Friday, August 26, 2011

Ron Tutt-Backing Vocals

Note Ronnie Tutt's vocal mic on the cover of the Let It Rock cd
Ron Tutt is one of rock's great drummers, by any accounting. He was the drummer for Elvis Presley from 1968-77, and apparently Elvis's band leader as well, and for the last three years (75-77) he was in the Jerry Garcia Band at the same time. He also did a zillion sessions and has played on too many great records to count. From the 1980s onward, he has also been Neil Diamond's drummer. Whatever you might think of Diamond's music, he is a hugely popular singer who can afford anyone for his band, so it's a sign of Tutt's talent that he got the call.

However, one completely unremarked fact about Tutt's tenure in the Jerry Garcia Band was that he also sang harmony vocals on a few songs. There are a number of points to make about this obscure fact, but I don't believe Tutt has ever commented on it, nor were Jerry Garcia or John Kahn ever asked about it. Tutt has only been interviewed about playing with Jerry Garcia very rarely, and I don't believe his singing ever came up. I happen to think that one of the reasons that Tutt liked playing in the Jerry Garcia Band was that he got to sing harmony vocals. This is complete speculation on my part, of course, but that is what this blog is for. So until someone interviews Tutt and asks him about this, here's my take on the curious significance of one of rock's great drummers singing harmonies on stage with Jerry Garcia.

Ron Tutt
Ron Tutt was a trained drummer, playing in a well regarded jazz program at North Texas State. He had played trumpet and violin as a child (just like Phil Lesh...hmm), and seems to have come to the drums somewhat later. Tutt was a successful studio musician in Dallas and Memphis, and through those connections he got a chance to audition for Elvis Presley. When Elvis returned to touring in 1969, his core group was his "TCB" (Taking Care of Business) Band, with James Burton on guitar, Jerry Scheff on bass, Glen Hardin on piano and Tutt on drums. Although he missed a leg or two of a tour here and there (such as in early 1970). Tutt stayed with Elvis all the way until his final tour in 1977.

Deadheads who are interested in Tutt's drumming would do well to look at the 1972 movie Elvis On Tour, which showcases Tutt's disciplined and high powered drumming to good effect. Elvis's show was a huge production, with singers, an orchestra and numerous sidemen, and Tutt absolutely drives the sound in a completely different way than he did with the Jerry Garcia Band. One reason that I think Tutt enjoyed alternating tours with Elvis and Jerry was that he had a chance to excel in both a structured and unstructured settings, as Tutt was the rare musician who thrived in both.

Singing Drummers
It's a convention of rock music that drummers don't sing. The joke is that drummers take up the drums because they can't carry a tune in the first place, but that is only true in junior high school. Real drummers are listening to the music they are playing along with, and even if they aren't skilled at other instruments--many are--they at least have to have an intuitive feel for melody and harmony. One larger issue is that drumming is a much more physical activity than playing the guitar or piano, and it can be difficult to have the breath control to sing while playing the drums.

Another sixties issue with singing drummers was the difficulty of the drummer actually hearing the music well enough to stay in tune. Monitors were not great back then, and in many cases the drummers had to play as loud as they could to make up for deficient sound system, yet another barrier to singing. The typical rock band cliche was that the drummer sang one song, usually to give the lead singers a rest. It usually had a simple beat--so he could sing while drumming--and not much of a melody. Famous examples of this include Ringo singing "Act Naturally" with The Beatles, and Keith Moon's immortal "Bell Boy" from The Who's Quadrophenia album.

There were a few singing drummers in the sixties, but very few of them were really reknowned for both vocals and drumming at the same time. Buddy Miles was a high energy soul singer, which fit in well with his drumming style. Karen Carpenter had a beautiful voice, but she played quiet pop music, which in turn fit in well with her drumming style. Only Levon Helm really stands out as a major rock singer who was also a fine drummer. As far as the Grateful Dead went, Mickey Hart's few vocal attempts over the years have really emphasized what a fine drummer he is.

All in all, the cliche that drummers don't sing is largely true. With the advent of considerably improved equipment, such as ear monitors, drummers with decent voices are much more able to participate on stage, but back in the day a singing drummer was little more than a novelty. Thus, it was quite a surprise to me when I saw the Jerry Garcia Band for the first time, at the Concord Pavilion on October 17, 1975, and Ron Tutt sang harmonies on some country song I'd never heard of (which turned out to be "Catfish John"). Back in '75, singing drummers were rare, and "harmony singing drummers" was a misnomer, since there was only Levon Helm, so it wasn't plural.

