(the cover to Mickey Hart's 1972 album Rolling Thunder)
The basic timeline of the Grateful Dead's recording history is that Workingman's Dead and American Beauty, both released in 1970, elevated the band from underground oddballs to profitable hitmakers. Within the next few years, a variety of Grateful Dead projects were available in stores, including the first New Riders album (released August 1971), Hooteroll by Howard Wales and Jerry Garcia (released September 1971), Garcia's first solo album (December 1971), Bob Weir's solo album Ace (May 1972) and most mysteriously, Mickey Hart's solo album Rolling Thunder (September 1972). Deadheads generally see these releases as a sign of the band's diverse musical talents, finally given some exposure once the band became a profitable entity.
While all the solo albums and side projects had sincere musical goals, I have been considering the motives that would probably have driven the record companies to support these projects. A recent post of mine questioning when the Hooteroll album was recorded generated a sequence of fascinating Comments and some excellent follow-up posts on JGMF. While JGMF's analysis of the timeline of Hooteroll is fairly accurately defined, numerous other information came to light in his research. The most significant factor is the critical role that Columbia Records played for Dead-related releases in the early 1970s, a significant factor because the Dead recorded for Warner Brothers. Why was Columbia anxious to promote a band whose recordings they did not even own?
The thesis I am going to propose here is that Columbia Records was very anxious to sign the Grateful Dead to a recording contract after their Warner Brothers contract expired, and their various efforts were designed to make Columbia attractive to the Dead, and particularly Garcia. Warner Brothers, in turn, anxious not to lose a potentially profitable act on the verge of getting very popular, had little choice but to respond by offering solo record deals to Garcia, Weir and Hart, in order to emphasize how they could be just as cool as Columbia. In the end, of course, the Dead signed with neither company, but they seemed to have milked the cow fairly dry in the meantime. I am not aware of this thesis being directly postulated elsewhere, and I do not have any special inside information, but I think the sequence of events in 1970-72 points to a great anxiety on the parts of Warner Brothers and Columbia Records to curry favor with Jerry Garcia and The Grateful Dead by financing a variety of solo projects.
Original Grateful Dead Record Contract, October 1966
According to Dennis McNally, the Dead signed with Warner Brothers in October 1966. Although record company contracts were (and are) shocking in the amount of power and reward they provide to the record company versus the artist, by 1960s standards the Dead's contract was not particularly ruinous. In general, this would have put Warner's in good standing when the Dead compared themselves to many of their peers, who had had unfortunate experiences. Another advantage for Warners was that Joe Smith, the executive who had signed the Dead, was still in place in the early 1970s, and his relationship with the band was intact.
However, California law limits the duration of record company contracts to seven years. Typical contracts were something like 5 years with two renewable one year options, or something similar, so the Warners contract could not have extended beyond October 1973. I am probably simplifying a complex subject, but for the purposes of this argument I am emphasizing that while the Dead had little control over their recording career in the 1960s, as the 1970s began Warners had to consider their contract status (update: a Commenter has pointed out that Lenny Hart had secretly extended the Dead's Warners contract in Fall '69, as their three album deal had expired, but Hart pocketed the $75,000 check without telling the band. While this complicates my hypothesis somewhat, the broad narrative is still intact).
Workingman's Dead, the band's first release of the 1970s, was strikingly commercial, much to the surprise of Joe Smith, and when American Beauty followed later in the year Warner Brother suddenly had to consider how far they were willing to go to hang onto the Dead. Columbia got interested, too, and that had to affect how Warners saw the band (update: Columbia had tried to sign the Dead when Lenny Hart secretly renewed their contract with Warners). The circumstances were similar to a star baseball player who is entering free agency--as the end of the contract nears the horizon, the team has to start thinking of how to entice the player to remain on the team, rather than forcing the player to put up with his role and be quiet about it.
The Grateful Dead and The Recording Industry, 1966-69
When the Grateful Dead were signed by Warners in Fall 1966, they were a hip underground band, but no one at Warners probably thought they would be hugely successful. Warners was Hollywood's most unhip company, and the Dead had what would now be called "street cred." The company probably hoped the band's infamy would sell a few records and make a little money, but in an industry dominated by hit singles by the likes of The Beach Boys, nobody really thought a band with a lead singer named Pig Pen were going to become big stars. Rock music was considered disposable pop music, and no one considered the idea that even the Beatles would still be selling records in five years, much less some band playing improvised blues. However, just as record companies in the 1970 signed punk bands with few prospects in order to look cool, Los Angeles and New York companies all wanted to have a few underground sensations on their label, and the Dead were the epitome of that in 1966.
