Friday, December 2, 2011

Jimmy Warren-electric piano

The back cover to Jerry Garcia's 1982 lp Run For The Roses, with Jimmy Warren on piano
When Deadheads discuss the various musicians who played with Jerry Garcia in his many projects, the same words come up over and over: talented, professional, even legendary. Even younger players with less of a pedigree are generally identified as being promising and good accompanists. These adjectives are testimonies to the high musical standards of the Jerry Garcia Band in its various incarnations. Yet for many fans there's one significant exception to the rollcall of band members: Jimmy Warren. Warren played Fender Rhodes electric piano with the Jerry Garcia Band from January 1981 until June 1982, and no one has a good word to say about his playing. However, Warren was in the Garcia Band for 17 months, and the band made some great music, so Garcia and John Kahn must have felt he brought something to the band, even if fans didn't. As part of my series reviewing the musical biographies of people who played with Jerry Garcia, I will attempt to summarize what little is known about Warren's career, and pose a hypothesis as to what musical goals Garcia and John Kahn were trying to accomplish.

Background: Jerry Garcia Band 1980 vs 1981
In late 1979, Jerry Garcia and John Kahn had put together a compact version of the Jerry Garcia Band, a quartet that included keyboardist Ozzie Ahlers and drummer Johnny De Foncesca. When De Foncesca died in an auto accident, Gregg Errico was drafted for a Summer 1980 tour, but the Garcia Band went dormant for the balance of the year. When the Garcia Band re-appeared in January 1981, it was with an entirely new lineup. All the evidence suggests that Garcia and Kahn had completely re-thought the entire band. Besides a new drummer, Daoud Shaw, who had played with Van Morrison, the new JGB featured two keyboard players, organist Melvin Seals and Jimmy Warren on Fender Rhodes. Seals was somewhat known to rock fans. I myself had seen him play with Elvin Bishop in 1979, and I knew he was an excellent player. Warren, however, was a complete mystery.

Garcia rarely if ever said anything from the stage in those days, so for a long time I didn't even know the name of his electric piano player. I had somehow figured out that Seals was the organ player, but I think I saw a listing in BAM Magazine, which mentioned the new band members and I learned Warren's name some months after he began performing with Garcia. I looked all over for any hints as to what bands Warren might have been in, but I drew a blank. In fact, I drew a blank for the next fifteen years. During Warren's 18 months ith the Jerry Garcia Band, it was hard to see why he was in the band. While Melvin Seals' swirling Hammond organ provided a sophisticated counterpoint to Garcia and Kahn, Warren stuck to the beat on his Fender Rhodes. Sometimes Warren wasn't very audible, and over the years listeners have criticized him for seeming to tie the band down. Warren took the occasional, brief solo, but his role clearly wasn't tied to that.

Garcia and Kahn weren't deaf, so they must have had musical reasons for keeping Warren in the Garcia Band for eighteen months. Blair Jackson quoted Kahn as having said that Warren was a friend, but he stayed in the band "too long." Garcia and Kahn placed a high premium on easy social relations with fellow band members, so that might explain his personal presence, but what musical role did they see Warren as serving? I think that Garcia and Kahn were consciously trying to frame themselves in the style of groups like The Band and Procol Harum, both of them musically attractive to Garcia. Both groups had two keyboard players, with a "lead" organ player (Garth Hudson and Matthew Fisher, respectively) and "rhythm" piano player (Richard Manuel and Gary Brooker). It's a nice concept, but Warren was nowhere near the talent level of either Richard Manuel (from The Band) or Gary Brooker (from Procol Harum).

However, I think that Garcia and Kahn had broader plans for the Garcia Band that are only plain in retrospect. It turned out that the 1981 version of the Jerry Garcia Band seemed to be constructed to take the best elements of the Garcia/Kahn aggregations that preceded it. The 1981 JGB was designed to have a spare, flexible drummer like Ron Tutt (Daoud Shaw), an airy, soulful Hammond player like Merl Saunders (Seals), a piano player to keep the rhythm like Keith Godchaux (Warren) and two female singers to enrich the vocals, like Donna Godchaux and Maria Muldaur. However, the vocalists were not introduced into the band until June of 1981, five months after Warren had begun playing with the band. Nonetheless, I think vocalists were planned as part of the group from the beginning. With the exception of an electric piano, the basic formulation of the Jerry Garcia Band remained the same for the rest of Jerry's career, even though the drummers and singers changed periodically.

I think the concept of Jimmy Warren's role was twofold: Warren was providing some rhythm to free Garcia and Seals to improvise, and his straight-ahead playing was intended as an anchor for the vocalists, who might have found it hard to sing vocal parts in unison when no one in the band could be guaranteed to stick to the basic chords. Although Warren wasn't a high-end player, which Garcia surely knew, the simple role that he was intended to play would have bored a more sophisticated player like Ozzie Ahlers, so I think Garcia chose a younger, more basic player who would be happy to just play a role. Presumably, however, Warren's 'rhythm piano' role didn't bring enough and Melvin Seals was so good that Warren himself could be dispensed with. After a June 24, 1982 show, Warren left the Jerry Garcia Band and dropped off the musical map.

