From the 1960s until the 1995 death of guitarist, singer-songwriter Jerry Garcia, the Grateful Dead played roughly 2,300 long, freeform concerts that touched down on their own country-, blues and folk –tinged songs, and on a similarly wide range of cover versions. Along the way, they popularized the concept of the jam band, influencing thousands of songwriters and basement improvisers and earning themselves maybe the most loyal fans a rock band have ever had.
Nearly as famous as the band itself were its legions of "Deadheads" — predominantly white men who have lovingly preserved the era that spawned the Dead by emulating their Summer of Love predecessors' philosophy and that period's accoutrements: tie-dye clothing, hallucinogenic drugs, and the Dead's music. These fans supported the band with an almost religious fervor, following the group around the country, trading tapes of live concerts (something the band allowed as long as it wasn't for profit, providing prime spots for tapers at shows), and providing a synergy between band and audience that was unique in rock. In true psychedelic style, the Grateful Dead preferred the moment to the artifact — but to keep those moments coming, the Dead evolved into a far-flung and smoothly run corporate enterprise that, for all its hippie trimmings, drew admiring profiles in the financial and mainstream press.
Lead guitarist Jerry Garcia took up guitar at 15, spent nine months in the Army in 1959, then moved to Palo Alto, where he began his long-standing friendship with Robert Hunter, who late became the Dead's lyricist. In 1962 he bought a banjo and began playing in folk and bluegrass bands, and by 1964 he was a member of Mother McCree's Uptown Jug Champions, along with Bob Weir, Ron "Pigpen" McKernan, and longtime associates Bob Matthews (who engineered Dead albums and formed the Alembic Electronics equipment company) and John Dawson (later of New Riders of the Purple Sage).
In 1965 the band became the Warlocks: Garcia, Weir, Pigpen, Bill Kreutzmann, and Phil Lesh, a former electronic-music composer. With electric instruments, the Warlocks debuted in July 1965 and soon became the house band at Ken Kesey's Acid Tests, a series of public LSD parties and multimedia events held before the drug had been outlawed. LSD chemist Owsley Stanley bankrolled the Grateful Dead — a name from an Egyptian prayer that Garcia spotted in a dictionary — and later supervised construction of the band's massive, state-of-the-art sound system. The Dead lived communally at 710 Ashbury Street in San Francisco in 1966–67 and played numerous free concerts; by 1967's Summer of Love, they were regulars at the Avalon and Carousel ballrooms and the Fillmore West. MGM signed the band in 1966, and it made some mediocre recordings. The Dead's legitimate recording career began when Warner Bros. signed the band. While its self-titled 1967 debut album featured zippy three-minute songs, Anthem of the Sun (Number 87, 1968) and Aoxomoxoa (Number 73, 1969) featured extended suites and studio experiments that left the band $100,000 in debt to Warner Bros., mostly for studio time, by the end of the 1960s. Meanwhile, the Dead's reputation had spread, and they appeared at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967 and Woodstock in 1969.
As the Seventies began, the Dead recouped its Warner debt with three comparatively inexpensive albums — Live/Dead (Number 64, 1969) (recorded in concert at San Francisco's Fillmore West in February and March of 1969), Workingman's Dead (Number 27, 1970), and American Beauty (Number 30, 1970). The former featured extended psychedelic explorations, such as the classic "Dark Star," while in sharp contrast the latter two found the Dead writing concise country-ish songs and working out clear-cut, well-rehearsed arrangements. Workingman's Dead (including "Uncle John's Band" [Number 69, 1970] and "Casey Jones") and American Beauty (including "Truckin'" [Number 64, 1971], "Ripple," and "Box of Rain") received considerable FM radio airplay, sold respectably, and provided much of the Dead's concert repertoire.
With a nationwide following, the Dead expanded its touring schedule and started various solo and side projects (aside from the band members' own works, many Dead members also appeared on the half-dozen-plus albums Dead lyricist Robert Hunter began releasing in 1973). The group worked its way up to a 23-ton sound system and a large traveling entourage of road crew, family, friends, and hangers-on — most of whom would later become staff employees complete with health-insurance and other benefits, as the Dead evolved into an efficient and highly profitable corporation. The Dead finished out its Warners contract with a string of live albums including 1971's Grateful Dead, a.k.a. "Skull and Roses" (Number 25), which introduced more concert staples such as "Bertha" and "Wharf Rat." In 1973 the Dead played for over half a million people in Watkins Glen, New York, on a bill with the Band and the Allman Brothers. By then the group had formed its own Grateful Dead Records and a subsidiary, Round, for non-band efforts.
