Grateful Dead guitarist Jerry Garcia was born on August 1, 1942 and died on August 9, 1995 at the age of 53. Each year, the “Days Between” Garcia’s birthday and the anniversary of his death mark a period of time to reflect on and celebrate the beloved musician’s life and career. This year, JamBase honors the Days Between by examining the evolution of the Jerry Garcia Band from its inception in 1975, through a final performance in 1995.
Following the Godchaux era of the Jerry Garcia Band that ended in November 1978, Jerry Garcia first turned his attention to the short-lived Reconstruction, before resurrecting JGB in October 1979 with a new lineup consisting of previous JGB bassist John Kahn, and newcomers, drummer Johnny d’Fonseca Jr. and keyboardist Ozzie Ahlers.
By mid-1980, Garcia was again reorganizing the membership of JGB, and in early 1981 he brought Hammond B-3 organist Melvin Seals in the group. Seals, who Garcia dubbed “the master of the universe,” first performed live as a JGB member on January 22, 1981, at the Keystone in Palo Alto, California.
The longest-tenured of several keyboardists in the group, Seals remained a member of the Jerry Garcia Band through their final show in April 1995. Bassist John Kahn, who was in every JGB lineup, was the only longer-termed member of the band.
Seals’ entry into Garcia’s world came by way of his previous work with vocalist Maria Muldaur, a one-time JGB member who was in a relationship with Kahn in the 1970s. Muldaur, known for her 1973 hit “Midnight At The Oasis,” appeared on Garcia’s solo album’s Compliments (1974) and Cats Under The Stars (1978).
Seals discussed first meeting Garcia on The JamBase Podcast:
Seals: When I got with Jerry, I was just recently out of working with Elvin Bishop. And when I worked with Elvin Bishop, I did some work with Maria Muldaur. Her boyfriend was John Kahn, bass player of Jerry Garcia Band. And so the interesting thing, I was very involved with the church. I had a gospel record company. I had a gospel label producing a lot of gospel music, it was just in me. And so, you know, I was very close to the church and what we were doing there.
And I got with the Jerry Garcia Band through John Kahn. He did some work, played with Maria when I was working with Maria, and he was just paying attention to me. And one day he came up and said, “Man, would you be interested in playing in another band?” As a musician, you always keep the door open. I didn’t even know who he was talking about. He never said anything. One day, I get a phone call, “Hey, you up for doing some gigs this weekend?” or I think it was rehearsal this weekend and the gigs next weekend. And yeah, I was available. And so, we’re going to rehearse, he gave me an address and told me what time and I was trying to be on time to give a good representation, you know?
So I got there before everybody else. And the caretaker of the building let me in, they were expecting me. So I walk in and I’m looking around, the first thing I’m looking around, and I see all these logos. Now, I’m not familiar with the Grateful Dead. I knew their name. Wasn’t a Deadhead. OK? I know their names because, when one would have a birthday, Channel 7 would say “Today’s Mickey Hart’s birthday.” Or you’d hear the trouble that was caused when they would play New Year’s in Oakland, the scene that was going on. That’s all I knew. Didn’t know Jerry, anybody else.
I walk in and I see these backdrops, logos. It was a little hard to process because I’m a church boy and all these logos were skeletons. One with a violin in his hand, one skeleton with a rose in his head and just — skeletons. Not to put a bad drift on things, but wasn’t too long ago that massacre happened with Jim Jones, the cult. And so I’m walking in and I’m looking at this, I know nothing, but I’m looking around and I don’t know what’s going on, you know? And so it kinda was a little scary for me not knowing this was their logos. So I was pretty scared, you know, joining.
So anyhow, I do this, I’m looking around, I see all this stuff then comes in all the musicians. They all came in at one time: John Kahn, Greg Errico on drums, Jerry Garcia, Jimmy Warren on keyboard and two background singers and then some side people …
We go over and I get on the organ and we do three songs. We do, “How Sweet It Is,” “The Harder They Come” and there was another Motown song [“Second That Emotion”] … And the guy on guitar says to me, “You play some pretty good organ.” And I say back, “You play some pretty good guitar,” and they’re just laughing because everybody knew I didn’t have a clue. I had no idea. And they just really welcomed that because that was so different from everybody else trying to get the gig and trying to take pictures and utilize the situation. I had no idea. I didn’t care. So I quickly found out, started learning as we did the first set of gigs over at the Keystone I believe it was, this is Jerry Garcia, he’s with the Grateful Dead.
