Friday, February 14, 2014

Jerry Garcia Recording Studio History: November 1965-January 1967: Early Days (Studiography I)

The Warlocks first recording, a single of "Don't Ease Me In"/"Stealin'" on Scorpio Records, recorded at Buena Vista Studios in June 1966
Jerry Garcia is rightly remembered as one of the great live performers in American musical history. Yet Garcia spent the first 20 years or so of his career working hard in the studio, trying both to record his music successfully in a structured setting and to sculpt his live performance work into a form that made it commercially accessible without losing its depth. Garcia himself was perpetually unhappy with the studio and live albums of the Grateful Dead, not to mention his other recordings, and yet those very same recordings were responsible for the initial musical interest of a huge number of future Deadheads.

There are many ways to consider Jerry Garcia's professional experiences in recording studios. I am going to approach Garcia's evolution as a musician from the point of view of the actual studios themselves. In many ways, Garcia's career was defined by the limitations and opportunities provided by the specific studios he worked in. One little-remarked detail of Garcia's career was that the music industry itself came to San Francisco in the 1960s. Up until 1965, as far as music was concerned, San Francisco was no different than any other city save for Los Angeles and New York. There were only a few studios in San Francisco, far below the standard of the two standards of the music capitals, used for commercial jingles and local singles in the rock, soul and country markets, and providing a far lower quality than the high end studios the music industry preferred.

Yet San Francisco was the center of the rock music universe in the late '60s, and rock music sold records on a scale that the music industry could hardly imagine, so top-of-the-line studios began to open in the Bay Area by the end of the decade. Thus Jerry Garcia could move from being a guy stuck in a local backwater to a musician who had access recording opportunities equal to what was available in Los Angeles, New York or London.

Unpacking Garcia's studio career will take numerous posts, so I am starting with the beginning of the Grateful Dead's career. In late 1965, when the Grateful Dead evolved from The Warlocks, there were only four professional studios in San Francisco. The Dead ultimately worked at least three of them, and since the fourth one had Dan Healy as its regular engineer, its safe to say that they would have known if it had anything to offer them. As a result, any plans to make a real record that captured the Grateful Dead had to take place out of town.

Bobby Freeman had a hit single in 1958 with "Do You Wanna Dance" on Josie Records. Then 16-year old Jerry Garcia did not play on it, no matter what he might have said.
Prelude: No, Jerry Garcia Did Not Play On "Do You Wanna Dance" in 1958
For reasons that are hard to fathom, Jerry Garcia consistently told his friends that he had played on the 1958 hit single "Do You Wanna Dance," by San Franciscan Bobby Freeman. The song was a big hit on Josie Records, an early example of the type of swinging rock and roll that would soon be popularized by songs like "The Twist." From the 1960s until at least the 80s, Garcia told his friends that he had played on the record.

"Do You Wanna Dance" was recorded in 1958, when Garcia was 15 or 16 years old. At the time, he could barely play guitar (by his own admission) and had no connection to anyone in the recording industry. Whatever Garcia's motives for claiming that he had played on the record, the claim made no sense. Grateful Dead historian Dennis McNally attempted to confirm this story with Garcia, but Garcia was uncharacteristically unforthcoming. McNally finds it all but impossible that Garcia played on the record, and I have to agree, so it plays no part in this story.

Leo De Gar Kulka, owner and engineer of Golden State Recorders, at the mixing board. Golden State was at 665 Harrison.
Golden State Recorders, 665 Harrison Street, San Francisco
The Grateful Dead's first real recording station was at  Leo De Gar Kulka's Golden State Recorders, which had opened in 1964. At the time, the studio was in a somewhat gritty area, located at 665 Harrison Street between 2nd and 3rd. That's hardly the case today, considering the address is in walking distance of the SF Giants ballpark. Kulka had been a Los Angeles studio  veteran, and Golden State handled a wide variety of clients, but it had a good reputation as a place with a funky sound. Golden State had a four-track recorder, when its competitors Coast, Commercial and Columbus all still only had three-tracks.

Autumn Records, run by KYA-am djs Tom Donahue and Bobby Mitchell, had a hip reputation for finding new acts, like the Beau Brummels, The Vejtables and The Mojo Men. They recorded demos for various other hip acts, including Grace Slick and The Great Society and the Warlocks. When the Warlocks recorded their six-song demo at Golden State, on November 3, 1965, they used the name "The Emergency Crew" since they were concerned that other bands had rights to the name Warlocks. In any case, Mitchell and Donahue passed on the fledgling Warlocks, and the tracks remained officially unreleased for thirty years.

