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Donna Jean Godchaux MacKay
Playin' In The Band
By Toni A. Brown

In 1971, the Grateful Dead was at the height of its psychedelic improvisational musical prowess. The group's extended jams and interwoven musical texturing seemed an unlikely place to find prominent vocals of any kind.

When Donna Jean Godchaux found herself singing back-up in the band that year, a new vista for her vocal approach was thrust upon her. Relocated from her home in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, Donna Jean's singing experience had been confined, mostly, to studio session work. She and her husband, keyboardist Keith Godchaux, approached Jerry Garcia at a Garcia Band show at the Keystone in San Francisco. Before they had time to think about it, they were in rehearsals with the Grateful Dead. The Dead's original keyboardist, Ron "Pigpen" McKernan, had left the band due to health reasons on August 26, 1971. Keith's first appearance came soon after, on October 19.

Pigpen returned to his spot with the Dead two months later. Keith stayed on, and Donna Jean soon joined in. By the time Pigpen left the band permanently on June 17, 1972, Keith and Donna had become full-time participants in "the greatest show on earth!"

Unfortunately, Keith was killed in an auto accident shortly after they left the Grateful Dead. Donna Jean has led a relatively quiet musical existence for the past 25 years. She went on to marry David MacKay, a guitarist, with whom she has worked for the past two decades. They have recently released an album, Donna Jean, whose material makes stark statements about life and the time we live in. Her clear, clean vocals shine throughout. Gone are the pressures that existed when singing back-up to the most improvisational and untrained vocalists of our time.

Here, the affable Donna Jean shares her history, some road recollections, fond memories and the reasons for her departure from the Grateful Dead.

When did you start singing?

Donna Jean: I was about four or five, and we lived in Fort Knox, Kentucky. My dad was in the army, and I would sit out on my back porch and sing all the time. There was a little boy next door and I sang so much that it made him mad, and he actually hit me in the head with a hammer. (Laughter) So that was my first initiation into music.

Actually, the guy's sister was an opera singer on the Firestone Hour. She had heard me sing and talked to my mom and dad and said, "You need to get her into lessons immediately. She has the potential to be a really good singer." Of course, that never happened. (Laughter) You just never know how things will happen in your life. I just always knew that I wanted to be a singer.

You started out as a session singer...

Donna Jean: When I was 12, studios started springing up in the Muscle Shoals area. That's when I visited my first recording studio, and I got studio fever. I just couldn't wait until I was old enough to get involved in music. I can't remember if I was 15, maybe 16, the first time I actually recorded. I went to Nashville and did a couple of little demos at Billy Sherrill's studio. I just got the bug, what can I say? And the other thing is, I would always sing harmony. I would learn the lead part and then [my friends and I] would go around singing "Soldier Boy" and all those kinds of songs, and I would always be singing harmony and it bugged everybody-they said it messed them up, but that's the way I learned to sing harmony. I would sing all the harmony parts to every song that came on the radio.

What did you do before you joined the Grateful Dead?

Donna Jean: I was in a vocal background group that recorded on all the sessions as the music industry began to boom in Muscle Shoals, and I did sessions with Percy Sledge, the When A Man Loves A Woman album, and Joe Tex, Joe Simon, Benny King, Neil Diamond, Elvis Presley, Cher, Dionne Warwick, the Boxtops, just a lot of Memphis/Nashville/Muscle Shoals things that were coming out in the mid to late '60s. And then in the '70s, I went to California.

What brought you to California?

Donna Jean: I just always wanted to go. And I was ready for the next step.

You weren't out there very long before you joined the Grateful Dead.

Donna Jean: No. In fact, even when I was here, I remember hearing things about the Grateful Dead, and I would go, "Ooh! What a name for a band!" But I never really heard them. When I got out to California, I had a couple of friends who had moved there. Everyone was into the Grateful Dead. Everybody was the way the Grateful Dead fans are. They were just absolutely, thoroughly dedicated and didn't want to do anything except listen to the Grateful Dead, and I thought, "Where in the world is this at?" I just couldn't really relate to it and they would have me listen to the records, and I would go, "Well, I don't get it." And then I thought, "Well, they must be really good looking or something." And so they showed me an album cover, and I went, "No, that's not it." (Laughter) "Okay, what's the deal?" They said, "Well, you have to see them live."

