Throughout history there have been many musical “influences”. One extremely important influence to modern music is The Grateful Dead.
The group was formed in 1965 by bluegrass – enthusiast Jerry Garcia on guitar and vocals, Ron “Pigpen” McKernan on vocals and organ, Bob Weir on guitar and vocals, classical music student Phil Lesh on bass and vocals, and Bill Kreutzmann on drums. From the beginning, they brought together a variety of influences, from Garcia’s country background to Pigpen’s feeling for blues (his father was an R&B radio DJ) and Lesh’s education in contemporary serious” music. Add to that, the experimentation encouraged at some of the group’s first performances at novelist Ken Kesey’s “acid test” parties-multimedia events intended to replicate (or accompany) the experience of taking the then-legal drug LSD-and you had a musical mixture of styles often played with extended improvisational sections that could go off in nearly any direction. The band signed to Warner Brothers in 1967, experiencing some difficulties early on with the restrictions of standard recording practices and the company’s interest in producing a conventionally commercial product. As a result, the group’s first few albums were somewhat tentative but showed promise for the future, especially with the key additions of Mickey Hart as a second drummer in 1967 and Garcia’s old friend Robert Hunter as the band’s lyricist. The Dead finally hit their stride with the release of Live Dead, a double album, in 1969. (They were always more comfortable on stage than in the studio.) Two studio albums in 1970, Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty, found them exploring folk-rock and more tightly constructed song forms and, along with extensive touring, won them a much larger audience. In the second half of the ’70s, the Dead recorded a series of commercially – oriented albums for Arista, then concentrated on roadwork for the better part of the ’80s. In the Dark, released in 1987, was their first studio album in seven years. It sold a million copies and produced the band’s first Top Ten hit in “Touch of Grey.”
One of the aspects of the Grateful Dead that made them stand out was their mixing of several different kinds of music. As mentioned earlier, the Dead’s music is a hearty mixture of bluegrass, classical, and good old-fashioned rock and roll. Jerome “Jerry” Garcia’s early or “pre-dead” work was with friend and partner David Grisman. Grisman is a still a renowned mandolinist, but while with Garcia, they both explored the bluegrass scene. This was Jerry’s “foundation” for his musical contributions to the Grateful Dead. Without Jerry’s influence, the Grateful Dead would not have it’s distinct earthy timbre or feel that has been extremely significant in attracting their particular following.
Another contribution to the Dead’s style was bassist Phil Lesh. With only formal jazz training on the trumpet, Lesh picked up a bass and learned as he went while playing with the Grateful Dead’s then nucleus, The Warlocks. Lesh is famous for his jazz improvisational style. This particular style usually finds his fingers running up and down the neck of a five or six string bass (seen right), dropping what are affectionately known to fans as “Phil Bombs”, furiously low frequency notes that tend to rumble in auditoriums and can only be created with a five or six string bass. As one can well imagine, these two aforementioned styles together could create somewhat of an interesting style. Well, it only gets better.
Bill Kreutzmann, the “heartbeat” of the Grateful Dead, had been behind a kit since the age of eleven when Jerry Garcia met him in 1962. His early love of drums allowed him to be heavily involved in the “rock and roll” scene. As a teen, Kreutzmann even created rock in roll bands in which to play, as the interest was barely there. After meeting Jerry, Kreutzmann formed The Zodiacs, Ron “PigPen” McKernan on harmonica; Jerry on bass and another friend, Troy Weidenheimer on guitar, and began working on his deeply intricate improvisational rhythms that he is so noted for. Upon Phil Lesh’s arrival, the Zodiacs became the Warlocks, and the musical style evolved from a more rock and roll/bluegrass to an intermingling of jazz and the two.
The son of the first Bay Area rhythm and blues disc jockey, Ron McKernan grew up in a predominantly black area and found a bond with the black music and culture. As a youth, McKernan began figuring out blues piano. In his early teens, McKernan was expelled from Palo Alto High and also developed a strong affinity for alcohol.
