|The Great American Music Hall, at 859 O'Farrell Street in San Francisco|
As a result, the Grateful Dead's performance at the Great American Music Hall had a triple significance to most Deadheads. First, it was a live performance at a time when many Deadheads were still afraid that live Grateful Dead performances had gone the way of the dinosaur. Second, it was a live broadcast in a year when the Grateful Dead had not been seen or heard outside the Bay Area. Thirdly, the entire show inaugurated the Dead's release of music from their vaults. Yet although the music from the Dead's Music Hall show is as well-known as any Grateful Dead show, the context of the event itself has become obscured. This post will look at the actual Great American Music Hall show by the Grateful Dead on August 13, 1975 in its original frame.
The Grateful Dead, Summer 1975
The Grateful Dead had stopped performing after their 5-night stand at Winterland in October, 1974. A the time, it seemed like the end of yet another 60s institution from San Francisco. The Fillmores had closed in mid-1971, the Jefferson Airplane had evolved into the Jefferson Starship in 1974, and so on. The Dead had announced that they were going to continue to make music, but no one really believed them. Yet the Dead had surprised everybody by making an appearance at the SNACK Benefit at Kezar Stadium in Golden Gate Park on March 22, 1975. While billed as Jerry Garcia And Friends, they surprised everyone by performing a 45-minute instrumental set of new material.
On June 17, the Grateful Dead had headlined a benefit at Winterland for the late artist Bob Fried. Although billed once again as Jerry Garcia And Friends, there was no doubt in the Bay Area that the Dead were playing, and the show sold out immediately. However, unless you went to the show or knew someone who did, it remained mysterious what exactly they had played. I believe that Joel Selvin mentioned the show in his Lively Arts column in the Sunday Chronicle, so it was confirmed that they had performed, but all but the most wired-in people had little idea what actually occurred. Nonetheless, even a casual Dead fan recognized that the Dead were definitely working on something.
Thus when word leaked out--probably from Selvin's column--that the Dead were working on a new album, most readers probably believed it. In the mid-70s, it was common to read in the Random Notes column of Rolling Stone that some iconic group or duo was working together again, and it was usually untrue. Numerous Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young projects were always "just about" to be released, Paul and John were always "talking about" some project or something, and so on. In hindsight, we now know the reality quotient of some of these rumors (various CSNY projects nearly happened, for example), but at the time they just seemed like nothing but hype. However, with two Bay Area performances under their belt, and some apparently new material broadcast from Kezar, rumors of a Grateful Dead album seemed far more plausible in the Summer of 1975 than another CSNY album.
|An illustration from the rock critic column of the Hayward Daily Review on August 22, 1975. Under the Hart-less illustration of the band, it says "THE GRATEFUL DEAD HAVE A NEW LP OUT-'Blues For Allah' took months to finish"|
The Grateful Dead had shocked the music industry in 1973 by going fully independent and starting their own record companies. Initially, the Grateful Dead Records experiment went very well. Their initial release, Wake Of The Flood, in October of 1973, sold fairly steadily. Although not a huge hit, the Dead were apparently making four times as much per record as they had with Warner Brothers. At the same time, concert receipts were increasing and the Dead were doing pretty well financially.
Yet by 1975, the Dead's financial superstructure was on a rickety foundation indeed. The massively expensive Wall Of Sound ate up much of their concert revenue, so the Dead paradoxically chose to stop touring. To commemorate the end of their touring life--the Winterland shows were billed as "The Last Five Nights" and there was a notion they would never play live again--Grateful Dead Records chief Ron Rakow agreed with Jerry Garcia that a six figure sum should be spent on filming the shows, even though the band could no longer really afford it.
By the middle of '75, the Grateful Dead organization was hemorrhaging money. With no touring income, the Dead were financing both the movie and the quirky Round Records, whose financial problems I have documented at length. In order to finance continued operations, Rakow signed a distribution deal with United Artists Records. This effectively undermined the Grateful Dead's independence. UA was not going to interfere with the music, exactly, but the Dead's freedom to do what they wanted, when they wanted to do it, had gone away. The band had a nut to meet, which included 4 Grateful Dead albums as well as Garcia and Weir solo albums.
For all their problems, however, the Grateful Dead had excellent original material, thoroughly worked over during endless jamming sessions at the studio above Bob Weir's garage in Mill Valley. The music was finally recorded at the end of Spring, and the album was put together throughout the Summer. By Summer's end, the band was ready to put out the album on Labor Day. Even quirky iconoclasts like the Grateful Dead knew they had to do something to promote the album. To have a successful record in the 70s, you needed radio play, and that meant getting djs and radio station program directors on your side. Billboard Magazine was an anchor for the music industry, and they were having a Radio Programmers Forum, essentially a convention, in San Francisco. So the Dead held a private party to perform their new music for some of the key players in the music industry. To host the party, they chose The Great American Music Hall.