Who Was Jimmy Warren?
The question of Jimmy Warren's roots and branches are more problematic. The only trace I have ever been able to find about his pre-JGB career was his membership in a Marin County 'New Wave' band called Wet Nurse. My sole source of information is the excellent Bay Area Bands site, which focuses on mostly long-gone Marin County bands. The entry, in its entirety, apparently written by guitarist Ernie Stires, says
Wet Nurse was an offshoot of the band The Cascades. The Cascades, formed in 1976 played a mixture of originals, and soft rock. Ernie and Boom Boom went on to form Wet Nurse after the demise of the Cascades.
Wet Nurse was primarily punk, and was truly cutting edge at the time. The band was famous locally for their costumes, and wild antics on stage. Working with a limited repertoire, Wet Nurse was a band capable of extreme highs and lows. The band worked with many notable Bay Area groups including Huey Lewis, Nick "The Greek" Gravenites, and Clover.
In 1978 a demo 45 was produced with "Toots and Hot Tubs" on the A side, and "Bar Wars" on the B side. Huey Lewis produced, and the tracks were cut at the legendary "Church" in Marin County, and Different Fur, San Francisco.
At a time when well orchestrated, and arranged rock was all the rage, Wet Nurse broke through and added a little style, and volume to the Bay Area club scene in the late 1970's. (Ernie Stires)
Discography:
1978 "Toots and Hot Tubs" b/w "Bar Wars" (demo single)
The only other shred of information about Wet Nurse was on the site of Marin singer/songwriter Liz Stires, who besides being Ernie's sister, was one of the first two female singers in the 1981 Jerry Garcia Band. She was also Jimmy Warren's girlfriend at the time (the other singer, Essra Mohawk, was the wife of drummer Daoud Shaw). According to Liz Stires' Facebook page (she is still an active singer, performer and songwriter in Marin), she, too was a member of Wet Nurse. This seems likely, but she was not specifically mentioned on the Bay Area Bands site. The personnel of Wet Nurse was
  • Ernie Stires - guitar

  • Jim "Boom Boom" Hite - fretless bass

  • Steve Bajor - drums

  • Hunter Starbird - vocals

  • Jimmy Warren - keyboards

  • Warner Yull Thorton - percussion

I have never heard the 1978 single. I assume that Wet Nurse was somewhere in the general vein of Blondie, The Mutants or The Avengers, but of course I have no real idea. It does seem a strange background for a future member of the Jerry Garcia Band (I am aware that there is a YouTube video attributed to Wet Nurse, but it doesn't include a keyboard part, so whether or not it is the same band doesn't matter from the point of view of Jimmy Warren's history).  

Jimmy Warren's Entry Into The Jerry Garcia Band
Steve Parish alludes to Warren's peculiar entry into the JGB, in a Blair Jackson interview (thanks to LIA for finding this)
Blair Jackson asks him, "Who was Jimmy Warren, and how did he get that gig?"
Parish: Well, you know something, Blair, you're talking now about the "shadow people" that walk in and out of the scene of the Grateful Dead --
Jackson: It always seemed like a guy of limited talents, and you always wonder how a guy like that gets in a band like that...
Parish: Well, that's an interesting question.... Jimmy was a mystery to all of us. Jerry and him had a nefarious relationship, and one day we were at the rehearsal hall and Jimmy came down with a Rhodes and Jerry said, "Set him up. Set his Rhodes up." And I said "Where?" 'Cause we had a pretty tight little setup, you know. He said, "He's gonna come play with us tonight." I think we were playing at the Keystone in the city and...he had Jimmy play way in the back....behind Melvin's organ....He was set in the dark, in the
shadows and I thought at first he was just trying to learn the music, but it was the only time I ever saw Jerry put anybody in the band -- and understand this, Blair -- through the years, people ended up in that band that shouldn't have been there at times -- (Laughter) -- people that just came in and sat in and wouldn't leave (laughter). There were people brought in -- at one time, Tom Fogerty played in that band, and we had a great time with him. Merl [Saunders] would bring other people in, but Jimmy was something that Jerry and John [Kahn] -- they wanted him to play there, and it was for other reasons besides the music. It's the only time that ever happened. He didn't last very long, either.
To his credit, he tried to fit in and he was a wonderful guy, Jimmy -- he was really a good-hearted guy -- but he had other problems that were overshadowing him being able to go and be a full-on musician. And he did travel with us on the road, too.
David Gans: You're a diplomat, Steve.
Parish: He was a "shadow person," definitely a "shadow person."
Warren's peculiar entry into the band raises the spectre that Warren's friendship with Garcia and Kahn was predicated on certain bad habits, and they may well have been. I would point out, however, that with the exception of Melvin Seals and perhaps some short-timers, most of the keyboard players in Garcia's side bands apparently had a variety of unhealthy predilections as well, and I choose not to dwell on them in this blog. My interest in Jimmy Warren has to do with what musical part Garcia and Kahn thought he could play.

