Please make yourself at home! Check some tags, do some reading, leave a comment.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Jerry Garcia and Round Records

(Parenthetically, the Grateful Dead Archives at UC Santa Cruz will eventually, hopefully, allow us to get a great close look at some of these hitherto opaque business/economic issues. Go, Nick, Go! But I pregress.)

I have just been eyeballing some articles that appeared in the amazing, incredible, Golden Road, edited by Blair Jackson and Regan McMahon. I think I just peeled the onion back to a really important issue to which I have, until now, paid too little attention, and that's the issue of Round Records (RR). I just want to make a brief comment here. Steve Brown had a great piece from the perspective of the GD Record company in the Summer 1986 issue (1) with the following tidbit.

Despite their reputation as a group of guys who liked to take risks, Rakow and the Dead decided that rather than jeopardize Grateful Dead Records, which was co-owned by all the voting members of the organization, they would create a second label to handle the more financially dubious solo projects members of the Dead were interested in pursuing. Thus was born Round Records, owned 50/50 by Garcia and Rakow.

IMO, Garcia owning RR 50/50 is very interesting, for at least three reasons.

First, I think it’s great evidence of the extent to which Garcia was the firmest (only?) supporter of Rakow in the group. As we know with hindsight, this was a devastatingly bad piece of character judgment on Jerry’s part. Neither his first nor his last, but certainly one of the most consequential.

Second, having his own finances tied directly to the fate of the record company might have given Jerry the incentive to put his own name on his band, eventually to professionalize it. As someone who has puzzled a lot over the question of why Garcia would put his name on his band, if he was after a bit of anonymous gigging –a premise almost certainly true of most of the early and some of the later GOTS stuff—this helps clarify the probable reason. No-one else’s records were going to make money, so he needed to make sure that at least his stuff did as well as possible, since that’s basically what would finance Round. Business drove the decision. How mundane, I know. But worth noting about a guy who tried and failed, as so many did, to live outside of all of that.

Third, it really speaks to how committed Jerry was to the other GD members, the Family, etc. He was not only subsidizing their solo projects (did anyone really think that Diga or Seastones or Keith and Donna would sell?), but also taking on disproportionate risk. While he had a tendency to leave women and side band members (except John Kahn) high and dry, Garcia jumped two feet in in committing to his GD bandmates (and, beyond the scope, John Kahn). True, they backed him with the Albatross of the Movie, but Jerry was pretty much carrying everyone and everything. We know this. Yet he is often condemned for irresponsibility (and often, to be sure, demonstrated it) in his personal relationships. Here's a thought: maybe carrying that many others is about as much as we might expect of anybody …

I know everyone knows all of this, but I thought I'd put it out there. And remind myself that I have a lot to learn about Round Records.

(1) Brown, Steve. 1986. If I Told You All That Went Down … A fond look back at Grateful Dead Records. Golden Road 11 (Summer): 21-27.


  1. Sorry I'm so late on this, I've been tuned out.

    This is a stunningly simple and stunningly correct hypothesis. I even read that issue of Golden Road (I read them all, word for word, as we didn't have the Internet in those days) and I never put two and two together. I realized, of course, that Garcia needed some cash flow after the Dead stopped touring, but I never connected the dots of the Round Records risk.

    This also explains the need to go to Keith and Donna in place of Hopkins or James Booker. Garcia needed someone dependable who didn't have another gig, because he needed the cash flow, and troubled geniuses weren't going to fill the bill.

    Really, this is a fantastic insight. Now I have to go look at all the Round release dates...

  2. Agree that Keith & Donna fit into the puzzle perfectly. If we follow this logic through, it also implies that the K&D version of the band was primarily a business conception and only secondarily an artistic one.

    I think the RR may well be the very pivot I have been looking for in the history of Garcia's side projects. Putting his name on the Hopkins band was a concession to the business reality, but with Hopkins and Booker he tried to have his (business) cake and eat it (artistically) too. When the latter proved too risky for the purposes of the former, art gave way to commerce.

