Thursday, January 7, 2016

Donna Jean Thatcher Godchaux, Vocals (February 15, 1973)

In American Studios, Memphis, TN, ca. February 1969, recording From Elvis In Memphis: Mary Holliday, Jeanie Greene, Elvis Presley, Donna Jean Thatcher, Ginger Holliday
The former Donna Jean Thatcher, known to most Grateful Dead fans by her married name of Donna Jean Godchaux, holds many "first and only" distinctions as a Grateful Dead member. She was the first and only woman member, the first and only one who did not play an instrument on stage, the first and only member who joined the band after her spouse was already in, the first to skip shows for maternity leave, and so on. We live in a gendered world, and Deadheads are no different. Journalists, historians and bloggers interrogate the details of all the males--when did Phil Lesh stop playing trumpet? what kind of guitar strings did Bob Weir use? what are the names of each of Mickey Hart's numerous drums?--but never ask these kinds of questions about or of Ms. Donna Jean. Instead: what were her feelings? How did she feel about Jerry, about her husband, was it hard or was it easy? Those kinds of questions got asked a lot.

Yet where did Donna learn to sing? Did she take lessons? When did she start singing? Did she ever play an instrument, even at home?  When she sang on stage with the Grateful Dead, had she ever sung on stage with anyone else? When, and with who? Who asked her to join the Grateful Dead? For that matter, who asked her if she could sing? Donna, apparently a kind and self-effacing person, has never complained about how she may have been slighted, but that still leaves a blank canvas where there should be a tapestry.This post will look at the musical history of Donna Jean Thatcher Godchaux, as if she were--y'know--a musician.

This Is All A Dream We Dreamed: An Oral History of The Grateful Dead, by Blair Jackson and David Gans (Flatiron Books 2015) is essential reading for any Deadhead
All A Dream
Most knowledgeable Deadheads know that Donna Jean did sessions as a background vocalist in Muscle Shoals, Alabama in the late 60s. They know that she sang on Percy Sledge's "When A Man Loves A Woman" in 1966, and Elvis Presley's "Suspicious Minds" in 1969, because she has mentioned them. They mostly know that she sang on the first Boz Scaggs album, in 1970, because there is a picture of her on the inside cover. Some patient readers of the great Deaddisc site know a few other records where Donna is listed as a backing vocalist, some of them quite obscure. But she must have sung on hundreds of sessions, and thus be recorded on dozens of tracks, and no one dwells on that. How did all this happen?

Fortunately we have some new information, albeit not enough. All serious Deadheads should get the new book This Is All A Dream We Dreamed One Afternoon: An Oral History Of The Grateful Dead, by David Gans and Blair Jackson (Flatiron Books 2015). One of the many virtues of the book is a chance to hear from some voices who have not said much in detail so far about the Grateful Dead. Donna Godchaux says far more about her background than has ever been quoted before, mainly because no one seems to have ever really asked her previously. Donna:
I grew up in a situation where a new sound was originating. In the early sixties, the whole Muscle Shoals [Alabama] sound was just beginning to get big. My first recording session was with Ray Stevens, right after "Ahab The Arab." Felton Jarvis was producing, and one day one of the background singers couldn't make the session. I was fifteen, a cheerleader at Sheffield High, and the whole bit. I remember I'd had cheerleader practice, so I ran down to the studio in my little uniform. That was the beginning [p179]
Sheffield, AL, was the town right next to Muscle Shoals. Donna was born in Florence, AL, just across the Tennessee River from Muscle Shoals, and all the locals in the area probably went to Sheffield High. "Ahab The Arab" (don't even ask about Ray Stevens--a different blog should address this) was a hit in 1962, so young Donna Jean was recalling the 1962-63 school year. At 15 (born August 22, 1947), she was probably a sophomore in High School (incidentally, has anyone ever seen a picture of Donna as a cheerleader, perhaps in the Sheffield High yearbook?). But even as a sub, who gets invited to a professional recording session at 15, even as a last second fill-in?

