In the cultural imagination at large, Jerry Garcia is the lead singer of the Grateful Dead. He’s the most recognisable face, voice, and presence throughout the band’s catalogue, and his voice is the one heard on classic tracks like ‘St. Stephen’, ‘Friend of the Devil’, ‘Casey Jones’, and ‘Althea’.
But in reality, Garcia was one of either three, four, or sometimes five singers in the band at any given point. While Garcia handled much of the material, Ron ‘Pigpen’ McKernan was the band’s original frontman, handling the majority of vocals when they were covering blues and R&B tunes. Donna Jean Godchaux was mostly a backing vocalist throughout the 1970s, but she got leads on songs like ‘Sunrise’ and ‘From the Heart of Me’.
Phil Lesh’s harmony was key to the three-part blend on albums like Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty, and he grabbed a signature song for himself with ‘Box of Rain’. The 1980s keyboardist Brent Mydland stepped into the high harmony role during his tenure, and he took quite a few lead vocal turns, including on ‘Tons of Steel’ and ‘Just a Little Light’. Hell, even keyboardist Keith Godchaux sang lead on ‘Let Me Sing Your Blues Away’ from Wake of the Flood, and he was by no means a singer.
But throughout the entire history of the group, it was rhythm guitarist Bob Weir who went toe to toe with Garcia for the position as the band’s “lead” singer. Weir was originally restricted to cowboy tunes and rock ‘n’ roll covers in the early days, but he established himself enough in the band to land some classic songs of his own, including ‘The Other One’, ‘One More Saturday Night’, ‘Truckin’, ‘Black Throated Wind’, ‘Hell in a Bucket’ and ‘Estimated Prophet’, among others.
But it was his turn on ‘Sugar Magnolia’ that solidified his position as a peer to Garcia. Even though the studio recording is coated in harmony, most of the live performances – including modern day versions by Dead and Co. – mostly allow Weir to go out on his own and take the full, unadorned lead. Like a lot of the band’s melody lines during the late 1960s and early ’70s, the lead vocal is surprisingly difficult to replicate. But even at its most head-scratching, Weir’s vocal turn stays positively radiant and indelibly catchy.
‘Sugar Magnolia’ became one of Weir’s most celebrated compositions, and fans would chant for it as much as any other song in the band’s extensive catalogue. Although he had plenty of other vocal highlights, Weir always seemed to delight in busting out the summery ‘Sugar Magnolia’ and its ‘Sunshine Daydream’ coda. Even when it’s just him, you can feel a proper sense of joy and celebration, as his isolated vocal track reveals.
Check out Bob Weir’s isolated lead vocal for ‘Sugar Magnolia’ down below.