So everyone was going to this concert at Winterland-it was the New Riders, Quicksilver, the Airplane and the Grateful Dead, in that order, I think. So they made me go. I didn't want to because I had to get up for work early the next morning. I'd come to California, kind of giving up music to do something else, just experiment in life a little bit. I ended up going, but I said, "I'm not gonna take any drugs. I'm just not gonna take anything." So we were in the back of the balcony at Winterland and the New Riders came on, and I said, "Hey, they're pretty good." And then Quicksilver came on, and I thought, "Wow, this is really different stuff." Then the Airplane came on, and I thought, "Wow, this is really good." And the Grateful Dead came on, and it was more than music. And I just went, "Whoa! How do they do that!" And I listened to the rest of the concert, and I just could not even believe it. I had not taken anything, and I was just blown away. And so we got home and I couldn't go to sleep, and I just thought, "Man, I cannot believe this! This is the next step, musically, that I want to go." I could detect the spirituality in the music, and I had always had those kinds of leanings anyway, so it was a combination of things that I was really looking for as the next step in my life.

It was around that time that I was introduced to Keith. We had never talked to one another. He didn't know that I sang, and I didn't know he played piano. I was not really telling people that I was a singer. I went to visit with a friend of mine who lived in the East Bay, and she said, "I'm gonna invite Keith over," and I thought, "Good!" So Keith came over, and it was the oddest thing. We had never really talked, but when my friends went to bed, Keith, instead of leaving, we just kind of met in the middle of the room and put our arms around each other, and he said, "I love you," and I said, "I love you, too." We sat down on the couch and talked about getting married. It was just amazing. He and I kind of fell in love, and we had never really talked to one another. He had never heard me sing. I had never heard him play the piano.

When I heard him, I couldn't believe it. I just freaked. That was in the summer of 1970. And we were married in November of that year. It was the end of the next year, '71, when we joined the Grateful Dead. Keith was going to college, of a fashion, and I was working and I got home from work one day, and I said, "Let's listen to the Grateful Dead." Keith said, "I don't want to listen to it. I want to play it." And I went, "Whoa. Well, okay." The Garcia Band with Merl [Saunders] was playing the Keystone in San Francisco. Keith and I went down there and when Jerry was leaving the stage for a break, I just tugged on his arm and said, "My husband and I have something we want to talk to you about." And that was it.

The next week, we were at Grateful Dead rehearsal. Keith and I didn't know that Pigpen was sick or anything.

Did you have a difficult time fitting in vocally with the Grateful Dead?

Donna Jean: Well, yes and no, because there were two different aspects of it. One was when we were in the studio or rehearsing or getting vocals together, it worked out really well. The studio setting is very different. It's more of a controlled atmosphere and it's much more particular, and you can go over things and do overdubs. You have more of an opportunity to really focus just on the vocals. In the studio, it was wonderful. As you can tell on a lot of the studio recordings, our voices blended really, really well. Then you get on stage, and it's a whole different atmosphere.

In those days, the sophistication of the monitor systems was lacking…and to sing harmony with anybody, or even just to sing over the instrumentation, you couldn't hear yourself. Did you have a lot of trouble in that environment?

Donna Jean: It was a nightmare most of the time because you could never really hear properly. The answer, if you couldn't hear yourself, was to turn up and then of course, the other person couldn't hear themselves and they would turn up, and so it was just always so loud on the stage that it was not conducive to having the best atmosphere in order to hit a real true note.

With the Grateful Dead, no matter how many times you could have sung a song, or rehearsed a song, it was never going to be the same.

Donna Jean: Of course, the vocal harmonies were pretty much the same because you're singing words and you're singing together. Phrasing was always a little bit different. Intonation was always questionable.

In those days, was it strange being a woman coming into a male dominated industry?

Donna Jean: Maybe I was very naïve, or not paying a lot of attention. I never felt really oppressed. I didn't feel like I was being squashed or anything like that, and maybe that was because of an inner confidence that I had that I was not looking to be something. I was where I wanted to be. I was having fun. I was getting new experiences in life. I had never sung on stage before. All of the work that I had done vocally was in a recording studio. I was a novice on a certain level as far as performing, and so I was not looking to try to outdo anybody or be the big deal. That's not what I was looking for at that time. And everyone treated me wonderfully.