Update: Bring It On (thanks to Correspondent Gary, with an assist from Lone Star Dead)
Donna Thatcher, a Senior in the Class of '65, head of the Sheffield High (AL) Cheerleader Squad, posting a V for Victory. Decades later, aging R&B stars recalled to her how much they liked coming to record in Muscle Shoals, where a white girl in a cheerleader outfit was one of the background vocalists.

Donna must have learned to sing somewhere. My assumption is that she learned to sing in church, but I don't actually know that for a fact. Did she receive some formal training? Was it part of the church choir program? Did she have private lessons? Did she play piano? Many singers take piano lessons, if only for the basic music training. Was Donna simply plucked from the pews because someone heard her singing? Did she have to audition for the choir? I would note that Phil Lesh has been quizzed at length about his violin lessons, his experiences in the College Of San Mateo jazz band as a trumpet player and his formal composition training at Berkeley and Mills, and they inform us a lot about how Lesh's musical background enriched his bass playing. Yet no one has ever asked Donna any of these things, or at least quoted her answers. Of course, she is musically talented, but it trivializes Donna's singing to not even ask how she became so successful at a young age.

It's also unstated how someone knew to call the teenage Donna when a different singer couldn't make it. That's why I am assuming that she sang in the church choir along with other background singers, and they knew that she had the goods. No doubt Donna had expressed interest to her friends, who must have been older. Still, all this is supposition on my part. However, we do know something about the surprising explosion of rhythm and blues recordings in sleepy Muscle Shoals, and that will add some depth to the picture.

FAME (Florence Alabama Musical Enterprises) Studios, at 603 East Avalon Avenue in Muscle Shoals, AL. It was here where Donna Thatcher sang backup  on Percy Sledge's hit "When A Man Loves A Woman" in 1966
FAME Studios, Muscle Shoals, AL
Muscle Shoals is in Northwest Alabama, right on the Tennessee River. It is midway between Memphis and Birmingham, roughly 200 miles from either. In general, it is a sleepy agricultural area. Although it is a most unlikely place for a sixties music explosion, there had been a blues musical tradition in the area. W.C. Handy, who was perhaps the first write down the blues, and famed producer Sam Phillips (who recorded Elvis Presley at Sun Records), were both from The Shoals. Nonetheless, when producer Rick Hall and few partners began recording acts in Florence, AL, in the late 50s, it was an effort unlikely to lead to great success.

The story of Rick Hall and FAME studios is one of the most amazing stories of sixties music. Hall, who was white, recorded some of the greatest sixties R&B hits in a sleepy little town, backed by mostly white studio musicians, and white backup singers as well. Some of the greatest soul hits of the sixties came from FAME. Ultimately, Hall's primary rhythm section--guitarist Jimmy Johnson, keyboard player Barry Beckett, bassist David Hood and drummer Roger Hawkins--broke with the producer in 1969 and opened another studio down the road. Yet throughout the 70s, FAME recorded more hits than ever, while the Muscle Shoals rhythm section became legends in their own right, producing and recording numerous hit albums, including a large number of albums for English bands who admired the Muscle Shoals sound of the sixties.

The story of Muscle Shoals is too much for any blog, but fortunately there is a terrific movie that tells the story. All of the living principals are interviewed--including Donna Jean Godchaux--and with all the music in the background, it gives you a picture of how critical the Muscle Shoals scene was to sixties and seventies British and American rock and soul. Thus Donna's participation in the Muscle Shoals scene was not just the interesting backstory to a member of the Grateful Dead, but links them directly to an essential current of American music.

Donna Jean Archaeology
Rick Hall began FAME studios in a tiny building in Florence, AL, just across the river from Muscle Shoals, and in fact Donna Jean Thatcher's birthplace. By 1962, Hall had moved FAME (Florence Alabama Music Enterprises) to a converted tobacco warehouse on Wilson Dam Road in Sheffield. It was probably there that Donna sang on her first session. However, in 1962 Hall had had a pretty good hit with Arthur Alexander's "You Better Move On" (later covered by the Rolling Stones), and he was able to build a new studio. The new studio, at 603 East Avalon in Muscle Shoals, right next to Sheffield, was the legendary building where all the hits were recorded.

