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Five Musicians Remember Jerry Garcia

August 20, 2012  |  11:00am

Jerry Garcia would have turned 70 this month. This year also marks the 45th anniversary of the Grateful Dead’s self-titled debut and the 40th anniversary of Garcia’s first solo record Garcia. Over the course of his career, he was involved in too many musical side projects to count. We talked to five musicians who played with Garcia in various groups as they reflected on their time spent with the Grateful Dead frontman.

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1. Melvin Seals, Jerry Garcia Band
Seals began playing piano when he was a young boy; he got started in the church, as his father was a musician, choir director and pianist. “There was a piano in the house,” he recalls, “and you know when you ain’t got nothin’ to do, I sat down and started messing with it.” After his father observed his interest in playing, Seals was given lessons, and “it took off from there.”

Seals connected with Garcia through John Kahn, one of Garcia’s longtime collaborators outside the Grateful Dead, but he didn’t know what he was in for. “John heard me several times and kind of offered me the opportunity to play in a band, which was the Garcia Band,” he said. “I didn’t know it at the time; he didn’t say who it was. It was just another band.”

The first time Seals met Garcia was at a rehearsal. Seals knew who the Grateful Dead was but didn’t follow the band or know the names of its members. He remembers his first experience meeting Garcia: “I didn’t understand the organization. I didn’t know much about them at all. When I first went to rehearsal at their warehouse that they owned I saw all kinds of banners and posters of the Grateful Dead with skeletons—a skeleton with a violin in his hand, a skeleton with a rose in his hand, skeleton, skeleton, skeleton—I knew nothing about it. You start thinking it’s that Jim Jones cult. So I was quite nervous going out of town with them because I didn’t know what I was getting into. But, you know, I quickly learned that these are some of the most loving people in the world. No one I’d rather be with.”

One of the most striking memories Seals has of Garcia was his generosity—when one of the girls in the band, Gloria Jones, wanted to buy a house, Jerry co-signed for her. “Have you ever heard the term that someone would literally give you the shirt off their back?” he says. “Jerry was that person, he really was. Anything that you needed, he wanted you to have it. People don’t know much about that kind of stuff, but it’s real. He did a lot of things individually for folks as they needed things and was glad to do it.”

Every Christmas Seals and the other musicians would go to Garcia’s house for a small gathering. Seals recalls one particular Christmas gathering, “One year I went up there and just kinda sat in Jerry’s chair. He had a big designer cushioned chair. I just sat there all night. I didn’t get up and play the piano or anything. I just sat there until I left.” Garcia said to Seals, “Man you sure do look comfortable,” and Seals replied, “Man, this is a great chair.” According to Seals, that’s all he ever said, “and two days later that chair was delivered to my house. I didn’t ask for it or see that coming. I just said that I enjoyed sitting in it in his house and he had it delivered to me.”

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2. Richard Greene, Old and in the Way
Richard Greene, who’s been called “one of America’s most influential fiddlers,” began studying classical violin as a young child until he became a teenager and lost interest in playing. He started playing again in college after he was invited to play in an old-time trio with guitar and banjo, and fell in love with that music. A couple of years later, Greene met fiddle player Scotty Stoneman, who Jerry Garcia called the “bluegrass Charlie Parker.” According to Greene, Stoneman “completely transformed my life. Hearing what he did on that instrument was a monumental change for me, and from then on I decided to be a non-classical fiddle player.”

Greene first met Garcia in the early 1960s, before Garcia was a member of the Grateful Dead. Greene believes it was around 1963 or 1964 when Garcia was playing with the Pine Valley Boys. Greene remembers, “Jerry was only at that time a banjo player. He would come around, and we would start jamming. He was quite a nice guy and I liked him.”

After their initial introduction, Greene and Garcia were reacquainted when they played together in Old and in the Way. According to Greene, he joined the band when David Grisman asked him to play, “I think Jerry asked David to ask me.”

According to Greene, even though Garcia had become a star by this time, he acted the same way he did when Greene knew him in the ’60s prior to his rise to fame. “One time I was in his car and there was this glove compartment full of checks,” Greene remembers. “He didn’t even understand or care about money, so he would get paid by someone for something and he would just throw it in the glove compartment, and that would be the end of it.” Greene commented, “there must have been thousands of dollars in the glove compartment.”

According to Greene, Garcia never changed. “He was a really sweet guy and always was. He was just the nicest, unselfish, generous person, and unusually so. And throughout my entire association with him, that’s the way he was. I think that’s the way he was all the time with everyone—very giving.”

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