    To be clear, I don't intend these comments to sound critical of the choices made. The world is what it is and, alas, even artistic geniuses have to find a way to make their way in it as it is, or die trying not to.

  3. In defense of Keith and Donna, there's a couple of musical things to consider in their favor:

    First, since Garcia was going to tour full time (by the standards of a normal musician), his opportunity to use a local guy who was in another band was off the table. Someone like Pete Sears (Starship) or Geoff Palmer (Sons) would have been great musically, but they had other obligations.

    By the same token, one way or another the Dead were coming back, as they had just released an album. Thus no serious player was going to throw everything over for a six-month gig that would dry up once the Dead got re-activated. Thus any fantasies about Bill Payne (Feat) or Jai Winding (Jackson Browne) joining up were unrealistic (I grant the fantasies were just mine).

    Jerry also seems to have made a post-Merl decision to stick with a piano player rather than an organist. This, too, dramatically shrinks the set of choices. We took Keith for granted, but he was better than anyone else when all the other restrictions were considered.

    The bonus in all of this turns out to have been Donna. I think Jerry just took her as part of the package, but in fact she fit in better with JGB than with the Dead. In the end, the Garcia Band spent more years with female vocalists than without, and to some extent I think that's due to the serendipity of bringing her on tour with Keith.

    Ultimately Donna set the tone for the Garcia Band sound, even if the gospel trained singers who came along in the 80s may have been better vocalists (I think improved sound helped as well). Donna and Jerry's harmonies were very effective, and I think Jerry rapidly realized that it gave his band a distinctive sound, both from the Dead and from other bands around at the time.

  4. I think the arc goes like this

    >In Summer 1975, Garcia calls his new venture The Jerry Garcia Band for commercial reasons, and makes commitments for a lot of shows. He also makes business plans that assume the cash flow. Remember, the movie is sucking down money at this time, and Round had to be hemorrhaging cash as well.

    >By December 75 its clear that Hopkins won't work out professionally, however great he might be musically. In January 76 Garcia and Kahn try out James Booker, a true piano giant (plus a hell of an organ player), but he's even more unprofessional.

    >by mid January 76 the Garcia Band has a lot of shows booked and an absolute necessity to play them. Keith's available and reliable, as long as Donna's in the band, so Jerry grabs the lifeline that's available.

    >In fact, Garcia plays great with Keith, and Donna changes the sound of a lot of songs for the better. Considering that the JGB now plays small auditoriums more than nightclubs, the added vocal power helps.

    >By the time the Dead re-start in '76, the status of the Garcia Band can remain flexible as long as Keith and Donna are part of the band. All of this peaks on Cats Under The Stars, which seems to be a serious effort by Garcia to make a mark as a solo artist. When it sags, the relationships of Keith and Jerry, and Keith and the Dead and Keith and Donna sag as well.

  5. There's another obvious connection between the bottom line and the use of the name, and that's Garcia. In the Rolling Stone interview and in an April/May 1972 interview published in Rock (1, especially p. 17) Jerry makes it crystal clear that he did the solo album in order to buy MG the house in Stinson Beach she wanted. Warner Brothers fronted him $10k for the down payment in exchange for the album. He is quite explicit in saying that "Wheel" and "Deal" frame the album intentionally.

    Upshot: when he needs to make sure it pays him, he puts his name to it. Natural enough and totally inoffensive, IMO, but a connection worth spotlighting.

    (1) Peacock, Steve. 1972. Jerry Garcia in London. Rock, July 17, 1972, pp. 16-17, 28.

  6. "Round Records is my spinoff. The ownership of it is on me and Rakow. ... it's mostly a situation for me to be able to try things out and do things ... I'm not particularly concerned about succeeding as a record company ... I just want to see what happens"

    about 6 minutes into 6/8/74 interview at


!Thank you for joining the conversation!