The band was known for its unique and eclectic style, which fused elements of rock, folk, bluegrass, blues, reggae, country, improvisational jazz, psychedelia, and space rock, and for live performances of long musical improvisation.
“Their music,” writes Lenny Kaye, “touches on ground that most other groups don’t even know exists.” These various influences were distilled into a diverse and psychedelic whole that made the Grateful Dead “the pioneering Godfathers of the jam band world”.
Members of the Grateful Dead had played together in various San Francisco bands, including Mother McCree’s Uptown Jug Champions and the Warlocks.
Lesh was the last member to join the Warlocks before they became the Grateful Dead; he replaced Dana Morgan Jr., who had played bass for a few gigs.
With the exception of McKernan, who died in 1973, the core of the band stayed together for its entire 30-year history.
Other longtime members of the band include Mickey Hart (drums 1967–1971, 1974–1995, 2015), Keith Godchaux (keyboards 1971–1979), Donna Godchaux (vocals 1972–1979), Brent Mydland (keyboards, vocals 1979–1990), and Vince Welnick (keyboards 1990–1995).
The band’s first show was at Magoo’s Pizza located at 639 Santa Cruz Avenue in suburban Menlo Park, California on May 5, 1965.
They were known as the Warlocks although at the same time the Velvet Underground was also using that name on the east coast.
The show was not recorded and not even the set list has been preserved.
The band quickly changed its name after finding out that another band of the same name had signed a recording contract.
The first show under the new name Grateful Dead was in San Jose, California on December 4, 1965, at one of Ken Kesey’s Acid Tests.
Earlier demo tapes have survived, but the first of over 2,000 concerts known to have been recorded by the band’s fans was a show at the Fillmore Auditorium in San Francisco on January 8, 1966.
As the Seventies began, the Dead recouped its Warner debt with three comparatively inexpensive albums — Live/Dead (Number 64, 1969) (recorded in concert at San Francisco’s Fillmore West in February and March of 1969), Workingman’s Dead (Number 27, 1970), and American Beauty (Number 30, 1970).
The former featured extended psychedelic explorations, such as the classic “Dark Star,” while in sharp contrast the latter two found the Dead writing concise country-ish songs and working out clear-cut, well-rehearsed arrangements.
Workingman’s Dead (including “Uncle John’s Band” [Number 69, 1970] and “Casey Jones”) and American Beauty (including “Truckin'” [Number 64, 1971], “Ripple,” and “Box of Rain”) received considerable FM radio airplay, sold respectably, and provided much of the Dead’s concert repertoire.
In 1974 the Dead temporarily disbanded while members pursued outside projects, but the group resumed touring in 1976.
After signing with Arista, the group began to use non-Dead producers for the first time: Keith Olsen (Fleetwood Mac) for Terrapin Station (Number 28, 1977) and Little Feat’s Lowell George for Shakedown Street (Number 41, 1978).
In 1978 the band played three concerts at the foot of the Great Pyramid in Egypt, which were recorded but not released.
Go to Heaven (Number 23, 1980) yielded “Alabama Getaway” (Number 68, 1980), like “Truckin'” and “Uncle John’s Band,” a minor hit single.