Although Donna seems to have been a nice, churchgoing cheerleader, she was nonetheless an R&B girl through and through:
[I was into] rhythm and blues, people like Otis Redding, Solomon Burke, Sam Cooke, Joe Tex. Amazingly, I ended up recording backgrounds with all those people, except for Otis, because Muscle Shoals was such popular place to record R&B. It had really started with Percy Sledge, who was an intern at a local hospital. He had a little band on the side, and my best friend, who sang with me in a vocal group called Southern Comfort, had a husband who produced Percy's big hit, "When A Man Loves A Woman." Us girls were the background singers for his first records. I still remember the day it hit number one on the charts.
After Percy's record, we were on other black records. The black artists who would hear us didn't know we weren't black. Most of them, when they got down to the studio, would see four white girls aged 18 to 23, and they'd flat out lose it. There were a few who refused to use us when they found out we were white, but most were excited [that] there [were] white girls who sang like them. [p.180]
Although Donna seems to have started singing on records in 1963 or so, she would have graduated from Sheffield High School in about 1965. I assume she became more of a full-time singer around that time. Of course, no one has ever asked her. Did she still live with her parents? Did she have a "regular" job? Was singing at FAME the equivalent of a full-time job? In any case, "When A Man Loves A Woman" was recorded in early 1966 at FAME. It was actually re-recorded shortly afterwards at a nearby studio (Norala, owned by producer Quin Ivy), because the horns were out of tune. Hall offered the single to Atlantic Records, who inadvertently released the earlier, out-of-tune version. It was released in April, 1966 and rapidly shot to #1. So Donna Jean Thatcher was on a #1 single on May 28, 1966, the day before the Dead went into Buena Vista Studios in the Haight to record their very first record ("Don't Ease Me In'/"Stealin'", released on Scorpio Records a few months later). Donna would have been 18 at the time.

Jeanie Greene (born Mary Johnson) released her solo album on Elektra in 1971
Lost Donna
Yet there seems to be more to the story of Donna and Muscle Shoals then just her background work on numerous soul hits. When FAME first started, in 1959, like most such studios it recorded quick demos of any aspiring musician, in the hopes of finding a hit or a star amongst the humdrum. By 1964, FAME was recording nonstop, and they had a core of regular musicians who played on many of the tracks. One of those musicians, pianist Quin Ivy, wanted to expand his role. He owned a record store on 2nd street in Sheffield, and he got the idea to open a studio to record demos and other smaller fare, since FAME could no longer handle that kind of traffic.

Rick Hall was supportive, so Ivy opened Norala Studios (for North Alabama) on 2nd street, across from his record store. The one-room studio acted like a satellite of FAME, since it was nearby, and Quin Ivy was part of the FAME team. One line of business for such a studio was allowing aspiring performers to cut a demo, in the hopes of starting a career. Norala opened in 1965. Ivy's first customer? Donna Thatcher, then probably still 17 years old. So Donna Jean got in a studio before even the Warlocks. Has this demo survived? Is there a copy of it? What did she sing, and who backed her (many of the Norala crowd were 60s studio legends in their own right)? No one has ever asked Donna, apparently, nor anyone else. If Donna cut a demo, she must have at least considered the idea of having a solo recording career of some kind.

Looking into Quin Ivy and Norala gives some perspective on how Donna got hooked into the studio scene in Muscle Shoals. One of Quin Ivy's partners at Norala was producer Marlin Greene, who according to Ivy “could do anything – play guitar, engineer, arrange strings” and added “he even drew the logo for the business and later designed my second studio.” Greene's new wife was Jeanie Greene (born Mary Johnson), who had been a singer for some time. Jeanie Greene was good friends with Donna, and she was Donna's main connection to studio work. Of course, it is unclear how Jeanie and Donna became friends, since Jeanie was several years older and married, which is one of the reasons I think they may have met in the church choir.

