Howard Wales on Jerry Garcia, ‘Hooteroll?’ and Beyond

Dean Budnick on December 8, 2020
Howard Wales on Jerry Garcia, ‘Hooteroll?’ and Beyond

On December 7, 2020 keyboard iconoclast Howard Wales passed away. Here is a look back at our 2017 piece on Wales.


In a serendipitous turn of events, the coming week will shine a coast-to-coast spotlight on the music of Howard Wales.

First up is a performance on Friday, April 7 at the Capitol Theatre in Port Chester, NY. The evening will feature a tribute to Hooteroll? the 1971 instrumental album by Wales and Jerry Garcia. Wales wrote all of the material on Hooteroll?, collaborating with Garcia on one track and Martin Fierro on another. Joe Russo will lead the charge to interpret this music at The Cap, joining forces with Dave Harrington (bass), Stuart Bogie (reeds) and Jordan McClean (trumpet), along with three members of Russo’s former band Fat Mama: Erik Deutsch (keyboards), Jonathan Goldberger (guitar) and Kevin Kendrick (vibraphone and percussion).

Then on Thursday, April 13, Sweetwater Music Hall in Mill Valley, CA will host an appearance by the HTK Trio, in which Wales will be joined by guitarist Terry Haggerty (Sons of Champlin) and Kevin Hayes (Roy Rogers). Back on March 11, the 74 year-old keyboard iconoclast performed with the three-piece on KPFA’s Grateful Dead Marathon, generating plenty of anticipation for next week’s show.

Wales has maintained a long and fascinating career, following his own muse while maintaining a particular commitment to improvisation in the live setting. He cites Jimmy Smith and Jimmy McGriff as two of his early inspirations on the Hammond B3. In the mid-1960s, Wales’ prowess on the instrument led him to perform and record with such artists as: Freddie King, Lonnie Mack, The Four Tops, The Coasters and Little Anthony and the Imperials.

Wales even put in a brief stint with James Brown. However, given Brown’s controlling nature and Wales’ free spirit, this collaboration was not destined to last and the keyboard player remained with him for only four dates.

On the more adventurous side, during the same era, Wales was among the musicians who appeared on the soundtrack to Alejandro Jodorowsky’s time capsule of a film, the absurdist acid western El Topo. Wales recalls that Martin Fierro, whom he first met in Texas during the mid-1960s, invited him to join these sessions (and also helped find him a job in a tortilla factory when Wales moved to California around this same time).

Jerry Garcia once stated that “Howard did more for my ears than anybody I ever played with because he was so extended and so different.”

To this end, looking back on his career, Wales laughs and comments, “If you don’t know who you are then how can you be original? Originality is who you are. It’s not being somebody else.”

Wales reciprocates with his own approbation of Garcia as a musician, then adds, “Beyond that though, Jerry was a really great soul.”

Garcia first encountered Wales when the keyboard player was leading a Monday night jam sessions at the Matrix in San Francisco, which Wales hosted from 1969 to 1971. The two soon connected musically and also shared a wonderfully skewed perspective on the world that allowed them to bond as friends.

In 1970 Garcia invited producer Alan Douglas to come down and watch one of the Monday Matrix sessions at which Garcia had become a regular and after the show, an enthusiastic Douglas told the guitarist that he’d like to record the core group. Douglas was so enthusiastic that he approached Joe Smith, the executive at Warner Bros. to secure permission, since Garcia was under contract with the Grateful Dead.

The ensuing album, Hooteroll?, also features steady Garcia collaborators John Kahn on bass and Bill Vitt on drums and Fierro on saxophone and flute is somewhat reminiscent of Miles Davis’ electric band from this same era, although at times it is even more out.

During this time period, Wales auditioned for the Grateful Dead and as Bob Weir recalls in Dennis McNally’s band biography A Long Strange Trip, “We spurred him towards new heights of weirdness, and he spurred us towards new heights of weirdness…much too weird, much too quick…everybody backed off, scratched their head, and said, well, maybe, uh, next incarnation…”

In his recent memoir, Deal, Bill Kreutzmann adds that Wales, “laid down some parts for us in 1970 that we ended up using on American Beauty. His Grateful Dead audition, however, didn’t quite work out. He was a madman on the organ but he was just too wild for us. It was too much ʹHoward’ and not enough ‘’Grateful Dead.’ I still remember the audition though, because he was such an insanely brilliant player.”

Indeed, as Kreutzmann recalls, Wales appears on three of the Grateful Dead’s signature songs from American Beauty: “Truckin’,” “Brokedown Palace” and “Candyman.”

Wales remembers, “I thought that was the best album the Grateful Dead ever made, the music had a really good flavor to it. I was supposed to go to Europe with them at some point but that didn’t happen because I don’t sing. At least, that’s what they told me. Of course I sing with my fingers.”

When asked for particular memories of the American Beauty sessions, Wales explains with a laugh, “A lot of the memory banks were eviscerated during that period. Back in those days the cloud of smoke was heavy. We were pretty young, there was no holds barred, so remembering particulars of certain things sometimes can be hard to bring up.”

As for the brief January 1972 tour in which Garcia, Wales and co. performed a handful of Northeast dates in the Northeast, in support of Hooteroll?, Wales remembers, “Jerry played some of the best blues I ever heard him play on that tour. The Hooteroll? tour that was basically a blur, though. We had two hours of sleep a night and by the time we got finished we were ready to be delivered to the emergency room.”  [The fact that the Hooterall? album art features Wales and Garcia sharing a joint speaks volumes].

After recording Hooteroll?, Wales remained a trailblazer cutting his own path, recording seven studio albums from 1976’s Rendezvous with The Sun through 2014’s Overview. He explains, “All the albums are different. Each has a different concept and all of the music is original.”

Rendezvous with The Sun is the best-known of these efforts and remains a cult classic, particularly among musicians. Some of it references the soul jazz and fusion of the era in which it was recorded, while other tracks wouldn’t feel so out of place at an EDM festival.

In 1998, Grateful Dead Records issued Side Trips, Volume 1, which presents over an hour of improvisation from one of the Matrix sessions in 1970, featuring Wales, Garcia, Kahn and Vitt. This record, like Rendezvous with The Sun has fallen out of print, and one hopes that both will resurface in the not-too-distant future.

Beyond this, multi-track recordings exist from a few of the Hooteroll? gigs, awaiting possible release. Wales himself recently located the tapes from the Buffalo tape and observes, “It was a great tour because none of it was rehearsed. Some people are surprised when they hear that but we were capable of being out of the box. The way people get that way is because they’re jammers. Jammers have no fear.”

Such fearlessness will be on display at Sweetwater on April 13.