Europe '72 (Number 24, 1972) was the last album to feature keyboardist Pigpen, a heavy drinker who died in 1973 of liver disease. Keith Godchaux, who had played piano with Dave Mason, joined the band and brought along his wife, Donna, as background vocalist. The pair toured and recorded with the Dead until 1979, when they were asked to leave and were replaced by pianist Brent Mydland. The following year, Keith Godchaux was killed in a car crash in Marin County.
In 1974 the Dead temporarily disbanded while members pursued outside projects, but the group resumed touring in 1976. After signing with Arista, the group began to use non-Dead producers for the first time: Keith Olsen (Fleetwood Mac) for Terrapin Station (Number 28, 1977) and Little Feat's Lowell George for Shakedown Street (Number 41, 1978). In 1978 the band played three concerts at the foot of the Great Pyramid in Egypt, which were recorded but not released. Go to Heaven (Number 23, 1980) yielded "Alabama Getaway" (Number 68, 1980), like "Truckin'" and "Uncle John's Band," a minor hit single. The Dead's main support continued to be its touring six months out of each year. The band celebrated its 15th anniversary with the release of two more live albums, including the mostly acoustic Reckoning (Number 43, 1981).
The band took a hiatus from recording until 1987, during which time the Dead toured with Bob Dylan (one tour was recorded for the album Dylan and the Dead [Number 37, 1989]), while Garcia's health and personal habits made disturbing headlines: In January 1985 he was arrested for heroin possession in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park; in July 1986, 15 months after being in a drug treatment program and while touring with Dylan, Garcia collapsed into a five-day, near-fatal diabetic coma brought on by drug use. Once he recovered, the Dead made a triumphant return with In the Dark (Number Six, 1987), their first Top Ten album, yielding "Touch of Grey" (Number Nine, 1987), their first (and only) Top Ten single.
Two years later, however, trouble suddenly began following the Dead and its normally mellow army of Deadheads on tour. In April 1989 there were 55 arrests (mostly for drugs and disturbing the peace) and violent encounters with police at two Pittsburgh shows; and 70 arrests and reports of vandalism by Dead fans at three Irvine, California, shows. In October 1989 a college student died of a broken neck outside a Dead show at the New Jersey Meadowlands (his death was never explained, but an investigation cleared security guards of guilt); in December of that year a 19-year-old fan high on LSD died while in police custody for public intoxication at the L.A. Forum (the autopsy reported neck-compression during restraint, but police were cleared of any wrongdoing). As a result, the Dead recorded public service announcements imploring fans to act responsibly.
In July 1990 Mydland died of an overdose of injected cocaine and morphine. He was replaced by Vince Welnick, formerly of San Francisco's the Tubes; Bruce Hornsby, a Dead fan, sometimes sat in on piano during concerts as well. In September 1992 the bearish, chain-smoking Garcia was hospitalized with diabetes, an enlarged heart, and fluid in the lungs. The Dead was forced to postpone a tour until the end of the year; doctors put Garcia on a strict diet, exercise, and no-smoking regimen. The Dead returned to the road with a slimmer, fitter Garcia in mid-December 1992 with a series of Bay Area concerts.
That same year Garcia — whose paintings, often pastel watercolors, had been exhibited internationally — unveiled a line of designer silk neckties bearing his artwork. By then the massive catalogue of Dead merchandise also included skis and snowboards as well as T-shirts and even a line of toddler wear, as well as a burgeoning line of CD reissues of vintage live concerts. The Dead's tours in 1994–95 earned the band $52 million. In 1995 the Dead were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
On July 9, 1995, Jerry Garcia played his last show with the Grateful Dead. One month later, he died in his sleep at Serenity Knolls, a rehabilitation center where he'd been combating his long-standing heroin addiction. The cause of death was reported as a heart attack. Shortly thereafter, flags flew at half-mast at the San Francisco City Hall to mark the passing of an era. Garcia is survived by four daughters and his third wife, Deborah Koons Garcia, whom he had married the year before. Four months later, the band officially retired.
