Jerry Garcia Band's Ron Tutt Looks Back on 'Cats Under the Stars' Sessions

Drummer on moving between Elvis Presley's rhinestone-studded world and Grateful Dead guitarist's "laid back" scene, making of classic 1978 LP

Jerry Garcia Band drummer Ron Tutt (right) looks back on the recording of the classic 1978 LP 'Cats Under the Stars,' and his time with Elvis Presley. Credit: Courtesy of the Jerry Garcia Family

Last week, Ron Tutt, best known as Elvis Presley's drummer from 1969 to 1977, did something he hadn't done in nearly 40 years: He listened to the Jerry Garcia Band's Cats Under the Stars. Appreciated as Garcia's most fully realized and produced solo album outside the Grateful Dead, Cats Under the Stars features at least one Garcia–Robert Hunter gem ("Rubin and Cherise"), unusually layered production, and the drumming of Tutt, who became a recurring member of Garcia's band in 1975. With the 40th anniversary of Cats Under the Stars approaching in April – a special vinyl edition of the album has just been released to commemorate it – Tutt, who has largely remained silent about his days with Garcia, spoke with RS about that unusual moment in his and Garcia's career. (Tutt left the Garcia band in 1978 and in 1981 joined Neil Diamond's band, where he's been holding down the beat ever since.)

So many people who have worked on Cats Under the Stars have spoken about Garcia, but you never have. Any reason why?
Well, as far as music fans or drum fans or whatever, they all have a tendency to go towards Elvis. And like it or not, that's what I've been saddled with, you know.

So it's not because you have particularly bad memories.
Well, I just remember the good things, that's for sure. You got to. I just remember laughing a lot and having a good time musically, so I have nothing but good memories.

You first worked with Garcia on his 1974 solo album Compliments of Garcia. How did that come about?
John Kahn [Garcia's bassist and co-producer] had evidently wanted to get together with me in the studio 'cause they were going to do a studio album. So we got together in L.A. and did the album and we had so much fun hanging out and playing. It was relaxed and we just hit it off so well that they said, "Hey, would you be interested in coming up and doing some gigs that we do? We play at this club up in Berkeley called the Keystone." So one thing led to another and we started doing a few gigs, which took on several different postures – the Jerry Garcia Band, Legion of Mary and so on. Elvis' schedule was basically twice a year in Vegas. And in between those two gigs we were open to whatever we wanted to do, so it gave me opportunities to pick and choose a little bit.

Since you hadn't met Garcia before, what were your earliest impressions?
He was very loose and laid back. He was really open to everybody's ideas and just wanted to have a good time and hang out and play some good music. He was a pretty simple guy when it came to that.

What surprised you about him?
Well, his devotion to his instrument. He had his guitar with him at all times. When we would go to the gig, he'd go into the dressing room and sit there and play the whole time instead of resting and hanging out. And when it came to composing his solos, he was very thoughtful. If he was playing a tender ballad, he could build it soft and then get it to where it was roaring towards the end. A lot of people don't give him the credit he deserves when it comes to that.

Talk about those Keystone gigs. I'd imagine that experience was very different from an Elvis gig.
Extremely different from everything you can think of, starting with the presentation. Jerry was a real purist, shall I say. One time he said to me, "I don't believe in a lot of talk on a microphone – look what's been done to people over the years, you know. Hitler made pretty bad use of microphone with people and I don't believe in jiving people." He would come out at the beginning of the night and say "Hi ya," and at end of the night "See ya." I'd always laugh because one night I'd be in Vegas playing with rhinestone two-piece outfits and the next night I'd be out with Garcia with the tie-dye and a pair of jeans. Socially speaking it was really different.

For Garcia's 1976 album Reflections, you cut a version of "Mystery Train." Did Jerry ever grill you about Elvis?
Nah. I think he really appreciated what he did but he was never a quote-unquote fan or never wanted to know inside information.