The intriguing question about Golden State was whether Garcia recorded there outside of the confines of the Grateful Dead. One of Autumn's hit acts was Bobby Freeman, who had scored a big hit in 1958 with his Josie Records single "Do You Want To Dance," covered many times by many other groups. Autumn had signed Freeman, and in 1964--pop music years are like dog years, so that would be 42 years later--they had another hit with "C'mon And Swim."

Bobby Freeman got back in the charts in 1964 with "C'mon And Swim." Produced by 20 year old Sylvester (Sly Stone) Stewart, it was the second release on Tom Donahue's Autumn Records, and reached #5 in July 1964
Autumn's producer was a 20 year old KSOL-dj named Sylvester Stewart, later better known as Sly Stone. Freeman was a great performer, and was typically the star musical attraction at North Beach's infamous Condor Club, along with the topless Carol Doda. Freeman never really had another hit, but he was a popular San Francisco performer throughout the 60s. I happen to know that one regular attendee at Freeman shows was one Dick Latvala. Dick enjoyed dancing at Bobby Freeman shows, at least until he found another band he liked dancing to. I am quite enamored of the idea that Garcia might have played on some Autumn sessions for Sly Stone in late 1965, but there's no evidence of it, and Dennis McNally thinks it was extremely unlikely.  [For more about Golden State Recorders, see here]

Buena Vista Studios was on the top floor of this 1897 mansion, just above the Haight Ashbury district
Buena Vista Studios, 737 Buena Vista West, San Francisco
The Grateful Dead's next recording adventure took place in a mansion in the Haight-Ashbury, where an inspired fellow traveler who'd had the foresight to marry an heiress had built his own recording studio in the top floor of his house. Gene Estribou had married an heir to the Spreckels sugar fortune, and they lived in a huge house built in 1897, just above Masonic Avenue near Haight Street, at 737 Buena Vista West [for a complete overview of the house, later owned by Graham Nash and then actor Danny Glover, see JGBP's great post].

Although it was on the 5th floor of the mansion, Estribou's studio had superior equipment for the time, with a four-track recorder, at a time when most studios were still using three-tracks. A number of San Francisco bands made demos there, as Buena Vista Studios was used as a place for famous (or infamous) producer Bobby Shad to audition acts. The Wildflower and The Final Solution both signed with Shad's label, Mainstream (Final Solution never released anything, and today they are rightfully ashamed of their name). Big Brother And The Holding Company did not sign with Shad, but some months later, stuck in Chicago, they did split with Chet Helms and signed with Shad at Mainstream, much to their future dismay.

Apparently, photographer Herb Greene introduced the Dead to Estribou, and the Dead recorded at Buena Vista studios "the day after a Saturday night Acid Test party at California Hall, on the fringe of the seedy Tenderloin district. Band and crew hauled massive amounts of heavy equipment up four flights of stairs to rehearse and record some of their first studio demos under their new name." If this vague, acid-drenched memory is correct, that would place the recording session on May 30 or so, since the Dead played a LEMAR Benefit at California Hall on Sunday, May 29, 1966.

Per Rock Scully, The Dead didn't recall the episode fondly, nor did Estribou :
Weir was very irritated about hauling the band’s gear up to the fifth floor; Lesh dismissed Estribou as a “dilettante”; and Garcia summarized the sessions: “we never got in on the mixing of it and we didn’t really like the cuts and the performances were bad and the recordings were bad and everything else was bad, so we didn’t want it out…it doesn’t sound like us.”
Estribou himself also had a hard time: “It was an effort to get out of the zone of indecision, as you can imagine. The early Dead was trying to find themselves…and get a product out, when Phil wanted to do one thing and Jerry wanted to do another… So it was frustrating for everybody, but we had to get something finished rather than nine thousand hours of shit that was unusable.”
Thankful as we are for the several tracks that endure, which include the thinly-distributed "Don't Ease Me In"/"Stealin' single and a few outtakes, the entire episode didn't generate the music that the band was trying to make. In that respect, it must have been a blunt lesson for the Dead. However much they wanted to believe that they could make music on the top floor of mansion of a rich, willing hippie, it wasn't going to come out the way they had hoped. One way or another, the Dead were  going to have to get into a real studio, and that inevitably would mean a real record company. 

