagin, who toured with the group throughout much of 1974, never recieved his own dedicated input into the system, and was forced to use the vocal subsystem for amplification. Because this was often switched to the vocal mikes, many of Lagin's parts were lost in the mix. The Wall's quadrophonic format never translated well to soundboard tapes made during the period, as the sound was compressed into an unnatural stereo format and suffers from a pronounced tinniness.

The rising cost of fuel and personnel, as well as friction among many of the newer crew members (and associated hangers-on), contributed to the band's 1974 "retirement." The Wall of Sound was disassembled, and when the Dead began touring again in 1976, it was with a more logistically practical sound system.


Two Grateful Dead icons rolled into one: 'Yellow Bear'
and 'Steal Your Face'

Many of their fans, commonly referred to as Deadheads, would follow the band on tour. In contrast to many other bands, the Grateful Dead encouraged their fans to tape their shows. For many years, almost all of their shows would have dedicated taping sections. The band allowed sharing of tapes of their shows, as long as no profits were made on the sale of their show tapes. In the 1980s, the band scored a top 40 hit with the song "Touch of Grey" (from In the Dark), which garnered a much younger and more mainstream fandom that was considered sharply different from the traditional Deadheads.

Live releases

Late lineup of The Grateful Dead, mid-90s.

Starting in 1991, the Grateful Dead released numerous live concerts from their archives in two concurrent series: the From the Vault releases are multi-track remixes, whereas the Dick's Picks series (named for the band's late archivist, Dick Latvala) are based on two-track mixes made at the time of the recording. There have been at least 36 Dick's Picks releases as of November 2005. A series of videos began to trickle out of "The Vault", starting with View From the Vault (recorded in Pittsburgh on July 8, 1990 at Three Rivers Stadium) and View from the Vault II (recorded in Washington, DC on June 14, 1991 at RFK Stadium); these releases are accompanied by the simultaneous release of multi-disc soundtrack CDs of the same shows represented on the videos. All three series of releases continue to this day.

In the summer of 2005 the Dead began offering downloadable versions of both their existing live releases, and a new internet-only series, The Grateful Dead Download Series, that is available exclusively through both their own (which offers the albums in both 256 kbit/s mp3 files and FLAC files (a preferred audio standard for those who archive Dead and other fan-made live recordings on the Internet) and the iTunes Music Store (which offers them in their 128 kbit/s AAC format). Not surprisingly, these internet-only albums have met with the same success as their CD-based brethren.


The Grateful Dead formed during the era when bands like the Beatles and Rolling Stones were dominating the airwaves. Former folk-scene star Bob Dylan had recently put out a couple of records featuring electric instrumentation. Grateful Dead members have said that it was after attending a concert by the touring New York "folk-rock" band The Lovin' Spoonful that they decided to "go electric." Since the East-Coast American folk musicians were now tending in the electric direction, it was natural for Jerry Garcia and Bob Weir, each of whom had been immersed in the American folk-music revival of the late 1950s and early '60s, to be open-minded toward electric guitars. However, the Dead's music was also naturally different from bands like Dylan's or the Spoonful, because their fellow musician Phil Lesh came out of a schooled classical and electronic-music background, while Ron "Pigpen" McKernan was a no-nonsense deep blues lover and drummer Bill Kreutzmann had a jazz background.

The early records reflected the Dead's live repertoire—lengthy instrumental jams with guitar solos by Garcia, best exemplified by "Dark Star"—but lacked the energy of the shows and did not sell terribly well. The 1969 live album Live/Dead did capture more of their essence, but commercial success did not come until Workingman's Dead and American Beauty, both released in 1970. These records featured the band's laid-back acoustic musicianship and more traditional song structures.

Dissolution of the band

Following Garcia's death in 1995, the remaining members formally decided to retire the name "The Grateful Dead". Though some of them occasionally toured through the late 1990s under the name "The Other Ones", they mainly chose to pursue various solo projects, most notably Bob Weir's Ratdog, Phil Lesh and Friends and Mickey Hart's music for the 1996 Olympics. The remaining members occasionally got together under the pseudonym Crusader Rabbit Stealth Band during the late 1990s, infrequently playing unannounced shows. The mid-2002 fall tour of The Other Ones, with Bob, Bill, Phil and Mickey, was so successful and satisfying that the band decided the name was no longer appropriate. On February 14, 2003, (as they said) "reflecting the reality that [was]," they renamed themselves The Dead, reflecting the abbreviated form of the band name that fans had long used and keeping "Grateful" retired out of respect for Garcia.

Original members

Other Members

Band members

Band member Instrument(s) Dates Albums recorded
Jerry Garcia guitar, vocals 1965 - 1995 all
Bob Weir guitar, vocals 1965 - 1995 all
Phil Lesh bass, vocals 1965 - 1995 all
Bill Kreutzmann drums 1965 - 1995 all
Mickey Hart drums 1967 - 1971, 1975 - 1995
Ron "Pigpen" McKernan keyboards, vocals 1965 - 1973
Keith Godchaux keyboards 1971 - 1979
Donna Jean Godchaux vocals 1972 - 1979
Brent Mydland keyboards, vocals 1979 - 1990
Tom Constanten keyboards 1968 - 1969
Vince Welnick keyboards, vocals 1990 - 1995 Infrared Roses


This list does not include the "Dick's Picks" series in which various shows are released in either complete forms, or in segments, hence the "picks" in the title. On average, at least three multi-disc volumes in the series are released a year. As of September 2005, there are 35 different volumes in the series.

See also



  • Garofalo, Reebee (1997). Rockin' Out: Popular Music in the USA, Allyn & Bacon. ISBN 0205137032.
  • Lesh, Phil (2005). Searching for the Sound, Little, Brown and Co.. ISBN 0-316-00998-9.
  • McNally, Dennis (2002). A Long Strange Trip : the Inside History of the Grateful Dead, Broadway Books. ISBN 0-76791186-5.
  • Ward, Ed, Geoffrey Stokes and Ken Tucker (1986). Rock of Ages: The Rolling Stone History of Rock and Roll, Rolling Stone Press. ISBN 0671544381.


  1. ^  Rolling Stone, pg. 332
  2. ^  Garofalo, pg. 218
  3. ^  Garofalo, pg. 219
  4. ^  Garofalo, pg. 219, quote in Garofalo, cited to Roxon, Lillian Roxon's Rock Encyclopedia, 210

External links

de:Grateful Dead fr:Grateful Dead he:גרייטפול דד nl:Grateful Dead pl:Grateful Dead pt:Grateful Dead sv:Grateful Dead