While playing a gig with organ expert Merl Saunders in September of 1971, Jerry Garcia was approached by a fiery young southern woman and told him in no uncertain terms that she knew who the Grateful Dead’s next keyboard player was. Without knowing that the Dead were even in the market for an additional keyboardist, the woman told Garcia that her husband was going to be in the Dead. That was Donna Jean Godchaux, who was referring to her husband, Keith Godchaux.
Keith himself didn’t have the unwavering confidence that his wife had, but what he lacked in vocal prowess, he more than made up for in his piano chops. Godchaux was classically trained and had mostly played jazz around the San Francisco area before he and his wife became enamoured with the Dead’s experimental approach to rock music in the early 1970s. Whether he was genuinely interested or just bemused, Garcia invited Godchaux down to the Dead’s rehearsal space, and after just a few songs jamming with Garcia and drummer Bill Kreutzmann, Godchaux was in.
The timing couldn’t have been more perfect. Regular organ player Ron ‘Pigpen’ McKernan‘s skills on the keyboard were relatively rudimentary, and when the band began extending their jams to far out realms of time and space, Pigpen was often the one who was musically left behind. His limitations caused the Dead to bring in friends and hired hands to overdub keyboard parts on albums like Workingman’s Dead, American Beauty, and Skull & Roses. Pig was also experiencing health issues at the time, putting his future with the band in doubt. Keyboardist Tom Constanten left the group at the start of 1970, so a position needed to be filled.
Godchaux wasn’t a replacement for Pigpen. Instead, Godchaux’s intense dedication to the acoustic piano allowed Pig to keep playing the organ without cluttering up the sonic space. Godchaux would occasionally branch out to electric piano and organ throughout his tenure in the Dead, but for the most part, he stuck exclusively to upright piano. It was the instrument that responded best to his jazzy inversions, twinkling lead lines, and spacey improvisations.
“He was one of the best, if not the best, keyboardists that I’ve ever had the honor of playing with,” Kreutzmann explained in his memoir Deal. “He didn’t need to know the material first. He could learn songs before he was even done hearing them for the first time. And he could play just about anything.”
That diverse playing ability was an absolute necessity. By the early 1970s, the Dead had expanded their initial psychedelic garage rock sound to include Chuck Berry-infused rockers (‘One More Saturday Night’), loppy country tunes (‘Mexicali Blues’), dense, fragile ballads (‘Stella Blue’), and mind-bending progressive songs (‘Playing in the Band’) to compliment their acid-soaked trips like ‘Dark Star’ and ‘The Other One’. The Dead needed a player who could take the improvisational lead, add delicate harmony, rock out, and compliment Garcia’s lead guitar without copying his lines. Godchaux fit all those parameters perfectly.
Dedicated Deadheads first met Godchaux during October of 1971, but the new piano player’s real coming out was on the band’s European tour of 1972, immortalized on the band’s classic triple live LP Europe ’72. On new songs like ‘Ramble On Rose’, Godchaux could alternate between playful melodic counterpoint and busy rhythmic runs, elevating the group’s ability to play increasingly complicated arrangements with greater efficiency. Godchaux compliments the band’s group “mind-meld”, adding fresh variety to songs night after night.
During his tenure throughout the 1970s, Godchaux appeared on five studio albums with the Dead, more than any other keyboard player. He even contributed a lead vocal to Wake of the Flood‘s ‘Let Me Sing Your Blues Away’, but Godchaux truly made his mark with his ability to follow the group’s increasingly jazz-influenced sounds on songs like ‘Help on the Way’ / ‘Slipknot!’, ‘Let It Grow’, and ‘Terrapin Station’. With his help, the Dead entered their most technically proficient and stylistically eclectic era.
Although his skills were largely unmatched, Godchaux began to face addictions that would dull the impact of his piano playing. Life on the road began to deteriorate the Godchauxs’ marriage, and with Donna Jean officially in the band, it meant that explosive fights were now threatening the delicate balance of personalities within the Grateful Dead. Godchaux’s dependence on alcohol and heroin also caused him to fade into the background during live jams towards the end of the 1970s, often sticking to a song’s chord sequence rather than exploring the outer reaches of time and space like his bandmates were.
When Pigpen died in 1973, Godchaux assumed the responsibility of sole keyboardist, but by 1978, the Dead had grown frustrated with Godchaux’s lack of interest in evolving with the group. While his playing had elevated the band to new heights throughout the 1970s, it was clear that Godchaux was physically and creatively burned out. The other members asked the Godchauxs to leave in early 1979, and only a year later, a car accident would take Keith Godchaux’s life at the age of 32.
Despite his early death, the music that Godchaux created during his time with the Dead would become some of the band’s most beloved. Favourite eras are always going to very with Deadheads, but it’s hard to argue that the band’s technical and creative peaks, both live and in the studio, occurred during Godchaux’s tenure. Whether you think that’s Europe ’72 or Cornell ’77, Godchaux’s contributions helped solidify the 1970s as the Grateful Dead’s golden era.