Personalities | The Grateful Dead | Sixties | Rock

Rock’s most famous and celebrated hippie band, known more for its anything-goes, drug-hazed concerts and legions of ‘Deadhead’ fans than for its body of studio work, The Grateful Dead grew out of a union between singer-songwriter/lead guitarist Jerry Garcia (1942–95), songwriter/rhythm guitarist Bob Weir (born 16 October 1947) and keyboardist/singer Ron ‘Pigpen’ McKernan (1946–73).

They were to become the poster boys of the psychedelic scene that flourished in San Francisco during the mid to late 1960s.

Electric Warlocks

Garcia had played banjo in a number of bluegrass and jug bands when, in 1964, he first teamed up with blues/gospel enthusiast McKernan to form Mother McCree’s Uptown Jug Champions, recruiting folk devotee Weir and several other musicians along the way. McKernan then persuaded Garcia and Weir to go electric, and it was as the amplified Warlocks that, in July 1965, they began performing around the Bay Area with classically trained avant-garde/electronica graduate Phil Lesh (born 15 March 1940) on bass and Bill Kreutzmann (born 7 April 1946) on drums.

As the house band at Ken Kesey’s notorious LSD parties (before the drug was banned), The Warlocks turned into The Grateful Dead at the year’s end, and after moving into a communal house located at 710 Ashbury Street they quickly built a firm fan following courtesy of numerous free concerts at which they combined folk and country with blues. Following a short-lived deal with MGM, the band was picked up by Warner Brothers. In March 1967 they released an eponymous debut album that, despite providing some indication as to the band’s eclecticism, failed to reproduce the range and excitement of its live performances. Anthem Of The Sun, released in July 1968, went a considerable way towards correcting that problem with its psychedelically improvisational sound collages, thanks in large part to the addition of a rock-solid second drummer, Mickey Hart (born 11 September 1943), and avant-garde second keyboard player Tom Constanten (born 19 March 1944).

Free-Form Improvisation

Nevertheless, although the aural experimentation continued to sometimes-stunning effect on 1969’s Aoxomoxoa, with its Garcia-penned, hallucinogen-fuelled songs boasting suitably abstract lyrics by new non-performance band member, poet Robert Hunter (born 23 June 1941), it was not until the in-concert double-album Live/Dead was released later that year that record buyers finally got to hear what the group was truly all about. Here were the free-form improvisational skills of the musicians in their unexpurgated, virtuosic glory, highlighted by the extended jam ‘The Eleven’, a barnstorming 15-plus-minute cover of ‘(Turn On Your) Lovelight’ and, most significantly, a 23-plus-minute version of ‘Dark Star’, the ultimate Grateful Dead trip.

Back in the studio, the band recorded two classic albums in 1970 that represented a drastic change of pace and direction, contrasting sharply with its onstage act. Both the all-acoustic Workingman’s Dead and the seminal American Beauty saw the Dead exploring their country, folk and blues roots in superb and remarkably restrained fashion, their stripped down, more succinct arrangements exposing the beauty of songs such as ‘Uncle John’s...

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Source: The Definitive Illustrated Encyclopedia of Rock, general editor Michael Heatley


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