Deadicated: Pioneering Audio Engineer Betty Cantor Revisits ‘Skull & Roses’ and ‘Garcia’

Dean Budnick on September 15, 2021
Deadicated: Pioneering Audio Engineer Betty Cantor Revisits ‘Skull & Roses’ and ‘Garcia’

Betty Cantor working with the Grateful Dead in Herouville, France, 6/21/71 (Photo credit: Rosie McGee)


“It was an interesting period. We didn’t quite slow down; we just went in different directions. A lot of stuff was happening,” Betty Cantor says, as she thinks back on the Grateful Dead’s creative output from the late ‘60s through the early ‘70s. “A lot of stuff was going on all over the world come to think of it; although, at times, we were outside so much of it while we were on the road, moving in and out of things. We were a band of gypsies, as they say, isolated on a certain level from the reality outside the bus.”

Cantor experienced all of this while touring as a recording engineer with the band. She was a true pioneer, a woman defining her own path in an industry that was almost exclusively male. She doesn’t get too caught up in gender identity, though, noting, “I was there to do a job I loved—that’s all that really mattered to me.” Still, subsequent generations of rock professionals have been quick to acknowledge her status.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of two Grateful Dead-related projects in which she played an integral role. She and Bob Matthews are credited with recording the band’s self-titled double live album (better known as Skull & Roses), which captured performances from the spring of 1971. That summer, Cantor also entered the studio with Jerry Garcia to work on his debut solo album, Garcia, serving as a producer, engineer and mixer alongside Matthews.

Her name is also synonymous with the “Betty Boards,” a series of 1970s live recordings that circulated to fans following a 1986 Marin County, Calif. storage auction that included some of her tapes from a repossessed unit. Of this, she notes, “I’m glad people appreciate them and get to listen to what I was trying to create. It’s really a time capsule, and they can experience what it was like either being in the front row or standing on the stage. I think it’s wonderful that they’re out there.”

As the auction suggests, Cantor has experienced her share of struggles over the years, but through it all, she has maintained a passion for music. After a period of time serving as a certified nursing assistant in Oregon, she has since returned to California and resumed her talent for shaping sound. Cantor has done this in a church setting and also while working with artists such as Chris Robinson (who created a series called Betty’s Blends), Dark Star Orchestra and Midnight North, for whom she mixed and mastered two records, including the band’s latest release.

You became involved in the San Francisco live-music scene before you did any recording. How did that come about?

It started with the Avalon Ballroom—going there and experiencing Quicksilver Messenger Service, Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead when I was in high school. I was still 16 or 17 when I first got a taste of all that and, as soon as I graduated, I was gone. I had to go to San Francisco.

I had met Chet [Helms’] brother, who offered me a room in his flat where he rented rooms. So I got a room there, decided to go to San Francisco State and, in order to be able to get into the Avalon and be around all this music, I would put up posters for them. Then, I got hired to do the concessions. Eventually, I took over the business office at the Ballroom at night and paid the bands. Then, I moved into the daytime office and went to Denver as the bookkeeper when we started Denver Dog, although we weren’t there very long.

While I was working at the Avalon, I decided I wanted to be a DJ, and my friend Dusty Street decided that she wanted to be a recording engineer. We both helped set up some of the Avalon recordings. We also set up for the Dead’s second album. But she ended up becoming a DJ and I ended up becoming a recording engineer. It was funny. She’s a DJ at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame these days.

During that time period, I started working with McCune Sound Service. My first real adventure into that area was the Monterey Pop Festival. I was basically the intercom between the stage and the sound booth, which was great. I’m even in the movie there for a second. I had taken my break offstage and I was out front watching Ravi Shankar. I had just turned 18, which meant I could go with them to Monterey. [Laughs.]

I also recently discovered that I’m in the Woodstock movie. I had never really watched it before but, when the 50th anniversary happened, I watched it. Right near the end, all of a sudden, I’m sitting there. I was like, “Holy crap, there I am.” In the movie, I looked at the camera, went “Oh, shit,” and moved as fast as I could. I hate being on camera. But there I am documented at Woodstock in 1969.