The Great American Music Hall, at 859 O'Farrell, was a club in a beautiful old building in a very sleazy part of San Francisco. The establishment was built in 1907. It was initially a nightclub, restaurant and house of ill-repute called Blanco's, until 1933 and the end of Prohibition. The infamous Sally Rand ran the place as a sort of burlesque dance hall called The Music Box from 1936 to '46. It went through various incarnations in the next few decades, reopening as a jazz club called Blanco's in '48, and then taken over by members of The Moose Lodge. The building was nearly condemned, but at the last second the building was refurbished around 1970 as a short-lived French restaurant called Charles, after its proprietor.
Finally, in 1972, Tom and Jeannie Bradshaw opened the Great American Music Hall. The club featured jazz, and its full capacity was supposedly about 600, although I actually think far fewer than that were present, even for sold out shows. For the most part there were tables on the floor and the balconies, although the room was occasionally cleared of the tables to create a dance floor. Unlike many Bay Area rock clubs, there was a full bar and a kitchen, so in that respect the Great American Music Hall was a true nightclub, rather than a beer soaked dance joint like the Keystone Berkeley.
Initially, the Great American Music Hall was focused on jazz bookings. This was timely, as the older jazz clubs in San Francisco had closed or were on their last legs. There was the Keystone Korner, of course, but it did not have a liquor license (I think they did sell beer, but I'm not sure). The location was appropriate, too, as it was not too far from main streets and downtown, halfway between the Fillmore West and the old Fillmore, at the edge of a very seedy old neighborhood called The Tenderloin. However, inside the refurbished bordello it was quite beautiful, and the sound was wonderful: elegant sounds in a seedy neighborhood is the essence of jazz in many ways.
Very quickly, however, the "Great American Music" name took on a broader significance. There were plenty of rock nightclubs in the Bay Area, but with folk music no longer viable, there were plenty of artists who didn't really have a place to play. Thus the Great American became a stopping point for great American musicians like Vassar Clements or John Fahey, working in a variety of musical traditions in a mostly acoustic style, but with an appropriate seriousness that put them on the level of the jazz musicians who also played there. Sitting down at a table with a drink was a far better way to hear Doc Watson or Howard Roberts than some noisy place that was better suited for rockin' out.
The Great American Music Hall was just two doors down from a truly notorious San Francisco institution, called The O'Farrell Theater. The O'Farrell Theater, at 895 O'Farrell (at Polk), formerly a Pontiac dealership, had actually briefly been a former Grateful Dead rehearsal hall in early 1967. Later in 1967 it became a rock venue called The Western Front, but there were various problems, and they were never able to book high profile bands, so the venue closed. Near the end of The Western Front, in late 1967, it was taken over by two brothers from Antioch named Jim and Artie Mitchell. The truly infamous Mitchell Brothers gave up putting on rock shows and instead used the venue to show the movies they had made, changing the name to The O'Farrell Theater.
There is quite a lot more to the Mitchell Brothers story, although I strongly advise you not to google it at work. By 1975, although the Mitchell Brothers had made some very lucrative movies--Mitchell Brothers lawsuits are responsible for those FBI warnings you see prior to watching a video--the O'Farrell Theater was primarily focused on live performance, although not of a kind that competed directly with the Great American Music Hall.
Jerry Garcia first played the Great American Music Hall with Merl Saunders on July 19, 1973. The show was significant for another reason, in that it was the first time that Martin Fierro sat in with Jerry and Merl. Garcia and Saunders did not return to the club until February 5, 1974, but Garcia/Saunders played 18 dates at the Great American Music Hall in 1974, and 7 more in 1975. Although Garcia's home base was the Keystone Berkeley, the Great American seems to have been his preferred club in San Francisco. Garcia/Saunders would often play on a weeknight, so it must have been a great booking for the club, since Garcia could pack the place on a night that did not interfere with other plans.
After the demise of Old And In The Way at the end of 1973, David Grisman and Richard Greene formed a group that would play all styles of American music on acoustic instruments. The band was called either the Great American String Band or the Great American Music Band, and not surprisingly its debut was at the band's namesake, the Great American Music Hall. The initial performances of the Great American String Band were at the GAMH on March 9 and 10, 1974. Jerry Garcia had some conflict that prevented him from performing on March 9, but he was present on March 10, so in fact Garcia played the Music Hall on 19 nights in 1974.
