A Look Back At The Grateful Dead’s Keyboard Players

The Grateful Dead's Keyboard Players

Feature Photo: Chris Stone https://gratefulphoto.com, CC BY-SA 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

While embarking upon the long, strange trip that was their own 30-year career as a band, The Grateful Dead were plagued time and time again by brushes with law enforcement, substance abuse, and in no small measure, death. No role within the group’s complicated hierarchy – or lack thereof – appeared more susceptible to such struggles than that of the keyboard players of the Grateful Dead.

Despite having subjected themselves to three decades of relentless touring and general hard living, the Grateful Dead as a core unit remained relatively unshaken in the face of a remarkably turbulent career.

Founding members Jerry Garcia (guitar/vocals), Bob Weir (guitar/vocals), Phil Lesh (bass/vocals), and Bill Kreutzmann (drums) all remained as active core members from the band’s 1965 inception until its 1995 dissolution. Secondary drummer/percussionist Mickey Hart joined the band in 1967 and, aside from a stint away from the group during the period of 1971 to 1974, would also remain throughout the duration.

This was not the case, however, for various subsets of collaborators working within the orbit of the band. The keyboard players of the Grateful Dead are one such subset warranting specific acknowledgement in this regard, as misfortune seemed to await any musician who dared step into the role.

Ron “Pigpen” McKernan

These troubles began with founding member Ron “Pigpen” McKernan, who performed with Jerry Garcia prior to the formation of the Grateful Dead and would contribute keyboards, harmonica, and vocals to the group’s live and studio performances. McKernan was known for his infatuation with American blues, providing additional musical dimension to the jug band groups which would eventually evolve into the Grateful Dead.

However, a divide would become evident early in the band’s career together, specifically between “Pigpen” and his fellow members. Firstly, the keyboardist was highly averse to drugs in general, remaining steadfast in his preference for alcohol as his intoxicant of choice. This discretion also pertained to the psychedelic drugs with which the band would become heavily associated, and through which the other founding members would form the “group mind” through the Acid Test experiments in the mid-to-late 1960s.

Compounding this were musical differences which would manifest themselves during the recording of two definitive albums in the discography of the Grateful Dead: Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty, both released in 1970. Featuring tracks like “Friend of the Devil,” “Uncle John’s Band,” Sugar Magnolia,” and “Truckin,’” the pair of albums would establish the band as a creative force with regard to original output. The sole songwriting contribution from “Pigpen” to these sessions would be “Operator,” the shortest offering to be found throughout the albums’ 18 songs.

While the hard-edged blues to which “Pigpen” gravitated were not exactly in line with the roots and Americana-inspired compositions produced by the late-60s Dead, the band’s musical ambitions continued to push their sound further toward free-form, psychedelic experimentation. Active participation in this type of collaborative, impromptu composition required a level of technical proficiency on one’s respective instrument that was simply beyond the grasp of McKernan during this period.

Drummer Bill Kreutzmann addresses this discrepancy in his own memoir, 2015’s Deal: My Three Decades of Drumming, Dreams, and Drugs with the Grateful Dead. Here, Kreutzmann notes that, despite “Pigpen’s” effectiveness in conveying the blues material with which he was comfortable, the more complex forms being explored by the band during this time had left the keyboardist out of his depth.

By this point, Tom “TC” Constanten had been brought in to augment McKernan on keys, though his time with the group would be brief and most would never consider him an official member. Soon the effects of “Pigpen’s” lifestyle would begin to truly manifest themselves. Musical issues notwithstanding, recurring health problems stemming in no small part from a decade of alcohol abuse became the primary factor limiting the musician’s capacity to contribute to the Grateful Dead.

But despite his increasingly concerning health issues and a widening musical disconnect between himself and his fellow members of the Grateful Dead, “Pigpen” brought a certain fire to the proceedings which spurred the band on with regard to accommodating these obstacles in order to keep him in the fold. The rave-up sections of Dead shows facilitated by “Pigpen” were an enormous hit with audiences, and the energy the musician brought to cuts like “Turn on Your Love Light,” and “Mr. Charlie” in spite of his own failing health was infectious to say the least.

“’Pigpen’ would be doubled over in pain all day, but when his cue came up to go out on stage and sing the blues, he lit up,” said former roadie and longtime Grateful Dead associate Steve Parish during a June 1, 2023 episode of his Sirius XM radio show The Big Steve Hour on the Grateful Dead Channel.