McKernan began hanging around coffeehouses and music stores where he eventually met Jerry Garcia. One night Garcia had McKernan hop onstage and play his harmonica and sing the blues. Garcia was sold. He knew he wanted the man he now called PigPen to be the blues singer in all the local jam sessions.
PigPen was the high-energy bluesman. He played blues organ as well as harmonica and vocals. Pig had an incredible ability to rant improvised lyrics incessantly. While his buddies were experimenting with LSD, Pig stuck to his old favorites, Thunderbird wine and Southern Comfort. PigPen added more and more signature tunes to the Dead’s repertoire, including some that lasted throughout their whole career such as Turn on Your Lovelight and In the Midnight Hour.
When the Warlocks went electric, and became the Grateful Dead, Mickey Hart became a full-time member of the band and the two drummers began working diligently to create perfectly locked rhythms. The two became adept at playing odd time signatures such as the 11/4 time in The Eleven.
Shortly after Mickey was made a member, Tom Constanten was added as a keyboardist in lieu of PigPen. The newest additions to the band, Hart and Constanten, caused the band to take a drastic turn from blues to psychedelia.
Over the course of three decades, the Dead saw other musicians come and go that included Keith and Donna Godchaux, Brent Mydland, Bruce Hornsby and Vince Welnick. All of these contributed in someway to the Dead’s unique style, however the main blueprints had already been set.
The Dead’s variational style led to produce many interesting and at the time, quite unique albums with a wide variety of different songs.
For example, on the album, Skeletons from the Closet (Warner Bros. 1974), Sugar Magnolia has a definite bluegrass or even country feel. However, if one were to hear the track Playin’ in the Band off the 1987 Warner Brothers record Grateful Dead, you would classify them as a mainly rock and roll band. There are also other songs such as Big Railroad Blues off of 1995’s release of a 1972 concert Hundred Year Hall, which are more of a blend of the two styles. It is this musical versatility that has attracted and kept fans hooked on the Grateful Dead for thirty years and counting. They present the unexpected in a quirky, psychedelic, yet pleasant way.
The Dead’s style has carried over and can be noticeably heard as an influence over many bands today. The Dave Matthews Band is just one extremely good example. At present, the DMB is in the process of feeling their popularity amongst college students out. They have decided to follow in the Dead’s shoes and adopt a blue-grassy feel about their music. With Dave Matthews himself as the front man playing lead guitars and singing vocals he is accompanied by a slew of musicians that is almost eerily comparable to the Grateful Dead. A classically trained violinist, jazz sax and drum players, a child prodigy bass player, and a keyboardist are Dave’s onstage buddies. The similarities are uncanny. Unsurprisingly, so is the sound that is produced. Dave’s unconventional voice and the jazzy-rockish musical styling are sure to remind the old deadheads of yesteryear as they pulse from behind the walls of their college bound offspring.
Another band that is comparable to “The Boys”, is Blues Traveler. On the scene since 1984, John Popper (lead vocals and unbelievable harmonica) has lead this band up from the depths of the local party circuit to having a multi-platinum album (1994’s Four). Also with the same blues-rock feeling, deadheads are sure to flashback to yesteryear with one of Popper’s unreal harmonica riffs. Traveler has also touched millions of college kids and drawn them in with their unique musical style, just as the Dead were reeling them in in the 60’s and 70’s.
The Grateful Dead’s immense musical influence has by far been an underlying factor in many bands that we would consider influential today. Bob Dylan considered Jerry to be like an older brother. The Rolling Stones, The Allman Brothers, and countless other legends have played under the Dead’s tutelage. This only shows that they have so greatly influenced the world of music as we know it today. Just as they were influenced to create their own unique style, they are still influencing bands today, thirty-four years after it all began. The Grateful Dead were certainly an implausible influence over the music world today. There is only one thing left to say.
We are truly Grateful.
Category: Music and Movies