The Grateful Dead's four releases of the 1960s probably fit Warner's expectations. The Dead remained famous and infamous, were regularly written up in Rolling Stone and had a knack for showing up at important events like Monterey Pop, Woodstock and Altamont. None of their records sold very well, and no hit singles were forthcoming. The Dead had spent something like $125,000 in studio time to record Aoxomoxoa--a Beatles-like sum of money at the time--and the record hadn't sold much. Live/Dead was cheaper and better reviewed, but nobody at Warners thought that rock bands could record mostly instrumental albums that would sell forever, like jazz albums--in fact, they probably didn't believe jazz albums would sell forever, either, because Warners didn't release jazz. Still, Warners was probably happy with the Dead, since they were hip and Warners wanted to be hip, so losing a little money on the band was well worth it (and they must have continued to feel that way, since they renewed the Dead in 1969).
The Grateful Dead, Jerry Garcia and The Recording Industry, 1970
Much to everyone's surprise, the Dead's relationship to the musical landscape changed dramatically in 1970s. When Joe Smith received the advance tape of Workingman's Dead in Spring 1970, he put it on expecting a new psychedelic opus, and before "Uncle John's Band" was even over, he realized he might have a hit on his hands. FM rock radio, another San Francisco invention, had spread to most major cities, so hit singles in and of themselves were not the only way to get airplay. In FM, cool counted, and the Dead were cool, so songs with hooks and lyrics about cocaine were going to get a lot of airplay because they were racy, rather than in spite of it.
The biggest trend in the rock music history in early 1970 was the rise of Crosby, Stills and Nash, whose first album was not only a giant hit, but seemed to be ushering in a wave of quieter and more melodic music that emphasized traditional songwriting and harmony singing. Not only was Workingman's Dead right in line with that trend, but the widely awaited follow up album, Deja Vu (now with Neil Young on board), released in March , 1970, featured Jerry Garcia on pedal steel guitar. "Teach Your Children" was released as a single in May 1970, and had risen to #16 by mid-Summer. I cannot emphasize enough that record company presidents would have been impressed more by the fact that Garcia had played the introductory hook to a Top 20 single than by the finest "Dark Star" ever imagined.
Workingman's Dead was released in June 1970, as "Teach Your Children" was climbing the charts, and the November 1970 release of American Beauty would have confirmed that the Dead's ability to write and sing catchy, FM-friendly songs was no fluke. While the industry would not have cared about the Dead's live performances per se, they would have appreciated that the band was out there touring non-stop. By the end of 1970, so many of the Dead's contemporaries had broken up (like Big Brother) or undergone dramatic personnel changes (like Quicksilver), and even bands who managed to stay together (like the Airplane) did not tour with the relentlessness of the Dead.
The whole record industry would have noticed that during 1970, the Grateful Dead had gone from being a colorful gang of pirate outlaws to a band completely in tune with musical trends, touring heavily behind not one but two albums that were receiving heavy FM airplay and selling well. The industry would have also known that the Dead's contract with Warners was going to expire somewhere between 1971 and 1973, and if a company wanted to sign the band they would have to make themselves seem attractive to the Dead long before the Warners contract was set to end.
Clive Davis and Columbia Records
The record industry was always hugely profitable, and once the Beatles expanded the universe of musical purchasers, the amount of money to be made was very large. Columbia Records had always been the most successful record company, and when staff attorney Clive Davis took it over in 1967, he made them the industry's biggest success. Davis was not a musician, but he had a knack for working with stars. He signed Big Brother in order to get Janis Joplin, and although he was criticized for overpaying at the time, the low six figures he paid to get the band out of a terrible contract was repaid many times over, first with Cheap Thrills and later with Janis's solo albums. Davis has admitted that he was trying to sign the Dead in the early 1970s, and not surprisingly his focus was on Jerry Garcia, who was the Dead's "star," however much Garcia himself was uncomfortable with the role.