The Jerry Garcia Band with Nicky Hopkins
When the Jerry Garcia and John Kahn decided to stop working with Merl Saunders in 1975, the switch to Nicky Hopkins also marked a distinct transformation in the sound of Garcia's "other" band. The Garcia/Saunders aggregation, under various names, had derived from a soul and jazz feel. Although many of the songs they performed were actually rock songs, such as Bob Dylan songs, they were done in a modified R&B style, appropriate to a band featuring Merl Saunders's funky Hammond organ playing. Hopkins, however, not only played grand piano, he played in a remarkable mixture of American piano styles, from ranging from Chicago blues to New Orleans jazz, with nods to everybody from Jerry Lee Lewis to Horace Silver along the way. The new Jerry Garcia Band had a more "Americana" sound that was distinct from the R&B sound of Garcia/Saunders.

One characteristic of the Garcia/Saunders sound was that while there was a variety of lead vocalists over the years, there were almost no shared or harmony vocals. Jerry and Merl sang lead on different songs, and at various times Sarah Fulcher, Tom Fogerty and occasional guests also sang lead, but shared vocals were very rare. I can think of no song where Jerry and Merl sang together, for example. The only song I can think of where there backing vocals at all were some rare performances of "WPLJ," sung by Fogerty, with backups on the chorus by Garcia. Call and response style vocals are very common in soul music, but Garcia and Saunders never used that format in any performance that I can think of, nor was harmony singing part of the mixture.

Once Hopkins joined the band, however, the door was open for some more honky tonk sounds that featured more country style vocals, very much in tune with Garcia's tastes. Garcia has an effective singing voice, in my opinion, but it is a little thin, and it sounds better with harmonies on many choruses, a pattern that defined many Dead songs. One problem with the 1975 Garcia Band, however, was the absence of harmony vocalists. John Kahn never sang on stage or in the studio, to my knowledge, so he was not a candidate. Hopkins actually liked to sing, but he was an absolutely terrible singer. In fact for the first few '75 JGB shows Hopkins sang lead on a few of his own songs (from his solo albums), and he was just dreadful. There was no chance that Hopkins could sing harmony, since he couldn't effectively carry a tune.

That left Tutt. Tutt actually has a nice singing voice, a bit thin and reedy, but in fact that made it a nice fit for Jerry's voice. I have always wondered how this came about. When the band first rehearsed "Catfish John," who suggested singing harmony? Jerry? Ron Tutt? I have to think Garcia ruminated over the need for some harmony, and Tutt offered to sing the part. Since we know that Tutt played had played other instruments, it's not like he didn't know what a harmony part would be. I have to guess that no one had ever offered to let Tutt sing harmonies before. He was such a good drummer that he seemed to be at ease while playing, so that must have made it easy to control his voice, and the Dead always have great sound, so the monitors must have allowed him to hear Garcia's vocals.  I'm not aware of Tutt singing harmonies with any other group or on any other recordings.

Writing a long post about Jerry Garcia's drummer singing harmonies may seem trivial, and indeed trivial Grateful Dead scholarship is the purpose of this blog (the research blog is elsewhere). Nonetheless, I think harmony vocals were a very big part of the sound that Garcia was looking for with his own electric group. In general, the trend over the next several years was towards increased harmony vocals, and Ron Tutt's contribution in 1975 was the first indicator of that, however minor that may have seemed at the time.

It's worth noting that even when Donna Godchaux joined the band, Tutt continued to sing harmonies. Not on every song, of course, as with Donna around it was less critical, but here and there Garcia would have been looking for a three part harmony and Tutt could handle it. It's true that Keith Godchaux had a mic as well, but in my experience he only joined in on the chorus parts of "Don't Let Go" and "Who Was John," and otherwise avoided singing. The fact that Tutt continued to sing harmonies even after Donna joined the band indicates both that Garcia thought the sound was important and that Tutt enjoyed doing it. By the time Maria Muldaur joined the band, Tutt had left, but the three part harmony sound remained mostly intact for the life of the Jerry Garcia Band, albeit with a variety of different singers.

Ron Tutt does not seem interested in giving interviews about his time with Jerry Garcia. He still speaks fondly of Garcia's music, but based on an interview on an Elvis site, he seems bothered by financial issues related to the release of various Jerry Garcia Band archival material. Given that Tutt and Kahn were actually partners with Garcia in the original Jerry Garcia Band, this is probably no small matter to him. As a result of these serious issues, however, there's no chance to ask him how he came to be singing in the Jerry Garcia Band. Tutt, great a drummer as he is, probably never got asked to sing, and appreciated the chance to show his talents. Garcia, in turn, seems to have been intrigued by the possibility of harmonies and took his music further in that direction, all because he had a drummer who could sing.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Grateful Dead Hiring Practices (Ian McLagan Edition)

The cover of Ian McLagan's 2000 autobiography All The Rage (Billboard Books)
Ian McLagan was the organ and piano player for both the original Small Faces with Steve Marriott and the Faces with Rod Stewart. Among many other great performances, he played keyboards on "Itchycoo Park," "Maggie May" and "Stay With Me." He also played with the Rolling Stones in the late 70s and 80s (from Some Girls onward), Bonnie Raitt and numerous others. He is a flexible, versatile player, and, as it turns out from his 2000 autobiography All The Rage (Billboard Books) one of rock's great storytellers. All The Rage is one of the great rock books, from a true insider who knew and knows everybody, warm to his friends, wry about his might-have-beens and matter of fact about the shortcomings of his famous bandmates. Every rock fan should read it.