Boz Scaggs 1970 debut lp, recorded at Muscle Shoals Sound Studio in 1969. Duane Allman played on the album, and there was a Jim Marshall photo of Donna Thatcher on the inside sleeve
Donna At Work
After the success with Percy Sledge in 1966, Atlantic started moving a lot of their recording down to Muscle Shoals. Atlantic had been using the Stax-Volt Studios in Memphis, with the legendary Booker T and The MGs, but there had been a dispute, and Atlantic rapidly switched over to recording mainly at Muscle Shoals. Among their first big successes were with Wilson Pickett and newly-signed Aretha Franklin (who had been mishandled on Columbia). Thus numerous Atlantic artists, large and small, started recording at FAME. That, in turn, made FAME a desirable destination for other rhythm and blues recording artists, and the sessions probably happened every day.

Very few 60s pop and soul records included detailed credits of the backing musicians, so we only know fragments of what records Donna might have sung on. Musician credits was basically a jazz thing, adopted by Atlantic Records for some R&B albums to make them seem "serious" like jazz, which in turn was adopted by hippie rock musicians in California and New York. However, it's important to remember that background singers usually did overdubs, rather than singing live with the rhythm section. Thus Donna would have known all the producers, and been in the studios with many singers, but rarely actually recorded with the guitarists and drummers and so forth that gave Muscle Shoals its legendary status. To add to the mystery, background vocalists regularly did many takes in multiple sessions, and which singers' tracks were used on which final recordings may be lost in a mist of pre-digital erasures and splices, so neither Donna nor her producers may always know which records her voice actually ended up on.

Nonetheless, Muscle Shoals and Sheffield were small towns, and Donna probably knew most of the people around her age--since she had gone to high school with them or their siblings--much less any long-haired musicians who were in town. So even if Donna didn't actually clock sessions with the Muscle Shoals regulars, she surely knew them. One of the many threads of the Muscle Shoals story is that Duane Allman left his brother back in Los Angeles to settle the crummy record deal they had with The Hour Glass, and moved to Muscle Shoals in 1968 and lived in a tent. Duane became a regular at FAME, most famously persuading Wilson Pickett to record "Hey Jude."  Muscle Shoals was tiny, so Donna surely knew the long-haired Floridian who mostly lived in a tent. Thus, Donna knew Duane Allman before anyone else in the Grateful Dead, but did anyone ask her about him?

Jeanie Greene was the leader of Southern Comfort, and had her own recording career. The Alabama State Troupers were a kind of R&B Revue featuring Jeanie Greene and producer Don Nix. This live album was recorded in 1972.
Southern Comfort and Felton Jarvis
By the end of 1968, Donna was working somewhat formally with a group of singers called Southern Comfort. The group was organized by Jeanie Greene (married to producer Marlin Greene), and it included sisters Mary and Ginger Holliday along with Donna. At this time, session musicians were catching on the success of Booker T and The MGs, and giving themselves names: The Bar-Kays, the Memphis Horns and so on. Marlin Greene produced a single for Southern Comfort, on Cotillion ("Milk And Honey"/"Don't Take Your Sweet Love Away") in 1970, although Donna may have already left town or would leave shortly after. No album followed.

Jeanie Greene, being a bit older and married to a producer, was far more connected than teenage Donna would have been. In particular, Jeanie knew Felton Jarvis, a Nashville producer who was assigned by RCA to produce Elvis from 1966 onwards. RCA executive Chet Atkins had assigned Jarvis because he liked to record late at night, and all night long, just like Elvis. In a fascinating interview, Greene explains how she bumped into Felton Jarvis and offered her singing group as background vocalists for The King. By this time, FAME was an anchor for Atlantic's R&B recordings, so Greene's offer was well-timed. When Elvis decided to make a record at American Studios in Memphis in early 1969, Southern Comfort got the call as background vocalists.