Long after Coast Recorders moved its location from 960 Bush Street, it became The Boarding House
Coast Recorders, 960 Bush Street, San Francisco
The history of the Dead's 1966 demos are rather confusing (for a great discussion, see LIA's post here). It does seem that Estribou took the Dead to another studio for some of the sessions. He says it was "Western Recording," but since that studio was in Los Angeles, Blair Jackson speculates that it was Coast Recorders. Coast Recorders was housed in a former nightclub, a large basement room at 960 Bush. It had a three-track recorder, and was mainly used for commercial and pop recordings. One of the regular engineers was Dan Healy, but he wouldn't have been used for the Estribou sessions. Healy had been the "house" engineer at a place called Commercial Recorders (at 149 Natoma St, in an old firehouse), and he used to sneak bands in there after hours--possibly including the Dead, though not likely--and he was familiar with what few studio options there were in San Francisco.

If some of the Dead demos were in fact recorded at Coast (or even at Commercial), it was another example of a professional studio that was just unsuitable for the music the Dead were trying to make. The other historical curiosity about Coast Recorders was that when the studio moved from 960 Bush (to 1340 Mission Street), the Bush Street room returned to being a nightclub. After briefly being the Troubadour North, it became The Boarding House. So from that point of view, Jerry Garcia did record an album at Coast Recorders--its just that it was Old And In The Way that recorded there, on October 8, 1973, when it was a nightclub.

[update] Apparently, after the first album was recorded in late January 1967, the Dead re-recorded "The Golden Road To Unlimited Devotion" at Coast, in order to release it as a single.

[update] Commercial Recorders, 149 Natoma Street, San Francisco
Scholarly reader Runonguinness reports that it appears that Dan Healy did surreptitiously record the Dead at Commercial Recorders, where he worked, in late 1966
I think the Dead definitely did record with Healy at Commercial Recorders in late '66. There is a Healy interview from before the Sacramento show on 1993-05-23 printed in Best Of Guitar Player Grateful Dead issue from 1993 on page 68 of which he says

“I still had my job at the radio station (KMPX), and I was still working at the recording studio (Commercial Recorders). The next thing I did (after assembling a PA for the Fillmore Dead show) was to sneak the Dead into the studio after hours and we would record all night. As soon as they would leave I’d clean the studio like nothing had happened except that there would be this blue haze from the cigarette smoke. I thought I was getting away with something, but in retrospect, Lloyd (Pratt) probably knew all along and just didn’t say anything. He was really wonderful. We made some great tapes during those sessions but we couldn’t get any radio play because we weren’t in the club. The AM Top 40 guys wouldn’t play you if they didn’t own a piece of you, and if they didn’t play you, you didn’t go anywhere. So I’d take these tapes down to KMPX and play them after three o’clock in the morning when people didn’t care what you played anyway. Eventually there were several other bands besides the Dead whose tapes I produced and who I played during these late night radio show. Pretty soon it became a happening thing to listen to tapes late at night on KMPX. Almost overnight it became this secret, cult thing to listen to late-night FM radio; this dormant thing literally exploded, and people began clamoring to buy ad time and the thing just took off."

Scully says much the same on p 60-61 of Living With The Dead but I suspect he's quoting Healy's interview. Additionally he mentions demos for Silver Threads (presumably the one on Rare Cuts), You Don't Have To Ask/Otis On A Shakedown Cruise and "many of the songs" from the first album.

Healy's entry in "Skeleton Key" also takes great chunks from this interview.
There is something slightly odd about the timeline, since dj Larry Miller did not take over the midnight shift at KMPX-fm until February, 1967, but perhaps Healy would just go in and play the tapes anyway. He would have known all the engineers. In any case, Garcia must have found Commercial just as wanting as San Francisco's other professional studios at the time.
Jerry Garcia assisted the Jefferson Airplane in November 1966, during their recording of Surrealistic Pillow, at RCA Studios in Hollywood (at 6363 Sunset at Ivar)

RCA Studios, 6363 Sunset Boulevard, Los Angeles
The Grateful Dead recorded their first album in less than five days starting January 30, 1967 at RCA Studios in Los Angeles. Although the studio was housed in an unassuming building at 6363 Sunset Boulevard (at Ivar), not far from the Hollywood Palladium and The Hullabaloo, RCA's facility were apparently top-of-the-line, far beyond anything available in San Francisco at the time. Yet it often goes unremarked that in early November, nearly three months before recording the first album, Jerry Garcia spent a week or two in Los Angeles with the Jefferson Airplane, helping them record Surrealistic Pillow.

A number of interesting timeline issues raise their heads. Firstly, it is known that the Dead agreed to a contract with Joe Smith of Warner Brothers on September 30, 1966, but did not sign until December 1. What was at issue? It is intriguing to consider that Garcia shared RCA's studio with the Airplane in November, and the Dead recorded there the next January. It does seem that whatever else may have been at stake with the contract--money was surely a factor--implicitly or explicitly a commitment to record at RCA seems to have been part of the bargain.