One of the most unexpected footnotes in the book was his remark that he was asked to audition for the Grateful Dead keyboard chair in the Fall of 1990, after the unfortunate death of Brent Mydland. According to McLagan, the offer to audition came from his old friend Chesley Millikin, an Englishman who among many other things seems to have booked the various Grateful Dead European tours, and seems to have been some sort of European agent for the band. According to McLagan, Millikin said that he could live anywhere (at the time he lived in Austin, TX) and he would be promised a minimum of $250,000. McLagan turned down the opportunity, saying that the Dead's sound had never grabbed him and he didn't think it would work out.

At the time McLagan's book was published, there had been nary a hint that McLagan had been asked to audition. Over the years, people have noticed the remark, and McLagan has been asked about it various times. Based on some casual web surfing, it seems that McLagan now says he didn't audition for the Dead "because they sucked." Cruel as that sounds, in the context of McLagan's autobiography, it's just another remark. McLagan likes to tell stories, and he's more than willing to tell stories on himself or his friends, all with a spirit of charm and good humor. I have no doubt he would have said "the Grateful Dead suck" to Garcia's face, and they all would have laughed and auditioned him anyway. McLagan has figured he can get some mileage out of the non-audition, and he's doing it: good for him, in the spirit of the laddish Faces.

My interest in McLagan's non-audition, however, was not how he would have sounded with the Grateful Dead. In fact, much as I love the Faces and McLagan, I don't think he would have made a good choice as the Grateful Dead's keyboard player, and I think he knew it. I do think he would have made an awesome choice as keyboard player for the Jerry Garcia Band, and Ronnie Wood would have dropped by, and--well, it didn't happen. Nonetheless, the issue for me isn't McLagan, it's Chesley Millikin. When Brent Mydland died and the band needed a new keyboard player, what process was used to find a replacement? How was Millikin, or anyone, involved? To put it in more formal terms: looking at the Grateful Dead as an institution, what was the decision making process by which players were asked to audition?

The Grateful Dead As Institution
The Grateful Dead had had very few personnel changes over the years. Mickey Hart was simply invited, Tom Constanten was sort of "tried out" and then invited, Keith Godchaux mysteriously 'appeared' when needed and Brent Mydland was talent spotted by Weir and then Garcia before Keith's inevitable departure. However, when Brent died in 1990, while the Dead needed a new keyboard player as soon as possible, the band's status and economic obligations insured that the choice of a new player could not be made in isolation, nor delayed.

With no obvious candidate, the Grateful Dead had little choice but to hold auditions. However, arranging the auditions so that the various candidates could jam with the band meant a major organizational effort. While this subject may not be of interest to everyone, anyone who has every worked in a fair sized corporation or other institution, such as a government agency or University will appreciate the implicit choices that the band had to have made. Since no band member or inside source has every discussed this process, I am left with little to do but speculate based on some very scarce information, but that is the purpose of this blog after all.

Although learned Political Scientists may be able to provide a sophisticated analysis, as a layman there seems to be two basic institutional choices: either a "Hiring Manager" or a "Hiring Committee." In most corporations, a given manager makes the choice about new hires, subject to oversight by his or her own boss, Human Resources and so on. In many not-for-Profit entities, particularly Universities, where a group of people make the final decision, a small "Committee" of two or three look for candidates, and those candidates are presented to the hiring group as a whole.

It seems pretty clear that there was no "Hiring Manager" for the keyboard player of the Grateful Dead. The "hiring" entity would have been the band as a whole, but it is both unlikely and unwieldy to have the entire band meeting to discuss not only candidates but the tedious mechanics of auditions. It seems clear that there had to have been a small "Committee," even if not called that, consisting of a couple of band members and a couple of other functionaries. Weir, Lesh or Hart would have been the band members, but not all three, and maybe only one, and perhaps one or two other Grateful Dead insiders, such as Ramrod or attorney Hal Kant, would have sought out potential candidates.

