The fans of the Grateful Dead, some of whom followed the band from concert to concert for years, are known as "Deadheads"; they are renowned for their dedication to the band's music. Many fans referred to the band simply as "the Dead". As of 2003, the remaining band members who had been touring under the name "The Other Ones" changed their official group name to "The Dead". Deadheads continue to use that nickname to refer to all versions of the band.
The Grateful Dead's musical influences varied widely; in concert recordings or on record albums one can hear psychedelic rock, blues, rock and roll, country-western, bluegrass, country-rock, and improvisational jazz. These various influences were distilled into a diverse and psychedelic whole that made the Grateful Dead "the pioneering Godfathers of the jam band world.
Classically trained trumpeter Phil Lesh played bass guitar. Bob Weir, the youngest original member of the group, played rhythm guitar. Ron "Pigpen" McKernan played keyboards and harmonica and was also a group vocalist until shortly before his death in 1973 at the age of 27. All of the previously mentioned Grateful Dead members shared in vocal performance of songs. Bill Kreutzmann played drums, and in September 1967 was joined by a second drummer, New York native Mickey Hart, who also played a wide variety of other percussion instruments. Hart quit the Grateful Dead in February 1971, leaving Kreutzmann once again as the sole percussionist. Mickey Hart rejoined the Dead for good in October 1974. Tom "TC" Constanten was added as a second keyboardist from 1968 to 1970, while Pigpen also played various percussion instruments and sang.
After Constanten's departure, Pigpen reclaimed his position as sole organist. Less than two years later, in late 1971, Pigpen was joined by another keyboardist, Keith Godchaux, who played grand piano alongside Pigpen's Hammond B-3 organ. In early 1972, Keith's wife, Donna Jean Godchaux, joined the Dead as a backing vocalist.
Following the Grateful Dead's "Europe '72" tour, Pigpen's health had deteriorated to the point that he could no longer tour with the Dead. His final concert appearance was June 17, 1972 at the Hollywood Bowl, in Los Angeles; he died in March, 1973.
Keith and Donna Jean left the band in 1979, and Brent Mydland joined as keyboardist and vocalist. Keith Godchaux died in a car accident in 1980. Mydland was the keyboardist for the Dead for 11 years until his death by narcotics overdose in July 1990, becoming the third Dead keyboardist to pass away. Almost immediately, Vince Welnick, former keyboardist for The Tubes, joined on keyboards and vocals. For his first eighteen months with the Dead, Welnick was usually joined by Bruce Hornsby on piano. Hornsby had earlier occasionally appeared as an sit-in player beginning in 1988 (and he continued to do so after leaving the band), and he was invited to join the Grateful Dead after Mydland's death, but with an already-flourishing career outside of the Dead, he could not commit to a permanent membership; eventually, these outside commitments led to his quitting the band after the March, 1992 tour. Welnick died on June 2, 2006, reportedly a suicide.
Robert Hunter and John Perry Barlow were the band's primary lyricists. Owsley "Bear" Stanley was the Grateful Dead's soundman for many years; he was also one of the largest suppliers of LSD. Eleven members of The Grateful Dead were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1994, and Bruce Hornsby was their presenter.
They began as The Warlocks, a group formed in early 1964 from the remnants of a Palo Alto jug band called Mother McCree's Uptown Jug Champions. But as another band was already recording under the "Warlocks" name, the band had to change its name. The Warlocks were originally managed by Hank Harrison, but Harrison went back to graduate school. After meeting their new manager Rock Scully, they moved to the Haight-Ashbury section of San Francisco. Bands from this area became known for the San Francisco Sound; groups such as Jefferson Airplane, Quicksilver Messenger Service, Big Brother & the Holding Company, and Santana went on to national fame, giving San Francisco an image as a center for the hippie counterculture of the era. The founding members of the Grateful Dead were: banjo and guitar player Jerry Garcia, guitarist Bob Weir, bluesman organist Ron "Pigpen" McKernan, the classically trained Phil Lesh and jazzist drummer Bill Kreutzmann. The Grateful Dead most embodied "all the elements of the San Francisco scene and came, therefore, to represent the counterculture to the rest of the country".
The Grateful Dead’s early music (in the mid 1960s) was part of the process of establishing what "psychedelic music" was, but theirs was essentially a "street party" form of it. They developed their "psychedelic" playing out of meeting Ken Kesey in Palo Alto, CA and subsequently becoming the house band to the Acid Tests he staged. After relocating to the Haight-Ashbury section of San Francisco, their "street party" form developed out of the many psychedelic dances, open-air park events, and closed-street Haight-Ashbury block parties at which they played. The Dead were not inclined to fit their music to an established category such as pop rock, blues, folk rock, or country/western. Individual tunes within their repertoire could be identified under one of these stylistic labels, but overall their music drew on all of these genres and more, frequently melding several of them. Often (both in performance and on recording) the Dead left room for exploratory, spacey soundscapes. Most connoisseurs believe that the Grateful Dead's true spirit was rarely well captured in studio performance.