Producer Felton Jarvis, drummer Ronnie Tutt, The King and a security man, on November 14,1970. Probably in Nashville, TN, a long way from the Keystone Berkeley.
Felton Jarvis produced sessions for Elvis Presley in Memphis in January and February 1969. These sessions were released on the album From Elvis In Memphis, released in June 1969. The big hit was the April release of "In The Ghetto," which went to #3 on Billboard (#1 on Cashbox). Additional tracks were part of the album Elvis In Person: From Memphis To Vegas (October 1969), and most famously, on the single "Suspicious Minds." "Suspicious Minds" went to #1 in November 1969. Donna Thatcher was on another #1 hit, while the Dead were still headlining at the Family Dog, and carried as a hip loss leader by Warner Brothers.

Jeanie Greene describes the Elvis sessions in detail in her YouTube interview. Southern Comfort waited in their hotel rooms while the tracks were recorded, and were finally brought in to do the backing vocals. Donna has described elsewhere how "Elvis stared right down her throat." The grumpy criticism in the 70s of how Donna was always out of tune--everyone seems to have given Bob and Phil a pass on their harmonies--was just a monitor issue, as Elvis could have used anyone. It may have been hard to hear on stage with the Grateful Dead, but that wasn't a Donna problem. Certainly her exceptional harmonies on stage with the Jerry Garcia Band made it clear that their wasn't a problem with Donna, just what she was hearing--Jerry and Elvis' choosing Donna is good enough for me.

Atlantic sent Cher to Muscle Shoals to record an album. The title was the address of the studio, and Cher posed on the cover with the Muscle Shoals studio crowd and other musicians. Donna Thatcher appeared on the record but was not in the photo.
Muscle Shoals Studios, 3614 Jackson Highway
The Muscle Shoals story took another turn when the primary rhythm section (Jimmy Johnson, Barry Beckett, David Hood and Roger Hawkins) opened their own studio just down the road at 3614 Jackson Highway. Ironically, this made Muscle Shoals even more popular. Soul and R&B acts tended to still record at FAME, and rock acts, particularly English bands, tended to go to the Muscle Shoals Studio on Jackson Highway. The Rolling Stones recorded "Brown Sugar" there, and English and American rock acts followed in droves.

Donna and Southern Comfort recorded at Jackson Highway too. Jann Wenner of Rolling Stone magazine brought Boz Scaggs to Muscle Shoals to record his first (self-titled) solo album on Atco. It's well regarded for great songs like "I'll Be Long Gone" and the classic "Loan Me A Dime," with Duane Allman taking a scorching solo. Yet it was astonishing a decade later to have one of my friends pull the album off my shelf, open it up and say "look, there's Donna." Indeed, there she was. By 1969, hip rock solo albums listed all the musician credits, just like jazz albums. Boz Scaggs had not only credits but pictures, so besides Duane and the Muscle Shoals crew, there was Southern Comfort including Donna Thatcher. It was Donna--my first hint, in about 1981, that there was more to Donna's career than just being the piano player's wife, and the first time I found out her maiden name.

California Bound
San Franciscans, like New Yorkers, never question why anyone wants to move there, so they never ask "why did you come to San Francisco?" Blair and David seem to be the first ones to have asked Donna why she even came to San Francisco in the first place.
I remember always wanting to go to California. I just saw myself there, for years and years, even when I was a relatively little girl. It came to a point where even though I was doing music, I wanted a new adventure in my life. [p.180]
Many people left their hometown for San Francisco in the 60s and 70s, but most of them weren't making records with hit artists at the time. So the pull of California must have been very strong to Donna. But of course we know nothing else of her life in Sheffield, so there may have been other reasons that she prefers to leave out. In any case, by 1970, Donna was living in San Francisco (where?) and processing credit cards for Union Oil of California (Unocal).  Certainly, no member of The Warlocks would have gotten a job at any oil company.