Anyone who has ever had any experience with a hiring committee knows that one of the key goals is finding candidates who will meet the expectations of the "key stakeholders," a big term that translates in Grateful Dead terms to "Jerry." Jerry Garcia himself would not have been directly involved in finding the candidates, but everyone involved would have started with the question "What Will Jerry Do?" By the same token, numerous outside parties would have been working the phones with the hiring committee, suggesting different names and making pitches for different players. All of those outside parties could have had any number of motives, but the general point to make here is that the hiring committee would act as a filter for the Grateful Dead operation as a whole: if someone proposed a player to audition, the hiring committee would have had to approve the opportunity. Presumably, the auditions themselves would define the choice on mainly musical grounds, but a player would have to get the audition in order to shine. In that respect, the hiring committee, however informal, would have acted as "gatekeepers" to the Grateful Dead keyboard chair.

What Is Known About The Auditions?
The official history suggests (to my knowledge) that only three players were auditioned: ex-Jefferson Starship member Pete Sears, ex-Dixie Dregs member T Lavitz and The Tubes keyboard player, Vince Welnick. There is a general understanding that Bruce Hornsby was offered the chair prior to the auditions and seems to have turned the band down. Nonetheless, since Hornsby did in fact play with the Grateful Dead for much of the next year, he obviously didn't turn the band down completely. As to rejections, other than McLagan, the only player to claim to have refused to audition for the Grateful Dead was apparently Merl Saunders.

It seems that the effort to get Hornsby to join the band was comparable to the invitation to Brent Mydland: he was such an obvious choice that his assent would have obviated any other process. Unlike Brent, however, Hornsby had a substantial solo career and lived in Virginia, so he seems to have chosen an adjunct role. This left the Dead little choice but to audition. The Merl Saunders case is more ambiguous, and I will return to it later, but the essence of it is that Merl claimed he received a call about auditioning, but he never returned it and went on tour instead. Otherwise, all we know about the auditions are the three who were known to try out: Pete Sears, T. Lavitz and Vince Welnick. I am interested in viewing these candidates in terms of the Grateful Dead hiring process, rather than specifically as musicians.

Pete Sears
Pete Sears
Pete Sears was an Englishman who had migrated to the Bay Area in about 1970, as a member of the San Francisco group Stoneground. He had joined Stoneground when they had toured England in 1970. Subsequently, Sears mostly worked out of the Bay Area, primarily with the Jefferson Starship. He had worked with Rod Stewart in England throughout the 1970s, but the bulk of his work was with Starship related activities. Sears would have been known to every member of the Grateful Dead, and had played with Garcia a variety of times. Most recently would have been the very interesting performance with Nick Gravenites on April 29, 1990 at the South Of Market Cultural Center. Since Garcia had played with Sears in April, and he was asked to audition in the Fall, it must have made an impression on Garcia.

Since Sears was a band friend, a successful rock musician in his own right and had recently jammed with Garcia, he looks like a traditional "inside" candidate. Since Sears is a fine player, I have to assume that a principal concern must have been Sears's lack of experience as a harmony vocalist. In any case, Sears would have been an obvious choice to audition after Hornsby turned the band down, and there is little mystery about why he was asked.

T. Lavitz
T. Lavitz
Terry "T" Lavitz (1956-2010) was the keyboard player for the progressive Southern rock band Dixie Dregs. The very improvisational Dregs broke up in 1983, and Lavitz played with a variety of groups, including one called The Bluesbusters, including Catfish Hodge and Little Feat's Paul Barrere. He also played on a variety of different projects. Lavitz was a tremendous player, well used to improvising difficult music on stage in front of large audiences. Lavitz was an excellent candidate to audition for the Grateful Dead's keyboard chair.

What interests me about Lavitz was that he not only had no connections to the Grateful Dead, he had no connection to the West Coast either. Someone on the Grateful Dead side had to have done some research to have found him, and there had to be some phone calls to take care of due diligence: any new member of the Grateful Dead had to have his ego in a safe place and no outstanding personal problems. What interest me is the process--who called whom? Whose word was good enough to insure that Lavitz's personality was in line with his playing? Who in the Grateful Dead family made the push to audition Lavitz? I assume that Lavitz's musical status was similar to Sears, in that he was a fine player who had no standing as a singer. I do wonder if anyone every made that clear to the band in the first place, yet another thing that makes me wonder about the "committee" and its "process," such as it may have been.

Vince Welnick
Vince Welnick was originally from Arizona, and played in a band called The Beans. The Beans and some other Arizonans moved to San Francisco in 1971 and changed their name to The Tubes. In the mid-70s, The Tubes had a spectacular stage act and were rock's next big thing. I saw The Tubes a few times in 1975, and they were truly amazing, if very different than the Grateful Dead. If Jerry had stayed with us, sooner or later Quay Lewd himself would have made a guest appearance with the Dead, so that everybody could have sung "White Punks On Dope" together.

