In Memoriam: Keyboardist Howard Wales

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Keyboardist Howard Wales has died. The musician known for his collaborations with Grateful Dead guitarist Jerry Garcia suffered a medical emergency on December 6 and his death on December 7 was confirmed by representatives posting on his Facebook page.

Born in Wisconsin, Wales’ early professional career included a short time with James Brown, along with other gigs performing with Lonnie Mack, Ronnie Hawkins, Freddie King, The Four Tops, The Coasters and others. In the 1960s, Wales was a member of the Milwaukee-based band New Blues. The group relocated to the Bay Area and changed their name to A.B. Skhy. Wales contributed to the band’s 1969 self-titled album before leaving the group.

Between April and September 1970, Wales hosted a weekly jam session at The Matrix on Fillmore Street in San Francisco. Grateful Dead guitarist Jerry Garcia was a regular participant, along with drummer Bill Vitt and bassist John Kahn, forming what became a prototype of the Jerry Garcia Band.

A recording from one of the nights at the Matrix was later released as the Garcia/Wales album, Side Trips, Volume One. Wales, Garcia, Vitt and Kahn recorded the 1971 album, Hooteroll? following Wales’ adding organ to “Truckin’” and “Candyman” and piano to “Brokedown Palace” on the Dead’s 1970 album, American Beauty.

“I met Jerry [Garcia] at the Avalon Ballroom, I remember that we ended up there on Fillmore Street [at The Matrix],” Wales recently recalled on the Good Ol’ Grateful Deadcast podcast. “I was the person that ran the jam on Mondays … Jerry and I met, and it was really great working with somebody that wasn’t afraid to go to other different genres and things … Jerry was such a wonderful friend and such a really good person.”

Garcia continued to play with Wales through around January 1972. Around that time, Wales tried out to be a member of the Grateful Dead but his style did not coalesce with that of the band’s.

In Blair Jackson’s book Garcia: An American Life, Garcia described playing with Wales in the early-1970s, stating:

Howard was so incredible, and we were just hanging on for dear life. For some reason, Howard enjoyed playing with us, but we were just keeping up. Howard was so outside. For both of us that was a wonderful experience… Playing with Howard did more for my ears than anybody I ever played with because he was so extended and so different. His approach was all extensions and very keyboardistic; not guitaristic.

Wales went on to release his solo album, Rendezvous with The Sun in 1976. He continued to perform live over subsequent decades and recorded several more albums through 2018’s Undisclosed Location.

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