There had been a number of interesting efforts at country rock in the late 1960s, including The Byrds lp Sweetheart Of The Rodeo, The Flying Burrito Brothers, Poco and Ian & Sylvia, to name a few. None of them had sold very many records. Nonetheless, in late 1970, Columbia signed the New Riders Of The Purple Sage. Now, to give Davis some credit, Columbia was a promoter of country rock (they had the Byrds and Poco, for example), and in fact Columbia made plenty of money out of the Riders. However, it's plain to me that Davis signed the New Riders in order to get some traction with Garcia (update: a Commenter cites John Dawson's confirmation of this). The Riders had the same endless studio time at Wally Heider's that the Dead and the Airplane did, and as a new band that need not have been indulged that way. Plainly, Davis wanted to show Garcia how generous Columbia could be.
Alan Douglas and Douglas Records
Alan Douglas was mainly a jazz producer. While he had his own label, Douglas Records, it was financed and distributed by Columbia, so it was another branch of the Columbia tree. Douglas was quoted a lot in Rolling Stone and Billboard, and he seems to have been one of the "house hippies" at otherwise staid Columbia. Record companies in Manhattan and Hollywood had discovered that a lot of younger, long-haired bands were not comfortable with attorneys and accountants wearing suits and drinking martinis, so they made sure to have some hip guys on the staff who shared the tastes and vices of the musicians they were trying to court. Columbia was particularly big and stuffy, so Douglas had a particularly important role in persuading musicians that Columbia wasn't just a bunch of suits.
Douglas Records signed Howard Wales to a contract in Summer 1970, and Alan Douglas seems to have persuaded Jerry Garcia to participate in Wales's album project. At this time, I do not think Warners had any rights to Garcia as a solo artist, as the company had not originally thought there was much potential for noodly guitar players without movie star looks. I think Douglas was Clive Davis's man in this enterprise, trying to prove to Garcia that Columbia would support the weirdest, most far out music imaginable. Davis had signed the New Riders, but they were a song-based entity, potentially quite commercial. Howard Wales, on the other hand was way, way out, so Davis sent his most way out producer--Douglas--to demonstrate to Garcia that there were no barriers to playing at Columbia. Columbia, unlike Warners, had a great jazz catalog, and Davis was shrewd enough to know that Garcia might want to be on Miles Davis's label.
More surprisingly, JGMF found a November 7, 1970 Billboard article not only announces that Garcia would be recording with Howard Wales, but that Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzmann will be recording a "percussion album." To top it off, Douglas--meaning Columbia--built Hart a studio:
The Kreitzmann[sic]-Hart LP will be recorded at a fully-equipped 16-track studio Douglas has installed in Hart's barn in Navato [sic], Calif. The studio, designed by Kreitzmann [sic], Hart and Phil Lesh of the Grateful Dead under the supervision of engineer Dan Healy, will be completed within the month.We know that the Dead were broke in 1970, because Lenny Hart stole so much money from them. I had wondered how Mickey Hart could have afforded to build a studio, but now we can see that Columbia paid for it. Columbia Records, it seems, had signed two of Garcia's pals (Howard Wales and the New Riders) and built the Dead their own studio. Columbia was also providing seemingly unlimited studio time for the Riders and supporting two uncommercial projects (Wales and Hart) in the interests of art. Columbia Records was a money-making proposition, and they didn't expect to sell a lot of Howard Wales albums. Clive Davis wanted Jerry Garcia and The Grateful Dead, and throwing money around on quixotic recording projects was his coin of the realm.
After signing the Grateful Dead as a sort of hip money loser, Joe Smith would have found himself in a dilemma in early 1971. The Grateful Dead had released two successful albums the year before, seemed right in tune with the mellower direction of the early 1970s and were more popular than ever on the concert trail. Warner Brothers controlled the Dead through 1971 and beyond, up to a point, but they would have suddenly had to start thinking about how they could keep the Dead on the label. Record companies, like baseball teams, have to be concerned not only with success but the appearance of success. If the Dead left Warners for Columbia, other bands might draw the conclusion that Warners wasn't a cool place to work.