The first band you mentioned was Quicksilver, a group that is somewhat lost to history. What were they like back then?

Their music wasn’t like the Dead’s, which was a little darker, a little thicker. Quicksilver’s music had more harmonies and was lighter. They were a lot of fun, some of my best friends. I still talk to David [Freiberg].

A few years later, when I was at Alembic, we went to San Quentin and recorded them, which very interesting. This was probably in ‘69.

What jumps out at you when you think back to that performance at San Quentin?

That was an experience. We had the Ace of Cups too, and when the Ace of Cups came on stage, the audience, which was made up of convicts, went completely nuts because the stage was all girls. I remember the Ace of Cups baited them and I started getting embarrassed. I said, “I’m going to hide in the truck. I don’t need this.”

I also remember that, when we started to leave, they held us for quite a while between the two gates because they were short one convict in the count. It turned out that one guy had gone to the infirmary, and I guess they had forgotten him. Eventually, they figured that out so they let us go.

I think Folsom was the most oppressive prison that I went to. You could just feel this vibe. It looked like an old castle. Manson was in there at the time with all the heaviest ones. I went in there with Waylon Jennings, who was totally cool and really fun. I do remember, though, that he pointed me out and said, “That’s a funny looking boy over there.”

What are your memories of Monterey Pop?

I worked the stage and I ended up on a ladder on the side of the stage, which meant I overlooked all of the band members. I remember seeing Mama Cass sitting there and just losing it when Janis was singing. She was totally blown away.

For a while, Peter Tork held my ladder to make sure that I didn’t fall off. We were both very high. Musically, Jimi Hendrix and Otis Redding were both totally off the charts. There were some incredible performances at the Monterey Pop Festival, some of the best performances ever recorded.

How about Woodstock? At what point did you realize that it had exceeded attendance expectations and might well carry a sizable cultural legacy?

I rode into the festival in a limo with Jack and Jorma, just the three of us. The roads were completely blocked with people in cars. You knew there was something going on. They had to spread them out to get us through, which was very interesting. It was a lot of fun until I hit the mud pit of the Hog Farm.

I had flown out there with some gear for Owsley. He wanted his tape machine and I went along to help set up the recording stuff. Later, when I got onstage, I looked out and there were a sea of people, just floating in and out over the horizon.

Growing up, did you set any goals for yourself about possibly working in the music industry?

I didn’t think on that level at all. I was interested in chemistry and physics. They ran out of math for me in high school because I got pushed ahead. I was the only freshman in geometry and, by my senior year, they didn’t have any more math. Since I had taken geometry, I got to take chemistry as a sophomore, which I really enjoyed. But I was starting to get bored by the time I went to San Francisco State; I wanted to focus on the sciences but they required me to take American literature. Eventually, my ear and my heart took me another way. Music was fulfilling, and I was always learning new things.

At what point were you invited into that world? How did that come about?

I wouldn’t describe it as an invite. [Laughs.] I was already at the Avalon, where Bob Matthews was setting up to record, and I was allowed to watch. I think that the reason that they allowed me in had a lot to do with the fact that I was a girl. So they weren’t worried that I was going to take any of their chops. My thought was, “No, I don’t want your chops. I just want to know how this stuff works. Then, I’ll make my own chops, thanks.”

Were you aware of any other women working in similar roles?

There were no girls doing anything with audio at all. I mean, even with Dusty as a DJ, there were very few female DJs at that point.

Did that either inspire or inhibit you in any way?

It didn’t bother me at all because I didn’t think about it that way. I was just doing it. I’m a person. I relate to people. The gender factor is somewhere in there, but I don’t judge you by that first. And I had to pull the same amount of weight as the other guys on the crew. If I couldn’t, then they would have laughed me off. I’d have been off that crew so fast that it would have been ridiculous.

At the same time you were working for the Grateful Dead, Candace Brightman was the lighting designer. No other touring act of the Dead’s stature had a women in a similar position. Was there something about the band’s culture that allowed for that?