Still the whole big picture wasn’t there, but I’m getting a glimpse of, “Oh, this is that guy.” But I had no idea what I was potentially getting into and where it could have went, and where it went is why I’m able to work today. Through the years of playing with Jerry, he gave me some kudos. He said I was the guy that he was looking for and he even gave me a name. He called me “master of the universe.” With his fans, Jerry loving me meant his fans loved me.
Later in 1981, Seals joined Garcia at Dead’s Club Front recording studio in San Rafael, California to record what became Garcia’s final solo studio album, 1982’s Run For The Roses. Seals contributed organ to the title track, “Midnight Getaway,” “Leave The Little Girl Alone” and “Valerie” and a cover of “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door.”
Subsequent years saw the Jerry Garcia Band’s lineup continue to evolve, with Garcia, Kahn and Seals accompanied by several different keyboardists, drummers and vocalists taking on stints of varying lengths. On July 10, 1984 at the Keystone Palo Alto, the Jerry Garcia Band debuted a lineup consisting of Garcia, Kahn, Seals, drummer David Kemper and vocalists Jacklyn LaBranch and Gloria Jones. Outside of a stretch in from late-1985 to early-1986 when Reconstruction drummer Gaylord Birch filled in for Kemper, this lineup stayed intact through a show on November 19, 1993 at the Hampton Coliseum in Hampton, Virginia, making it the longest running lineup in the band’s history.
Jacklyn LaBranch grew up in San Francisco’s Haight neighborhood, not far from where Jerry Garcia and the Grateful Dead lived at 710 Ashbury. In a 2016 interview with Relix, LaBranch described the circumstances that led to her joining the Jerry Garcia Band (along with vocalist DeeDee Dickerson) in 1982:
Relix: Your introduction to the Jerry Garcia Band came through Melvin Seals. How familiar were you with Jerry Garcia and his music at that time?
LaBranch: I wasn’t familiar at all. Melvin asked me in ‘82. I was in a community choir and our director moved out of town. We never disbanded, but we kind of stopped singing, and I did some recording work with Melvin in his studio. He asked me if I was interested in singing with the band and I said, “Sure, why not?” That’s how I got into it.
Then, Melvin and Dee Dee [Dickerson] and I started rehearsing the songs together. Music was music to me, so I didn’t really question the music or the lyrics. I played in the orchestra and I always played the piano. I remember “Dear Prudence” and “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” were the ones I started with. I really liked singing them. Then, after we learned all the songs with Melvin, we rehearsed with the band. That’s when I met Jerry and put it all together.
The first time it became real was at the first gig we did. I think it was at The Stone. We had to walk from the dressing room to the stage, and as I looked out, I said to myself: “Where did all these hippies come from? Where have they been?” [Laughs.]
I’ll tell you, though, I really understood the love the Deadheads had for Jerry when he went into a diabetic coma [in 1986]. He was down for a while and his first gig back was not with the Grateful Dead, it was with us at The Stone. And when Jerry came out, you would have thought God himself had stepped out on that stage. It wasn’t the yelling and shouting, it was the love in that room. It was palpable—you could feel it. They were so happy to have Jerry Garcia back. It was an experience I’ve never felt before or since.
LaBranch remained a member of the Jerry Garcia Band through the group’s final run in April 1995. The vocalist, who held a day job during her tenure in JGB, attended college after Garcia’s death and pursued other interests booth inside and out of music. She recently performed with Seals at a concert at Red Rocks honoring what would have been Jerry Garcia’s 80th birthday.
While LaBranch was first joined on JGB by fellow backing vocalist DeeDee Dickerson, the group’s classic lineup was fulfilled when Gloria Jones replaced Dickerson at the Keystone Palo Alto in July 1984. According to her obituary in the San Francisco Chronicle:
Jones was born on Jan. 15, 1945, in Dallas to Titus and Nettie Mae Washington. Her father was a pastor, and she and her sisters would sing in his church. Her family relocated to Alameda in 1950 and then settled in Oakland shortly afterward, where she spent most of her adolescent and adult life.
Jones graduated from Castlemont High School in 1963 and studied to become a beautician. She was a member of several small gospel groups before joining Garcia. She returned to singing with church groups after she left the band, continuing to perform at private church events and with the choir.
