Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Donna Jean Talks Dead

We would like to welcome Rich Kujiwa from Live Music Shots, who is sharing this interview he did with Donna Jean.

Former Grateful Dead singer, Donna Jean Godchaux-MacKay, was kind enough to speak with me from her home in Muscle Shoals, AL on March 27th, 2009. She is a true southern belle who has a much different story to tell than most women on earth. The excerpt below takes you through the unbelievable circumstances that lead to her and her former husband Keith Godchaux’s introduction into the realms of gratefulness. Most of all, she’s playing in her (and Jeff Mattson’s) band in your hood this weekend…stop hating and go see her! She sounds better than ever, is very comfortable on stage again and is playing some songs you’ll know and some new one’s you’ll get to know.

Donna Jean Godchaux Band with Jeff Mattson
1 October – Mulcahy’s Pub & Concert Hall –Wantagh, NY
2 October – River Street Jazz CafĂ© – Plains, PA
3 October – Mexicali Live – Teaneck, NJ

ME: How did you get your start in the music business?
DJGM: I started recording at Fame (Studios, Muscle Shoals, AL) when I was between 15 and 16 years old. I would go into the studio after coming back from cheerleader practice in my cheerleader uniform and do sessions at the studio.
ME: Is that where you did back up vocals for Elvis?
DJGM: That was in Memphis. Our voice group who had already been on several hit records in Muscle Shoals was asked to come and do this demo in Memphis for this songwriter/artist named Mark James. And he had written the song “Suspicious Minds.” When Elvis came in 1969 to record his comeback album he walked by this office where this song was being played and said, “I want those songs and I want those girls.” So it was pretty much as simple as that. You know, how I got on that session.
ME: Did you actually sing and work with Elvis in the studio?
DJGM: He walked in the room and it was like nothing that I had ever beheld in my life before. Yes, he was there and he was gracious, sweet, cooperative, loving, encouraging and all of the things that you would expect of someone of his stature. Elvis is one of the nicest people that I have worked with in my life.
ME: You moved to San Francisco in 1970, what took you there?
DJGM: I always had a hankering to go to SF. By the end of 1970 I had been working in the studio for about 7 years. I wanted a new adventure. I had to tell the President of Atlantic Records that I was not going to be working in Muscle Shoals with my voice group. That was a tough decision. It was a hard decision. I was in the middle of a great career and I just had to get away. Once I got to SF everybody was into the Grateful Dead. At first I heard them and I thought, “I don’t know what you guys are so into these people about, they don’t even know how to play music.” I was used to the very orchestrated, arranged stuff. I didn’t understand the music and they said that you have to come to a gig and I wouldn’t for quite a while, then finally I agreed to go hear them. They were really on that night and I turned to one of my friends and I said, “OK, when I sing again I’m gonna sing with this band.” It absolutely changed my life, changed my art, changed my direction in how I wanted to proceed in music and how I wanted to listen to it and play it, sing it, is when I heard the Grateful Dead. It wasn’t very long until both Keith (Godchaux) and I were in the band (laughs).
ME: Did you really think that statement would come true when you said it to your friend?
DJGM: I didn’t think it I knew it. There was something in me that knew it. Then when I approached Jerry (Garcia) at a Garcia Band gig in SF with my husband Keith, Jerry knew it. He hadn’t heard me sing, or Keith play and he knew it. We just knew it. After we met Jerry, and we were scared to death by the way, it was only a couple of weeks before we were in the band. It was that much of a perception that Garcia had and a confidence that Keith and I had and what we knew was up for us.
ME: That sounds like something that was predestined. It gives me the idea of one of the feelings that you can only get from the inspiration of the Grateful Dead’s music and something like that would not happen with any other band.
DJGM: However people want to interpret that kind of thing. Some people might say destiny, others predestination, in the spiritual realm or whatever you want to call that kind of thing. All I know is that it happened and it was a confidence, a surety on mine and Keith’s part that this was happening. We had no idea that Pigpen was dying and that they were looking for a keyboard player, we had no idea. The first thing that I said to Jerry was “Keith is your new keyboard player.”
ME: What did Jerry say?
DJGM: He looked at me real long and strongly and said, OK, you guys come back stage. We were too nervous to come back stage. Everybody wanted to get next to Jerry Garcia. Keith and I were too nervous to go back stage, just couldn’t do it. We were sitting at our table during set break and then Jerry came from backstage and came to our table and sat down next to us and said, “What’s up?” I said, “Well, we need your home telephone number so that we can come and play with you because Keith is your next keyboard player.” Like I said, we didn’t even know they were looking for one. And Garcia gave me his home telephone number, a week or ten days later we were in the band.
