The Grateful Dead was one of the most popular and enduring of all musical groups. The Dead came of age during the mid-to-late 1960s, an era in which the lyrics and sounds of rock and roll (see entry under 1950s—Music in volume 3) music were coming under the influence of the drug-related experiences of musicians and fans alike.
Indeed, much of the Grateful Dead's image is related to the hallucinatory drugs (which produce strange sounds and visions) and psychedelia (the music, art, and writing influenced by the use of such drugs) that characterized pop culture in the late 1960s. The group's musical roots are in traditional blues (see entry under 1920s—Music in volume 2), folk (see entry under 1960s—Music in volume 4), and bluegrass (see entry under 1940s—Music in volume 3). The group's sum and substance may be directly linked to the free-spiritedness and nonconformity of the Beat Movement (see entry under 1950s—Print Culture in volume 3) of the 1950s. Additionally, the success enjoyed by the Dead has been nonconventional by music industry standards. Most musical acts win their initial fame by topping the record charts with a Top Ten hit. But not the Dead: They earned their popularity first by performing in the San Francisco Bay area and then by constant touring. The group did not release a Top Ten record until 1987, with "Touch of Grey." Through the years, the group produced studio-recorded albums, but fans insisted that the spirit of the Dead could only be fully appreciated by experiencing them in concert.
The band was formed in San Francisco, California, in 1965. The original Grateful Dead included Jerry Garcia (1942–1995), the group's most famous and charismatic member, who even inspired a Ben & Jerry's ice cream flavor (Cherry Garcia); Bob Weir (1947–); Ron "Pigpen" McKernan (1945–1973); Bill Kreutzmann (1946–); and Phil Lesh (1940–). Most rock groups from any era disappear after several years; their popularity wanes, or their members disperse and go solo or form other bands. Although members and music of the Dead changed through the years, with other musicians and songwriters having a major influence on the group, the Dead essentially remained the Dead. A key to their popularity and longevity has been the obsessive loyalty of their fans, who are known as Deadheads. These followers, to whom the Dead is nothing short of a religion, are eager consumers of anything Dead related, from magazines, Web sites, and cable TV (see entry under 1970s—TV and Radio in volume 4) and radio (see entry under 1920s—TV and Radio in volume 2) programs to recordings and bootlegs (unauthorized recordings, usually of live concerts) that are issued and reissued. The cult surrounding the Dead emerged after a call to fans, titled "Dead Freaks Unite—Who Are You? Where Are You?," was printed in their 1971 album The Grateful Dead (also known as Skulls and Roses).
Over two decades later, the Dead remained the highest-grossing concert band in the United States. Following Garcia's death in 1995, the band stopped recording and touring, though surviving members occasionally reunite. But into the twenty-first century, the band remains an industry unto itself—as well as a living link to the counterculture of the 1950s and 1960s.
For More Information
Brandelius, Jerilyn Lee. The Grateful Dead Family Album. New York: Warner Books, 1989.
Gans, David. Conversations with the Dead: The Grateful Dead InterviewBook. New York: Citadel Press, 1991.
Gans, David, and Peter Simon. Playing in the Band: An Oral and Visual Portrait of The Grateful Dead. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1985.
Greenfield, Robert. Dark Star: An Oral Biography of Jerry Garcia. New York: William Morrow, 1996.
Harrison, Hank. The Dead. Millbrae, CA: Celestial Arts, 1980.
Jackson, Blair. Garcia: An American Life. New York: Viking Press, 1999.
Jackson, Blair. Goin' Down the Road: A Grateful Dead Traveling Companion. New York: Harmony, 1992.
Rocco, John, and Brian Rocco, eds. Dead Reckonings: The Life and Times of The Grateful Dead. New York: Schirmer Books, 1999.
Ruhlman, William. The History of The Grateful Dead. New York: Gallery, 1990.
Trager, Oliver. The American Book of The Dead: The Definitive GratefulDead Encyclopedia. New York: Fireside Books, 1997.