Soundcheck, August 12, 1975
Looking backwards at decades of Grateful Dead shows, we sometimes forget how unique the show at the Great American Music Hall really was. For one thing, the GAMH was surely the smallest place the Dead had played in San Francisco since their album release party at Fugazi Hall in March of 1967. For another thing, the Dead had not been touring, so they had no sound system. Their previous two performances had been at Bill Graham Presents shows (at Kezar and Winterland), so BGP would have taken care of providing a PA. However, this was the Dead's party, so they had to get their own system. According to McNally, they used the sound system of McCune Audio. Although McCune Audio were highly respected professionals, full rock sound systems were rare in the Great American Music Hall, so the Dead were not going to leave the sound to chance.
Regular reader Dave recalls
I was at the River City club [in Fairfax] on 8/12/75 seeing the Rowan Brothers and Phil was at the bar. This was the night before the Dead's Great American Music Hall show. I understand Phil had just come from their dress rehearsal at the gamh. We heard about the next night's Dead show while we were there.The soundcheck is mostly mentioned with respect to Mickey Hart's idea that there should be a microphone on a box of crickets, and that they should be integrated into the performance of "Blues For Allah." This apparently did not work very well, and unlike some Grateful Dead innovations, insect choirs did not become a staple of rock concerts.
Here's the part that interests me, though: did they play "Blues For Allah" at the soundcheck? There were only three live performances of "Blues For Allah", two of them instrumental, at SNACK and Winterland. They only sang "Blues For Allah" once in public, at the Great American show. If they played anything at soundcheck, particularly with the cricket scheme, I would think it would be "Blues For Allah." So maybe, just maybe, there is an innocuous tapebox that says "August 12 '75," and it's got a lost performance of the suite? With crickets? We live in hope.
August 13, 1975 was a Wednesday. The Music Hall was such a nice place that it was regularly used for industry events on weeknights. On Friday, August 8, the great acoustic guitarist John Fahey had played. On Saturday, August 9, it was jazz legend Stan Kenton. Tuesday was the soundcheck, and on Wednesday the Dead were the featured attraction at the Radio Programmers party. There was no word to the public about the show, because the relatively tiny club would have been mobbed.
In the 1970s, the way to sell a lot of albums--well, assuming you had made a good record--was to get your music played on FM radio. In the mid-70s, while the ownership of FM rock stations was often corporate, the day-to-day choices for music were still controlled by the individual station. Although djs still had some freedom to play what they wanted, they were mostly under the direction of their Program Director, who was responsible for hiring and firing them. The Program Director was worried about ratings, even if the djs might not always have been.
An fm Program Director decided which albums were going to be in "high rotation" on his or her station. The dj might get to choose which tracks to play, and in what order, and might get to occasionally play some of his own favorites, but for the most part there was a big stack of albums next to the turntables, chosen by the PD, and the dj had to choose from that stack. So the key for a band was to get the PD to put their album into that stack. Probably there were about 5,00 to 10,000 rock albums released in 1975, so competition for PD attention was fierce. A private party at a nice club, with free drinks and an exclusive performance, was the kind of thing that made PDs feel important, so they would give a band's music a good listening.
The Grateful Dead's performance was recorded by Dan Healy, and all but the "Blues For Allah" suite was broadcast three weeks later. The Blues For Allah album was released on approximately September 1 (70s release dates were not precise), and the tape of the concert was broadcast that night on KSAN in San Francisco, KMET in Los Angeles and WNEW in New York, all of which were owned by the same corporation (Metromedia). I do not know if other stations carried the broadcast. I have a general idea that the same tape was broadcast later on the syndicated King Biscuit Flower Hour.
As a result of the broadcasts, many pristine copies of the tape circulated in an era when few tapes were available. The best of the bootleg companies, TAKRL (The Amazing Kornyfone Record Label), put out a nice sounding double lp. In the 70s, very few people had cassette decks, and bootleg lps were hugely influential in spreading music. I myself had a treasured copy of the TAKRL album, called Make Believe Ballroom, and wore it out.
Although he was only a guest, Bill Graham introduced the band. Of course, this was a major San Francisco event, and there was no way he wasn't going to be front and center at the party. On the One From The Vault release, Graham begins by saying "Good evening, we welcome you on behalf of the group...on the piano we have Mr. Keith Godchaux, on the drums on stage left, we have Mr. Mickey Hart," and continues on as each musician steps into their part of "Help On The Way." To the outside world, Bill Graham and the Grateful Dead were like pizza and beer, and seemed to belong together, and so it seems an appropriate and now historic introduction.