ME: I thought Keith joined the band before you.DJGM: We initially played with Jerry then the next day with the full GD ensemble, we were both asked to be in the band and I said that I wanted Keith to get to do it first. I’m a southern girl, you know; let the guy be the guy. I held back for 2 tours before I joined the band.
ME: Can you describe the first time that you stepped on stage with the Dead?
DJGM: My first time stepping on stage with the Grateful Dead was at Winterland on NYE 1971.It was very heavy, you know this was Winterland, SF. The Dead were a boys band and everyone took personal ownership of the band, so it was a big deal for a girl to step out on stage being a band member for the Grateful Dead (laughs). That was very intense. Eventually everyone warmed up and warmed up and got warmer and warmer and warmer until it was a very hot thing (laughs) and was enjoyable by all. And taboot, I had never been on a stage before. I had only done studio work. So I had never been on stage until I walked out with the Grateful Dead on NYE at Winterland. That was a big deal.
ME: Weren’t butterflies balling up in your stomach, or did you have confidence with being the first female member of the Grateful Dead?
DJGM: Maybe you could say all of the above. I think for the most part my butterflies would be how the crowd was going to receive me. That was the only fear that I had.
ME: I have hundreds of friends who are Dead Heads and many people give you unwarranted criticism. People make negative comments about you and then when I ask them what their favorite era of the Dead was they say ’72 - ’77. Did you feel like you dealt with this a lot?
DJGM: I think it was more toward the end that I started feeling the critisicm. I was singing with the loudest rock and roll band in the world, most of the time with the Wall of Sound. You see that huge building almost behind us and you see that I’m singing with this little, tiny monitor and I’m between all of these loud instruments that are poking the most incredible energy toward me and out to the audience as well and it was very hard for me to hear. Many times I was out of tune, so I understand what people are talking about. There are a lot of things that I can’t even listen to because it was so out of tune. It was tough, it was tough for me.
ME: I was watching the Grateful Dead Movie the other night and noticed how everyone on stage were all smiles and giggles everyone was looking at each other, throwing nods, exchanging grins and when you walked on stage you looked so happy. You spoke to Bobby and Jerry. Every one looked so thrilled to be on stage. Was that they typical stage presence for the Grateful Dead in the 70’s?
DJGM: Yeah, that was real. We were really enjoying the music and one another. Everybody was very close. There were no discrepancies either musically or personally that people had at that time (1974 when The Grateful Dead Movie was recorded). That made for a very wonderful camaraderie and atmosphere to play music.
ME: What was your most memorable moment on stage with the Grateful Dead?
DJGM: There were so many. I was in the band for almost 9 years and there were 50 jillion concerts so there were a lot of memorable moments. One that stands out, not because the music was so great; but just the atmosphere of the place that we were, the audience, the high energy was at the Pyramids in Egypt. It was one of the most incredible experiences that I had in my life. We were the first rock and roll band to play there. The Egyptian people really got it. They would shake my hand and go “Whaaaa” in their own language. It was amazing, we knew that would be the case so that’s why we wanted to go.
ME: I am the person that I am today because of the 2 GD shows that I saw, my first 2 concerts. A lot of people look at it as a religion how do you feel about this?
DJGM: I put an X on the word religion and I know that most people, not only in the band, but the Dead Heads would call it spiritual. The Dead is a very spiritual band. They have always gone beyond the playing of the music. The whole intent is that it was an experiment, and adventure. The music had to have adventure and improvisation and spirituality. It was a magical expression of music to see the Grateful Dead because you never knew what you were gonna get. No song was ever played the same way twice. That’s what encouraged people to see EVERY show. People came home to a Grateful Dead concert. They came to church.
ME: What was the best advice that you ever received from a member of the band and who was it from?
GJDM: (silent) Oh boy. I guess it would be Jerry. The advice would be, “Let go and see what happens.” That was so different from my upbringing in music that those types of words changed my life musically. All I had known musically was be tight, and you know what will happen. My expression in the Grateful Dead, my growing up, had to do with that very thing.

one month left till Bear Creek get your tickets!


Dr. Pauly said...

Awesome work. Thanks for sharing.

Marco Esquandolas said...

No problem, I have a book of interviews that I have done with people influenced and/or involved with the Dead. Hopefully you will see more in the future! Read on....