By 1990, The Tubes were well past their Moment, and only played occasionally. Welnick played regularly in Todd Rundgren's band, but Todd only toured periodically. Despite Vince's Bay Area residency, there were few meaningful connections between the musicians that had played with Welnick and the Grateful Dead. Nonetheless, someone seems to have sought out Vince, since he had never met the Dead himself when he got the call. Interestingly, much as I like The Tubes and Todd Rundgren, neither of those acts improvise on stage--quite the opposite--so someone who knew Vince's playing very well must have suggested him. Who suggested him? Who in turn needed to be persusaded? And finally, whose word was good enough for Jerry? Having Vince Welnick audition is not at all an obvious choice, so someone had to have confidence that Vince was worth trying out.

Given that Vince is no longer with us, no one really talks much about the process of his hiring. From that point of view, Vince was musically as unlikely a choice as Ian McLagan, and he won the audition, so for all McLagan's joking whose to say what would have happened if Mac took up Chesley Millikin's offer?

Coda: Merl Saunders
Merl said that the Dead called him to audition, but he never called them back. It's hard to judge this from afar. On one hand, for all of Merl's friendship with Jerry, he doesn't seem like a likely choice. On the other hand, perhaps the call was a sort of backup call: the Dead had booked a tour, and Hornsby wasn't certain, so perhaps they would have gone out with Merl for one tour if everyone else flunked the audition. The important part to me remains unstated: who called Merl on behalf of the Dead?

I think numerous people close to the Grateful Dead started making phone calls as soon as the auditions became a reality. By the same token, the same people calling keyboard players were also calling the key people in the Grateful Dead organization, whom I have dubbed "the hiring committee," to pitch their various candidates. Ian McLagan's reference to Chesley Millikin is our only hint to this. Millikin was definitely a well respected member of the family, and he could have made a good case for McLagan on the grounds of all his great recordings, which Garcia and the rest of the band would have known about.

I think a Grateful Dead insider called Merl, but even if Merl had returned the call, that insider would have to persuade the hiring committee to audition Merl, so Merl may have preferred not to face rejection. This is a common scenario for all senior level hirings, where a senior outsider knows they have no real chance despite a few supporters inside.

In Hollywood it's considered bad form to say what films you turned down, and I'm sure it's the same in the music industry. But a lot of keyboard players must have gotten calls, some of whom turned them down, and others of whom never got past "the committee." If Grateful Dead documents ever indicated some of these suggestions, refusals and rejections we would learn a lot about the Grateful Dead as an institution.
Ian McLagan's most recent album, Never Say Never

Friday, August 12, 2011

Jerry Garcia and Gary Brooker (Robert Hunter and Keith Reid)

The sleeve to the original 45 of Procol Harum's "A Whiter Shade Of Pale," released on Deram Records in May 1967. Singer Gary Brooker is in the middle
Former Grateful Dead manager Rock Scully's 1995 book Living With The Dead (Little Brown & Co with David Dalton) was a fascinating if troubling work for many Grateful Dead scholars. On one hand, Scully had a confusing history as one of Jerry Garcia's principal co-conspirators in unhealthy habits; on the other hand, Rock was actually there. On one hand, Rock's memory of the preceding 30 years seems to have been fogged up, as would anyone's--"what exactly, were you doing on May 29, 1971, and be specific!"--, on the other hand, just because his book merges some stories and has some other narrative confusions, it doesn't in itself make everything that Scully says wrong.

Speaking for myself, I have always been unconcerned with Scully's memory of specific events in the timeline, as a manager in his position was never in a good position to recall specific dates. As an historiographical note, truck drivers and road managers are the ones who recall specific venues and shows, as they had to focus on deadlines and load-ins, whereas someone like Rock, on the booking and promotion side, was not professionally required to be concerned with whether the band was playing, say, the Shrine Exposition Hall or the Shrine Auditorium (not the same venue, but located at the same address). While I am aware that Rock may not have been straight as an arrow, that is true of every other source from the sixties as well, and not an area that I focus on.

The aspects of Scully's book that interest me the most are the incidental things, the facts that only an eyewitness could recall. Even if some of the details are murky or incorrect, the essential memory remains interesting in its own right. Much Grateful Dead scholarship seems to lose sight of how memory actually works. People live their lives as they happen, and it's only later when any of it might seem important or interesting. If you review the history of your own family, you will find that there is rarely any agreement about the order of events. Ask a family member about how they celebrated their 12th birthday, and they will only have the foggiest memory. And whatever memory comes to mind is likely or not to be a fragment from different birthday, mixed or merged with some other events.

Someone like Scully, quizzed 25 years after the fact, about whether or not the Dead played one night or two in Chicago in 1969 has only a vague memory. For me, it would be similar to the time I went to Candlestick Park for "Bat Day" for my birthday around the same time (I got a Jack Hiatt bat, which I gave up, much to my subsequent dismay, for those of you who can appreciate the enormity of having a bat "signed" by a backup catcher). I remember some aspects clearly (I got a Hiatt bat, and my friend graciously traded his Willie McCovey bat as it was my birthday) but I can't even say what year it was, or who the Giants played.