Garcia had stated that he only did his first solo album because he needed the advance money to buy a house for Mountain Girl and their family, which is why the album is bracketed by a "Wheel" and a "Deal." Until recently, however, I had never really considered why Warners had offered Garcia a solo album. While I doubt that Columbia could have recorded Garcia as a true solo artist, they had gotten him to make two albums, and Garcia got paid session fees for the endless New Riders sessions. Songs like "Deal" could have been used on a new Grateful Dead album, but I think Joe Smith was interested in showing Garcia that Warners was just as generous and open-minded as Columbia. I know Garcia was recorded in July 1971, so that means Smith put the deal together before that, shortly before Hooteroll was released in September 1971.
Warners would have extended the Dead's contract for 1972--I think the Dead had little say in the matter--but the clock would have been ticking. Nobody had necessarily considered Bob Weir a potential star back in the 1960s, but Smith must have recognized that lavishing too much attention on Garcia alone might not have been a winning strategy. While I believe that Weir's 1972 solo album Ace was part of the Grateful Dead contract, the Dead must have known they finally had some leverage, and Weir's album was the result.
Mickey Hart's Rolling Thunder album, released in September 1972, was a quizzical release even at the time. Although there were a few conventional songs, and an all-star cast, even hip radio stations were not going to play tracks like "Insect Fear." Hart had left the Dead 16 months before the album was released, and Warners must have known it would not sell, so they had to have some motive for releasing it. The history of the album is made even stranger knowing that it appears to have originally been a Columbia project for a Hart/Kreutzmann percussion album.
It's my hypothesis that in early 1971 Joe Smith was on a campaign to show Jerry Garcia and the Grateful Dead that they should stay at Warner Brothers when their contract expired, and the money that Smith would have thrown around would have been done with that in mind. Mickey Hart was unable to continue touring with the Dead in February 1971, due mainly to the stress resulting from his father's corrupt handling of the band's finances. However, while the Dead remained close to Hart and considered him an ex officio member of the group, the fact was the Dead were still digging themselves out of debt, and would not have had much money to spare. How was Hart going to afford his ranch and studio without joining a band or scaling down or otherwise changing his plans?
I think Joe Smith offered Mickey Hart a two album deal and an advance in 1971 when he left the group. This would have given him the cash to keep his ranch and studio while taking a break from touring. This would also have taken a monkey off the Grateful Dead's back. If Warners was looking out for Mickey, then the Dead could rest easy about his status. Joe Smith didn't expect anyone to buy Rolling Thunder when it came out, but he would have been in the midst of negotiations with the Dead for their future, so he would have been happy to keep his promises. The next year, when the Dead had already departed for their own label, Smith had no interest in releasing Hart's follow up album and the record remained in the can, yet another sign of how Smith and Warners saw the contract with Hart.
Of course, after the heated courtship between Columbia and Warner Brothers, the Grateful Dead chose neither. To the surprise of the entire industry, the Grateful Dead started their own label. I assume Warners exercised their final option, because the Dead owed them one more album. They released the desultory Bear's Choice, which we now know was a selection of the least interesting material from one of the greatest Dead weekends ever. Bear's Choice was released in July 1973, and Wake Of The Flood was released in October 1973. The Grateful Dead had signed their Warners contract in October 1966, and they "played out their option," so that they were free to set their own path after the full seven years.
For all the record company machinations that I have asserted took place, I do not mean for a second to suggest that all the recordings made by Garcia, Weir, Hart and their friends were not sincerely intended to be music of the highest quality. Art is a commercial enterprise, however, whether or not artists like to admit it, so Garcia and the others were probably happy that the cards were falling their way. To give the record companies their due, the Grateful Dead turned out to be bigger than anyone could have expected, and many of the album projects must have provided a handsome profit for the record companies.
Garcia and the rest of the band were hardly naive about music as a business, but their role in it was to make music. The untold part of this story, which I cannot divine by mere ratiocination, was this: who negotiated these advantageous arrangements for the Dead? It takes a cool head to play off two suitors only to jilt both of them, and I hardly see Garcia or Weir sitting in meetings all day with attorneys. I have to think that one of the principal players in this little dance was future Grateful Dead Records executive Ron Rakow, a wheeler and a dealer from way back. Given Rakow's checkered history, if he shrewdly navigated solo contracts for Garcia, Weir and Hart, and helped facilitate arrangements for Howard Wales and the New Riders, it would go a long way towards explaining how the band had enough confidence in Rakow to make him the head of their record company. Until Rakow or others explain what really went on, if they ever choose to do so, the financial mechanics of the Dead's first side ventures will remain obscured.