Deadicated: Jerry Garcia Band’s Jacklyn LaBranch

Dean Budnick on October 17, 2016

When the Jerry Garcia Symphonic Celebration returned this summer, a familiar face accompanied Warren Haynes and company. Jacklyn LaBranch, who joined the Jerry Garcia Band in 1982 and remained a member through Garcia’s death in 1995, contributed vocals on both legs of the tour. LaBranch’s positive presence provided a direct link to the life and work of Garcia, as well as to their shared Bay Area origins.

You were living around the corner from the Grateful Dead in San Francisco when they moved into their house on 710 Ashbury St. in 1966.

The Grateful Dead moved into my neighborhood—that’s what I always told Jerry. I loved Haight Street. You didn’t have to go downtown; everything you needed was there: the movies, bowling, candy. It was just a great environment— Golden Gate Park, Kezar [Stadium]. Then, when the hippies came in, it got to the point in ‘67 where I was outside playing in my front yard and tour buses were driving around. The streets were crawling with all the people coming in, but it wasn’t bad. We accepted it and went about our business. It was great. There were free concerts in the park in the Panhandle. And later, when I found out from Jerry that they had moved around the corner on Ashbury, it was like, “Wow, interesting.” I can’t stress enough how wonderful it was to grow up during that time— other than maybe the parking. Parking was always bad in that neighborhood. People complain about it now but parking was bad back then, too.

Did you ever see the Dead perform in the Panhandle?

Maybe. I was young and we didn’t know the names of the bands. We would go down after church to the Panhandle, and there would be some musicians playing, but we didn’t pay attention to who they were.

Your introduction to the Jerry Garcia Band came through Melvin Seals. How familiar were you with Jerry Garcia and his music at that time?

I wasn’t familiar at all. Melvin asked me in ‘82. I was in a community choir and our director moved out of town. We never disbanded, but we kind of stopped singing, and I did some recording work with Melvin in his studio. He asked me if I was interested in singing with the band and I said, “Sure, why not?” That’s how I got into it.

Then, Melvin and Dee Dee [Dickerson] and I started rehearsing the songs together. Music was music to me, so I didn’t really question the music or the lyrics. I played in the orchestra and I always played the piano. I remember “Dear Prudence” and “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” were the ones I started with. I really liked singing them. Then, after we learned all the songs with Melvin, we rehearsed with the band. That’s when I met Jerry and put it all together.

The first time it became real was at the first gig we did. I think it was at The Stone. We had to walk from the dressing room to the stage, and as I looked out, I said to myself: “Where did all these hippies come from? Where have they been?” [Laughs.]

I’ll tell you, though, I really understood the love the Deadheads had for Jerry when he went into a diabetic coma [in 1986]. He was down for a while and his first gig back was not with the Grateful Dead, it was with us at The Stone. And when Jerry came out, you would have thought God himself had stepped out on that stage. It wasn’t the yelling and shouting, it was the love in that room. It was palpable—you could feel it. They were so happy to have Jerry Garcia back. It was an experience I’ve never felt before or since.

How would you describe Jerry as a bandleader?

He was easy. He was a Leo— he was cool, he was chill. We’d rehearse, but he didn’t rehearse things to death. We’d practice to get the general idea and then we’d finish it off at the gig. I thought he was underrated as far as the general music scene. I think because of the hippies and the Deadheads, people were put off by the music. But it’s cohesive, it’s rhythmic—it’s good music. Even though a song might last two hours, it’s good. [Laughs.] To this day, when I’m somewhere and music is playing, I can hear his guitar and say, “That sounds like Jerry.”

This past summer, you toured with the Jerry Garcia Symphonic Celebration. How did that come about and what were some of the highlights?

The girl who normally did it [Alecia Chakour] was on tour [with Tedeschi Trucks Band] and Jerry’s girls recommended me. I love the symphony behind us; it’s so beautiful. It’s different and the same. Warren Haynes is another great musician. He reminds me a lot of Jerry. I know he’s not Jerry, but he flows right into it.

My favorite songs have been “Terrapin Station,” “Scarlet Begonias” and “Bird Song,” but it’s still new to me, so I love them all. I went to Red Rocks for the first time and having Melvin there was fun. [Seals guested with the group for their Red Rocks gig on Garcia’s birthday, August 1.]

You’ve kept a lower profile as of late, at least in terms of public performances. Do you still sing in your local choir?

Even when I was with Jerry, I always had a day job. When I got into the band, I was working for Wells Fargo, and I took a leave for six months, came back, and then I got fully vested for retirement so I stopped working for them. Someone told me I’d never find a permanent job that would let me go on tour, so I started working as a contractor because then I was in control, and when I would go on tour I could leave. But I was able to find jobs that would let me go on tour. What eventually happened after Jerry Garcia passed is I went back to school and got my AA [Associate of Arts degree], and then I went to California State University, East Bay and got my Bachelor of Science in computer science. In January 2000, I started working for Dreyer’s Ice Cream, and then it got bought by Nestlé. I’ve been working with them ever since as an IT worker.

This past February, Melvin asked me and Gloria [Jones, fellow longtime JGB vocalist] to sing with him at The Warfield. She did, but I couldn’t because I was going to Africa, an awesome trip I had been planning for a long while. He just asked me if I could do it next February, so I will.

I sing in the church choir and I fill in for another musician at another church when he’s on vacation. I still play piano; I still sing. I have a little piano student. I’ll always be involved in music, in one form or another, no matter what. Always.