Jones performed at a concert honoring Garcia’s 75th birthday at Red Rocks Amphitheatre in Colorado in 2017, joining an all-star band that included Seals, Bob Weir, Oteil Burbridge, Kamasi Washington, Tom Hamilton and Duane Trucks. She also toured with the Jerry Garcia Birthday Band through 2018, returning to Colorado last August.
Jones and LaBranch, known by fans at “The Jerryettes,” remained JGB backing vocalists through 1995, showcasing on songs such as Bob Dylan’s “Tanlged up In Blue,” The Band’s “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” The Beatles’ “Dear Prudence,” Marvin Gaye’s “How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved by You)” and Jesse Stone’s “Don’t Let Go.” The backing vocalists were also prominently featured on gospel-songs such as “Mighty High” and “My Sisters And Brothers.”
Kemper was born in Chicago and saw his first Grateful Dead concert in 1968 (when soundman/LSD manufacturer Owsley Stanley dosed him). Prior to working with Garcia, Kemper’s credits included session work with T. Bone Burnett, Joan Armatrading, Focus and toured with Peter Frampton and The Average White Band, among others. Kemper spoke to Barry Smolin about his stint with JGB in an interview for Duprees Diamond News in fall 1996.
DDN: How did your association with the Jerry Band come about?
Kemper: Well, in 1983 I got a call from John Kahn asking me if I wanted to join the Jerry Garcia Band. I didn’t really know he had a band. I said, “Jerry of the Dead?” Kahn, answered, “Yeah, would you like to be a member of his band?”
DDN: Do you have any idea how your name came up?
Kemper: Yeah, I found out later that John had called a producer in town and asked,”Who’s happening,” and the producer mentioned my name. And I was working a lot. I was really busy. So John just called sight unseen, or “sound unheard” I should say, and invited me up to Front Street, the place, you know. I met everybody, and we played and everybody smiled and said “We like it,”’ and they asked me what I thought and I said I liked it. Though inside I thought to myself, “This is the strangest bunch of people I’ve ever been around!”
DDN: What was Jerry like that first time you met him?
Kemper: I liked him immediately. He was funny. There was no pretense. He was just real, just a real guy. We got along great right away. He was really warm. Everybody greeted me very warmly, actually. I was nervous when I first walked in there mainly because of the intimidation from the roadies, you know. Those are some pretty big biker dudes. And I’m of slight build. Macho is not a part of me; I wish it were, but it’s not. And here were these guys that majored in macho.
During the interview, Kemper also talked about his departure from the Jerry Garcia Band, which took place after the aforementioned 1993 Hampton Coliseum gig. Kemper, who went on to play in Bob Dylan’s band from 1996 to 2001, was left puzzled as to why his time with JGB came to an end.
DDN: What happened?
Kemper: You tell me!
DDN: Nobody ever told you why? That’s been a big question: what happened to David Kemper?
Kemper: That’s been my big question too. We did that tour in ‘93. It was financially our most successful tour. We played big venues and sold out a large portion of them. But the success didn’t translate into the music. It wasn’t any different musically from the ones before. But everything else felt different somehow. I felt that Jerry was starting to change in some way that I don’t really understand to this day. Maybe he was tired of me.
DDN: How were you informed of your termination?
Kemper: I got a call from [crew member Steve] Parish in January of ‘94, saying, “Well, here’s that phone call you’ve been expecting for 10 years. Where do you want us to send your drums?” I said, “Well, Steve, why don’t you send them here to my house” And he said, “Don’t you want them sent to your cartage company?” And I said, “No, have them sent here to the house.” And he said, “Oh, by the way, we have a new drummer already” and I said, “Oh, OK..” And he said, “Well, I don’t know what else to say but goodbye.” And I said, “Well, Steve, you know, you always had a way with words.” And that was it. No explanation, nothing.
After Garcia’s death in July 1995, Melvin Seals continues to carry the JGB torch, performing the repertoire the band developed under the guidance of Garcia. Kemper, LaBranch and Jones joined Melvin Seals & JGB at various times over the years. Gloria Jones died in 2019 at age 74.
[Many thanks to JerryGarcia.com, JerryBase.com and Lost Live Dead for statistical data, personnel information, setlists and other resources.]