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Band formed in San Francisco, Calif.; original members included guitarist-vocalist Jerry Garcia (full name, Jerome John Garcia; born August 1, 1942 in San Francisco, Calif.; father was a jazz musician); guitarist-vocalist Bob Weir (full name, Robert Hall Weir; born October 16, 1947 in San Francisco, Calif.); bass guitarist Phil Lesh (born March 15, 1940 in Berkeley, Calif.); drummer Bill Kreutzmann (born June 7, 1946, in Palo Alto, Calif.); and vocalist-harmonica player Ron "Pigpen" McKernan (born September 8, 1946; died of a liver ailment, March 8, 1973). Drummer Mickey Hart (born in Long Island, New York) joined the band in 1967. McKernan was replaced in 1974 by keyboardist Keith Godchaux (born July 19, 1948, in San Francisco, Calif.; killed in a car accident July 22, 1980; husband of band member Donna Godchaux) and vocalist Donna Godchaux (born August 22, 1947, in San Francisco, Calif.; wife of band member Keith Godchaux; left band shortly after husband's death in 1980); Keith Godchaux was replaced by keyboardist Brent Mydland (died July 26, 1990 of a morphine and cocaine overdose); Mydland was replaced in 1990 by Vince Welnick. Addresses: Office --P.O. Box 1566, Main Office Station, Montclair, NJ 07043.

The Grateful Dead is one of only a handful of rock bands that have been going at it for nearly two and a half decades. But, unlike their contemporaries, the Dead have built their reputation on noncommercial music dedicated to the art of improvisation. "I would never have thought I'd be interested in something for twenty-five years," band leader Jerry Garcia told Rolling Stone. "That's a long time for anything. But if we never get to that place, the process itself stays interesting, so the trip has been worth it."

The group began as an acoustic unit, Mother McCree's Uptown Jug Champions, with Bob Weir, Bob Matthews, Ron "Pigpen" McKernan, John Dawson and Garcia. Pigpen convinced the band to go electric and in 1964 they added Bill Kreutzmann on drums and bassist Phil Lesh, a classically trained trumpet player who had never before touched the four-stringed instrument. They were known briefly as the Warlocks before pulling the moniker Grateful Dead out of an Oxford dictionary. Based in the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco--the center of the peace-love-flower-power-drug movement in the mid-1960s--the Dead became the house band for Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters' parties at the author's pad in La Honda (documented in Tom Wolfe's The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test book).

The band's influences were not other musicians, but rather the Beat Generation writers, including Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, and the infamous LSD chemist Owsley Stanley, who encouraged the Dead to experiment freely with the then-legal drug and extremely loud volumes of music (at one point the Dead's arsenal included twenty-three tons of equipment!) "Garcia and company were the hippie band, playing music for getting stoned, seeing God, dancing, singing along, blowing bubbles, mellowing out, or whatever," wrote Jon Sievert in Guitar Player, "good-time music without rock star pretensions."

In 1967 they added a second drummer, Mickey Hart, and signed a record contract with Warner Bros. Their debut LP, Grateful Dead, was recorded in Los Angeles in a mere three days. Its hurried sound prompted the band to slow down and experiment with various studio techniques on their follow-up, Anthem Of The Sun. "We were thinking more in terms of a whole record, and we were also interested in doing something that was far out," Garcia said in The Rolling Stone Interviews. "For our own amusement--that thing of being able to do a record and really go away with it--really lose yourself." The Dead went a little overboard on their third album, Aoxomoxoa, which was, as Garcia continued in Interviews, "Too far out, really, for most people."

Their forte has been, and continues to be, live performances which free the band to explore and improvise on blues, jazz, rock and country genres in a very loose setting without the use of set lists. "They are essentially a 'live' band, the masters of the 'vibe,' the electrical flow between them and their audiences," stated Rock 100. "The Dead, it has been said 'play their audience,' and their performances are studies in synergy and the dynamics of sounds massing tension in titanic jams ... until the ballroom seems ready to explode, and then cooling everything out at that breathtaking moment with a trickling steel guitar solo on a Merle Haggard shitkicker special."

