Friday, November 18, 2011

Johnny De Foncesca Jr-drums

The 2004 Jerry Garcia Band cd After Midnight, recorded on February 28, 1980 with Johnny De Foncesca Jr on drums
Johnny De Foncesca Jr. was the drummer for the Jerry Garcia Band for a modest period of time in 1979 and 1980. He debuted with the JGB at the Keystone Berkeley on October 7, 1979, and his final show with the band was at the very same venue on March 27, 1980. In between De Foncesca played on the East Coast tour in February 1980, including a show at Kean College in Union, NJ on February 28, 1980 that was released on Rhino Records as After Midnight in 2004. De Foncesca was only about twenty years old at the time, but he was a fine drummer with a spare, swinging style that was reminiscent of Ronnie Tutt. Sadly, De Foncesca died in an auto accident shortly after that, and a promising musical career was cut short along with his life. As a result, Garcia fans tend not to think about him much, not least because it's hard not to feel sad about it. However, despite his young age, De Foncesca has a unique status in the Garcia universe that is worthy of note, so this post will attempt to accumulate the available information about him and celebrate his brief career.

Overview: Robert Hunter on Johnny De Foncesca Jr.
The liner notes to the After Midnight set are written by the opening act, one Robert Hunter. Amidst some other interesting observations, Hunter says
Little Johnny Dee was the son of Big Johnny Dee, a jolly Jamaican carpenter who built Mickey's studio in the pastures of Novato. I remember Little Johnny as a quiet kid who grew up around the scene and liked to work out on Mickey's drum kit, which was always set up in the studio, getting tips from the master along the way. This tour was his first chance at the big time. It was damned sweet of Jerry to hand it to him, and the kid proved adequate to the chance. Johnny, Sr., had died a while before (cancer, I think) and Johnny, Jr., didn't have long to live, with a car wreck soon to write Paid to his future, but at least he got a chance to do his dream for a while.
Hunter, as usual, sums up the story succinctly and touchingly, but with clear eyes. Johnny De Foncesca Jr grew up on Mickey Hart's ranch, practiced on Mickey's drums, with some advice from Mickey along the way, and ended up playing drums with Garcia, coming up through the farm system in the best possible way. Although details are few, it's still a nice story.

Johnny De Fonsesca Sr
Johnny De Foncesca Sr was the brother of Grateful Dead manager Ron Rakow's wife, Lydia. Johnny Sr seems to have joined the scene around 1969, and according to McNally he was the caretaker and carpenter of Mickey Hart's ranch in Novato. While I think that De Foncesca was focused on the building side of the equation rather than the electronic side, there were plenty of engineers in the Grateful Dead crew, so that aspect of the studio was covered. However, if a mixing board was getting rained on because the roof leaked, no amount of electronic wizardry was going to help. I assume that De Fonsesca Sr also kept the ranch going while Hart was on the road with the Grateful Dead in the 69-71 period.

Besides working for Mickey in Novato, De Foncesca Sr seems to have taken on the role of "House Carpenter" formerly held down by Laird "Barney" Grant. Grant, a childhood friend of Garcia's from school days in Menlo Park, had been the Dead's first roadie, but he didn't like the travel. In the end, he stayed home and handled carpentry and construction work for the band in their rehearsal studio and presumably elsewhere. In 1972, Garcia brought Grant some land in Mendocino as a thirtieth birthday present, so De Foncesca Sr seems to have taken over the carpentry role after Grant moved North. I believe De Fonsesca Sr did some construction work on Front Street Studios in the 1970s, which was just a big warehouse when the Garcia Band started rehearsing there in the middle of the decade.

De Foncesca Sr is thanked on at least a couple of albums. On Mickey Hart's 1972 Rolling Thunder album, recorded at Mickey's ranch, "Special Thanks" are given to Rock Scully, Johnny D and others. On the 1974 Hunter album Tales Of The Great Rum Runners, the album liner notes thank "Johnny D Jr and Sr," a sign of how embedded in the scene the De Foncesca's were. De Foncesca must have been a young teenager then, and it had to be pretty heady to see yourself namechecked on the back of an album. There are some nice picture of De Foncesca Jr on the After Midnight album, and he looks pretty Italian to me, not surprising considering his name. How Italians ended up in Jamaica is somewhat of a mystery, but that of course is what makes islands interesting places.