When the Grateful Dead brought in the Wall of Sound in 1974, did that monstrous sound system affect your role? Was it more difficult to sing with that set-up behind you?

Donna Jean: Because it was a "Wall of Sound," we were constantly trying to find microphones that would work that would hold back the feedback because we would have to have monitors loud enough to hear over the Wall. We experimented with phase canceling microphones, which were the two mics, one on top of the other, that we had for a while. Your mouth had to be touching the microphone, it was so set to ward off feedback. If you got back even an inch, you would lose the quality and ability for the microphone to pick up. So we were constantly trying to find the right microphone in order to deal with how much sound was coming off that stage. I don't know that we ever arrived. (Laughter)

When you recorded in the studio, there was such a vast difference from your live performance-your dynamics were able to shine through. Terrapin Station and Shakedown Street both featured you in fine solo performances.

Donna Jean: That's where I was at home, vocally, in the studio. We would listen to some of the concerts after we got back to the hotel, and I would go, "My Gosh! The vocals sound awful! What in the world is this? Why is it so off key?" I was just trying to make that stretch to discern where the intonation was and what to pay attention to that was on key and who to listen to and try to make the sound come out that you know needs to come out, but you don't know quite how much pressure you're gonna have to put behind that sound to make it come over. Obviously, if you listen to any of the tapes, you realize what a struggle it was.

At least your confidence was adequate to handle that. But we're talking about a band whose every show is out there on tape...

Donna Jean: Under scrutiny. And it's not like you're in the situation where someone is listening to your performance as it is doctored up later on something. What you hear is what you get. I think that's part of the beauty of it. I think it's refreshing when you compare it to everything that's so processed these days. You get into studios now and if the vocalist is off key, they go note by note and electronically bring it up. It takes hours to do this. Most of the vocals that are out these days are done this way.

You also sang with the Jerry Garcia Band. Was it easier to sing in that environment than with the Grateful Dead?

Donna Jean: It was a bit easier, of course, because it wasn't as loud as the Grateful Dead, but then again, the variables. Jerry, as a singer, he was off or on, too. You just kind of had to go with whatever was there at the time, and I think that's another thing to consider. You had to look at the whole concert, and that's how you measured it. In any song, there were gonna be mistakes. You were gonna have that dynamic going on, and you had to look at the whole concert. "Well, this was a good gig" or "This wasn't a good gig." If you studied it bar by bar, well, that's something you just couldn't do with the Grateful Dead's music.

Did the band ever walk away from shows unhappy with a performance?

Donna Jean: Oh, my goodness, yes. After almost every concert. Most of the time it was the blame game, depending on who was in the room. I won't elaborate any further than that.

The adrenaline is still there [after a show], and the atmosphere is so charged that you need to have some kind of closure. It's so charged that when you get off the stage, at least in your mind, you're looking for some kind of closure and unfortunately, with the Grateful Dead, it was hardly ever there. When I say unfortunately, I mean for the band members. Everybody's judging the evening based on something different, so that made for some complicated scrutinies.

You got to do a couple of European tours with the band.

Donna Jean: It was wonderful. For me, it was such a whirlwind. Europe '72 was, basically, when I joined the band. Here I am with this band with this energy that is unlike any other. I'm on stage. We're in Europe. Everything is new. I wish that I could do it again where I could pay attention. For instance, I could see the Eiffel Tower from our hotel room, and I never got out of the hotel room. That's bizarre. Everything was so inward that I never got outside long enough to really take a look around.

Did you enjoy going to Egypt in 1978?

Donna Jean: I loved Egypt so much, it's one of the fondest memories of my life. We were the first rock 'n' roll band to play in front of the Sphinx. The Sphinx Theater. And of course, it being a first, there was a lot of anticipation and energy and excitement around us. And it was great, all the fans coming. It was pretty amazing that this entourage of [American] Grateful Dead fans followed us to Egypt.

