Donna Jean Godchaux Talks Unearthing Long Lost Jerry Garcia Band Recording

Dean Budnick on July 20, 2016

GarciaLive Volume Seven presents a heretofore unreleased and uncirculated Jerry Garcia Band performance. The show took place on Nov. 8, 1976 at Sophie’s in Palo Alto, Calif.—the venue was later renamed the Keystone Palo Alto—and keyboardist Keith Godchaux, vocalist Donna Jean Godchaux, bassist John Kahn and drummer Ron Tutt all joined Garcia that night.

The source of the tapes, originally recorded by longtime Dead family recording engineer Betty Cantor-Jackson, was Donna Jean herself, who discovered the reels during a recent move. She has no recollection of that particular performance but warm feelings about the era in general.

It’s been nearly 40 years since this performance took place. How did you come across these tapes?

A few years ago, some Grateful Dead tapes were discovered in I guess what you might call the basement of the Godchauxes’ family houseboat. Nobody knew those tapes were down there. After all these years, those tapes were found, released and called the “Houseboat Tapes.” [Those reels, from the Aug. 7, 1971 show at Golden Hall in San Diego, were released in 2005 as Dick’s Picks 35].

But, in this case, I found them about a year ago during a move. I didn’t realize that one of these boxes contained all of these Jerry Garcia Band tapes, and I went, “OK, here we go again…” It’s not like we were hoarding the tapes, waiting for some kind of special date to acknowledge that we had them—they were just randomly found in a box that hadn’t been opened.

So it was a nice surprise and we immediately let Mountain Girl know. She was the first one that I called about tapes. It’s great, since so much time has passed, to find something that people have never heard before. It is our good pleasure to have had custody of these tapes, albeit unknowingly, and to see something come of them. I’m very happy about that.

Do you have any guess as to how they ended up in that box?

I’m sure that the Grateful Dead tapes that were discovered were tapes that Jerry gave to Keith to learn Grateful Dead music. As far as these tapes are concerned, I couldn’t tell you, in a million years, how we ended up with them, but we did. Somehow they ended up in a box in my house, 39 years later, and they’re still usable. It was a nice surprise.

What are your memories, not of that show, but of that lineup?

It was very different from the Grateful Dead in that everything was so scaled back to where we could play theaters instead of hockey rinks. It was very enjoyable on that level because these places were built for music to be played in. It was just a really unique situation to be as popular as Jerry Garcia was and still be able to be in a band that could do what we did in a smaller setting than the Grateful Dead.

It was kind of like a home away from home for Jerry, in that he got this different expression of what he was feeling musically than the Grateful Dead. It was one drummer and it was a very scaled-back musical performance as well. Ron Tutt was the perfect drummer for what Garcia wanted to accomplish.

One of the differences was that a signature of the Garcia Band was all of the gospel music we did. When Keith and I and Mountain Girl and Garcia lived in Stinson Beach [Calif.], Jerry would come over, we would have tons of LPs—the old gospel spirituals—and we would sit and listen to those day after day and then pick songs for the Garcia Band. So that kind of separated it on a certain level from music that was chosen for the Grateful Dead. We just had a blast going through all of that music—like The Golden Gate Quartet. That was a real departure from what was generally played in the Grateful Dead.

Can you compare and contrast your role as a vocalist in the Jerry Garcia Band with the Grateful Dead?

It was much easier to hear with the Jerry Garcia Band because, with the Grateful Dead, you have two drummers. With the Dead, you had this huge sound system that you had to compete with vocally, which is very hard to do. The scaled-back orchestration made it easier for me.

You were a session singer before you joined the Grateful Dead, can you talk about that transition?

It was a tremendous transition because all I had ever known was all of the years doing studio work, and everything was very orchestrated and arranged. I had never been onstage before, and the first time that I was ever in public onstage was at Winterland with the Grateful Dead. Talk about a transition—in every way that you could imagine, I experienced the change to the fullest. We didn’t have inner-ear monitors like they do today, so going into a live setting was very different for me and, of course, the Grateful Dead is a loud band, and it was a struggle to stay in tune, on pitch and everything. I was competing with this huge sound system, and then it got to be the Wall of Sound, so it was tough.

But I loved it, and I learned so much from it, especially the way they thought of that harmony. It was different from what I had experienced doing session work, where I knew where the part was going to go—it was already determined what I was going to do vocally. Then, with the Grateful Dead, their parts would go all over the place. It was hard sometimes to determine who was singing the lead because the parts kept changing and switching from one place to the other, which I thought was fascinating. I had not been singing like that in a vocal capacity until the Grateful Dead, so it was a new experience for me and I loved it—I still love it.

These tapes were recorded by Betty Cantor-Jackson. Can you talk about your relationship and also some of the challenges you may have faced as pioneering women in the rock industry?

Betty and I were great friends. Everywhere I went, she went. We were with one band or another—the Garcia Band or the Grateful Dead—so we were obviously very close. We were pregnant together—her son Cole and my son Zion are six months apart, so we had a bunch of things going on in common. I remember, vividly, recording the Keith & Donna album in our house in Stinson Beach, and she had a newborn and I had a six month old in the back room where we were recording. So Betty and I had, and still do have, a great rapport and have remained great friends throughout the years. I can’t say enough good things about Betty.

As for the second part of your question, I don’t think Betty or myself encountered that kind of thing. We were treated with respect by the crew and by the band. Jerry Garcia encouraged me to write songs and to do more and sing more, which I did. At the time, I never felt like we were lesser than the guys. We were doing our job, and we were doing what was meaningful to us. That was never an issue for me; I never even thought about it. Maybe I should have, but, at the time, I was just so glad to be singing with that band. It was just an amazing thing and it was something that doesn’t come down the pike every day. I was so fortunate to be able to jump into it and be a part of it. I wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world.

You spent time with Jerry Garcia in a variety of different settings. What would you say is most under-appreciated nowadays, by the general public, about him, whether it be creatively or personally?

Oh, boy, that’s a loaded question right there because he was such an incredible human being and guitarist and innovator and, actually, as far as I’m concerned, created a new style of music, which was the improvisational aspect—you can take any song and do with it what you want to do with it and call it your own. As long as it resonates within you, you can make that song your own. He did that with every song that he played. He took so many genres of music and melded them into the Grateful Dead. You get jazz, you get honky-tonk, you get country, you get gospel, you get rock-and-roll, you get everything.

Jerry listened to all kinds of music, all the time. I think that’s one of the joyful things about it. He enjoyed music; it didn’t matter where it came from. He listened to so much music that, out of that love of music, came his inclusion of all of these genres that morphed into this incredible band called the Grateful Dead. That changed people’s way of thinking about music, and brought them into an area emotionally, and almost spiritually, that made them want to see every Grateful Dead concert, or as many as they could get to. I don’t want to be strictly talking about the Grateful Dead here—Garcia Band as well.

He also was inclusive as a person as well as a musician. I saw that man be one of the most generous people that I have ever known. For instance, backstage, if some young guitarist came up to him hungry and starstruck at being at Garcia’s feet, he would take the time to teach them something, talk to them, just draw them into a place of “You can do this. You can, you can, you can.” He was so generous with everybody, which was always amazing to me—how kind he was to people in that regard, and they loved him for it. It wasn’t put on, he was a generous human being, both in music and in his life, and he taught me more than anybody has ever taught me. Just by his personality, his being, his humor, his music, everything, I grew and grew and grew. I don’t know where I would be at today had it not been for knowing him.