Procol Harum
One incidental remark that has always stuck in my mind from Scully's book was some comments about Garcia's influences. Scully mentioned various influences on Garcia's guitar playing, and while it is interesting to hear that Garcia liked Django Reinhart and Wes Montgomery, both of those players were titans that any aspiring player would check out. The note of Scully's that I have ruminated on the most was an indication that Garcia took some inspiration as a vocalist from the singing of Procol Harum's Gary Brooker.

Now, while it is impossible to know whether Garcia was grooving in his house to Shine On Brightly album all day long or simply made a positive comment to Rock about Procol's most famous hit "A Whiter Shade Of Pale," it has always been a striking remark. To my knowledge, Procol Harum and the Grateful Dead never shared a bill (unless perhaps at a big rock festival), Garcia and Brooker never met, and there were no direct social connections between the bands. I'm not aware of Garcia ever mentioning it in an interview, so the sheer randomness of it suggests that Garcia at least had some appreciation of Gary Brooker's singing, or else Scully would have had no way to reference it all, even by mistake. Thus some contemplation of Gary Brooker's singing with Procol Harum in comparison to Garcia's singing with The Dead seems to be in order.

The Paramounts
From about 1964 to 1966, Gary Brooker was the lead singer for an English R&B group called The Paramounts, from the Essex area on the coast just East of London. In 1964, they even had a modest hit with the Lieber/Stoller classic "Poison Ivy." Other members of the group included guitarist Robin Trower, drummer B.J. Wilson and bassist Chris Copping, although apparently other members came and went. Soul and blues covers were a dead end, however, and by the end of 1966 Brooker had left The Paramounts and was focused on being a pop singer/songwriter.

Brooker has a soulful, flexible voice, and he is a solid piano player, but his gift was for composition rather than lyrics. At some point in 1966 Brooker's producer (Guy Stevens) put him in touch with an aspiring lyricist named Keith Reid. Reid played a little music but was mainly a writer. The combination of Reid and Brooker made for an interesting blend of soul music and beat poetry. Few individuals have a successful background in both soul music and poetry, but two songwriters makes for a richer palate than one (the same formula lead to the success of Reg Dwight, better known today as Elton John, but that is way beyond my scope here).

Brooker had started to work with an organ player named Matthew Fisher, and between Brooker, Reid and Fisher they came up with a song called "A Whiter Shade Of Pale." Recorded with a few session musicians, the song was an instant sensation when the single was released in May, 1967 (the band was named after a friend's pedigreed cat). Brooker provided a simple, soulful melody, but Fisher's organ part, based on some Bach Cantatas, gave the record a rich, musical feel that made it seem like a hymn rather than a lament. Keith Reid's literate, evocative lyrics were fraught with meaning, yet it was impossible to draw a precise conclusion from the song. Yet Brooker's soulful, knowing vocals embedded the song with an emotional complexity that magnified its power while retaining its mystery:
But I wandered through my playing cards

and would not let her be

one of sixteen vestal virgins

who were leaving for the coast

and although my eyes were open

they might have just as well've been closed

And so it was that later

as the miller told his tale

that her face, at first just ghostly,

turned a whiter shade of pale
Keith Reid's lyrics are carefully sculpted, but they neither fall into rock and roll doggerel nor pretentious poetry. They require a different singing technique than just shouting "Maddy told Hattie/bout a thing she saw," and Brooker comfortably soars across the metrical lines to provide tremendous emotional depth to a very ambiguous song. "A Whiter Shade Of Pale" was a huge, worldwide hit, reaching #1 in the UK, #5 in the US and plenty of airplay on new FM radio stations throughout the balance of 1967.

Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter, Fall 1967
Jerry Garcia wasn't deaf, and he surely heard "A Whiter Shade Of Pale" along with every other hip listener in the Fall of '67. The biggest change for Garcia as a vocalist during this period, as we all know, was the return of Robert Hunter from New Mexico to take up residence as the Grateful Dead's in-house lyricist. Suddenly Garcia was grappling with a need to sing literate lyrics with emotional power, but without a sentimental hook to hang them on. Garcia sings "Dark Star" with meaning, but what does it mean? I'm not one to plumb the lyrical depths of songs, but it's a tribute to Garcia that he invests "Dark Star" with meaning despite its detachment from daily emotional life.

