Bob Weir had the pleasure to play with some of the greatest musicians of all time. Bob Dylan famously employed the Grateful Dead as his backing back during a 1987 stadium tour, but plenty of musicians accompanied the Dead themselves as well. The Grateful Dead had a relatively loose open-door policy when it came to sitting in: if someone in the band vouched for you, you were in.
That’s how figures as distinctive and disparate as jazz saxophonist Branford Marsalis, fellow 1960s survivor Carlos Santana, Woodstock alums Neil Young and John Fogerty, and even soul powerhouse Etta James managed to land on stage with the Dead — and it didn’t stop there. Friends like Janis Joplin and contemporaries like Stephen Stills have made guest appearances, while a legendary jam at the Fillmore East in 1970 included Love’s Arthur Lee, Fleetwood Mac’s Peter Green, and the Allman Brothers Band’s Gregg Allman. There have been no shortage of legendary figures to pass through the legendary jam band on their way to improvisational nirvana.
When appearing on former Van Halen frontman Sammy Hagar’s AXS TV programme Rock and Roll Road Trip, Dead guitarist Bob Weir was asked who among the legendary cast of musicians with whom he and the band jammed with over the years was his favourite. Weir initially demurs, but changes his mind and extends his scope beyond the Dead and includes his side project RatDog. It was with RatDog that Weir was able to employ a historical musician: Chuck Berry piano player Johnnie Johnson.
“He taught us how to play rock and roll. You know, real rock and roll,” Weir told Hagar. “Johnnie was the guy who, just by himself, started playing shuffle against straight. And it’s mathematically impossible. The mathematical subdivisions just don’t work out. They can’t. But Johnnie was the guy who invented that and Little Richard picked up on it. It was piano driven to begin with and it was Johnnie who did it.”
For a man who was playing ‘One More Saturday Night’, ‘Alabama Getaway’, and even Berry’s own ‘Around and Around’ and ‘Johnny B. Goode’ for years to say that it took that long to learn how to properly play rock and roll is wild. But Weir has a point: the Dead were never a pure rock and roll band, mostly because they melded blues, folk, progressive rock, and jazz into a brand new style that only they could master. It took the man who practically invented rock and roll to teach someone as legendary as Weir how to do it right.
Check out the clip from the show, below.