Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Keith Godchaux: Unsung Hero

The Grateful Dead never had much luck with the keys. Talent yes, luck no. Twenty-eight years ago today, the Dead lost (in my opinion) their most distinguished piano man and keyboardist, Keith Godchaux.

Anyone with a cursory knowledge of the band is familiar with the apocryphal Grateful Dead keyboardist "curse." First to depart was Ron "Pigpen" McKernan in 1973, then Keith in 1980, Brent Mydland in 1990, and lastly, Vince Welnick, who tragically passed away in 2006.

Each of these guys contributed to the Grateful Dead family and experience in their own way. But I'm a Keith guy. His technique was masterful. His fervor was unmatched. His influence on the band is everlasting. Have you heard the Winterland shows from 11/9/73-11/11/73? Or Boston Garden 5/7/77? These were historic performances and Keith was an integral part of these shows, as he was for countless others during his tenure with the band.

Not surprisingly, his style and soul was rooted in jazz and improvisation (in his early days he played with Traffic's Dave Mason). It is a fact that Keith's ability on the Fender Rhodes was unrivaled in comparison to the other Dead keyboardists. Keep in mind, this was before the era of digital instruments that were prominent during the Mydland/Hornsby/Welnick years. If you isolate his work on the Fender Rhodes (e.g. Row Jimmy, GDTRFB, or Wharf Rat), you can hear how much of the band's groove was born from Keith's genius. And of course with Keith came Donna -- an underrated but complimentary member of the band during their most important decade.

As were most of the Dead's keyboardists, Keith was enigmatic and withdrawn -- the most creative artists usually are. He rarely (if ever) sang, and frankly, I'm not sure I've ever heard his voice. During his eight years with the band, he only authored the music to one song - "Let Me Sing Your Blues Away." Most certainly this was more a result of modesty than inability. Keith will never be a household name -- that much is for sure. But Keith is a hero...perhaps better left unsung.


Nazz Nomad said...

nice job, but Brent died 18 years ago, not Keith.

WeightStaff said...

Thanks for the compliment. And you're right. Keith died 28 years ago last Wednesday. Brent died 18 years ago tomorrow.

Charles Kershenblatt said...

I enjoy, very much, listening to Keith in his prime - the 72-74 stuff, especially. Enjoyed Brent's Hammond B-3 stuff, but truly detested his Rhodes on Extra-Sweetener sound, or whatever the hell it was (pure obnoxious tone?). Keith was so wonderful at keeping the feel - his Dark Star stuff alone deserves enormous praise.