The 1980 JGB and Johnny De Foncesca Jr
I have never quite been able to figure out when Johnny De Foncesca Jr was born, but supposedly he was not much older than twenty when he died. Since Hart bought the Novato ranch in 1969, De Fonsesca Jr would have been about 9 or so when he started going there. I don't know for a fact that Jr lived at the ranch the entire time, or even if he lived there at all, but he clearly spent a lot of time there growing up. As a result, he would have been comfortable with Garcia in a way that most twenty-somethings in 1980 would not have been. Veteran musicians like Ron Tutt or Paul Humphrey had no problem dealing with Garcia as a fellow professional, but Garcia had been a rock star since 1966, and for most younger, inexperienced musicians, that would have been hard to get past.

Without question, Garcia placed a high premium on having people in his band who he not only got along well with, but were easy going, low-maintenance band members. In most cases, this meant using fellow pros who were Garcia's age or even older. De Foncesca was an exception, being so young, but since he probably treated Garcia like a friendly uncle, the vibe would have been much more low key than some star-struck kid. De Foncesca Jr was a solid drummer, though not great, but his style was good for the band. Hunter called him "adequate to the chance," and given the musical challenges of playing with the constantly improvising Garcia, that's a pretty good benediction for a young player. If De Foncesca could hold down the chair in 1980, he would have only gotten better with more opportunities.

Prior to playing with the Garcia Band, De Foncesca Jr had played with a Marin County group called Logos. Originally formed in 1970, the band featured guitarist/songwriter Bernie Chiaravalle and bassist John Lovrien, along with various other people. Initially, the band apparently sounded like Soundhole, who backed Van Morrison for a while. Logos played the Marin club circuit for many years, and De Foncesca joined the band in 1976. He stayed for three more years, but apparently left Logos when the opportunity to join the Garcia Band came up. Apparently, due to De Foncesca's connections, Logos had recorded with Mickey Hart in his Novato barn, and they even released a single "Glad To Know." The Bay-Area-Band site has considerably more detail, including a photo of De Foncesca with Logos. Logos was a popular local band, and played gigs like the Lion's Share in San Anselmo and the inaugural Haight Street Fair in 1978. Bernie Chiaravalle's site has some good photos of the band in that period. (A 1986 Relix Records Robert Hunter album, Rock Columbia, lists De Foncesca as the drummer, but since he had passed away several years earlier I assume this was some sort of error).

Jerry Garcia and John Kahn had mothballed the Jerry Garcia Band after November 4, 1978. When Keith and Donna Godchaux left the Grateful Dead, Kahn had started the jazz-rock band Reconstruction. Garcia was advertised as a "guest" of Reconstruction. The idea, according to Kahn, was that Reconstruction would continue to play with guitarists other than Garcia, and then perhaps Garcia would guest occasionally. There were in fact a few Reconstruction gigs without Garcia, in August of 1979, but it's unclear how much they actually played without him. The last Reconstruction show featuring Garcia was at Keystone Berkeley on September 22, 1979. Garcia and Kahn debuted their new lineup of the Jerry Garcia Band at the same venue two weeks later, on October 7, 1979.

The 1979 edition of the Jerry Garcia Band was a simple quartet, with keyboardist Ozzie Ahlers and De Foncesca Jr on drums. Ahlers had played with Jesse Colin Young, The Edge (with Lorin Rowan) and Robert Hunter's Comfort. I assume Garcia had heard Ahlers play with Comfort when they opened for Garcia in 1978. While there was an obvious economic component to the quartet, in that a four-piece featuring local players like Ahlers and De Foncesca was potentially more profitable than a six or seven piece lineup with backup singers and the like, I think Reconstruction was a factor as well. According to Kahn's original plan, Reconstruction and the JGB would have co-existed, with Garcia making occasional guest appearances with the former. If that had panned out, Garcia would have had a vehicle for playing some pretty far out music on the side, so it would have fit for him to have a simpler Garcia Band. However, by the time October 1979 rolled around, Reconstruction seems to have lost any momentum to sustain itself without Jerry on the bill.

"After Midnight-Eleanor Rigby"
The 1979-80 JGB played a pretty conventional setlist. They kept "Dear Prudence" from Reconstruction, and added back Bob Dylan's "Masterpiece," which Garcia hadn't played in a while.  However, the one really memorable song the band added to the Garcia repertoire was an instrumental version of "Eleanor Rigby" embedded within "After Midnight." Since all but a few connected tapers would have heard prior shows, when the JGB dropped the melody on unsuspecting fans, it always brought down the house, as you can hear by listening to any tape from that period. According to the JerrySite, the debut of the AM>ER jam was February 2, 1980 at The Stone in San Francisco, although it's possible that the jam had been hinted at earlier. When tapes started to circulate around, the "Eleanor Rigby" jam stood out.