In fact, Steve Parish's then-20-years-past memory is a bit clouded, perhaps on purpose, which is understandable. In fact, Warren lasted considerably longer than some other members of the Jerry Garcia Band, but he seems to have had a small enough impact that Parish has fogged up the timeline. It is also interesting, in passing, to see Parish's remark that "people came and sat in and just wouldn't leave," but that clearly doesn't apply to Warren, since Garcia and Kahn wanted him to stay. Warren played piano on a few tracks on Run For The Roses, recorded in the Fall of 1981, and Garcia and Kahn could have easily used another player, or had Seals or Kahn overdub the parts, so it isn't as simple as to say that Warren was merely a mistake.

The other interesting part is the suggestion that the Garcia Band was performing with Melvin Seals prior to Warren's arrival, and that Warren was simply put on stage at a place like The Stone or The Catalyst without any rehearsal whatsoever. Are there any January '81 tapes of the JGB that only have Melvin Seals, and without Jimmy Warren? That might allow us to date Warren's arrival (update: the first two January '81 shows, on Jan 22 and 23 at Keystone Palo Alto,  appear to be without Warren. JGMF has determined that Warren's debut was at the Old Waldorf in San Francisco on January 27, 1981).

Jimmy Warren's Departure From The Jerry Garcia Band
Blair Jackson quotes John Kahn as admitting that "things got kind of out of control around then. Jimmy Warren was just sort of a friend. It didn't work out and it went on too long..." (p.321). Warren's last gig with the Jerry Garcia Band was June 24, 1982 at the Capitol Theater in Passaic, NJ. When the Garcia Band reappeared in October of that year, Seals handled all the keyboard chores himself. Liz Stires, Warren's then-girlfriend, seems to have left the band two days earlier, as her last show was on June 22 in Richmond. Whatever the reason that she left the band two days before the tour ended, it can't have been a good sign.

After June 24, 1982, I have seen no sign of Jimmy Warren as a professional musician, nor do I have any idea what he might be doing or where he might be living. Given Jerry Garcia's stature, playing with the Garcia Band seems to have been the peak of his musical career, and I hope whatever problems Kahn alluded to were resolved, and that his life has been happy enough since then. Although Garcia fans tend to be fussily resentful of Warren's playing in the Garcia Band, its important to remember that Garcia and Kahn wanted him there, for whatever reasons, and given his 18-month tenure we can't just dismiss him as a mistake. Here's to hoping that Jimmy Warren, a friend or family member will have some insight some time in the future about Warren's role in the Jerry Garcia Band.


13 comments:

  1. I just listened to some of the earliest 1981 JGB tapes, at least the ones accessible to me. On the Keystone Palo Alto tapes from January 22 and 23, I hear no trace of Jimmy Warren's electric piano. Yet on the Catalyst tape from January 29, Warren's electric piano is clearly audible.

    Based on Parrish's remark that the JGB was playing in San Francisco, that suggests that Warren's first show may have been at the Old Waldorf in San Francisco on January 27. However, if there's a tape, I don't have any access to it (if anyone does, please give it a listen and report).

    In any case, it does appear that the initial 1981 JGB was just a quartet, for at least two and possibly three shows.

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  2. http://www2.journalnow.com/news/2011/dec/04/wsmain01-lowman-pete-pauling-helped-give-birth-to--ar-1676045/

    I feel like this guitarist could've been a big influence on JG

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  3. Learned sources suggest that Mr. Warren is currently playing with various groups in the Annapolis, MD area.

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  4. Lots to say. A post or two worth. In the meantime, can I ask anyone to revisit the existing recording by Dick Latvala. Around 2 minutes into "Like a Road" I think I hear an electric piano join in a little bit, audible while Melvin's B3 is soaring. Now, maybe he could get the organ to do that with one hand and be tickling a piano keyboard with the other hand, but I dunno. I thought for a few seconds there I heard it, which would indicate that Jimmy is set up and playing. Beyond that, I have only heard the organ (and it is spectacular).

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  5. I also think I hear two keyboards in "I'll Take a Melody". But I am honestly not sure.

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  6. OK, I have listened to the following shows:

    1/22/81
    1/23/81
    1/27/81
    1/29/81

    And I think Corry is right: Jimmy Warren comes in on 1/27/81. The first two dates mentioned, first two of the Melvin Seals era, are Garcia-Kahn-Seals-Shaw quartet shows.

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  7. I updated the post. Great research. Am I correct that Melvin Seals has never mentioned that he started in the JGB in a quartet format, and Warren joined afterwards? Of course, I'd guess that no one ever asked him that, either.

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  8. Jimmy was/is in a band called Jello Boys? Popular DC-area jam band in the 80s/90s.

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  9. I played in the Jello Boys for about a year and I can confirm that Jimmy Warren did play in the band. Sweet fellow but he did have a few habits that were indeed dark. We had a nickname for him in the band: "Jimmy Jones."

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  10. Unlike pretty much everyone else who played with Garcia, Jimmy Warren has chosen to remain in the shadows. That makes him all but unique.

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  11. i'm trying to get in touch with jimmy. this is Burney C. Warren

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    Replies
    1. Please report on anything interesting. Apparently he still performs regularly in the Annapolis, MD area.

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