In their many years together, the Grateful Dead came to mean a lot of things to their thousands of listeners and showgoers. Inspiring legions of musicians after them, as well as the legions of tapers and "Deadheads" who faithfully attended their gigs, the group's music drew from the spectrum of American blues, jazz, country, rock, and psychedelia, coalescing into a sound the band's taken on the road (and occasionally the studio) for years.
The group started in Palo Alto, California as the Warlocks in 1964, where guitarist/singer Jerry Garcia met bass player Phil Lesh and lyricist Robert Hunter, as well as singer/keyboardist Ron "Pigpen" McKernan and guitarist Bob Weir (both of whom Garcia played banjo with in Mother McCree's Uptown Jug Champions), eventually adding Bill Kreutzmann on drums and changing their name to the Grateful Dead. In the San Francisco Bay Area, they became very well-established as a live act, living in the famous Haight-Ashbury district in its heyday, and going so far as to be invited in as the house band at Ken Kesey's Acid Tests. Their shows with other local psychedelic bands made San Francisco venues like the Fillmore and Winterland legendary.
Eventually signing to Warner, they released their three studio albums before the end of the decade: 1967's Grateful Dead, 1968's Anthem of the Sun, and 1969's Aoxomoxoa, which, although not as exciting as live recordings from that time, present interesting portraits of their early psychedelic rock sound with songs like "Caution (Do Not Stop on Tracks)" and "Cream Puff War." It was with the release of 1969's Live Dead that the band truly found their feet recording-wise, meeting demands for a live record and giving a glimpse into their immense abilities as performers, especially on the recording of longtime fan favorite "Dark Star." 1970's Workingman's Dead and American Beauty are the two records widely considered to be their studio peak, introducing such classic songs as "Casey Jones" and "Friend of the Devil." Following a second self-titled album and the live double-album set Europe '72, McKernan tragically passed away in 1973 due to liver failure, and was replaced on keyboards by Keith Godchaux. His wife, Donna Jean, would be a back-up vocalist group for most of the '70s.
From the early '70s onward, the band's studio output was pretty erratic: After 1980's panned Go to Heaven, their focus turned wholly towards the road, and they would continue to tour year-round for the remainder of their existence. The group hit a low with Garcia's five-day diabetic coma in 1986, but the following year, they scored a surprise Top 10 hit with "Touch of Grey", which sparked anew popular interest in the group, along with 1989's Dylan & the Dead, recorded live with Bob Dylan. Garcia's health problems gradually worsened, and he passed away of a heart attack at a rehabilitation clinic on August 9, 1995. Although the Grateful Dead never really sold a tremendous amount of records, they've maintained an incredibly loyal fan base to this day, and the remaining members regularly sell out contemporary concerts, performing as the Other Ones, the Dead, and as various solo/collaborative acts.
Read more about the Grateful Dead in Crawdaddy!:
"Are You Grateful For the Dead?"
"The Golden Road: A Report on San Francisco"
"A Last Farewell to Bill Graham"
"Good Riddance to the 40th Anniversary of the Summer of Love"
"Record Business '68"
"Shopping For Vinyl With Paul Williams"