Their live shows, fed by their improvisational approach to music, made the Grateful Dead different from most other touring bands. While most rock and roll bands rehearse a standard show for their tours that gets played night after night, city after city- the Grateful Dead never did. As Garcia stated in an 1966 interview, "We don't make up our sets before hand. We'd rather work off the tops or heads than off a piece of paper. They would maintain this operating ethic through out their existence. For a given night's show, the band drew their material from an active list of a hundred or so songs. When the bands varied song selection was combined with the improvisation nature of their playing it meant that no two Grateful Dead concerts were exactly the same.
The early records reflected the Dead's live repertoire—lengthy instrumental jams with group improvisation, best exemplified by "Dark Star"—but, lacking the energy of the shows, did not sell well. The 1969 live album Live/Dead did capture more of their essence, but commercial success did not come until Workingman's Dead and American Beauty, both released in 1970. These records largely featured the band's laid-back acoustic musicianship and more traditional song structures.
The year 1970 included tour dates in New Orleans, Louisiana, where the band performed at The Warehouse for two nights. On January 31, 1970, the local police raided their hotel on Bourbon Street in the French Quarter, and arrested and charged a total of 19 people with possession of various drugs. The second night's concert was performed as scheduled after bail was posted. Eventually the charges were dismissed, with the exception of those against sound engineer Owsley Stanley, who was already facing charges in California for manufacturing LSD. This event was later memorialized in the lyrics of the song "Truckin'", a single from American Beauty which reached number 64 on the charts.
As the band, and its sound, matured over thirty years of touring, playing, and recording, each member's stylistic contribution became more defined, consistent, and identifiable. Lesh, who was originally a classically-trained trumpet player with an extensive background in music theory, did not tend to play traditional blues-based bass forms, but opted for more melodic, symphonic and complex lines, often sounding like a second lead guitar. Weir, too, was not a traditional rhythm guitarist, but tended to play jazz-influenced, unique inversions at the upper end of the Dead's sound. The two drummers, Mickey Hart and Kreutzmann, developed a unique, complex interplay, balancing Kreutzmann's steady beat with Hart's interest in percussion styles outside the rock tradition. Hart incorporated an 11-count measure to his drumming, bringing a new dimension to the band's sound that became an important part of its emerging style. Garcia's lead lines were fluid, supple and spare, owing a great deal of their character to his training in fingerpicking and banjo.
For the band's primary lyricists, Robert Hunter and John Perry Barlow, common themes in their work include those of love and loss, life and death, gambling and murder, beauty and horror, chaos and order, God and other religious themes, travelling and touring, etc. Less frequent ideas include the environment and other issues from the world of politics.
Although he intensely disliked the appellation, Jerry Garcia was the band's de facto musical leader and the source of its identity. Garcia was a charismatic, complex figure, simultaneously writing and playing music of enormous emotional resonance and insight while leading a personal life that often consisted of various forms of self-destructive excess, including well-known drug addictions, obesity, tremendous financial recklessness, and three complex, volatile, often unhappy marriages. What is less well known about Garcia was the fact that he suffered for most of his life from a condition called sleep apnea. His sleep apnea was apparently diagnosed before he died, but it is unlikely that he ever took any steps to treat it. That his case might have been relatively severe may be surmised by the comments of his band mate, Phil Lesh. In Lesh's book, Searching for the Sound, My Life with the Grateful Dead, Lesh relates how he and others were impressed with Garcia's loud and widely fluctuating snoring.
Garcia's early life was profoundly affected by a series of tragedies. As a small boy, at the age of five, he witnessed his father's death by drowning in a freak accident while fishing in the Russian River. Earlier, at the age of four, in another accident, the middle finger on his right hand was accidentally amputated by his brother while the two boys were splitting kindling. Finally, as a young man, he was involved in a horrendous car accident which resulted in the death of a close friend.
In June 1996 Bob Weir (with Ratdog) and Mickey Hart (with Mickey Hart's Mystery Box), along with Bruce Hornsby and his band, joined five other bands and toured as the Furthur Festival. In 1998's Furthur Festival, Weir, Hart, and Bruce Hornsby were joined by Phil Lesh to form a new band called The Other Ones. The Strange Remain is a live recording of The Other Ones during the 1998 Furthur Festival. The lineup of The Other Ones would shift, notably involving the addition of Bill Kreutzmann, the departure, then return, of Lesh, and the departure of Bruce Hornsby to pursue his solo work; however, the band settled on a steady lineup by 2002.
