Remembering The Fallen Keyboard Heros of the Grateful Dead

During these Days Between we remember not only Jerry Garcia, who passed 15 years ago this August 9th, but the keyboard players who’s met with their own untimely deaths.

Often called the “Curse of the Keyboards,” the spot of keyboard player for the Grateful Dead has, over the years become eerily a death sentence for the player.  All but two of the keyboard players for the Grateful Dead have passed too soon.  The only two to avoid the curse are Bruce Hornsby, a temporary fill in following the passing of Brent Mydland, and Tom Constanten, an early player who left the band in 1970.  The rest have far more dreadful stories.

Ron “Pigpen” McKernan’s Grave

Ron “Pigpen” McKernan (September 8, 1945 – March 8, 1973)  The original keyboard player for the Grateful Dead, Pigpen was there from before the beginning, playing with the Grateful Dead’s early manifestations, Mother McCree’s Jugband Champions and The Warlocks.  In 1965 when the Grateful Dead began their long strange trip, Pigpen was sitting there pounding out his soulful blues licks on his Hammond organ only losing that spot to Constaten from 1968-1970.  In 1970, after years of abusing alcohol, McKernan was diagnosed with cirrhosis of the liver and was told to quit touring.  He took the doctors advice and turned over his keys to Keith  Godchaux.  He returned to the stage briefly from 1971-1972 and played his final show with the Grateful Dead at the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles on June 17th, 1972.  He died of a gastrointestinal hemorrhage on March 8, 1973.

Keith Godchaux

Keith Godchaux (July 19, 1948 – July 23, 1980)  Following the illness of Ron McKernan, Keith Godchaux took up the keyboard reigns for the Grateful Dead on October 19, 1971 at the Northrop Auditorium at the University of Minnesota.  Godchaux played with the Grateful Dead from 1972 until 1979 when he was replaced by Brent Mydland.  Although Godchaux didn’t find the curse while playing with the Dead, his untimely death came less than a year after he left the band when he died in an automobile accident in Marin County, CA at the age of 32.

Brent Mydland

Brent Mydland (October 21, 1952 – July 26, 1990)  After Keith quit the Grateful Dead, the keyboard player from the short lived Bob Weir Band got the nod from the Grateful Dead to fill the, now ominous, spot behind the keys.  Brent Mydland not only had the key skills but a sweet silky voice and the songwriting ability to go with it.  Shortly after joining the band in 1979, Mydland’s tunes “Easy to Love You” and “Far From Me” made the cut for the album “Go To Heaven” in 1980.  Brent brought back that Pigpen soul the band had been lacking behind the keys.  Mydland continued to contribute with “Hell in a Bucket,” “Tons of Steel,” “We Can Run” and the lullaby for his daughters, “I Will Take You Home.”  Mydland died at the age of 37 from a drug overdose.

Vince Welnick w/ Cubensis

Vince Welnick (February 21, 1951–June 2, 2006) Founding member of The Tubes, Vince Welnick was a Deadhead at heart.  Upon hearing of the passing of Mydland, Welnick auditioned for the spot that he knew he could fill.  Blessed with the ability to hit the high notes and his already established name in the San Francisco music scene, Welnick was a natural choice for the Grateful Dead.  A long time admirer of Garcia, Welnick took to the Dead like a fish to water.  His first show playing with the Dead was in Cleveland, OH in 1990 along side Bruce Hornsby on piano and accordian.  The Hornsby “training wheels” lasted for 100 shows before Welnick took off on his own with the Dead until the passing of Garcia in 1995.  Welnick, who overcame cancer and bouts with severe depression following Garcia’s death, continued to play with various Dead tributes including touring with Cubensis in 2006.  Welnick’s health failing and his ongoing bout with depression ended a month after his last show of the tour with Cubensis at Club ICE in Las Vegas when he took his own life at his home in Santa Rosa,CA.

DSO’s Scott Larned

Scott Larned (3 July 1969 – 24 April 2005)  Included in this list is a tragedy after the fact.  Nationwide touring Grateful Dead Tribute, Dark Star Orchestra caught the residual curse in 2005 when they lost their founding keyboard player, Scott Larned.  Scott and DSO toured relentlessly carrying the torch of the Grateful Dead by recreating old Dead shows on stage live.  Larned died of heart failure while on tour with DSO in 2005.

Curse, myth or just dumb luck?  Whatever it is that plagued the dreaded Hot Seat on stage with the Grateful Dead, more than a few would have gladly rolled those laughing bones for a shot in it.  Variety is the spice of life and the varied styles of all of these wonderful musicians helped contribute to the patchwork quilt we call The Grateful Dead!

9 thoughts on “Remembering The Fallen Keyboard Heros of the Grateful Dead”

  1. Kathy
    You are very mistaken if you are referring to Furthur, the band started by Phil Lesh and Bob Weir. It is NOT a tribute band! It is a new band which happens to include Bob and Phil, two of the founding members of the Grateful Dead.
    When they play Grateful Dead songs, they are not in tribute. These are songs they played as members of that band. Some of them are songs written by Phil or Bob themselves. So they are simply carying on playing their own music.
    If you wrote a song, and then played it 30 yers later, would you consider you were playing it in tribute to yourself? The idea is ridiculous!
    If you think it over carefully, I think you will realize your mistake.

  2. Adrienne – I think Kathy was referring to Vince Welnick who according to the article “continued to play with various Dead tributes including touring with Cubensis in 2006,” since the article referred to that fact and nothing is said anywhere on this page about Bob, Phil or Furthur.

    Thankfully, in whatever method they take on, the boys are keeping the long strange trip going!

  3. You neglect to mention why Hornsby left the band and imply his tenure ended when Welnick was better prepared. That’s may be true but Hornsby also did not approve of Jerry’s drug use, felt it affected Garcia’s and the GD’s playing. Further, he didn’t understand the emperor had no clothes and would confront Garcia.

    Welnick was not a good fit.

  4. I read that Bruce Hornsby was the one who kept doing heroin with Jerry when the rest of the band was trying to keep him straight. “Captain Trips” I think…

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