|Keith And Donna, Round Records RX-104, 1975|
However, I am going to make the rather radical claim that the Keith And Donna album was a serious effort to make a successful commercial album, and even more radically, that doing so was a pretty good idea. In any record making enterprise, there is a tremendous amount of luck involved, regardless of best efforts, and in the end the Keith And Donna album was neither a musical nor financial success. Nonetheless, I think it was well worth the financial risk that Garcia took to get the album made, and Warner Brothers, or anyone else who would have been willing to back the Grateful Dead had they not gone out on their own in 1973, would have made the same decision and actively encouraged Keith And Donna to make the record just as readily as Garcia. Just because a project doesn't succeed doesn't mean that the idea was ill-conceived, and I am going to make the case that within the context of the 70s music business, Keith And Donna was a calculated risk that Garcia and any other financial backers took seriously as a sound investment.
|the back cover photo to the Keith And Donna lp|
The Deaddisc site, as always, has all the details about the recording of the Keith And Donna album. In an interview with Blair Jackson, Donna said
Almost all of it was recorded at our house in Stinson Beach. Bob Matthews brought in a Neve board and we had our nine-foot Steinway there and we had our whole living room set up as a recording studio for a while. Jerry was just a couple of minutes away, so it was real easy to get together and work on it.Since most of the recording was done at the Godchauxs' home, however long the album took, the costs would have been considerably lower than if a regular studio had been used. Thus the album project was relatively low-cost from the beginning. The album was mixed at a professional studio (His Master's Wheels in San Francisco, formerly Pacific High Recorders, at 60 Brady Street) by experienced hands (including Merl Saunders), but the basic work was done at the Godchaux's house, so the number of takes and the amount of tinkering wouldn't have mattered that much.
Of course, I don't think the album sounds that good. This may explain why Bob Weir custom built a studio in his basement rather than just using his living room. This is not a minor point. Mickey Hart was the first member of the Dead to have a studio, in his barn in Novato, and Keith and Donna attempted to set up a temporary studio in their living room. It didn't sound that great, so Weir has to have learned from that when he built his studio in his basement. Jerry Garcia and John Kahn, by extension, must have learned from Weir's experience when they bought a Neve Console to set up a recording studio to make at Front Street (Le Club Front) to make Cats Under The Stars. Keith And Donna were working band members with their own studio--Hart was on hiatus in the early 70s--and however unsatisfying the recording sound may have been, it was part of an ongoing effort to make the Grateful Dead self-sufficient.
The Early 70s Music Business
There was a lot of money being made in the record business in the early 70s--a lot. Even a modestly successful record could pay back its costs pretty quickly. Who got screwed in the early 70s was the artist. However, if the artist owned the record company, the equation was very different indeed. I have no idea about the business arrangement between Jerry Garcia and any other partners in Round Records (presumably Ron Rakow) and their artists, but it had to have been better than a conventional deal with Warners or Columbia or the like.
For various reasons I won't go into here (mostly involving distribution and cash flow), Round Records did not work out, but it was still a good idea. Labels like Sub Pop and others would finally make independent, DIY records a profitable enterprise in the 1990s, so the Dead's idea was good in principle. A Keith And Donna album recorded cheaply would not have had to sell a lot of albums to break even.
The general thinking of record companies in the early 70s was to sign a lot of artists and record a lot of albums, figuring that one of them would hit. It may seem easy in retrospect to hear a record like "Stuck In The Middle With You" by Stealer's Wheel and say, wow, that was obviously a hit, but whoever signed that band probably just heard a crummy demo on acoustic guitars or something. Whenever a band had a modest following and broke up, it was common for companies to sign the singers or songwriters or lead guitarists in the band, just in case any of them had some good ideas that they hadn't used yet (sometimes the company could force this, using something called a "Key Man" clause). Jim Messina had left Poco, for example, and became a much bigger artist with Loggins And Messina, and Billy Joel had been in the Hassles (on UA) and then Attilla (an organ-drum duo who released a "heavy rock" album in 1969) before hitting it big as a solo act, so you never knew.
Popular music in the 1970s was skewed towards more introspective, personal music with a more melodic, acoustic feel. This had been inspired by Crosby, Stills And Nash's debut album, but by the early 1970s the best selling album was Carole King's Tapestry. James Taylor was big, so was Cat Stevens, so were Loggins And Messina, Linda Ronstadt was catching on and so was Jackson Browne. From that perspective, a married singer and piano player writing personal songs, in a California rock style with just a bit of Southern soul made perfect sense. Leon Russell was a huge act at the time, with a lot of airplay on both AM and FM radio, and Keith And Donna's music seemed headed in that direction.
Since record companies released thousands of albums every year, the hardest thing for a record company was getting some attention for any of them. FM djs still had a lot of say over what records they played on their shows, but with hundreds of records arriving at a radio station each week, it was hard to cut through the clutter. However, Keith and Donna Godchaux were in a world famous band, Donna made for a photogenic album cover (this means more than you might think when sorting through a stack of new LPs) and Jerry Garcia would be on the record, so Keith And Donna had a better chance of getting some notice than an album by two unknowns with no pedigree. If Warner Brothers or Columbia had signed the Grateful Dead in 1972, they would have been happy to give Keith And Donna a contract as part of the deal. In fact, compared to a Mickey Hart soundtrack to a martial arts film (which Warners had paid for previously), they would have been pretty optimistic about it.