Jerry was really not gender-specific on those levels. He recognized talent and some kind of camaraderie. Once he recognized that, then it didn’t matter what gender you were. He recognized your abilities in your area.

I have total respect for Candace. We were the only two women on the road but she did her thing separate from me. She traveled separate—she was a separate entity from the Dead—but worked really hard. I had to lift things but she’d be climbing way up over the stage and I couldn’t do that.

There were times when people would ask her if she was me because she was visible at front of house, doing her boards, and I was up on the stage where they didn’t even notice me. At one point, I got a T-shirt made for her that said, “No, I’m not,” and the back of mine said, “Yes, I am.” That was our little joke.

Candace always worked her butt off and she’d be very specific and detailed. I totally appreciate detail.

You mentioned Jerry’s sense of camaraderie. In a moment of serendipity, the first time you dropped acid, when you were still a teenager, you ended up hanging out at the Grateful Dead’s crash pad. Did he ever bring up that experience with you?

Jerry always loved that. He’d mention the fact that I ended up at his house during my first acid trip and he’d say, “See? That’s cosmic shit. It was all supposed to happen.”

You have to keep in mind, though, that the San Francisco music scene was very small in a way. People were making music together, doing things together. They were interacting. If you look at pictures from that era from various places, with various groups, then you’ll see all the same people.

Even so, this was a memorable day. I had taken my first Owsley cap with a friend that I knew from the Avalon. We went to Golden Gate Park and we were watching the flowers explode. And then, through the jungle, comes Owsley himself. Someone had pointed him out to me at the Avalon, and I might have talked to him once or twice before this, but I looked at him and said, “God, you fucked me up.” And he looked at me and went, “You? What about me?” Then, he walked off into the woods and I went, “OK…” [Laughs.]

So we were hanging out in the park and my friend said, “Let’s visit my friend Dicken.” Dicken was Rock Scully’s brother, and he happened to live at 710 Asbury St., where Rock and Jerry and Pig and Bobby lived. So we went over to 710 to visit Dicken. I knock on the door and Bobby opens it and does one of these sweeping gestures to usher us in. So I was this 17-year-old, higher than shit, and there was Jerry, Pig and Rock, who were all just hanging around. I don’t remember who else was there but, eventually, we went downstairs to hang out with Dicken and I watched this flower explode in the corner of his room for a while.

When I ended up getting home—I still lived at home at that point—I remember my mom was saying, “You’re so tired, you’re giggling and hysterical.” I remember going, “That’s right, mom. I’m tired and hysterical.” Meanwhile, I’m higher than shit. [Laughs.]

Let’s jump to 1971 when you worked on two significant projects in the Grateful Dead’s world. First up was the double-live album drawn from the band’s spring shows that was officially titled Grateful Dead but is also known as Skull & Roses.

I still call it Skull Fuck, which is what we wanted to call it. We had a huge meeting with Warner Bros. They screamed and yelled at us—“We can’t call it that! We can’t print that!” So we said, “OK then, don’t call it anything. We’re not going to give it a name. If you won’t call it Skull Fuck, it doesn’t get a name.”

You and Bob Matthews recorded those performances, most of which took place during an East Coast run in April. Do you have any specific memories of those gigs?

We did a lot of recording in 1971. I don’t think we slowed down, so it all kind of flows together.

Also, I would rarely go out into the audience. I would be set up somewhere backstage or offstage, so I’d rarely see the buildings. So while I can recall recording at places like Hammerstein Ballroom, I couldn’t tell you what the hall looks like. My work space was so concentrated.

I remember that, earlier in the year, we were at the Capitol. We all stayed just across the state line in Connecticut. We had a big farmhouse with a great room, a kitchen, a dining room and a whole bunch of bedrooms that we rented for whatever length of time we were there.

I also have a specific recollection from one of those shows. I was in a room off of the balcony and there was a moment when they went into “Sugar Magnolia” at the end of the night that the balcony was bouncing up and down. When they built it, they put in a lot of leeway for crowds. But I can remember that the tape machine actually left the floor and went into the air because people were bopping to “Sugar Magnolia.” It was quite unexpected seeing this happen.