The story of how Keith Godchaux ended up in the Grateful Dead has been told many times, usually by Donna herself. To summarize, Keith and Donna saw the Grateful Dead at Winterland on October 5, 1970, soon after they had met. Keith was determined to actually play with the Dead, and Donna was determined to make it happen. Some time in the summer of 1971, they saw Jerry Garcia at Keystone Korner and Donna approached Jerry. She told Jerry that her husband was the Dead's new piano player, and got Jerry's home and office phone number. After some missed connections, Jerry invited Keith and Donna to a Dead rehearsal. However, Jerry forgot that the rehearsal had been canceled, but Jerry jammed with Keith anyway. Jerry was so impressed that he called Bill Kreutzmann, and after Billy had jammed with him too, it was settled. Keith was in the Dead.

The story of Keith Godchaux's unexpected insertion into the Grateful Dead is usually seen as a combination of Donna's determination and Keith's talent. This too, however, is a fairly gendered response, though not in an obvious way. Donna's determination won the day, it is true, but no one ever considers the story from Jerry's point of view.

Jerry Garcia was a remarkable musician and artist in many ways, even by the standards of legends. Nonetheless it is easy to lose sight of the fact that he was an ambitious rock star, used to being the center of attention and having things his way. How many times do you think strangers came up to Jerry offstage and told him they wanted to play with the Dead, or use a new amplifier or play a benefit? This must have been practically a daily occurrence until Steve Parish began to protect Jerry in the mid-70s. Up until that time, it was pretty much up to Jerry to say no himself. Jerry could have called Steve Winwood, Mark Naftalin or a dozen other heavy keyboard players to join the Dead, yet he gave a strange woman his home and office number. Why?

To start with, look at the photo of Donna at the top of the post. She could have gotten the home and office number of any man at Keystone Korner that night, no problem. Jerry was a rock star, and was perfectly used to attractive women coming up to him at shows and asking how they could get in touch--of course he happily handed out his phone numbers. I don't think Jerry was that interested in Keith, truthfully. Donna, of course, had to know this. I also don't think Jerry "forgot" that the Dead rehearsal was canceled

What did Jerry really expect? That Donna would call him at home, and ask to come over? We know he wasn't bothered by other people's marriages. Jerry himself probably didn't know what to expect, and didn't recall. But it must have seemed intriguing--an intense, charming Southern cheerleader asks for his number because she says her husband can play, so Jerry says "OK". How many times had he said yes to equally peculiar requests from pretty women backstage? I think Jerry invited Keith and Donna to a "canceled" rehearsal because he expected to blow Keith away, and figured he would work out what Donna was up to afterwards, and didn't want band members around to complicate matters. The exact opposite of that happened. Still, Jerry and Bill's astonishment makes more sense if you realize that Jerry likely thought it was initially an upside-down come-on from some pretty Southern Belle.

Joining The Band
The story of Keith and Donna joining the Grateful Dead is equally gendered. Keith started rehearsing in September 1971, and debuted with the band on October 19, 1971. Yet Donna never set foot on stage until New Year's Eve, when she sang along on "One More Saturday Night," which at the time would have been thoroughly unknown to the crowd. Bob Weir introduced her, and everyone listening must have correctly figured that she was the piano player's wife. Donna does not appear to have sung at the next show at Winterland, just two days later (January 2, 1972), even though they did "One More Saturday Night" again.

Donna's first real efforts singing with the Grateful Dead came during the recording of Bob Weir's Ace at Wally Heider's, in January and February of 1972. Come March, with the Dead gearing up for Europe by playing six shows at the Academy Of Music in Manhattan, and Donna was on stage with regularity. It seems that she participated in most newly-rehearsed songs, while the vocal arrangements of older songs remained intact. For most Deadheads, however, those not lucky enough to have seen the band in California, New York or Europe, the first sign was seeing the back of the Ace album. Warners released Ace in June 1972, and listed on the credits it said: "Donna Godchaux-chick vocals." Thus by the time the Dead got to various cities in the balance of '72 and '73, most Deadheads would have figured out who she was. Certainly no one else on stage was doing any "chick vocals"

Donna has said that she was initially asked to sing with the Dead, but declined so that Keith would have his chance without distraction. There's every reason to believe this story. However, no one seems to have asked Donna how the band found out she could sing. Who asked if she could sing? What did they do when they found out that she had sung on some of the biggest hits of the 60s? When did she sing first with the band--and what song did she sing? The story is always about Keith, never Donna, who was just "a chick."

