Music is wonderful in the sense that it can connect different parties together in a myriad of exciting ways, much in the way that we get our story today of how Elvis Presley and The Grateful Dead are linked. This may come as a surprise, as, on paper, the two could not be further apart in terms of creative values.
Elvis Presley’s story is a well-known one. He was ‘The King of Rock and Roll’, the man who helped to popularise the genre to mainstream audiences alongside Little Richard and Chuck Berry. He moved his hips as no white man had ever done before. Aside from his music, he was also an accomplished actor who starred in many of the most successful films of the 1950s and ’60s and, even today, remains one of the most iconic figures in history.
The Grateful Dead’s story, meanwhile, is also a very famous one. They’re arguably the most important band of the hippie movement, and together, the California troupe made some of the best records of the era, championing a jam format that was incredibly refreshing for the time. Housing a set of genius musicians including Jerry Garcia, Bob Weir, Phil Lesh and others, the medley of genres that the band weaved together earned them legions of hardcore fans that are known as ‘Deadheads’.
It so transpires that Presley and The Dead are linked by Donna Jean Thatcher, a former member of the Deadheads who performed on two of Presley’s most iconic hits during the 1960s. In the years after her experience with Presley, she looked back on the “intense” experience.
Notably, as Elvis’ music developed over the ’60s, he started to experiment with more interesting textures and dynamics, leaning heavily on the use of choirs, which helped to elevate his music to a different level entirely. Per a report in Rolling Stone, one of the choirs he utilised featured Donna Jean Thatcher, an Alabama native who was quickly becoming one of the hottest backing vocalists in America.
Duly, she sang on ‘Suspicious Minds’ and ‘In the Ghetto’, two of Elvis’ biggest hits of the era. Not long after appearing on these tracks, Thatcher moved to California and met Keith Godchaux, who she married in 1970. She became Donna Jean Godchaux, and in the early ’70s, they both became members of The Grateful Dead.
Godchaux recalled what the atmosphere was like when Elvis first entered the studio. “My back was turned to the door when Elvis walked in, and I knew he had walked in,” she said. “He had that kind of charisma and a power about him.”
Then Elvis listened to each singer in the choir, giving them feedback, which Godchaux remembered as a “very intense” experience. “When we were singing, we were so professional — we didn’t bat an eye,” she explained. However, after the session, she and the other singers were over the moon, and it was now time for them to let their hair down, “We had our picture taken with him after the session, and then we went into the International House of Pancakes in Memphis and screamed bloody murder for about an hour, holding up that little Polaroid picture of us and Elvis together.”