The traditional saga of The Grateful Dead alludes to how The Dead and other San Francisco bands took over the Carousel Ballroom at 1545 Market Street in order to compete with Bill Graham and Chet Helms, and how it was a glorious failure, ending when Graham himself took over the lease of the Carousel and converted it to the Fillmore West. All this is true, more or less. The timeline for the Dead's management of The Carousel has always remained surprisingly vague for such an important event. However, I can not only shed some interesting light on the sequence of events of the Dead's brief reign there, but a remarkable piece of World Historical fact as well.
It had never occurred to me to wonder who was the last act to play the Carousel before the Dead and then Bill Graham took over the Carousel. What a surprise to find out that on Saturday, March 9, 1968, The Carousel featured the first San Francisco appearance of Buck Owens and His Buckaroos. Certainly Owens had played the Bay Area many times, but this was apparently his first time in the City proper, a sign of Buck's increasing mainstream success. The musical and industry importance of Buck Owens is hard to overstate, and that is without considering Owens's enormous success as a Television star on Hee Haw. As a musician, Owens pioneered what is known as the Bakersfield sound, a potent mixture of country, rockabilly and rhythm and blues that battled Nashville for supremacy throughout the 1970s and 80s.
Rock musicians who loved country music all leaned towards the Bakersfield sound, and players like Gram Parsons, Chris Hillman and Jerry Garcia were foremost among them. Since The Eagles are the founding fathers of modern popular country music, the fact that The Eagles were an Angeleno rocker version of Bakersfield music means that Owens decisively won his "battle" against the staid Nashville sound of the 60s and 70s.
Buck Owens influence on Jerry Garcia and the Grateful Dead is no less fundamental. Owens and his Buckaroos played clean, rocking music that was the blueprint for Workingman's Dead, and Garcia specifically mentioned Owens's inspiration many times. The biggest success of the Bakersfield musicians was Merle Haggard, and some of Haggard's songs ("Mama Tried" and "Sing Me Back Home") also made it into the Grateful Dead repertoire. People interested in some of the roots of Garcia's twangy Fender sound of the early 70s would do well to listen to Buckaroo guitarist Don Rich.
Owen's influence on Garcia doesn't stop with Merle Haggard and Don Rich. Old Garcia pal Pete Grant recalls driving somewhere with Jerry Garcia in mid-60s and hearing Owens's 1964 song "Together Again." The pedal steel guitar solo by Tom Brumley was so beautiful that Grant and Garcia agreed on the spot that they had to learn pedal steel. Grant learned before Garcia, as it happened, but the Buckaroos music was one of the signposts for the future Garcia, even if it lay dormant for a few years (and I should add that the New Riders occasionally played "Together Again").
Hegel says that progress comes from contradiction and negation, so to a crypto-Hegelian like me it makes perfect sense that while the Grateful Dead were planning to take over the Carousel Ballroom, the last booking by an outside promoter featured an artist that most hippies would have dismissed outright. Jerry Garcia, of course, had he not been otherwise booked on March 9, 1968 (playing two shows at the Melodyland Theater at Disneyland with the Jefferson Airplane), would have been very excited to see Buck Owens and The Buckaroos in concert (Garcia, David Nelson and Herb Petersen apparently saw Buck and Merle back in 1964). What a surprise for any time traveling Deadheads to find out that just two and half years after Buck played The Carousel, the new Grateful Dead album would sound like a Buck Owens album.
(part of Ralph Gleason's Chronicle column from March 13, 1968)
The chronology of the Grateful Dead's Carousel adventure has been permanently obscured by the San Francisco Chronicle newspaper strike that took up most of January and February 1968. Ralph Gleason was the major source of information for historians of the major San Francisco bands, and with Gleason mute, details for the January and February period are lost. It does seem, however, that the various San Francisco bands put on two shows at the Carousel essentially as clients, and decided to make a permanent arrangement in March.
From 1965 onward, the ballroom was had usually been open for Dinner and Dancing on Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights, usually with a big band providing the music. Various promoters would rent the hall at times, usually on Saturday night, which is how The Yardbirds and even the Grateful Dead (on October 31, 1967) came to play there.
Gleason's March 13 column says
The Grateful Dead and a group of other San Francsico bands, including the Jefferson Airplane, have taken a lease on the old Carousel Ballroom on Market Street (formerly the El Patio) and beginning Friday night will run dances there regularly. Friday, Saturday and Sunday the Airplane and the Dead will play there for dancing. Next weekend, Chuck Berry and the Buffalo Springfield will appear.
The Carousel is owned by Bill Fuller, the Irish ballroom operator who has similar properties in Chicago, New York, Boston, London, Manchester and throughout Ireland. As part of the current arrangement, it is hoped to organize a European tour later this year with some of the San Francisco groups based on Fuller's ballrooms.None of this came to pass of course. The Carousel Ballroom was just an early example of various peculiar business decisions that characterized the Dead's history, just one of many reasons I find it comical that the Dead are now promoted as business icons. Although the idea of an acid-drenched tour of Irish Ballrooms throughout North America and the United Kingdom and Ireland is fascinating to contemplate, and we can only wonder at the "Peggy-O">"Dark Star">"Whisky In The Jar" medley that we missed, I am happier with the Universe as presently constituted.
Irish music was a fixture at the Carousel, along with Big Bands, and Saturday night rock bands. As far as I know, only one country act played there, right before the Carousel's transformation into a rock palace, and it turns out to be the Buckaroos who posted the signpost to new space. And I might add, all they had to was "Act Naturally."