Unfortunately, by the time most fans had gotten their hands on a tape of "After Midnight>"Eleanor Rigby jam>"After Midnight," Johnny De Foncesca Jr had died in an auto accident. I recall no article that said that Jerry Garcia's drummer had died in an accident, and when Greg Errico was the drummer for a brief Summer tour, I just assumed it was the usual changing of the guard in the JGB drummer's chair. I presume that JGB was committed to some East Coast dates, so when De Foncesca died, they had little choice but to hire super-sub Greg Errico, playing a few local dates to go along with it. The Errico-JGB played some decent sounding shows, but they didn't play the "Eleanor Rigby," jam, leaving that as a legacy of the Johnny De Foncesca Jr iteration of the Jerry Garcia band.

Looking backwards, it's easy to fall into the trap of being maudlin: Johnny De Foncesca Jr grew up around Mickey Hart's ranch, and Mickey was effectively his drum tutor, and just as he got his chance to play with Jerry Garcia, he died unexpectedly in a car accident. It's sad when anyone dies in a car accident, young or not, and that shouldn't be taken lightly. I try and look at it the other way, however, and say that Johnny De Foncesca Jr was looking for a bite of the apple, like most of us, and he got one, which many of us never do. Listen to Jerry lead the band into "Eleanor Rigby" and back out to "After Midnight," and think about the nice groove that little Johnny Dee was laying down, because that is how he probably hoped to be known.

11 comments:

  1. Interesting insight into this short lived iteration of the JGB. I do believe that "Eleanor Rigby" is interesting legacy of Johnny De Foncesca Jr. Garcia only plays "After Midnight" once more in 1980 (12/20) and then not again until the following May.

    Yet after the Errico tour with JGB, the band goes through a significant change with two keyboard players starting in January 1981, so perhaps the dynamic within the band changes so much that the "Eleanor Rigby" jam does not have the payoff it did in the winter of 1980.

    I have enjoyed these posts about the drummer in Garcia bands. When you get a chance, I would love to learn more about his keyboard players in the band because each one has a big role in defining the sound of the band. You have covered Howard Wales and Merl Saunders to some extent, and Nicky Hopkins a bit, but what about James Booker or the various players that are in the seat until Melvin Seals owns it for more than 10 years.

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  2. Thanks for the kind remarks. As you surmised, I am slowly working my way through the various members of the Garcia Band(s), as I'm very interested in considering how their individual professional histories had an impact on Garcia's various projects.

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  3. Hooterrollin':

    I recall trading a few emails with Ozzie back in the mid-nineties. I was looking for some of the rarer JGB tapes. He said that it was real tragedy that Johnny D had died and that they were very fortunate to hook up with Gregg E. He also said that Bear had tapes of all of the shows from that era and that he did not let anyone (in the band or elsewise) have them.

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  4. He is my biggest influence. I learned a lot from him.


    www.stuartdrums.com

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  5. Ozzie Ahlers says in a recent interview that doing Eleanor Rigby was John Kahn's idea - the band didn't rehearse it, but he pushed them into doing it in the jams.

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  6. I believe his name is spelled D'Fonseca. According to ancestry.com, he was born July 30, 1958 and died March 28, 1987. His father, also named John D'Fonseca was born December 3, 1934 and died January 16, 1977. It seems like Jerry chose to hire Johnny for that east coast tour, but wasn't necessarily planning to use him long-term. Also, I would think that John Kahn would have had a significant voice in JGB personnel decisions.

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    1. Corry, do you have a thought on how to spell Johnny D's name, and what should be the standard (hopefully because it's "correct"!)?

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    2. I looked into this, and there is no consistent spelling of Johnny D's name anywhere (father or son). I'm not even sure I spelled it the same way in the whole post.

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  7. John Sr. had been around since early 1968. He rebuilt the stage for the opening of the Carousel (McNally p 256).

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  8. Hi... This is Bernie Chiaravalle and was in Logos with Johnny d for a few years. He was one the best drummers I've played with through the years. Besides his flowing natural feel I was always impressed with hw could pay a song with the band for the first time and sounded like he'd been playing it forever. A true natural player. We were all shocked when he left us so soon. I miss him to this day. Thanks for the tribute to him.

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    1. Bernie, thanks for the kind memories and kind words. Good drummers are always in short supply, and it seems like Johnny D would have had a great career ahead of him. Did any of the Logos tapes from Hart's barn ever survive?

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