Donna Jean Godchaux knows what you’re thinking, especially if you’re a Deadhead: that her voice wasn’t always spot-on when she was a member of the Grateful Dead in the Seventies. “I can’t defend myself very much,” says Godchaux, who sang on hits by Elvis Presley and Neil Diamond before she joined Garcia and Co. “I was a studio singer, never singing off-key. I was used to having headphones and being in a controlled environment.
“Then, all of a sudden, I went to being onstage with the Dead in Winterland,” she continues. “Everything was so loud onstage. And not to mention being inebriated. I can’t defend myself very much, but I can’t blame it all on that.” Godchaux lets out a laugh. “I’ve seen on Facebook people say, ‘Well, they didn’t always sing so great themselves!'”
Thirty-five years after she and her late husband, pianist Keith Godchaux, left the Dead, Godchaux can hoot about some of those experiences. In the years since she left the band, Godchaux has taken her own long, strange trip: She coped with the death of her husband, left the music business for over a decade, and eventually returned to Alabama, where she was born and raised.
Godchaux’s new album, Back Around — the third she’s released under her own name since re-engaging with rock and soul in the Nineties — is what Godchaux calls “my journey.” Cut in Alabama, the record pays homage to the Southern soul she first sang (in originals like “Don’t Ask Me Why” and a cover of Wilson Pickett’s “Don’t Fight It”), covers of Sixties classics (the Stones’ “19th Nervous Breakdown,” the Beatles’ “She Said She Said,” the Youngbloods’ “Darkness, Darkness”), even a nod to her former job with a cover of the Dead’s “Crazy Fingers.” “If people think the Grateful Dead were a simple country band or whatever they think, try playing that song, you know?” she says. “It has an unusual chord structure. But I always loved the simplicity with which Garcia sang that song. He didn’t try to put a bunch of different licks in it, vocally. He just sang the melody. He didn’t need to do anything else. So It takes me back to him, hearing him sing that. I tried to stay true to that.”
Before she met the Dead, then-Donna Thatcher was an in-demand background singer in Memphis and Muscle Shoals in the mid- to late Sixties. Although her name rarely appeared in album credits at the time, Godchaux’s voice can be heard on a slew of hits cut during that time: Percy Sledge’s “When a Man Loves a Woman,” R.B. Greaves’ “Take a Letter, Maria,” and Neil Diamond’s “Brother Love’s Travelling Salvation Show.” She also recorded with Joe Tex, Boz Scaggs, Dionne Warwick and Ben E. King, among others.
And, of course, Elvis: When the King recorded in Memphis in 1969, Godchaux was part of the swelling backup choir heard on “Suspicious Minds,” “In the Ghetto,” and other songs cut at the famed American Sound Studio. “My back was turned to the door when Elvis walked in, and I knew he had walked in,” she says. “He had that kind of charisma and a power about him.” During the sessions, Presley listened to each singer separately and critiqued each one (“it was very intense,” she recalls), yet Godchaux says everyone kept their cool as much as possible. “When we were singing, we were so professional — we didn’t bat an eye,” she says. She and the other singers only went nuts with excitement afterwards: “We had our picture taken with him after the session, and then we went into the International House of Pancakes in Memphis and screamed bloody murder for about an hour, holding up that little Polaroid picture of us and Elvis together.”
By 1970, Godchaux left her studio-singer career behind and moved to San Francisco, where she saw the Dead play at Winterland and eventually met her soon-to-be husband Keith. Thanks to Donna’s insistence — she approached Garcia at the Keystone club in San Francisco — the couple wound up joining the band: “I told Jerry that Keith needed to be in the band and I needed his home phone number, and I got his number!” The Godchauxs became key members during one of the Dead’s most glorious eras; they’re heard on classic Dead albums like Europe ’72, Wake of the Flood, and Terrapin Station.
By the end of the decade, though, the rock and road lifestyle had had its way with the Godchauxs: Keith had sunken into drug addiction, the couple’s relationship grew volatile and Donna was still struggling to hear herself onstage. “Keith and I, we were wasted,” she says. “We were exhausted. And the band was exhausted with us. Keith and I would be getting along but then I’d be mad at him, or blah, blah. . . all that kind of stuff is in the mix. There was all of the abuses — let’s call it that — that were involved in everything, and that added to the turmoil. The band knew we had to be out of the band, and Keith and I had been talking about ‘How in the world do you quit the Grateful Dead?'” At a group meeting at the Godchaux’s house in 1979, everyone came to a mutual decision: It was time for the couple to leave. “It was sad, but it was what needed to happen,” she says. “It was turning into being not profitable for anybody. We needed to go, and they needed for us to go.”
With their young son Zion, the Godchauxs moved for a time back to Alabama. “There was nothing here to distract in the way of drugs,” Godchaux says. “We spent our time out on the Tennessee River, out on the lakes, skiing and boating. Keith was very happy, and so were we.” The two formed the Heart of Gold Band, named after a line in “Scarlet Begonias,” but it was short-lived: Keith Godchaux died in a car accident in Marin County in 1980.
Someday, Godchaux hopes to re-issue Keith & Donna, the out-of-print set of Marin Country R&B and soul that she and her late husband recorded with Garcia’s help in 1975. The album received mixed reviews at the time, and Godchaux doesn’t disagree with some of those assessments. “I have issues with it, like our version of ‘River Deep, Mountain High,’ but I still remember the spirit of it,” she says. “I could almost day by day tell you what happened with that. Here’s Garcia and Keith and I living in Stinson Beach and we recorded it in our living room when Zion was asleep at four months old. It was so special. And I can’t repeat it. Keith is gone and Jerry is gone. I don’t care what the critics ever say about that record. I still love what we did together at that time.”
After her husband’s death, Godchaux eventually remarried — to Bay Area bassist David MacKay, to whom she’s still wed — and her life entered “another stream” (for a brief period, she sometimes sang in church). But starting in the Nineties, Godchaux began working her way back to rock & roll, and she and MacKay started their own indie label, Heart of Gold Records. In 1998, Godchaux finally made her first solo album. To this day, she tours occasionally with her band, which includes not only MacKay but singer-guitarist Jeff Mattson, who divides his time between her band and the renowned Dead tribute band the Dark Star Orchestra. Regarding the Dead’s upcoming 50th anniversary next year, Godchaux says she hasn’t heard a word about any plans but wouldn’t rule out singing with the surviving members again. “Who knows?” she says. “I’ve not heard any discussion. But you never know what’s going to happen with those guys.”
Twenty years ago, Godchaux moved back to Alabama to be with family, and both the title and title song of Back Around allude to that full-circle change — and her coming to terms with her past. “I have many regrets, of course, like you do about decisions you make in life,” she says. “You can’t make up for what isn’t there anymore, but you can continue on a journey that takes you somewhere. One of the lyrics in ‘Back Around’ is, ‘Looking for what might have been can tear you down.’ If you keep looking back, you got nothing. If you look ahead to what is there before you, then life is good.”