Phil, Bobby, and Donna Godchaux sang the National Anthem at the last Giants game ever at Candlestick Park on September 30, 1999 (against the Dodgers). According to The San Francisco Chronicle's Ron Kroichick, these former members of "the Grateful Dead performed the anthem with dispatch, taking 1 minute and 27 seconds. Jerry Garcia would have been proud. Bobby and Donna walked off arm-in-arm as Shakedown Street was played over the PA system.
The tour of The Other Ones in 2002 began with two huge shows at celebrated Alpine Valley and continued with a late October return to Shoreline Amphitheatre and an ensuing full Autumn and Winter tour culminating in a New Years Eve show in Oakland where the band played Dark Star among other fan favorites. The tour that included Bob, Bill, Phil and Mickey, was so successful and satisfying that the band decided the name was no longer appropriate. On February 14, 2003, (as they said) "reflecting the reality that [was]," they renamed themselves The Dead, reflecting the abbreviated form of the band name that fans had long used and keeping "Grateful" retired out of respect for Garcia. The members would continue to tour on and off through the end of their 2004 Summer Tour - the "Wave That Flag" tour, named after the original 1973 uptempo version of the song "U.S. Blues." The band accepted Jeff Chimenti on keyboards, Jimmy Herring on guitar, and Warren Haynes on guitar and vocals as part of the band for the tour.
On September 24, 2005, the Rex Foundation of the Grateful Dead family, sans Phil Lesh who declined the invitation and instead opted to attend his son's orientation at Stanford, held the "Comes A Time" tribute to Jerry Garcia at the Greek Theater. Phil Lesh's absence led to fan speculation about a schism in the band, which was exacerbated by the highly publicized Archive.org music downloading PR debacle, which set tensions high within the community. Although differences of opinion were exhibited publicly by various band members, Phil Lesh helped clear the air about the "state of the band" by saying "A lot of our business disagreements are the result of poor communication from advisors. Bobby is my brother and I love him unconditionally; he is a very generous man, and was unfairly judged regarding the Archive issue." As for the future of the band, Lesh also said "The Dead is a big rusty machine that takes awhile to crank up. I am completely open to doing a Terrapin Station weekend and hopefully we will get it together for this summer." In early May 2006 Phil Lesh announced plans for a 24 date summer tour with a band billed again as Phil Lesh & Friends. The tour began with Tennessee's Bonnaroo festival on June 18.
On August 19, 2006, Bob Weir, Donna Jean Godchaux, Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzmann, played together at the Gathering of the Vibes during the Rhythm Devils set.
On January 4, 2007 Bob Weir, Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart reunited along with Bruce Hornsby, Mike Gordon (of Phish and the Rhythm Devils) and Warren Haynes to play two sets at a post-inauguration fundraising party for speaker of the house Nancy Pelosi. They were billed as "Your House Band" and performed some Grateful Dead classics such as "Truckin'" and "Touch of Grey". Other performers appearing at the event included Tony Bennett, Wyclef Jean and Carole King.
On February 10, 2007, the Grateful Dead received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. The award was accepted on behalf of the band by Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzmann.
On February 4, 2008, Mickey Hart, Phil Lesh, and Bob Weir, joined by Jackie Greene, John Molo, and Steve Molitz, performed a show entitled "Deadheads for Obama" at the Warfield in San Francisco, in support of Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama.
Members of the Dead still actively tour with their own bands — Bob Weir and Ratdog, Phil Lesh and Friends, the Mickey Hart Band, and Donna Jean and the Tricksters. Bill Kreutzmann toured the eastern U.S. in 2008 with Oteil Burbridge and Scott Murawski, and Tom Constanten often sits in with various bands.
Reportedly, the remaining members of the band will again reunite in October 2008 in support of the Barack Obama presidential campaign. Warren Haynes is again expected to provide guitar and vocal support for the reunion.
Chancellor Blumenthal stated at the event, "The Grateful Dead Archive represents one of the most significant popular cultural collections of the 20th century; UC Santa Cruz is honored to receive this invaluable gift. The Grateful Dead and UC Santa Cruz are both highly innovative institutions—born the same year—that continue to make a major, positive impact on the world." Guitarist Bob Weir stated, "We looked around, and UC Santa Cruz seems the best possible home. If you ever wrote the Grateful Dead a letter, you’ll probably find it there!"
Professor of music Fred Lieberman was the key contact between the band and the university, who let the university know about the search for a home for the archive, and who collaborated with Mickey Hart on two books in the past, Planet Drum and Drumming at the Edge of Magic.