The Dead encourage their fans, known affectionately as Deadheads, to freely record their concerts, which are of marathon length and sometimes include hourlong instrument tunings. "We have an audience which allows us to be formless. The Grateful Dead can go into any venue and play anything, and the audience will have experienced the Grateful Dead show," Garcia told Rolling Stone's Fred Goodman. "The audience has allowed us that luxury."

The Deadheads' allegiance is almost as phenomenal as the band itself. The club formed in 1971 and has grown to such large proportions that it now includes "The Deadhead Hour" radio show, the Golden Road fan magazine, and two 24-hour phone lines that constantly report concert dates. "I couldn't hold down a full-time job and do this," one Deadhead stated in Rolling Stone. "The Dead tour eight months out of the year." "I think our greatest appeal is to somebody who's a bright kid, in late high school or college," Dead lyricist John Barlow told Rolling Stone. "There aren't any initiations or requirements or membership tests or anything else to become a Deadhead; you just have to like it and feel like you're part of it, and then you're a brother to them all."

After 1970's Live Dead, which included the two Dead classics "Dark Star" and "St. Stephens," the band went back to their roots with an emphasis on vocals for a Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young-style folk flavor on Workingman's Dead. During the recording the group endured a sticky situation when Mickey Hart's father was fired for embezzlement of band funds. American Beauty, from the same year, was also vocal-oriented and recorded with very simple studio techniques. The LP included one of their signature tunes, "Truckin'," and was followed by their first gold LP, The Grateful Dead, in 1971. A year later they recorded the live three-record Europe '72.

The Dead lost one of their key members in 1973 when Ron "Pigpen" McKernan died of a liver ailment after a long history of substance abuse. The band issued a compilation LP in his honor, and then formed their own label and began working on Wake Of The Flood with new members Keith Godchaux and his wife Donna. Tragedy has continued to haunt the band's keyboardists: Keith himself was killed in a 1980 auto accident (Donna Godchaux left the band shortly after her husband's death) and his replacement, Brent Mydland, died as a result of a drug overdose in 1990. Mydland was replaced by former Tubes keyboardist Vince Welnick.

Weir played with both the Dead and Kingfish for the next few years and Garcia worked on various other projects as the band shifted directions for 1975's Blues For Allah. "I've always been happy with our albums but I've rarely listened to them after they're finished," Lesh said in Rolling Stone. "This one's different. It indicates a new point of departure for our music. We wanted to free ourselves from our own cliches, to search for new tonalities, new structures and modalities." They recorded one more LP on the Grateful Dead label before signing with Arista and releasing Terrapin Station and Shakedown Street, both of which smacked more of contemporary marketing than the usual Dead punch. Shakedown Street " was produced by twits and plumbers," Hart told Rolling Stone, "it was a shame and a travesty."

After 1980's Go To Heaven, the Dead took an eight-year hiatus from recording. Garcia delved heavily into cocaine and heroin in the meantime, resulting in an arrest in January of 1985. While performing in a backup band for Bob Dylan, Garcia collapsed into a diabetic coma following one of the shows and regained consciousness twenty-four hours later. By December 15, 1986, the Dead were back together and working on their highly acclaimed In The Dark LP. "The arrangements are real," Garcia said in Guitar World. "The mix is my understanding about how Grateful Dead music works...There's real structure to it, there's real architecture to it and there's real conversation, like in a string quartet, to it."

The Dead scored their first Top 10 single, "Touch of Grey," which seemed to sum up Garcia's brush with death and the future of his band: "I will get by/I will survive." The Dead were suddenly being discovered by new audiences as their video So Far shot up the charts and they were trying to figure out ways to cope with their newfound success and popularity.

"I'm excited about it, and I have misgivings," said Robert Hunter, longtime Dead lyricist and Army pal of Garcia, in Rolling Stone. "I would like the world to know about the Grateful Dead; it's a phenomenal band. But I don't think the Grateful Dead is going to be as free a thing as it was. That's the devil we pay."

by Calen D. Stone

Grateful Dead, The's Career

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June 2, 2006: Welnick died on June 2, 2006, of an apparent suicide. He was 55. Source: New York Times, www.nytimes.com/2006/06/05/arts/music/05welnick.html, June 8, 2006.

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