Phil Lesh Discusses African-American Musical Influences On ‘Songs That Saved Me’ Podcast


Phil Lesh was the guest on a recent episode of the Songs That Saved Me podcast hosted by Ross James. Lesh spoke about three of the most impactful experiences he had listening to African-American music.

Before Phil played bass with the Grateful Dead, he was a trumpet player studying composition and a huge jazz fan. The first experience he talks about is seeing John Coltrane’s quartet at San Francisco’s Jazz Workshop in 1962 when legendary jazz guitarist Wes Montgomery sat-in for the entire show. Phil describes it as “the most transcendental, highest music experience I’ve ever had in my life.”

After talking a bit about Thelonious Monk, Phil tells another story about seeing legendary big band leader Count Basie at The Fillmore in 1967. “You never heard 17 musicians playing as tight as that,” Phil said. “They were like one person.” The ‘67 Basie show is also notable as that was where Grateful Dead percussionists and Rhythm Devils Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart met. Lesh relates that Mickey was friends with Basie’s drummer Sonny Payne. “Some mysterious stranger said to Mickey, ‘See that guy over there? That’s Bill Kreutzmann,'” Phil said. “‘He plays drums for the Grateful Dead. You need to go talk to him.’” Ross also asks if Phil took away anything from how tight Basie’s band was and Phil replies, “I took away that we would never be that tight.”

The third experience was from April 1970. Bill Graham had brought in Miles Davis and his Bitches Brew band. Miles’ 1970 Bitches Brew LP was on the vanguard of jazz fusion. The Dead had to follow Miles in what Lesh calls “a mixed blessing.” But he enjoyed the show nonetheless. “I’m hanging over Dave Holland’s bass amplifier to get as close as I could…I think they played two songs in 45 minutes or an hour…The most intense thing I’d heard since ‘62…It was relentless.”

Overall the podcast is extremely educational and entertaining. Listen to the entire Songs That Saved Me podcast with Phil Lesh below:

JamBase Live Video Archive
JamBase Live Video Archive