A vintage Grateful Dead press photo
Courtesy of the Rock Hall Library and Archive

The Grateful Dead

1994
Category:
Performers
Members:
  • Tom Constanten
  • Jerry Garcia
  • Donna Godchaux
  • Keith Godchaux
  • Mickey Hart
  • Robert Hunter
  • Bill Kreutzmann
  • Phil Lesh
  • Ron “Pigpen” McKernan
  • Brent Mydland
  • Bob Weir
  • Vince Welnick

No band embodied the psychedelic rock era's mind-expanding, counterculture vibe better than the Grateful Dead.

During marathon concerts marked by communal, peaceful atmospheres, the San Francisco troupe combined traditional genres such as folk, bluegrass and roots with experimental, freewheeling musical excursions.

Even today, the Grateful Dead boasts a rabid fanbase of loyalists known as Deadheads—all of whom keep the band's legacy and music alive, well and vibrant.

Biography

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When Jerry Garcia passed away from a heart attack in 1995, it ripped an irreparable hole in the fabric of the Grateful Dead. However, his death couldn't diminish the legacy and essence of a band which embodied the psychedelic rock era's mind-expanding vibe.

The group's music found inspiration in bluegrass, folk, blues, jazz, rock and soul. However, these genres morphed significantly during Grateful Dead concerts: thousands of fan-taped bootlegs document marathon, two-set concerts which meander in and out of grooves and songs, with an emphasis on feel and emotion over structure.

Yet the Grateful Dead were more than just a band: they were a movement and a feeling, a spiritual experience rooted in camaraderie. Dedicated fans, colloquially known as Deadheads, followed the group's tours and, in the process, found kinship and community within each other that transcended the music.

The Grateful Dead's roots can be traced to Palo Alto, California, circa the early 1960s. Music and literature fan Garcia met lyricist Robert Hunter, soul and blues aficionado Ron “Pigpen” McKernan and guitarist Bob Weir. In 1964 the latter two and Garcia formed a folky, old-time string band called Mother McCree's Uptown Jug Champions. Inspired by the Rolling Stones, this trio decided to bolster their sound with a rhythm section. Enter drummer Bill Kreutzmann and bassist Phil Lesh, a student of jazz and classical.

This quintet—Garcia, Weir, Lesh, McKernan and Kreutzmann—formed the core of the Grateful Dead in 1965. They immediately embraced San Francisco's counterculture; in fact, one of their earliest shows took place at one of writer Ken Kesey's LSD-driven Acid Tests. Still, the group also played more traditional venues such as the Fillmore and Avalon Ballroom. In fact, a show at the latter landed the band a record deal with Warner Bros. in 1966.

Fittingly, the Grateful Dead's early albums were as freewheeling, psychedelic and experimental as their live shows. 1968's "Dark Star" in particular became a malleable jumping-off point for improv and jamming. However, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young taught the band how to harmonize prior to their fourth LP, 1970's Workingman's Dead. As a result, that album featured surprising (and welcome) structure in the form of a laid-back country vibe and the fan favorite "Uncle John's Band."

Such traditional folk-rock inspiration and grounding also informs 1970's American Beauty, which contains a slew of still-classic Grateful Dead songs: "Sugar Magnolia," "Ripple," "Truckin'" and "Box Of Rain." These songs especially point to the poetry and nostalgia embedded in the band's lyrics—all are sentimental, philosophical and even romantic.

In the mid-Seventies the band took a break from the road, which ended up serving as a recharge: in fact, they were firing on all cylinders as a live act in 1977, which is widely viewed as the band's best touring year. The group followed up this touring resurgence with two ambitious (although not well-received) LPs: 1977's prog- and symphonic-leaning Terrapin Station and 1978's funk-heavy Shakedown Street.

The Grateful Dead focused on touring as they entered the Eighties. However, 1987's In The Dark—the band's first studio album in seven years—spawned a surprise hit single, "Touch Of Grey." Thanks to heavy radio airplay and MTV exposure, the song landed in the Billboard Top 10, the group's highest-charting single ever. 

Such success was a relief after the turmoil of the previous few years, which saw Garcia's long-term drug abuse start to take a serious toll. In 1985 he was arrested for narcotics possession, while in 1986 he nearly died after falling into a diabetic coma. His health would continue to be a concern for the rest of his life. In fact, Garcia passed away while in a drug treatment facility, which he had entered after a relapse.

In the decades since, various members of the Grateful Dead have continued touring under different monikers, including the Other Ones, RatDog, Furthur and the Dead. However, the band came together to celebrate their fiftieth anniversary in a big way: in 2015, Weir, Lesh, Kreutzmann, and Hart teamed up for multiple "Fare Thee Well" farewell concerts, which were touted as the last time the four musicians would play together.

These in-demand shows kicked off a cultural resurgence for the Dead. That quartet (sans Lesh) recruited guitarist John Mayer and several other musicians to form the supergroup Dead & Company. In 2016 the record label 4AD released Day Of The Dead, a five-CD charity compilation featuring contemporary artists such as Wilco, Jenny Lewis and Mumford and Sons covering Grateful Dead songs. 2017 found Dead & Company touring again around the country. 

Inductees: Tom Constanten (keyboard; born March 19, 1944), Jerry Garcia (guitar, vocals; born August 1, 1942, died August 9, 1995), Donna Godchaux (vocals; born August 22, 1947), Keith Godchaux (piano; born July 19, 1948, died July 23, 1980), Mickey Hart (drums; born September 11, 1943), Robert Hunter (songwriter; born June 23, 1941), Bill Kreutzmann (drums; born May 7, 1946), Phil Lesh (bass; born March 15, 1940), Ron "Pigpen" McKernan (September 8, 1945, died March 8, 1973), Brent Mydland (October 21, 1952, died July 26, 1990), Bob Weir (guitar; born October 16, 1947), Vince Welnick (keyboard; born February 21, 1951, died June 2, 2006)

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1994 Induction Acceptance Speech

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