February 15 1973
Once Donna joined the Grateful Dead on stage, all of the members seemed to have good reasons for her presence. Phil Lesh was not really interested in being a harmony vocalist, and after Donna joined he pretty much stopped participating in new vocal arrangements. In fact, when the band "returned" in 1976, Phil stopped singing altogether, and all his old vocal parts were reconfigured for Donna. Bob Weir had an onstage vocal foil, and Donna's presence allowed Bob to approach some songs in a more R&B style, with a lot of call and response, while still leaving Jerry free to play. Songs like "Looks Like Rain" and "The Music Never Stopped" worked far better with Donna on board than if she had not been there.

As for Garcia, he seems to have been the most committed member of the Grateful Dead to Donna's vocals. Not only did her harmonies play a big part in all of his songs from 1973 onwards, but Keith and Donna joined the Jerry Garcia Band as well in 1976. Jerry and Donna's voices blended very nicely on stage with the JGB, not least because the sparser rhythm section left plenty of room for those voices to be heard.

In early 1973, the Grateful Dead undertook some serious rehearsal of new material, probably at the Stinson Beach Community Center. Numerous new songs appeared, and a few nearly-new songs got spiced up arrangements. On February 15, 1973, the Dead began their national tour (after one show at Stanford) at the Dane County Coliseum in Madison, WI. Amongst all sorts of new material was a cover of Loretta Lynn's "You Ain't Woman Enough To Take My Man," with Donna Jean Godchaux singing lead vocals. This was Donna's first solo lead vocal with the Grateful Dead.

Since we know nothing of Donna's performing history, we don't know if this was her first public performance with a band. Had she ever played with a band? Had she ever sang lead? I have assumed she sang in church, but even if she had, singing in the congregation for your family and friends is a little different than singing for 10,000 hippies in Mad City. Was Donna solo debut with the Grateful Dead her solo debut as a singer?

In 2014, the Donna Jean Godchaux Band released the album Back Around
Gotta Travel On
Donna Jean Godchaux sang with the Grateful Dead from December 31, 1971 through February 17, 1979. There are many peaks throughout the Grateful Dead's performing history, but almost all Deadheads will agree that Donna was there for a lot of them. Whether or how much you think she contributed to those peaks is a matter of taste, of course, but the Grateful Dead were greater than the sum of their individual parts, so no matter what Donna was part of the mix. Eventually, however, the strain of actually having a family and staying in the band was just too much, and Keith and Donna left the band somewhat voluntarily in early 1979. Keith Godchaux resigned his seat on the Grateful Dead board on March 1, 1979, and the Godchauxs were set free back into the rest of the world.

Keith's departure revealed something significant about the Godchaux's relationship to the Grateful Dead proper. Keith and Donna Godchaux were both members of the Grateful Dead, but they only had one board seat--a 1/6 share of the band in 1979 (their percentage of Ice Nine was slightly less, but the principle was the same). While Donna got an extra seat on the plane, per diem on the road and probably the same modest weekly salary as most staff, she wasn't any more expensive than another crew member. The band didn't even need an extra limo or hotel room for her on the road. One reason that Keith and Donna remained in the band was that their replacement had to handle both the keyboards and the vocals, and take up only one board seat. That was one reason why the discovery of Brent Mydland was so critical, since he could take up both roles. The band could have found another keyboard player, maybe, but to replace the vocals they could never get someone as cheaply as a spouse.

