Thursday, April 28, 2011

"Keith And Donna"-Keith And Donna Godchaux (Round Records RX-104 March 1975)

Keith And Donna, Round Records RX-104, 1975
Keith and Donna Godchaux's album Keith And Donna was released in March, 1975 to little acclaim, even in Deadhead circles. When the album is mentioned at all, it is generally alluded to as a sign of casual self-indulgence by the Grateful Dead, releasing an uncommercial, unfocused album that had no chance of succeeding, and a mark that Jerry Garcia's Round Records label was just a vehicle for stoned vanity project. I do not believe Keith And Donna has ever been re-released on cd, but in any case few Deadheads have ever heard the album. In fact, the songs are unfocused and the production is rather muddy, so despite the presence of Jerry Garcia on every track, its not much of an album. People interested in Keith And Donna's own music are better served by finding live performances of the Keith And Donna band, who performed for about 8 months in 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
Recording Keith And Donna
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.

Singer Songwriters
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
Eric Christopher "Chrissy" Stewart had been in the Irish band The People, who had changed their name to Eire Apparent when they toured America supporting the Jimi Hendrix Experience. They shared management with Hendrix and Eric Burdon (the story is too byzantine to go into here) and as a result EIre Apparent played numerous shows across North America in 1968-69, and Hendrix produced their first album. After that band broke up, Stewart ended up in the reformed version of the English group Spooky Tooth. I am the only person who liked the reformed Spooky Tooth better than the original, but in any case Stewart was a member of the Tooth for the albums You Broke My Heart So I Busted Your Jaw and Witness. To my ears, Stewart was a fine example of the sort of English bass playing where a funky Duck Dunn/James Jamerson style of soulful playing was converted to a rock context. Stewart played low and simple, but he was a powerful bassist. Since he had left Spooky Tooth by 1974, I assume he had at least temporarily relocated to Los Angeles to work in the studios.

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.

11 comments:

  1. This is very insightful. I have been very dismissive of this record, but you have me persuaded that someone, somewhere, put his/her money where his/her mouth was on this project.

    So, what if they had been right, and K&D (or any of the other Round Records releases) had made a hit or two. Would things have been able to continue independently, or would they have had to terminate it anyway? Counterfactual, I know, but I'd be curious if you can see any circumstances under which RR might have been successful, or if it was doomed to fail.

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  2. Well, the problem for GD and Round Records was actually cash flow. It costs money to manufacture records, but the product (albums) is consigned to distributors. Until record stores sell the albums and give the cash to distributors, who in turn give the cash to the Record Company (GD/Round), the company is exposed to a cash squeeze. GD/Round had trouble getting paid by their distributors, due to some combination of malfeasance and indifference on the parts of the distribution chain.

    A hit for GD/Round, ironically, would have made the situation worse. More money would need to be fronted to manufacture albums in hit quantities, but cash would have been no less forthcoming. There's almost no way that GD/Round could have survived as part of the conventional record business in the 1970s. However, if GD/Round had had a hit, they could have gotten much more money up front from whichever record company they partnered with, and that might have solved other cash problems for the band, like the Grateful Dead Movie.

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  3. All Keith & Donna, all the time!

    An interesting perspective on the K&D album. (Though I might quibble that neither the front nor back covers look very photogenic to me; in fact the whole family looks very glum!)

    What struck me, considering your comments about the album's muddy sound, was that the engineer was Bill Wolf - the same guy who famously screwed up the Winterland '74 recordings.
    Maybe he did good recording work with the Rowans, but his involvement with the Dead certainly wasn't based on engineering competence!

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  4. My point about Donna being photogenic was a reference to her personally. I agree that the cover wasn't great, but from a conceptual point of view, it would have been a lot easier to promote Donna than, say, Pigpen. Round Records didn't do a great job of it, but I am trying to make the point that it wasn't a bad idea.

    Good point about Bill Wolf. Although we don't know the exact recording dates for the Keith and Donna lp, it would have had to be around the time of the Winterland shows, or just after.

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  5. Even though the album as a whole is pretty blah, I've always thought that a judiciously edited single of "River Deep, Mountain High" could have done something; Donna's vocals on that track are gorgeous.

    On a more personal note, this album has always brought up negative feelings for me, and here's why. Way back when, in the very early days of internet downloads, I asked if someone could upload this album for me...and I was quickly and thoroughly crucified. How DARE I ask for a commercially-released album (even though it had been out of print for decades, was not at all commercially available, and an upload would have taken money out of precisely no-one's mouth, other than perhaps a used record store).

    I then asked if it would be okay to get the FM version of 8/13/75, a tape almost perfectly identical to ONE FROM THE VAULT except for the fact that it was sourced from FM, and not the master tapes. That, of course, was perfectly fine and my request was honored with great kindness.

    That hypocrisy still sticks in my gullet, and even though the theory behind my dressing-down makes sense to me, the practical application behind it still seems quite ridiculous. Just thought I'd share.

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  6. A very interesting anecdote. I think the odd part was not the strange parsing between "FM Sourcing" versus "Commercially Released," because I can respect that lines have to be drawn somewhere, but the eagerness to wear the mantle of the self-righteous.

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  7. Had the album on vinyl. "Who Was John?" made it onto a mix tape at some point and to this day is one of my favorite Dead-related bits. I'd love to find it in digital form somewhere. Anybody? I don't remember any other song on the album. This was a marvelously obscure post, and I am glad to have seen it. Thanks! (in the background: "He was a writer....")

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  8. I have discovered that John Kahn played bass on a few tracks on an obscure 1974 album by Andy Fairweather Low called Spider Jiving. Fairweather Low is a talented Welsh guitarist/singer, but neither here nor there for this blog (he played with Clapton in the 90s, I believe).

    The important part here is that Spider Jiving was recorded at His Master's Wheel's in San Francisco, and Chrissy Stewart and Denny Siewell were among the many players on the album (http://deaddisc.com/disc/Spider_Jiving.htm). This seems very much like the Stewart-Siewell/K&D connection. Maybe Kahn took the tapes to His Master's Wheels, or maybe Stewart and Siewell daytripped up to Stinson Beach, but it's not likely to have been a coincidence.

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  9. Can you clarify what you intend with that last comment? I am not following you.

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  10. Denny Siewell and Chris Stewart were session men based in Los Angeles and London. They had no inherent connection to anyone in the Grateful Dead universe, even several steps removed. There were two possibilities for their recording on K&D: either someone took the master tape to LA for overdubbing, or there was a social connection we didn't know about (these aren't exclusive).

    Andy Fairweather Low, with full record company backing, was flown to San Francisco in 1974 to make an album at His Master's Wheels (formerly Pacific High), with heavy session men flown in from elsewhere. John Kahn, Chris Stewart and Denny Siewell all played on the record. This doesn't answer my questions, but it puts Siewell and Stewart in San Francisco with someone connected to Keith and Donna.

    My general point was that the seriousness with which Round approached the K&D album is indicated by having some serious players overdub the bass and drum parts. I had been wondering how the connection to Stewart and Siewell had even been made, and now I think I know.

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  11. The DeadDisc says Garcia doodled what the baby was thinking but the doodle represents the track selection they were working on and it's unlikely it was Jer's idea to superimpose it on a baby's forehead. He probably just left it on the coffee table.

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