Week of April 11, 2016
Part 1 29:03
Grateful Dead 9/16/91 Madison Square Garden, New York City
WEST LA FADEAWAY
THE MUSIC NEVER STOPPED
DON’T EASE ME IN
Donna Jean Godchaux-Mackay invited Gary Lambert (my cohost on SirisuXM’s Tales from the Golden Road) and me to introduce her at the Alabama Music Hall of Fame banquet on February 26. Gary wasn’t able to attend, but he wrote the first draft of the speech I gave at the banquet (with some help from me and some corrections from Deej). Here it is:
Those of us who hail from the Sovereign Republic of Psychedelia were first made aware of Donna Jean Godchaux in 1972, when she became the first and only woman to attain membership in that otherwise very male band of misfits known as the Grateful Dead. But what we Deadheads didn’t yet know was that we might have heard that beautiful voice before, on some of the most memorable records ever made. Y’see, before Donna Jean Godchaux fell in with those West Coast ne’er-do-wells, she was Donna Jean Thatcher, who started her career in the Muscle Shoals music scene while still a student at Sheffield High School, and also served as head of the cheerleading squad. In fact, Donna would sometimes head to recording dates straight from practice.
Donna’s sweet, soulful harmony vocals were heard on Percy Sledge’s hit, “When A Man Loves a Woman”, the first solo album by San Francisco’s own Boz Scaggs, as well as records by Solomon Burke, Joe Tex, Neil Diamond, Cher, Ben E. King, and others. Then there was the trip to Memphis, where she was one of the singers on “Suspicious Minds” and “In the Ghetto,” by Elvis Presley, the King of Rock’n’Roll his own self.
In the early ’70s, Donna pulled up stakes and moved to California, where she met, fell in love with and married a talented piano player named Keith Godchaux. Her friends dragged her to a Grateful Dead concert at an ice-skating arena turned rock palace called Winterland, and as she put it, “I just got my little pea brain blown right there.” With no real basis in practical reality, she turned to the friend sitting next to her and declared, “When I sing again, it’s gonna be with that band.” And damned if she didn’t make it happen. A few months later, she and Keith caught a small club date by one of Jerry Garcia’s various side projects. During a break between sets, Donna summoned up the nerve to speak to Jerry and inform him that – and Donna confirms this exact quote – “My husband is going to be your next piano player.” This was especially off-the-wall given that she had no reason to believe the Dead were looking for a keyboard player. It turned out that the Dead were starting think about finding someone to augment the band, as their founding organist Ron “Pigpen” McKernan’s health and energy declined. To Donna’s amazement, Jerry promptly wrote out his home number and told her to give him a call. Call she did, and shortly thereafter, Keith was invited to audition for the band, getting the gig in the fall of 1971.
A few months later, Donna herself broke into the boys’ club, just in time for the Dead’s legendary 1972 European tour. She’d later recall with a laugh that the transition from the Muscle Shoals rhythm section to the Grateful Dead was like going “from the tightest band in the world to the loosest.” But contrary to their reputation as psychedelic anarchists with a penchant for structure-free jams, the Dead had evolved musically – they’d always had a deep and abiding love for folk, country, blues, R&B and other American roots music forms, and those influences were evident in both the band’s choice of cover material and in their rapidly growing repertoire of fine original songs, which had fully flowered on such albums as Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty. Donna quickly proved to be a perfect fit in the Grateful Dead through the ‘70s, bringing poignant harmony to a ballad such as “Looks Like Rain,” adding gospel fervor to Merle Haggard’s “Sing Me Back Home” and country sass to her lead vocal on Loretta Lynn’s “You Ain’t Woman Enough.” She wrote and sang lead on two songs with the Grateful Dead – “Sunrise” on Terrapin Station, and “From the Heart of Me,” on Shakedown Street – and with the Jerry Garcia Band, she gave us “Rain” on the landmark 1977 studio album Cats Under the Stars.
Her travels with the Dead took Donna around the world, from Winterland (where she first saw the band) to the great concert halls and arenas of America and Europe, and even all the way to the foot of the Sphinx and Great Pyramids in Egypt.
The rigors of the road also took a toll, and the Godchauxs came to a mutually agreed-upon parting of the ways with the Grateful Dead in 1979. After losing Keith in a car accident the next year, she married her second husband, David Mackay – himself a fine musician – in 1981. The couple returned to Muscle Shoals in 1994 with their sons, Zion and Kinsman, who are both fine musicians. But music remained integral to her being, and it was only a matter of time before she’d come back to recording and performing, among her own circle of kindred spirits here at home, occasionally sitting in with some of her old pals from the Grateful Dead, and also connecting with a younger generation of players profoundly influenced by the Dead. Among those new friends was Jeff Mattson, a brilliant disciple of Jerry Garcia who also happens to be crazy about Southern Soul, and who became one of DJ’s primary co-conspirators in her current Donna Jean Godchaux Band – a group that manages to find and celebrate the common ground between San Francisco-style jamming and what she likes to call the “back porch groove” of Muscle Shoals.
By virtue of her history-making tenure in the Grateful Dead, Donna Jean Godchaux is already a member in good standing of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Now, it’s all come full circle for Donna Jean Thatcher from Sheffield High School. And while being enshrined in that place up in Cleveland is no small thing, there’s nothing quite as sweet as receiving the love and respect of folks in your own backyard. Accordingly, it’s a great honor to welcome to the Alabama Music Hall of Fame our dearest Deej – Donna Jean Godchaux-MacKay.
(I don’t have a transcript of Donna’s remarks – you’ll just have to listen to the show!)
Congratulations, Donna Jean!!
Support for the Grateful Dead Hour comes this week from:
Dead and Company – Bob Weir, Bill Kreutzmann, Mickey Hart, John Mayer, Jeff Chimenti and Oteil Burbridge – on tour from coast to coast June 10 through July 30. Complete details and ticketing at www.deadandcompany.com. That’s Dead and Company, on tour starting June 10th. Deadandcompany-dot-com
The Capitol Theatre in Port Chester, New York. On Friday, April 22, The Gipsy Kings present a tour-de-force of world music, blending flamenco, rumba, salsa, and pop. Events, information, and ticketing at thecapitoltheatre.com