Many people wonder why the Grateful Dead and the Jerry Garcia Band kept Keith Godchaux on keyboards throughout 1978, when his playing was clearly in decline, along with his health and well-being. Of course, the relentless need to keep gigging was one factor. Another was the financial issue, in that a replacement had to cover both Keith and Donna's roles. Bob Weir, quoted in Gans and Jackson's book, was rather ungracious in 1980, when he described Brent's vocal contribution:
The singing has gotten a touch tighter, because Donna never did learn to inflect the way Jerry and I grew up inflecting together. Brent does it more naturally and it's just more naturally, and it's just more natural with him there. 
I never thought having a female vocal in the band--not just Donna, but any female--was exactly right for the band. I'm not being a male chauvinist or anything, it's just a matter of taste. For this band and for the kind of tunes we do, it didn't work well. It sounded askew to me. (p.295)
Weir was entitled to his opinion, but one of the key reasons that Keith Godchaux remained the band's pianist throughout 1978 was that Jerry Garcia valued Donna's vocal contributions. After adding Donna in 1976, Jerry and John Kahn added Maria Muldaur to the vocal mix for most 1978 JGB shows. The twinned female vocals became the template for the permanent lineup of the Jerry Garcia Band, which did not reach fruition until 1981. Garcia must have known he could have replaced Keith Godchaux easily enough for his bar band, with any number of California pros, but Donna was a far trickier replacement. Obviously, it couldn't be permanent.

Yet JGMF recently uncovered a 1982 radio interview with Garcia where he was asked about Donna, after Keith's death, and Garcia had some interesting comments. It was a radio call-in show, and Cary in Parkersburg, IN, asked "what is Donna Godchaux is up to?"Garcia responded, "she's recently married, recently had another child and has a band with her new husband, who’s a guitar player. We see Donna pretty frequently."

Donna's musical influence, ultimately, was on Garcia rather than directly on the Grateful Dead. Brent Mydland did an excellent job of handling the Dead's harmonies throughout the 80s, so the Dead were covered there. Yet Garcia took Donna's roots in gospel and R&b music and had a succession of background singers who were very much in the Muscle Shoals tradition. Jerry Garcia is a giant in 20th century American music, no matter how you slice it, and he worked with a wide variety of musical legends. Yet a cheerleader from tiny Sheffield, AL showed Jerry what he needed to get the musical sounded he wanted on stage.

Comments and Correspondents have begun to unearth a treasure trove of lost information about Donna Jean. The Comment thread is like an additional post, and well worth reading in its entirety. It seems inevitable that a new and more thorough post on Donna will be forthcoming. In the meantime, however, here are some updates:

Appendix 1: Grateful Dead, Dane County Coliseum, Madison, WI February 15, 1973

BandGrateful Dead
VenueDane County Coliseum
Date2/15/73 - Thursdayposterstickets, passes & laminates
One - 1:40:00Loose Lucy [6:34];[0:46] ;
Beat It On Down The Line [3:27];[0:08]%[0:27] ;
Brown Eyed Women [4:56];[0:05]%[0:06] ;
Mexicali Blues [3:27];[0:09]%[0:06] ;
Tennessee Jed [7:53];[0:07]%[0:12] ;
Looks Like Rain [6:30] ;
Box Of Rain [4:50] ;
Row Jimmy [7:49] ;
Jack Straw [4:45] ;
China Cat Sunflower [5:58] >
I Know You Rider [5:35] ;
Me And My Uncle [2:46] ;
Bertha [5:18] ;
Playing In The Band [15:36] ;
Casey Jones [6:41]
Two - 1:31:04Here Comes Sunshine [9:32] ;
El Paso [4:20] ;
You Ain't Woman Enough [3:26] ;
They Love Each Other [4:46] ;
Big River [4:19] ;
Dark Star [19:15] >
Eyes Of The World [19:09] >
China Doll [7:03] ;
The Promised Land [2:58] ;
Sugaree [7:08] ;
Sugar Magnolia [9:08]
Encore - 6:58Uncle John's Band [6:58] ;
One More Saturday Night
Dane County Coliseum, Madison, WI - complete, 4.8, 
205min, Sbd, A1D0, Reel M -> Reel 1 -> Dat 0, 48k, 
7inch Master Reels@7.5ips 1/2trk -> Reel 1st Gen(dolby B) -> 3800 x 0