Happy Birthday Keith Godchaux: Playing With Grateful Dead On This Date In 1974

Hear Keith perform with GD 48 years ago today.

By Nate Todd Jul 19, 2022 1:18 pm PDT

Grateful Dead keyboardist Keith Godchaux was born in Seattle on this date in 1948. Godchaux played with the Grateful Dead from 1971 to 1979. Keith sadly died on July 23, 1980 — four days after his 32nd birthday — from injuries sustained in a car crash. In honor of Keith’s birthday today, JamBase takes a look at Keith’s early years with the band as well as a show from Fresno on his birthday in 1974.

Although he was born in Seattle, Keith grew up in the East Bay area near San Francisco where he would meet his wife and fellow Grateful Dead band member Donna Jean Godchaux. Working as a lounge pianist at the time, Keith was looking for something different and the Grateful Dead were certainly that, as he related in 1972.

“I first saw [the Grateful Dead] play with a bunch of my old lady’s friends who were real Grateful Dead freaks. I went to a concert with them and saw something I didn’t know could be really happening… It was not like a mind-blowing far out, just a beautiful far out. Not exactly a choir of angels but some incredibly holy, pure and beautiful spiritual light. From then on, I was super turned on that such a thing existed. This was about a year and a half ago, when I first met Donna… I knew I was related to them.”

Donna would also famously introduce Keith to Jerry Garcia in 1971 and after rehearsing with the pianist, the Grateful Dead must of felt a connection as well as Keith joined the band in September 1971 to help ailing Grateful Dead founding keyboardist Ron “Pigpen” McKernan carry the load. Keith played his first show wih the band on October 19, 1971 in Minneapolis.

Ron McKernan died on March 8, 1973. Keith picked up the torch for Pigpen — albeit in a very different way musically — and proved himself to be a good choice, as bassist Phil Lesh stated in his autobiography Searchng For The Sound:

“Keith turned into a fire-breathing demon about halfway through the fall [1971] tour—not only following the band effortlessly through all our endlessly bifurcating highways and byways, but grabbing the ball and running with it, leading us into unknown regions and setting the stage for what many heads consider the peak years of the Grateful Dead. With Keith, we became the turbocharged turn-on-a-dime Grateful Dead that had only been hinted at before, but the music also became warmer and more organic, almost but not quite filling the hole Pig’s absence had left.”

The “turbocharged turn-on-a-dime Grateful Dead” Phil speaks of can be glimpsed in a show on Keith’s 26th birthday — July 19, 1974 — at Selland Arena in Fresno, California. This was the Wall of Sound year and the Fresno concert kicked off the second leg of the Dead’s 1974 summer tour shortly after they released their album, From The Mars Hotel. The live staple opener “Bertha” got the show underway in Fresno. Interestingly in the recording below, the guitars aren’t present for about two minutes in “Bertha” for some reason and all you can hear is drums, vocals and Keith’s piano. Godchaux wasn’t always prominent in mixes, so it’s a great time hear his tasteful playing.

The first set also boasted a stellar version of the new-at-the-time “Scarlet Begonias” as well as a nearly 30-minute “Playing In The Band.” Between sets, Lesh and keyboardist Ned Lagin presented their “Seastones” composition. The second set gets started with a great “Brown-Eyed Women” and also contains an amazing set-closing sequence beginning with the complete “Weather Report Suite” followed by “Spanish Jam” and a nearly 17-minute “Eyes Of The World” cooled off by the Mars Hotel cut “China Doll” to close the set.

In honor of Keith Godchaux’s birthday, listen to the pianist perform with the Grateful Dead on this date 48 years ago:

  • Happy Birthday Keith Godchaux: Revisiting Keyboardist's 1st Show With Grateful Dead In 1971

    Happy Birthday Keith Godchaux: Revisiting Keyboardist's 1st Show With Grateful Dead In 1971 

  • Happy Birthday Keith Godchaux: Rehearsing With The Grateful Dead In 1976

    Happy Birthday Keith Godchaux: Rehearsing With The Grateful Dead In 1976 

  • Happy Birthday Keith Godchaux: Grateful Dead Plays Jersey City In 1976

    Happy Birthday Keith Godchaux: Grateful Dead Plays Jersey City In 1976 

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