The actual introduction was longer, and was elided for the release, but it was part of the radio broadcast. I am quoting from memory, but the Make Believe Ballroom album is etched on my brain, so the essence of this is accurate. Graham said
Before the show, I was offered 25 dollars to announce the band by Mr. Ron Rakow. I flipped a coin for double or nothing and won. We flipped a coin again, and I won, so I am being paid 100 dollars to introduce the band.Rakow had probably been out shaking hands with many of the Program Directors, so this was probably extremely funny after a few drinks. Nonetheless, it summed up Rakow's approach to money management, and I don't think the reminder was welcome when the album was released 26 years later. Thus the first part of Graham's introduction was not part of the One From The Vault release.
Since the audience were industry professionals, and not ones particularly interested in the Grateful Dead, I had never heard an eyewitness account until reader Dave checked in. He picks up the story here, one of the few civilians to have actually witnessed the show. As you will recall from above, Dave, having heard about the show by chance the night before, was not going to miss it:
We heard that earlier that night the Dead did a practice at the Great American Music Hall and the next night would be a private concert there. We went down in hopes of getting in. We heard the first set from outside. During the break many journalists who probably had to be there but didn't really want to, started leaving and would hand their invitations to us waiting fans. I think there were maybe 25 people trying to get it. I managed to get one but when I got to the door the guy asked who I got the invite from. I had to think quick because the wrong answer would mean not getting in and having the invitation taken away. I said Anton Round was the one who invited me and he let me in. I was able to see most of the second set but had to leave before the end as i was catching a plane home. As I left I asked at the door if I could have an invitation as a keep sake and he said ok as long as I didn't give it to someone else. I still have it to this day.I wouldn't give it away, either.
|The cover of the 1975 Grateful Dead album Blues For Allah, on Round/UA|
However historic the Great American Music Hall show seems to us today, it was just another day at the office for the Dead. A few days after the Music Hall show, the Dead were already recording at Ace's again. My theory is that they were laying the groundwork for the next album they owed UA, and laid down existing songs like "It Must Have Been The Roses." It appears to me that this plan was changed when Garcia and Nicky Hopkins were unable to complete an album, and the tracks were used for Reflections. Now, maybe Garcia was planning them as part of his solo album, but in any case, the Dead were working at Ace's throughout August and September, just as Blues For Allah was hitting the stores.
Jerry Garcia had played 26 nights at the Great American Music Hall prior to the August 13, 1975, the most recent times having been July 4-5, 1975. However, Merl Saunders had been quietly pushed out of working with Jerry Garcia in August, right around the time of the GAMH shows. Merl himself was quite surprised, as Garcia let John Kahn do the unpleasant deed of telling his friend Merl that he was out of the band. Thus Garcia really had no side band when the Dead played the Great American Music Hall. Nevertheless, the next week's listings showed a booking of "The Jerry Garcia Band" on Wednesday and Thursday August 20 and 21, 1975.
In fact, Garcia played the Great American Music Hall on August 20 and 21 with the Keith And Donna Band. The music itself was great, from the surviving tape (on the 20th), and very different from the subsequent sound of the Jerry Garcia Band with Keith and Donna. It remains an open question as to why Garcia was billed this way--was Nicky Hopkins scheduled and not ready, or was this a canceled Garcia/Saunders booking taken over by Jerry? We do not actually have eyewitnesses from either show, so while I'm sure a fair number of tickets were sold, they were on weeknights in a highly dubious part of town, so they probably weren't packed out.
Once Nicky Hopkins joined the Jerry Garcia Band, the operation took on a more serious booking schedule. I think the Keystone Berkeley was far move lucrative for Garcia than the Great American, and the club dates that the Garcia Band tended to play were at the Keystone. The Dead and Garcia were hurting for cash, so it was no accident that Garcia's new venture was named after him and actually played a few Dead songs, unlike the willfully obscure ventures with Merl Saunders.
Jerry Garcia played The Great American Music Hall one more time, on Sunday, July 4, 1976, with the Keith And Donna edition of the Jerry Garcia Band. The Grateful Dead had already returned to touring, and Garcia and the Dead would only get bigger in ensuing decades. The opportunities to jam out in an elegant yet funky little club had slipped away, albeit because of success, but slipped away nonetheless.
The Great American Music Hall thrived throughout the1990s. Even though Tom and Jeannie Bradshaw had divorced, they continued to run the club for a long time. Many acts returned over and over to the club throughout the decades. The name of the club was prescient, too, since there has been a renewed interest in all sorts of forms of American music. The club remained a desirable destination for fans and musicians, even though the O'Farrell Theater remained open just down the street. The Great American Music Hall continues to thrive in the present day. It now shares ownership and booking with Slim's, another famous San Francisco nightclub, and continues to book great acts, even if none of them want to bring their own crickets.