With the exception of 1975, when the band was on hiatus and played only four concerts together, the Grateful Dead performed many concerts every year, from their formation in April, 1965, until July 9, 1995. Initially all their shows were in California, principally in the San Francisco Bay Area and in or near Los Angeles. They also performed, in 1965 and 1966, with Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters, as the house band for the Acid Tests. They toured nationally starting in June 1967 (their first foray to New York), with a few detours to Canada, Europe and three nights at the Great Pyramid of Giza in Egypt in 1978. They appeared at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967, and at the Woodstock Festival in 1969. Their first UK performance was at the Hollywood Music Festival in 1970. Their largest concert audience came in 1973 when they played, along with The Allman Brothers Band and The Band, before an estimated 600,000 people at the Summer Jam at Watkins Glen. Many of these concerts were preserved in the band's tape vault, and several dozen have since been released on CD and as downloads.
Their numerous studio albums were generally collections of new songs that they had first played in concert. The band was also famous for its extended jams, which featured both individual improvisation as well as distinctive "group-mind" improvisations during which each of the band members improvised individually, while still blending together as a musical unit. Musically this may be illustrated in that not only did the band improvise within the form of a song, but also improvised with the form. The cohesive listening abilities of each band member made for a very elevated level of what might be called "free form". Their concert sets often blended songs, one into the next (a segue).
The Wall of Sound fulfilled the band's desire for a distortion-free sound system that could also serve as its own monitoring system. After Stanley got out of prison in late 1972, he, Dan Healy and Mark Raizene of the Grateful Dead's sound crew, in collaboration with Ron Wickersham, Rick Turner, and John Curl of Alembic combined eleven separate sound systems in an effort to deliver high-quality sound to audiences. Vocals, lead guitar, rhythm guitar, and piano each had their own channel and set of speakers. Phil Lesh's bass was piped through a quadraphonic encoder that sent signals from each of the four strings to its own channel and set of speakers. Another channel amplified the bass drum, and two more channels carried the snares, tom-toms, and cymbals. Because each speaker carried just one instrument or vocalist, the sound was exceptionally clear and free of intermodulation distortion.
Moreover, the Dead's Wall of Sound acted as its own monitor system, and it was therefore assembled behind the band so the members could hear exactly what their audience was hearing. Because of this, Stanley and Alembic designed a special microphone system to prevent feedback. This placed matched pairs of condenser microphones spaced 60 mm apart and run out-of-phase. The vocalist sang into the top microphone, and the lower mic picked up whatever other sound was present in the stage environment. The signals were summed, the sound that was common to both mics (the sound from the Wall) was cancelled, and only the vocals were amplified.
The Wall of Sound consisted of 89 300-watt solid-state and three 350-watt vacuum-tube amplifiers generating a total of 26,400 watts RMS of audio power. This systems projected high quality playback at six hundred feet with an acceptable sound projected for a quarter mile, at which point wind interference degraded it. The Wall of Sound was the largest portable sound system ever built (although "portable" is a relative term). The Grateful Dead had two stages for the Wall of Sound. One would go ahead to the next city and begin being set up as soon as possible while the other was being used; the other would then "leapfrog" to the next show. Four semi-trailers and 21 crew members were required to haul and set up the 75-ton Wall.
Though the initial framework and a rudimentary form of the system was unveiled in February 1973 (ominously, every speaker tweeter blew as the band began their first number), the Grateful Dead did not begin to tour with the full system until a year later in 1974. The Wall of Sound was very efficient for its day, but it suffered from other drawbacks besides its sheer size. Synthesist Ned Lagin, who toured with the group throughout much of 1974, never received his own dedicated input into the system, and was forced to use the vocal subsystem. Because this was often switched to the vocal mikes, many of Lagin's parts were lost in the mix. The Wall's quadraphonic format never translated well to soundboard tapes made during the period, as the sound was compressed into an unnatural stereo format and suffers from a pronounced tinniness.
The rising cost of fuel and personnel, as well as friction among many of the newer crew members (and associated hangers-on), contributed to the band's 1974 "retirement." The Wall of Sound was disassembled, and when the Dead began touring again in 1976, it was with a more logistically practical sound system.
Fans and enthusiasts of the band are commonly referred to as Dead Heads. While the origin of the term may be shrouded in haze, Dead Heads was made canon by the legendary notice placed inside the Skull and Roses album by their manager Jon McIntire:
Many of the Dead Heads would go on tour with the band. As a group the Dead Heads were considered very mellow. "I'd rather work nine Grateful Dead concerts than one Oregon football game," Police Det. Rick Raynor said. "They don't get belligerent like they do at the games".
Over the years, a number of iconic images have come to be associated with the Grateful Dead. Many of these images originated as artwork for concert posters or album covers.