Jerry Garcia, celebrated musician, tireless live performer and master of American musical traditions, was born in San Francisco on this day in history, Aug. 1, 1942.
Garcia is best known as the prolific songwriter, lead guitarist and most visible face of The Grateful Dead. The band grew out of the West Coast counterculture of the 1960s to become a formidable touring act for 30 years.
The band defied music-industry convention that demanded clipped three-minute records for airplay and retail sales.
“The Grateful Dead did not play in sets; no eight numbers to a set, then a twenty-five-minute break, and so on, four or five sets and then the close-out,” Tom Wolfe wrote in “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test,” his seminal 1968 literary nonfiction book that captured the hallucinogenic haze of California counterculture.
“The Dead might play one number for five minutes or thirty minutes,” Wolfe wrote. “Who kept time? Who could keep time, with history cut up in slices? The Dead could get just as stoned as anyone else.”
Garcia died in 1995, days after turning 53, following several years of battling health and addiction problems.
Garcia’s image remains closely aligned with the late-1960s San Francisco music scene and with the upheaval in American society that consumed the era.
But Garcia was largely apolitical.
Artistically, he is a giant of American songcraft.
Garcia’s first musical love was banjo, one of the few instruments invented in the Americas. He played in bluegrass band Hart Valley Drifters at age 20, with whom he made his first known studio recording, The Wall Street Journal reported in 2016.
“The five-string banjo was the first instrument that really consumed him, around 1962, when he practiced for hours every day,” instrument-maker Deering said in 2019.
Garcia formed a jug band in 1964 with future Dead-mates Bob Weir and Rob “Pigpen” McKernan. They recorded an album of folks songs under the name Mother McCree’s Uptown-Jug Champions.
Garcia played banjo, guitar and kazoo.
He taught himself to play pedal steel guitar, an instrument popularized on the Hawaiian Islands and still heard often in today’s country music.
Garcia excelled at pedal steel guitar enough to play it on the Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young hit “Teach Your Children.” His distinctive high notes give the song its sunny, folk-country appeal.
It became a chart hit in 1970 and enjoyed decades of airplay on FM album-oriented-radio.
Garcia and The Grateful Dead dipped into the Merle Haggard country music standard “Mama Tried” during their troubled midnight Woodstock set in August 1969 — and closed with a 45-minute version of “Turn On Your Love Light,” a 1961 R&B classic by Bobby Bland.
The website SavingCountryMusic.com asked in 2015 if the Grateful Dead — not a rock or country act — was the most important American band of all time.
“The Grateful Dead proved not just its proficiency, but its dedication to distinctly American music forms,” the site noted.
Garcia was born to play American music. His parents named him after legendary Broadway composer Jerome Kern, who contributed to the American songbook standards such as “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes” and “The Way You Look Tonight.”
Garcia briefly served his country offstage.
He joined the Army in 1960, but proved a terrible soldier. He was booted with a general discharge the same year.
Rolling Stone published “Jerry Garcia’s 50 Greatest Songs” in 2020. “Uncle John’s Band” topped the list, lauded for its odes to Americana.
“With a title that references his middle name, it offers an image of a singer and his violin by the riverside, bringing a ragtag bunch of misfits and outcasts together into a community,” Rolling Stone said.
“With Garcia, Bob Weir and Phil Lesh joining their fragile voices to proclaim their hippie tribalism as part of a great homegrown American tradition,” the publication added.