Whatever Garcia's model might have been for singing "Dark Star," "St. Stephen" and "China Cat Sunflower," it wasn't bluegrass and blues. Folk music had more complex emotional themes, but even obscure folk songs are often built around story-like structures, even if those stories don't always make narrative sense. I think Rock Scully's memory of Garcia's interest in Gary Brooker's singing was not random at all. I think Garcia heard Brooker's sophisticated handling "A Whiter Shade Of Pale" and when he saw Hunter's lyrics, Garcia applied one model to another and found a way to soar over the metrical lines of Hunter's lyrics. I only wish that the Dead or the Garcia Band had actually taken on "A Whiter Shade Of Pale" itself--I would have liked to hear Jerry sing "One of sixteen vestal virgins/Who were leaving for the Coast."

Both Robert Hunter and Keith Reid were around the same age, inspired by Beat poets and modern (post WW2) literature, but too young to have actually participated. They were both knowledgeable about folk and blues traditions, and liked pop music, but wanted to imbue rock with some literary depth instead of falling into traditional cliches. While Jerry Garcia's and Gary Brooker's music were not outwardly similar, they were both vocalists coming out of traditional music that they were expanding to allow a richer palate of music and lyrics, so the comparison is an apt one indeed.

The cover to the 1974 Procol Harum Chrysalis Records album Exotic Birds and Fruit
Procol Aftermath
I have no way of knowing whether Garcia heard more Procol Harum beyond "A Whiter Shade Of Pale." The album (of the same name) was released in September 1967. By this time, Brooker had his old mates Robin Trower (guitar) and BJ Wilson (drums) from The Paramounts join the proper band, and Procol Harum was thus a mixture of three soulful Paramounts (Brooker, Trower, Wilson) a classically oriented organist (Fisher) and a session bassist (David Knights). Procol Harum toured America starting about September 1967, but I don't think they ever played with the Grateful Dead. The band stayed together continuously through 1976, releasing 9 more albums. There were various changes in the band, but most notably drummer BJ Wilson stuck with them the whole time. This is significant, since in mid-1968 session guitarist Jimmy Page asked him to join his new, unnamed band, and Wilson turned him down (Page found a guy named John Bonham instead). Procol Harum's only other big hit was an orchestral version of their song "Conquistador," a hit in 1972, but the band never reached the peak they started with from their first great single.

Procol Harum broke up in 1976, not without a following but unable to climb high enough to make themselves a perennial proposition. The various band members had various degrees of success: Robin Trower had a successful solo career following his departure from the band in 1972, and Gary Brooker recorded and toured with Eric Clapton for many years in the 1980s. Procol Harum reformed in the early 1990s, and various versions of the band have toured intermittently throughout the years, sometimes even performing the rarely heard third and fourth verses of "A Whiter Shade Of Pale." Procol Harum isn't forgotten, but they aren't in the rarified zone accorded Jerry Garcia and The Grateful Dead. For what it's worth, there is a mysterious version of Procol Harum performing "Morning Dew," possibly from 1967, so perhaps there was some implicit two way discourse between the Procols and the Dead, although the Procol arrangement seems to owe more to the Jeff Beck Group than the Dead.

I realize its unlikely that there are secret rehearsal versions of the Grateful Dead playing "Conquistador" or the Jerry Garcia Band playing "Nothing But The Truth" (from the very underrated 1974 album Exotic Birds And Fruit). I'd like to think, however, that Jerry spun a Procol album once in a while, and even if he didn't play "Whisky Train" or "In Held Twas I" himself he appreciated Brooker's ability to add majesty to literate lyrics without removing their emotional power.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Soundcheck, Winterland, February 22 or 23, 1974: Jack Casady

I attended the Grateful Dead show at Winterland on February 22, 1974, but this post is not about something I witnessed. It apparently happened during the soundcheck, and it's not impossible that it happened on the soundcheck of the next day. The source of this is someone's comment on an Internet forum, which makes the truth value hard to determine. Nonetheless, this is such an odd little story that I find it convincing, and it raises some interesting questions, even if I can't be certain it occurred.

This blog is not my research blog (that's elsewhere), so you'll just have to accept that I read this somewhere in an Archive Forum comment thread or who knows where. In any case, some guy who was a teenager in San Francisco wrote about seeing the Grateful Dead's equipment trucks at Winterland in the afternoon during this run, so he and his friends simply walked through the loading dock and sat in the back rows to listen. I have assumed that this took place the first day of the run (Friday, February 22) but of course they could have been tweaking the system on any of the three days.

It may seem incredible to think that some teenage hippies could simply walk unnoticed into a Grateful Dead soundcheck but there is a distinct ring of truth to this, given that Winterland was the venue. Winterland (RIP), at Post and Steiner in San Francisco, was just a few blocks from the old Fillmore, was an ice rink that had been converted to auditorium use, and by the 1970s it was over 40 years old, a crumbling concrete dump in a sketchy part of town. Of course, the joint rocked like crazy and every band sounded 100 times better there. If you weren't good at Winterland, you weren't good. Everybody played classic gigs there: Hendrix, Springsteen, Lynyrd Skynyrd, The Rolling Stones, Peter Frampton, The Band, you name it.