By 1971, doctors had advised “Pigpen” to refrain from touring altogether, but he would continue to participate in the band, albeit in a limited capacity. As a means of rectifying this issue, the band hired Keith Godchaux, a pianist who since his youth had intensively studied works in the classical and jazz idioms. He joined the Grateful Dead on tour and, during periods when “Pigpen” was healthy enough to perform, would augment “Pigpen’s” organ parts with his piano playing. In September of 1971, one month prior to Godchaux’s first public performance with the band, he was asked to join as an official member.

Less than a year later, during the following September, Ron “Pigpen” McKernan would pass away as a result of an apparent gastrointestinal hemorrhage at his California home. Members of the band primarily grieved the loss in private, as the culture which had emerged within the group was not one which was conducive to displays of emotion and vulnerability. They then characteristically took back to the road, new keyboard player Keith Godchaux in tow, along with his wife Donna Jean, who by then had also become a member of the band.

Keith Godchaux

Several members of the Grateful Dead would sing the praises of the band’s second official keyboardist, with both Kreatzmann and bassist Phil Lesh detailing the band’s initial experience playing with Godchaux in their respective memoirs. Lesh – perhaps the most well-versed of the band’s members in the study of formal music as a result of his own background in composition and avant-garde music – states that Godchaux’s musical instinct never faltered during the first instance of his playing with the band, despite the latter having never previously attempted to learn or perform the music of the Grateful Dead.

The bassist would remark upon the collective astonishment of the group at the tendency of Godchaux’s musical parts to fall perfectly in line with those being produced by the other members, and how his background and musical training allowed him to adapt to the group’s song forms with ease. This intuitive relationship allowed for the more complex musical proclivities of the band to flourish, and the early-to-mid 1970s remains some of the most singular output of the Grateful Dead’s career.

One prominent example of Godchaux’s approach to playing while with the band is the performance of “Scarlet Begonias” from the group’s much lauded May 8, 1977 performance at Cornell University’s Barton Hall. Here, just following the final verse of the tune during which the final syllable of Garcia’s “Heart of Gold Band” line directly coincides with a snare shot on the backbeat, Godchaux can be heard softly accenting the newly softened dynamic with Mozart-esque keyboard runs which accomplish precisely what needed accomplishing in the moment – no more; no less.

Nonetheless, despite how synchronized the pairing of Godchaux and the Grateful Dead had seemed in its earliest days, by the late 1970s, members of the band had begun to grow frustrated with what was determined to have been a clear lack of musical motivation during band performances on the part of the keyboardist.

Specifically, members have addressed the tendency of Godchaux during his final years with the band to latch on to musical ideas of other members rather than working to provide his own creative addition to the collective improvisation, much to the chagrin of Garcia in particular. Godchaux is said during this time to have frequently regurgitated the melodic lines of his bandmates, prompting members to make attempts at “losing him on stage,” to paraphrase Bob Weir.

These issues were exacerbated by worsening personal issues between Keith and Donna Godchaux, whose tumultuous marital issues had begun to impact the inner workings of the group. The couple’s infamous fights between shows trailed the band across the nation and beyond. By 1979, Donna had had enough, opting to skip out on a show to take a plane back home.

Shortly after, the band convened at the Godchauxs’ and amicably determined that the two parties should part ways, leaving the band once more without a keyboard player. In a stroke of good fortune, Bob Weir’s side project Bobby and the Midnites featured a highly capable keyboardist which would soon be recruited by Garcia as the newest member of the Grateful Dead.

Keith and Donna Godchaux would continue to perform together following their departure from the Grateful Dead, and the two would form The Heart of Gold Band – an allusion to the “Scarlet Begonias” lyric – together.

Unfortunately, just as his predecessor before him, Keith Godchaux was destined to pass away at a young age. In 1980, just one year after his departure from the Grateful Dead, pianist Keith Godchaux incurred severe injuries in a motor vehicle accident on his 32nd birthday. He would succumb to his injuries four days later on July 23, 1980.

Brent Mydland

Characteristically, the band pressed forward in spite of the tragedy, and began to find themselves reinvigorated by their latest musical acquisition. In fact, upon his 1979 arrival, Brent Mydland appeared to be exactly what the doctor had order with regard to the Grateful Dead. Lesh would also reserve praise for Mydland’s dynamic within the band, noting that the musician’s warmth as an individual had also endeared him to his fellow members.