Given the timing of the release, the Keith And Donna album was probably conceived in the Summer of 1974. At the time, I have to suspect that the Godchauxs had some unfinished songs, and the suggestion was made that they could make an album by adding a couple of cover versions. It's easy to listen to the finished album now and say "who thought any of those songs would hit it big?" However, most successful songs--and therefore records--begin in a pretty raw form. True record men could listen to a poorly recorded demo and think "with the right production, that could be a hit," and you wouldn't hear it yourself. So while Keith and Donna's demos may not have sounded great, they wouldn't necessarily have sounded worse than, say, what Bob Weir and John Barlow had started with for Ace.
(Denny Siewell drumming with Paul McCartney and Wings at a soundcheck in Tivoli Gardens, Copehnagen, early 70s--from Denny Siewell.com)
Denny Siewell and Chrissy Stewart
When the Grateful Dead made the decision to stop touring after the Fall of 1974, I think they hoped that their solo recordings would provide enough of an income that they could all continue to make music around the Bay Area without having to tour constantly. That is why I think there were solo albums planned for all of the band members, including Hunter, so that everyone would have a source of income. It may not have worked out that way, but I don't think it was a vanity project. My principal evidence for the seriousness of the Keith And Donna enterprise is on the back of the album, where it says "Denny Siewell-drums, Chrissy Stewart-bass." Siewell and Stewart play drums and bass on six of the eight tracks (John Kahn/Bernard Purdie and Bill Wolf/Jim Brererton are the other two bass/drum combos). Who were Siewell and Stewart?
Denny Siewell was an established New York session drummer, so well regarded that Paul McCartney invited him to join the original version of his band Wings. Siewell played on several McCartney and Wings albums, and was part of the first tours that McCartney made after leaving the Beatles. The best known of McCartney's songs that Siewell recorded with Paul was "Live And Let Die." Siewell left Wings in August 1973 (before Band On The Run--Paul played the drums himself for that album), and returned to lucrative studio work in New York and Los Angeles (you can read more extensively about Siewell's career on his own website).
|The cover to Spooky Tooth's 1973 Island album Witness|
How did Denny Siewell and Chrissy Stewart come to play on most of the Keith And Donna album? Neither of them had a pre-existing friendship with anyone in the Dead, to my knowledge, and Siewell in particular would not have come cheaply. It's one thing to suggest that professional studio musicians may have done something as a favor to a friend, just for fun, but that would at most explain a single track at a convenient location, like Stephen Stills sitting in on BeeGees albums recorded in Miami (really, he did). But Siewell and Stewart didn't know the Dead and weren't based in San Francisco. If they came to the Bay Area to play, much less to the Godchauxs' living room, it was a paid trip and they didn't play for free. Since we have to assume Round Records paid for their services, its a clear sign that Round took the project seriously and backed it up by hiring a top-of-the-line rhythm section.
My own theory is that Siewell and Stewart never came to Keith and Donna's house in Stinson Beach. I think the tapes were completed with a different rhythm section, and the sound was unsatisfactory so the bass and drums were re-recorded. I think Siewell and Stewart were hired to do the overdubs, and they did it in a studio in Los Angeles. Someone like John Kahn or Merl Saunders probably oversaw the sessions. It would be a lot cheaper to hire Siewell and Stewart for a day or two to overdub parts than to have flown them to Stinson Beach, put them up in a hotel and have them hang out for weeks on end while arrangements were worked out and so on. In any case, if I am correct and Siewell and Stewart were just overdubbing, it's still a sign of seriousness on the part of Round Records: if Keith And Donna was just a cheap vanity project, some muddy bass and drums wouldn't have been a big deal. It they were hoping for FM airplay and some record sales, however, a punchy bottom was critical.
If Siewell and Stewart dubbed over pre-recorded parts--a pretty common practice, by the way--it does beg the question of who played bass and drums on the original recordings. Its possible that the problem with the original recording was not the performances per se but the sound, so it may have been some established friends like John Kahn and Bill Kreutzmann on many of the tracks. I suspect that Kahn's bass part on "River Deep, Mountain High" was overdubbed as well, because drummer Bernard Purdie was another super-heavy player who would not have been likely to be hanging out at Stinson Beach. Bill Wolf, an engineer who also had played bass for the Rowan Brothers, seems like a more likely candidate to have actually been on the original sessions in the living room (drummer Jim Brererton is unknown to me).
Regardless of whether Denny Siewell and Chrissy Stewart went to Stinson Beach or overdubbed parts in a Southern California recording studio, their very presence on the Keith And Donna album was implicit proof that Round Records took the project seriously indeed. The album did not succeed, and the inherent cash flow problems of Round Records very well would have doomed it even if it had started to sell. Nonetheless, when viewed in the context of the 70s record industry, Keith And Donna was a sincere effort by Jerry Garcia and Round Records to find a source of income for band members that did not lock them into large scale touring, however frustratingly the project itself turned out.