Another memory I have is of missing the presentation when we got our first gold album from Skull Fuck. It was New Year’s Eve 1971-72 and the Dead were playing Winterland. But I was in Hawaii recording Buddy Miles and Carlos Santana at the Crater, which was really fun. [Carlos Santana & Buddy Miles! Live! was recorded on Oahu at as part of the Diamond Head Crater Festival on Jan. 1, 1972.]

The Santana/Buddy Miles album is a classic that also sold over a million copies. Did that success lead to any other outside projects during this era?

I did a few things for other people but I didn’t have much time. I was really in Grateful Dead land at that point. I did mix [the 1972 album] Burgers for Hot Tuna, though. I came into the studio and set up the drums for them. They liked it so much that they decided to rerecord everything. Then, the engineer, Allen [Zentz], left and said, “Here, you mix it.” So he took off and left me with Burgers.

When I finished Burgers, I had to meet up with Alembic because we were recording the Medicine Ball Caravan. We were going across the country, recording all these Warner Bros. acts for a movie and soundtrack. BB King was part of it and it was pretty cool.

I remember everything was going fine until we got to Washington D.C. and I refused to record Alice Cooper. One time at the Fillmore, he destroyed a bunch of our gear so there was no way I was letting him up there. I wouldn’t have been able to replace everything while I was on the road doing this movie. So I grew a set of balls and I threw him off my stage. Oh, Lordy. [Laughs.]

Back to the summer of ’71, you also worked on the Garcia album. Other than Bill Kreutzmann on drums, Jerry played every instrument. When Jerry entered the studio, did he intend to record an album or was he just experimenting?

He wanted to do a record, his own record, separate from the Grateful Dead. I really enjoyed doing that with just a few of us in there working things out. We recorded it at Wally Heider, in the small studio they had around back. We had the “Anita Bryant Session” sign posted on the door to keep people out, which was really fun. A lot of it was experimental, though. He was venturing out on his own, outside of the Grateful Dead.

Can you describe the process?

Jerry was there, Kreutzmann was there, Hunter was there, Bob Matthews was there and I was there. Also, Ram Rod was there in case we needed some gear moved around. That was pretty much it.

Jerry noodled away on his guitar while Kreutzmann played the drums. We also had a grand piano in there. So he would play and Kreutzmann would play. Then, Jerry would go back in later and add some bass, piano or whatever else he wanted to do.

Jerry wanted somebody to keep the time, so that would be Billy while Bob and I took care of the other end of it—allowing them to do whatever the hell they wanted. And, because we were always experimentally minded, we wanted to try something new. For instance, the “Eep Hour” piece was actually created from single notes on a piano. I’d hit a note on a piano and record it. Then, I’d take as much of it as I could with reasonable sustain at a reasonable level and I made a loop. I did that with 16 notes on a piano and made loops out of those 16 notes. I recorded each of those notes on an individual track of a 16 track. Then, Jerry played it like an organ. That’s what the “Eep Hour” sound was.

It was a trip. We were into trips in those days—“Let’s just see what happens when we do this.” And then I kept doing it and he was like, “Yeah, let me just play it.” So I thought, “Cool, he’s going to play it like an organ.” It was an experiment and I loved it. I thought it was really neat-sounding. It had a certain waver because the loops weren’t exactly the same; there was a certain point at which the notes weren’t perfect. That was fun.

The “Spidergawd” stuff came from these tapes that Hunter brought in. He had all sorts of weird stuff that we pieced together.

It is interesting you mention that Jerry wanted to be experimental and do things outside of the Grateful Dead because most of the songs on the record became Grateful Dead staples.

When Jerry started, he wanted to be out there on his own and he wasn’t committing anybody else to the project. He was only committing that he and Hunter, his co-writer and pal, were going to make some music. He was expressing some other stuff that he wanted to get out. However, these songs ended up with the Grateful Dead because, at the end of the day, they’re just good songs. That’s one of the many things that Jerry did—he wrote good songs. It was so much fun to be in there with him and be a part of it.