Rock shows had been put on at Winterland since 1966, so despite the venue's acoustic "properties" San Francisco's finest sound engineers had had plenty of time to figure out how to make the room sing, and sing it did. Bill Graham Presents sound staff knew their stuff, and of course the Dead had played the room dozens of times, so the band and crew knew how to rattle the walls and keep it warm at the same time, a harder sonic feat than it sounds.

In the 1970s, however, Winterland was in a part of town that was not (as they say) a desirable neighborhood, and although it wasn't really a slum it wasn't a nice place. Once, in 1975, my friends and I were returning from a Tuesday night rock show at Winterland (it was Kiss--trust me, it's a long story) and when we got to our car, there was a guy hiding in it. He had broken in, and when he saw us coming, he ducked down. He was pretty surprised when it turned out that it was our car, but he cooly got out and when we said "what were you doing in our car?" he said "looking for something" and calmly walked away. Final score: Streetwise black dude:1, Slackjawed suburban teenagers: 0. The Winterland neighborhood was kind of between the largely African American Fillmore district (across Geary) and the more multi-ethnic Japantown, so the locals had little interest in the hippie rock bands that played the old ice palace.

As a result, if the Dead (or anyone) were soundchecking at Winterland on a Friday afternoon, very few of the locals were likely to be interested in the music. Any Winterland security would probably have noticed any locals, since skinny hippies were in short supply around that part of town. Thus if some hippies were there, and had the calm and luck to walk in and sit down quietly, its possible that they could have gotten away with it simply because so few people would have tried it and they might have looked like they belonged. So I'm inclined to believe the story about hippies just wandering in.

The Soundcheck
While it is well established that the Grateful Dead officially debuted the "Wall Of Sound" at the  Cow Palace in Daly City on March 23, 1974, in fact they had been working on parts of it for some time. The first pieces of the system went "on-line" (not that such a term was in use) at Maples Pavilion at Stanford on February 9, 1973. The February Winterland shows were apparently a final dry run of the Wall. While I don't have any idea about the technical differences between the February (Winterland) and March (Cow Palace) Wall Of Sound systems, I can vouch that the Grateful Dead's sound system was a huge wall looming behind the band, so the system was mostly or entirely complete.

Anyway, the interesting thing about the young hippie's description of wandering into the Winterland soundcheck was what he found there. The hippie and his friends had the couth to stay cool, and headed for the seats at the back of the floor, where they hoped to hunker down unnoticed. There was only one musician onstage, and that was Jefferson Airplane/Hot Tuna bassist Jack Casady, thundering away on Phil Lesh's rig. When they got to the back of the arena, who was sitting there but Phil himself, listening to Jack shake the rafters.

Our protagonists seemed to have discerned that this was the debut of the new sound system, and Phil seems to have wanted to hear what it sounded like. You may recall that one of the design features of the system was a 32 foot high tower of bass cabinets, the better to approximate the actual 32 foot size of a bass note in the air. We forget that the Grateful Dead never got to "hear" the Grateful Dead the way we did, and from the point of view of pure sound that may have been particularly frustrating. I know what Phil's bass sounded like at Winterland, and so do thousands of other people, but Phil didn't.

Also, while we have all heard roadies plunking away at a soundcheck, that's not a true test of nuance and power. By definition, Phil Lesh couldn't sit at Winterland and hear Phil bring the thunder, but he could hear somebody bring it, and who better than Jack Casady? While Jack and Phil's bass styles aren't particularly alike, they share the qualities of power, musicianship and creativity, and Phil would have known what Jack sounded like in his normal configuration, so he could have compared it to his own rig. Since the Grateful Dead were heavily invested in the Wall Of Sound, both literally and figuratively, I find it utterly convincing that just once, Phil wanted to sit in the Grateful Dead's home court and listen to his own bass make it sounds, even if Phil wasn't the one playing it.

Did other members of the Grateful Dead ever sit in the arena during soundcheck and listen to someone else play their instruments? Given the band's commitment to sound, I would like to think Jerry and Bob did it at least once. Maybe they did it February 22, 1974, right before or after Phil...I wonder who their dopplegangers would have been? Jorma? Terry Haggerty? It's an interesting thing to contemplate, if unanswerable.

According to our storyteller, he and his friends were in the back listening raptly to Jack play the bass, sneaking peeks over at Phil who was listening intently himself, when they were discovered by Steve Parish. The boys were hustled out in short order, leaving me only to wonder. Given the excitement of the moment, they do not recall what Jack was playing, but I like to think it was the classic Hot Tuna song "Funky #7." I like the image of Winterland on an empty Friday afternoon, Phil Lesh getting to be a Deadhead of sorts, if just for a few minutes, while Jack Casady lays down a funky 7-beat riff on Phil's bass.