It was a real unique experience getting to play music in front of the pyramids. I have a very special memory. An Egyptian man named Ati had this boat for hire that would go up and down the Nile, so we hired the boat after the concerts were over. Keith and me, Jerry, Billy and I think Bobby, went on this boat. We took this three-day and night trip down the Nile, and it was incredible. We slept on this little boat. We'd wake up with the sun shining down on us. The Nile is a very narrow river so both shores were visible. When they would hear the boat coming, kids and whole families would rush down to the shore and wave and bring their drums, and they would sing and play the best music you ever heard for the boats going down the Nile. It was an incredible experience and, of course, we stopped at Luxor and Aswan and toured the tombs and all of the special sites. I loved it so much.

Well, that's one trip you got outside. You had your son, Zion, with you during all of this. Is he into music?

Donna Jean: He still lives in San Francisco. He has a band called 1978. They're actually starting to play around the Bay Area a little bit. He's doing great. He's 23 now.

When the Grateful Dead took a hiatus in 1975, you pulled out the Keith and Donna Band.

Donna Jean: I think it was just something we wanted to do. I don't remember having any feelings about it other than just wanting to have our band and play some other songs. Like Garcia had the Garcia Band. It's just another avenue of expression, and I really enjoyed it.

When did the Heart of Gold Band come about?

Donna Jean: That was in 1980, after Keith and I were out of the Grateful Dead. Greg Anton and Steve Kimock (Zero) were in it, and we had various bass players.

What kind of music do you listen to now?

Donna Jean: I listen to everything. I should qualify that-I really enjoy good quality music of any kind. I love good classical music. I love good Irish music, good Scottish music. Actually, Brian Godchaux, Keith's brother, is playing in an Irish band sometimes, and I love that, that classical, true-to-your-country music. I really love ethnic folk music. I love good rock 'n' roll. I mean, hey. That's what we were brought up on. I love good R&B. I just love good music.

Were there any specific reasons why you left the Grateful Dead?

Donna Jean: Well, this is probably the best time to clarify that. People ask me, "Did you guys quit or were you fired?" The answer is, really and honestly, both.

There was a tour where things had gotten so bad, it was not fun anymore. That's when drugs were really getting to be more of an issue, and there was just a lot of discord in and around the band because of that. And this one tour, I just left. I told the road manager, "I don't have to take this anymore, and I'm going home." And so I left right in the middle of the tour. Keith and I did one more tour after that, but he and I had been saying that we needed to get out of the band. We weren't blaming anybody else. It's just what everything as a whole was doing to us as a couple, individually, with Zion, and we realized that if we did not make a real serious change soon that it was not going to turn out well. And we were physically, spiritually and emotionally wasted. Literally. Of course, in situations like that, you have to look at your own responsibility, and I'm not blaming anybody. It's just the situation that we found ourselves in, we were in over our heads as far as how it had turned out. We knew we had to make a change. Neither one of us are quitters-we talked for weeks about how to make a change.

Meanwhile, the Grateful Dead…the other band members were going through the same things. They knew that it needed to happen, and so they called a meeting at Keith's and my house, and it was a mutual decision.

When we were out of the band, I felt like a whole load was lifted off me. Not because of anybody or the band, it was the scene and it had wrought things in us that was detrimental to us going on as human beings in a marriage and in a life. What can I say? It just had to happen. It was time. They knew it, and we knew it.

After Keith died, you had to pull things together for yourself, and I'm sure that was not easy.

Donna Jean: No, it wasn't easy. We had already started the Heart Of Gold Band, and we had played one concert. It was just a few days after that that Keith was killed. Greg Anton (the drummer in the Heart Of Gold Band) was so special during that time. I think he's the one who told me that Keith had been in an accident and, of course, I went right over to his house. Greg was right there, and I will always have real special feelings for him. He's a good man. That was really a rough time.

I continued on with the Heart Of Gold Band. That's when I met my husband, David MacKay. He came to play with us one night, and that was that. Like he said, he got the gig and the chick. (Laughter)

You did some gospel music with him...