The music, however, continued. After Garcia's death, archival material, notably in the form of Dick's Picks, live sets chosen initially by super-fan Dick Latvala, was released in abundance. And the band's members, in various conglomerations, resumed playing: Bob Weir with his band, RatDog, Phil Lesh with Phil Lesh and Friends. In 1998, as the Other Ones, Weir, Lesh, Hart, and Hornsby headlined the Furthur Festival, reviving for many fans the Deadhead spirit. In 2003, the Other Ones changed their name to the Dead (leaving off the Grateful in deference to Garcia's passing), adding keyboardist Jeff Chimenti, guitarist Jimmy Herring, and guitarist/vocalist Warren Haynes to the tour lineup.
In 2002, the first Bonnaroo Music Festival took place in Manchester, Tennessee, a four-day arts and music fest that catered specifically to the legions of jam music fans that carried on the Deadhead tradition. Fittingly, Phil Lesh & Friends and Bob Weir headlined the fest's last night, and the next several festivals would included either the Dead, Lesh & Friends or Weir.
Following the 2004 shows, the Dead went into a hiatus, but returned in 2008 to perform a pair of shows in support of Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama. Following Obama's election as President, the Dead were invited to perform at one of the new President's inaugural balls, wearing tuxedos while they jammed out. Reinvigorated following their time on the campaign trail, the Dead once again reunited for a spring tour in 2009, kicking off with three back-to-back shows in New York City over the course of one day. Showing no signs of slowing down as the new decade approached, Lesh and Weir announced plans to tour together in 2010 under the moniker Furthur. As a testament of their enduring influence on younger bands, Lesh also gave the indie rock band Animal Collective permission to sample the Dead's "Unbroken Chain" for Animal Collective's "What Would I Want? Sky," marking the first time a Dead sample had been officially approved by the jam greats.
Separately, the Dead were almost more prolific than they were when they were together. During their tenure with the Dead, the main members had worked at a number of side projects. Garcia's included session work with Jefferson Airplane and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. He formed New Riders of the Purple Sage in 1969 as a side project [see entry]. From 1970 to 1973 he played occasional gigs with Bay Area keyboardist Merl Saunders (captured on the Keystone albums), and he kept up his bluegrass banjo skills with Old & In the Way, which also featured Peter Rowan (Sectarian), Vassar Clements, and David Grisman. Garcia recorded his first solo album, Garcia, in 1972; the cover shows his right hand, which has been missing its third finger since a childhood accident. Garcia joined organist Howard Wales on the album Hooteroll, and he toured and recorded with various Jerry Garcia bands in the 1970s and 1980s, before recording with David Grisman (who'd played mandolin on American Beauty) for two acoustic albums. His last finished project was an album of children's music, Not for Kids Only (Acoustic Disc), released in 1993.
Weir's first solo effort was 1972's Ace, which featured most of the Dead backing him. During the Dead's sabbatical he formed Kingfish with ex –New Rider Dave Torbert; in the early 1980s Weir toured and recorded with Bobby and the Midnites, including drummer Billy Cobham (Mahavishnu Orchestra), bassist Alphonso Johnson (Weather Report), and guitarist Bobby Cochran (Steppenwolf). In 1991 Weir and his sister Wendy published Panther Dream, a children's book and companion audiocassette aimed at raising awareness of endangered rainforests — a cause the Dead had been supporting for several years through its Rex Foundation. In 1999 Weir completed a musical on the life of baseball legend Satchel Paige and continued working on digitizing the Dead song archives.
Phil Lesh teamed with electronic music composer Ned Lagin to record the atonal Seastones. Dead drummer Mickey Hart explored world music through his solo albums, with the Diga Rhythm Band, the Rhythm Devils (Hart and Kreutzmann composed incidental percussion music for the soundtrack of the film Apocalypse Now), and by producing albums by musicians from Africa, Asia, and South and Central America on Rykodisc. In 1991 Hart helped arrange a U.S. tour by the Gyuto Monks of Tibet. He also toured with his band, Planet Drum. By 2000, he'd written a book, Spirit Into Sound: The Magic of Music, and formed a new ensemble, the Mickey Hart Band.
Portions of this biography appeared in The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll (Simon & Schuster, 2001). Daniel Kreps contributed to this story.