Another peculiar fact, rarely remarked upon afterwards, was that the Airplane were recording their second album, and they invited someone to help them who had seemingly only played two studio sessions, resulting in only one unsatisfactory single. Now, Jerry Garcia's ability to synthesize information quickly has been remarked upon by numerous friends and collaborators. Yet how did he know enough to help the Airplane record Surrealistic Pillow, when he himself had no such experience? Garcia played the high guitar part on "Today," very reminiscent of "Morning Dew," and acoustic guitar  on "Plastic Fantastic Lover," "My Best Friend" and "Comin' Back To Me." More importantly, he added some chords to "Somebody To Love," changing it from the drone of the Great Society's version to the exciting AM hit of the Airplane. Genius though he may have been, how did Garcia know how to project his music onto a studio recording?

Garcia's well-documented contribution to Surrealistic Pillow, confirmed by RCA studio logs (per McNally) and testimony from the Airplane members, amplified my speculation that Garcia cut some Bobby Freeman tracks with Sly Stone at Golden State. Yet it seems Garcia helped the Airplane record their seminal album with even less experience than their own, as the Airplane were on their second album. Garcia's suggested arrangements for Surrealistic Pillow seem to have come from educated guesses, rather than any pre-existing studio experience [update: Garcia's appearance on Surrealistic Pillow was just the first of many Garcia contributions to the records of others: for a great career summary, see LIA's post]
The Grateful Dead backed Jon Hendricks when he recorded the title track for a movie soundtrack, "Fire In The City," at Columbus Recorders at 906 Kearny.

Columbus Recorders, 906 Kearny St, San Francisco
The Grateful Dead still had one more studio episode prior to recording their first album in Los Angeles. Soon after signing their contract, they spent some time in the studio working with singer Jon Hendricks on the soundtrack to a documentary movie about antiwar protesters called Your Sons And Daughters. Hendricks was well-known as the leader of the groundbreaking vocal trio Lambert, Hendricks and Ross (vocalizing Charlie Parker solos), and Lesh and Garcia in particular were honored to work with him.

The band spent a few days with Hendricks at Columbus Recorders, at 906 Kearny. Columbus Recorders was a popular studio for commercial work and the like, but it too had a three-track recorder. The Dead ended up backing Hendricks on two songs, "Fire In The City" and "Your Sons And Daughters," both released as a Jon Hendricks single on Verve. However, according to McNally, although the Dead enjoyed working with Hendricks, they were uncomfortable with the overt polemical political stance of the movie and asked that their name be removed from the soundtrack.

Nonetheless, although Columbus Recorders was hardly a good room for a technologically advanced rock band, the Kearny Street studio would play an important part in Grateful Dead history. About 16 months after the December 1966 sessions with Hendricks, the band would return to Columbus Recorders with Dan Healy to mix Anthem Of The Sun.

Jerry Garcia returned to RCA Studios to record the Grateful Dead's debut album at the end of January, 1967
January 30-February 3, 1967: RCA Studios, 6363 Sunset Boulevard, Los Angeles, CA
Jerry Garcia returned to RCA Studios with the Grateful Dead in the last week of January, 1967. They recorded their album in four days, and mixed it on the fifth. Legend has it that Warners offered to let them keep the money they would have spent on studio time if they finished the album quickly, and supposedly that is why they rushed through the recording.

Whatever the Grateful Dead's resistance to the mainstream record companies, however, the band had tried out the available studios in San Francisco and found them wanting. Jerry Garcia's sole known satisfying musical experience in the studio up until 1967 was his work with the Jefferson Airplane on Surrealistic Pillow. Thus I do not think it was a coincidence that their first album was recorded there. Nonetheless, it was a sign of the simplicity of the era that even for a band on a major label, an album recorded in late January was in the stores by March 20 or so. The Dead had managed to make their first album at an industry standard studio, but rock recording was about to go through a series or revolutions, and the Dead were well primed to be on the front lines.

Jerry Garcia, for his part, had found the time to work with the Airplane in the studio. This was a characteristic of Garcia's music throughout his career, as he found time to record outside of the Dead no matter what his touring schedule. When rock music was still a growing concern, even rock stars didn't have studios in their garages, so that meant Garcia had to play in more typical professional settings. For the next album, the Dead would traverse the country trying to find a suitable studio, only to return to a tiny, primitive room in San Francisco that they had already used, but that arc will have to wait for the next installment.