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History of the Grateful Dead

VO: Rebecca Brayton
Formed in Palo Alto, California in 1965, the Grateful Dead started off as the house band for Ken Kesey's Acid Tests. Their 1967 self-titled debut found some success in California but it was really their frequent live shows that captured audiences. By showing off their live improv and experimentation skills, the band was able to find chart success with their albums in the 70s. Despite line-up changes, critics and the mainstream alike began to take notice - and finally in 1980s, they had a top ten hit. Meanwhile, their live reputation and the number of Deadheads grew around the world, with the band leaving a musical legacy that is bound to last. In this video, takes a look at the history of the Grateful Dead.

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They were the Godfathers of the jam band. Welcome to, and today we’re taking a look at the history of the Grateful Dead.

The Warlocks

Rock band the Grateful Dead formed in Palo Alto, California in 1965 when guitarists and vocalists Jerry Garcia and Bob Weir, keyboardist, harmonica player and vocalist Rob “Pigpen” McKernan, bassist and vocalist Phil Lesh and drummer Bill Kreutzmann first started performing as the Warlocks.

Ken Kesey’s Acid Tests

The band’s longstanding association with psychedelic drugs began early on when they became the house band for author Ken Kesey’s Acid Tests, which were LSD-fuelled parties in the San Francisco Bay Area. After discovering another band called the Warlocks, they became the Grateful Dead and started building on that name by playing free shows.


Following a short stint with MGM, the Dead released their eponymous LP with Warner Bros. in 1967. However, the blues and psychedelic rock effort received little attention outside San Francisco.

Live Shows

The band then continued developing their live reputation by playing events like the Mantra-Rock Dance, the Monterey Pop Festival and Woodstock. They also added drummer Mickey Hart and keyboardist Tom Constanten to the lineup, while Robert Hunter began making lyrical contributions.

Jamming and Experimentation

Soon, the Dead released the highly ambitious but extremely expensive albums Anthem of the Sun and Aoxomoxoa. These records showcased their fondness for jamming and experimentation, as well as a psychedelic sound that spanned pop, rock, folk, blues and country.

Live Albums

The band’s talent for improvisations and varied song interpretations was best captured on their multiple live compilations and the recordings taped by Deadheads throughout the years. 1969’s Live/Dead was considered one of their absolute best.

Chart Success

Though a drug bust in early 1970 put a damper on things, the Dead found chart success when Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty charted within the top thirty that same year.

Line-up Changes

The Grateful Dead soon added keyboardist Keith Godchaux and backup vocalist Donna Jean Godchaux to the team, while John Perry Barlow started writing lyrics. And, despite Pigpen’s alcohol-related death in 1973, the Dead marched on.

Commercial Success

After the colossal Summer Jam at Watkins Glen festival, they finally found commercial success through their own label with the jazz-tinged Wake of the Flood and the acid rock-based From the Mars Hotel. They also distinguished themselves by using their massive Wall of Sound audio system during live performances.

Hiatus and Other Projects

Mid-decade, The Grateful Dead went on a two-year hiatus while members concentrated on side projects, though the studio LP Blues for Allah was released in 1975.

More Music and Line-up Changes

They resumed touring the following year and in 1977 they dropped the more symphonic and less freeform studio album, Terrapin Station, via Arista Records. Late in the decade, Keith and Donna Jean Godchaux were replaced by keyboardist Brent Mydland.


Following 1978’s Shakedown Street, the Grateful Dead only came out with one studio album in the early 1980s: Go to Heaven. Though a few live compilations were released, the band instead concentrated on touring.

Top Ten Hit

After a health scare forced Garcia to curb his drug use, their next studio album was only unveiled in 1987 – but it was worth the wait: In the Dark became the band’s first and only top ten effort, and spawned their highest charting single: the top ten track, “Touch of Grey.”

Last Album

Reinvigorated by this success, the Dead were as present as ever on the touring circuit. Unfortunately, 1989’s Built to Last was the group’s final studio record; the next year, Mydland died from a drug overdose. With keyboardist Vince Welnick and pianist Bruce Hornsby as his replacements, the band slowly got back on the road.

Jerry Garcia’s Death

After another health scare in 1992, Garcia died of a heart attack while in drug rehab three years later.

Posthumous Releases and Projects

The band retired in 1995, but they remained in the public consciousness through various releases, including the Dick’s Picks concert series and merchandise sales. Surviving members continued making music together and separately, with notable projects being The Other Ones, The Dead and Furthur.

Musical Legacy

Though originally categorized as psychedelic rockers, the Grateful Dead essentially spearheaded the jam band. By bringing thousands of Deadheads together through their unique musical style and transcendental live shows, the Grateful Dead altered the history of rock music for the better.

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