In terms of what they expected from you as a drummer, how were Garcia and Elvis different?
Elvis' music was a lot more in your face; you could never play enough. But with Jerry we never talked about it, but I just knew my role with that band, no matter what configuration it was, was to help keep it together. We weren't there to do flashy solos. I don't know that I ever even did a solo. That wasn't our purpose. I almost liken it to a jazz gig in the sense that the songs had as we call 'em a head, a front, and then everybody played as much as they wanted to play and then did the out and that was it. There wasn't much rehearsal.


Cats Under the Stars
seemed as if it was going to be a fresh start for Garcia and the band – an album of all original material, well produced, and with a new solo record deal. Was that your impression?
They had contacted to me to do the thing for the summer and we had signed the contract for the group with Arista and Clive Davis. They asked me if I would consider staying in the area for a while. So I said sure, so we leased a house in Mill Valley and basically moved in for the summer. It was a neat time. We used the Dead's rehearsal hall [Front Street]. It never really was a serious studio, but it had a pretty decent sound.

Jerry would often call Cats Under the Stars his best album. Did he express his goals for the record to you?
He was ready for another chapter in his music. He was ready to move into – I don't know how to say it, it's not necessarily pop music, but he was ready to move on to find something that was more reflective of what he was writing and thinking about at that time, instead of doing cover songs like Smokey Robinson songs. All those songs are great, and they're fun to play, but as far as the commercial aspect of it, he wasn't above making money.

I think he enjoyed the freedom we gave him to be able to do just different things he would always wanted to try. So in that sense it was experimental and he got a chance to just try different musical styles and genres. I think he needed that kind of a challenge. It opened him to a whole different approach. It was different than, say, Legion of Mary, where it was kind of a jam band [laughs].

What did you make of the album after hearing it again after so long?
I'd forgotten how much production had gone into it, but not in a bad way. Strangely enough, I thought there were certain tracks there that were real Beatle-esque, real McCartney-and-Lennon–sounding. I thought some of it was very inventive. Some of it was straight-ahead like "Rhapsody in Red." And "Love in the Afternoon" was a really cool thing, kind of pseudo-reggae. That's just something we all played and felt we thought would work. Jerry was never any kind of guy to ever say, "Hey, try this and we need so-and-so people for this." He was very loyal to his band in that way.

Did you ever see members of the Dead hanging around?
No, no. Every once in a while, one of 'em would show up if they had to go to the office or something. But no, we didn't do any hanging out.

Elvis died that summer [1977]. Were you making that record with Jerry when that happened?
Yeah, we had quit for that weekend and I'd driven back home to L.A. And it was that weekend we heard the news.

You left the Garcia Band soon after. What happened?
We were at a point [in the Garcia Band] where the band had gone as far as it was going to go musically and personally with the personnel that was there. It was a wait-and-see-what's-going-to-happen kind of a thing. After Elvis died, I had to make a decision so I immediately jumped back into the studios in L.A.

Did the drug scene around Garcia have anything to do with your decision?
Well, I think it was a sign of the times. Everybody was, you know, sex, drugs and rock & roll, as they say. But it was more drugs and rock & roll than anything else [laughs]! It had its pull, there's no doubt about it. But I don't know it was something that everyone was doing and experimenting with.

You hooked up again with Garcia for some shows in 1981 but then joined Neil Diamond – another big change, I would think.
Yeah, yeah. Definitely a change. Neil was keeping me busy and [Garcia] came to an end, so to speak. It's a shame because I learned a lot from Jerry. He felt lighting and sound and the atmosphere in which the sound was created were important. We looked for special places to play. These colosseums and arenas are not built for acoustics. They're built to bring lots of people together so promotion can make a lot of money. Which is OK; it's our way of life. But that wasn't the driving factor with Jerry. I guess he saw enough of that with the Dead that he felt when it came to doing gigs with his band, he'd find special venues. He believed in music and no hype.