Along with his musical contributions as a supporting player working exceptionally within the dynamic of the band, Mydland also brought along with him a highly dynamic voice which was easily capable of covering the high harmony parts previously taken on by Lesh and Donna Godchaux, and then some.

Mydland was also an accomplished songwriter, and would have two of his own songs featuring himself on lead vocals included on the Grateful Dead’s Go to Heaven, released just one year after his having joined the band.

His songwriting and lead vocals would continue to be featured on Grateful Dead studio albums throughout the remainder of the band’s existence. The keyboardist would secure one independent writing credit and lead vocal along with a co-writing credit on the Dead’s late-career breakout LP In the Dark in 1986. For the Grateful Dead’s final proper studio album, 1989’s Built to Last, Mydland would contribute more than ever, taking four lead vocals and accruing four writing credits – more than either Garcia or Weir.

The significance of Mydland’s contributions in a live setting also cannot be understated. His consummate musicianship and infectious energy provided a light within the band during some of its darkest years. The group’s surprise success in the late 1980s coincided with an upswing in the health of Garcia, and the musical interplay between the two during performances in subsequent years was electric, vibrant with creativity and often visible expressions of pure joy.

Mydland was reportedly a quiet, reserved figure outside the limelight, and frequently grappled with feelings of inadequacy with regard to his place among the Grateful Dead, despite having had the longest tenure of any keyboard player for the band at 11 years. The musician’s personal life would soon become plagued with many of the same issues which impacted his predecessors, particularly with regard to substance abuse and domestic issues.

Brent Mydland would pass away on July 26, 1990, in his California home as the result of an accidental overdose. Professionally, the loss would impact the Grateful Dead perhaps more profoundly than any other incurred by the band up to that point. Garcia was particularly distraught, and is said to have expressed deep concerns regarding the group’s capacity to maintain its chemistry going forward. Kreutzmann would assert that Garcia was indubitably impacted by his bandmate’s passing.

Vince Welnick / Bruce Hornsby

Many have postulated that Mydland’s passing was a key catalyst in Garcia’s lapse back into debilitating lifestyle choices which had nearly cost him his life during the 1980s. In keeping true with the Grateful Dead philosophy, the band would press on, incorporating former Tubes keyboardist Vince Welnick into the live lineup, along with Bruce Hornsby who would tour with the band in a part-time capacity.

Despite some memorable moments – Welnick’s contributions to the jam section of “Bird Song” at Oakland Coliseum on December 30, 1991, comes to mind – the band seemed to be running on fumes throughout the 1990s. Garcia’s health had taken a nosedive, and the affect on the Dead’s live shows was palpable. The singer would develop a proclivity for blanking on lyrics during this period, prompting the band to begin utilizing teleprompters to assist in live performances. This, paired with the musician’s waning voice – which had been steadily declining since as far back as 1978 – made for some of the most inconsistent performances of the band’s career.

Still, Garcia’s guitar playing remained as vibrant as ever much of the time, and the early 1990s had its share of electric moments in spite of the darkening condition of the proceedings. However, by the final year of activity within the band, Garcia – historically, a sizeable figure, relatively speaking – appeared astonishingly frail on stage, struggling to physically hit the musical marks which had come so naturally even during the darkest of times.

The band would play their final show on July 9, 1995 at Soldier Field. The performance featured moving renditions of tunes like “So Many Roads,” “Black Muddy River,” and “Box of Rain,” the latter songs serving as the show’s encore and consequently becoming immortalized as the last numbers ever to be played by The Grateful Dead.

A role which was essential to the forward motion of the band, keyboardists of the Grateful Dead invariably found themselves in the daunting position of keeping pace with a group of highly creative and idiosyncratic musicians, as well as continuing and developing a musical legacy cherished by countless fans.

Such seismic expectations are nothing at which to scoff, and the pressures and lifestyle which accompanied operating at such close proximity to the orbit of the band would ultimately claim the lives of each of the official keyboard players of the Grateful Dead. Each musician’s contribution remains an indelible facet of the band’s music, however, and each established their own lasting legacy during their time working with the band.

A Look Back At The Grateful Dead’s Keyboard Players article published on Classic RockHistory.com© 2023

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