Donna Jean: Yeah, we had a gospel band in San Francisco. David and I were involved in a church there, so we did some singing and put out a little record that really wasn't meant to be a big deal. But it was just a nice record with some songs that we had written. And then we didn't really do anything musically for quite awhile and then when we were in California about three or four years ago, we started getting songs together and realized that we needed to get back into music. There were things that were coming up in our throats again. We have something musically to express, and we were real astute that we needed to get back into music. And I just missed it. I missed reaching out and being able to touch people like that. There's something about playing live and being with people that helps bring who you are forward, and there's something relationally that I so missed that it was time.

The album has more of a rock slant to it, and you've written the material.

Donna Jean: Yeah. It's what you would call a rock 'n' roll album. It's got a little bit of New Orleans flavor on it. There's a little bit of reggae flavor. There's definite rock 'n' roll. There's a couple of strong ballads. So it's a real well-rounded record, musically.

I do most of the lead singing with Will McFarland. He was Bonnie Raitt's guitar player in the '70s. Will and I do a couple of songs together, and he sings some solos on the record. We wrote some of the material together, and my husband David and I wrote some of the material together and I wrote a couple of songs by myself. But it's a real collaboration. They're strong songs-strong music and strong lyrics. They incorporate things that we're facing today, on the streets. One song is called "Children Of The Night." It's about the struggle with the children as they're trying to find their identity, and they're in the streets; things that we face as a nation.

When Jerry Garcia died, what were your thoughts?

Donna Jean: I think my thoughts were pretty much like everybody else's. It's something people said was going to happen, but nobody believed it. He would always survive. And it was such a shock that the time really came down on this planet when Jerry died. It was a real shock, and it shouldn't have been. But it was. Everybody talked about it. But the reality of it was not something that I think people really believed would happen.

We're very lucky in that the spirit that remains is as strong as it is. But people are picking up the pieces now. It's almost two years. But it's an incredible thing that one man through music did so much for so many people. It's a shame that we couldn't do as much for him, although in some ways I guess he got his rewards doing what he loved doing.

Donna Jean: Jerry was like a father to the fatherless in some ways to some people. There was a sense of home or something, finding a place and there was a place for you. People were attracted to that, and people need that. They need a sense of belonging, and Jerry opened that door for people.

One of the last tours the Dead did, I went to one of the shows in Birmingham. I hadn't been to a Grateful Dead concert in so long, and I was just amazed at all the young kids. It was almost like a time warp, and I thought, "My word! This is really and truly the next generation." And what amazes me is they know who I am. It's shocking-they weren't even born when I was in the Grateful Dead. (Laughter)

Being in the Grateful Dead was an adventure. It was an experience. That's the way people looked at it, which is a different thing about the Grateful Dead. People were not there to critique the music. They were there to have an experience. I think that's another reason why they were so giving when it came to whether the music was great or not. They weren't in it just for the music. They were in it for the experience and for the belonging and the comradeship and everything else that the Grateful Dead was, in addition to being musical. That was part of the attraction.

Getting back to what I was saying, we went to the concert and I got to spend some time with Bobby, which was really great and, of course, all the other guys, and Jerry called the next morning…we were staying at the same hotel, and he called and asked if we wanted to come up and have coffee with him. So we had coffee with Jerry and Deborah, and Jerry and I talked for about two hours about stuff that only he and I knew about, inside experiences that we had had on tour together, and we just laughed and laughed and had the best time together. It was so wonderful for me. I will just always be grateful that I had that time with him. So I got closure.

What's in store for the future?

Donna Jean: I'm really looking forward to touching base with people again, and I really think they're gonna like the music.

A lot of people have missed you, so welcome back.

Donna Jean: It's good to be back. You grow in ways that you don't know you're gonna grow, and things happen and progress that take you to the next step or cause you to become more whole in ways, and I have grown in the past few years. Part of that growing is a greater capacity to love, and my heart right now is still full of love for people. Before, even being in the Grateful Dead, I was so guarded. I was not used to being whisked away here and there and I was not in a place in my life to really appreciate and linger with people, and I'm looking forward to that now. I really am looking forward to just talking with people. Donna Jean is planning to hit the road in the near future. Be sure to stop in, say hello and listen to the music play.

This article originally appeared in Relix Magazine, Volume 24 #4 (August, 1997).

Copyright © 1999-2004 - Toni Brown

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