Donna Jean: Still Grateful
by Gary Lambert
For most of you, Donna Jean Godchaux-Mackay needs no introduction. The grizzled tour veterans among you likely had the pleasure of seeing and hearing her as a member of the Grateful Dead (the only woman ever to achieve that distinction) during some of the band’s peak performing years, from 1972 to early 1979. She also sang with various configurations of the Jerry Garcia Band, and in the Heart Of Gold Band with her late husband Keith after they left the GD. Those of you who got on the bus a little late to see her live back then have probably heard her in recorded form on some of the Dead’s most highly regarded albums, including Europe ’72, Wake of the Flood and Blues for Allah, as well as numerous Dick’s Pick’s releases and the Garcia Band’s Cats Under the Stars.
As Donna’s days with the Grateful Dead have been extensively documented elsewhere, we decided, upon getting an all-too-brief opportunity to catch up with her backstage at the Gathering of the Vibes, to focus on what she’s been up to lately — primarily with her terrific new band, Donna Jean and the Tricksters, who just finished recording their first album, slated for release early next year — and also to talk a bit about her fascinating musical roots as a member of the remarkable musical community in her hometown of Muscle Shoals, Alabama in the late '60s. As always, she proved to be great company — warm, funny, soulful and clearly loving her life.
Hi there, Gary!
How are you?
I’m doing well… very busy, and grateful to be busy.
And in the midst of a tour?
Well, we’re not actually on tour right now. We came off of a festival in Wisconsin and this one, and then we’re actually home for a while. Then we go back out in September and we have a heavy fall schedule.
Tell us how you hooked up with the Tricksters.
Well, it was actually at Gathering of the Vibes in 2005. I had heard about the Zen Tricksters and heard of them, but I had never heard their music and I had never met any of them. So I got to the Vibes and I met these guys, and they wanted me to sit in on a couple of songs. I did so, and was glad that I did. They’re such wonderfully nice guys… they have sterling character… and great players. Anyway, I kind of hung out with them backstage after I sang with them, and really developed a fondness for them right off the bat. Then a couple of months later, the Rex Foundation was doing a benefit at the New York Society for Ethical Culture, and I was asked to be a part of that along with other folks that you know — David Nelson, Mickey Hart, TC — and the Zen Tricksters were the house band for that event. So, in the process of rehearsing for two days in New York with all those guys, getting the event together musically, I just thought, “Wow, they are such great players!” They were playing songs that I had introduced to them, that I had written, and played them beautifully, and I was thinking, “we could do something here.” And they were thinking the same thing. So we decided to give it a shot, and see if we could combine forces and put our talents and abilities together, and just see what popped up. So, Donna Jean and the Tricksters popped up, and we’ve been playing together for about a year now… we’ve done several shows and several festivals. And we actually just completed our first album, with all new material. And we’re loving it. We’re loving playing together, and it’s just a perfect fit… I’m a perfect fit for them and they’re a perfect fit for me. So it’s just been a pleasure and an honor getting to play with these guys. They’re really great musicians.
Donna Jean and the Tricksters at the Gathering of the Vibes, 8/11/07 Photo: Susana Millman
A nice thing about the Tricksters, and I’m sure you appreciate this, is that they’re a band that started out fervently paying tribute to the Grateful Dead…
…and then really developed their own identity.
…and that’s what drew me to them. They didn’t stay being a Grateful Dead cover band. They embraced the philosophical aspects of the music, and went through that phase of being a Grateful Dead cover band. When Jeff [Mattson] started sending me material for me to learn of theirs — three or four CDs that they had made of their original material — I thought, well, they’re songwriters… they’ve really moved on… they embraced, like I said, the musical philosophy of the Grateful Dead, and took that to heart, then moved on to be themselves, and to come up with their music. And that’s what really impressed me. I was not interested in being in a Grateful Dead cover band. No way. So when I saw that they were poised in that direction and had actually already done that, I said, well, this is something I think I could really roll with. And it’s been wonderful. We’ve become best friends.
You can tell. There’s a vibe on stage that these are people who really enjoy each other’s company.
Really enjoy playing together and really enjoy each other’s company. We’re just best friends. They’re my family.
Speaking of extended families, I understand the Tricksters still do stuff as the Zen Tricksters, and you’ve got other projects going, too.
Yes, they still do gigs, especially locally in the Northeast, as the Zen Tricksters, when we’re not doing anything. And as you well know, I’m singing in several other bands as well. So we maintain autonomy on a certain level. When we’re not working as Donna Jean and the Tricksters, they’re free to do things that they want to do and I’m free to do the things that I’m doing…which is a lot!
That’s very consistent with the way things were with the Grateful Dead in that incredibly fertile period in the '70s, when you had Round Records and everyone was doing a side project between those times you’d reconvene as the Grateful Dead. Everyone had a lot of irons in the fire.
Which was very healthy.
It opens you to a lot of musical influences, and you bring that back to the mothership band.
The mothership, exactly!
It seems as though the way the Tricksters have developed as a band works really well with your musical sensibility. There’s always been, in your writing and singing, as a result of where you come from, musically and geographically, a very strong Southern Soul element.
I was raised in Muscle Shoals, and that’s where I grew up musically, before I headed out to California. I was a backup singer and the vocal group that I sang with, we were like, Jerry Wexler’s girls. Jerry Wexler, Tom Dowd, Arif Mardin, Ahmet Ertegun were down in Muscle Shoals all the time, and we had constant session work. So, it was a very different arm of music than the Grateful Dead. The Grateful Dead is incredibly improvisational, and whatever is happening is happening. In Muscle Shoals everything was very arranged, and very pristine, and very much the other arm of a musical philosophy.
You went from the tightest rhythm section in the world…
…to the loosest! [Laughs] But much to my gain. I have to say that. Much to my gain. I’m very proud that I grew up in Muscle Shoals and have that arm, so to speak, of who I am musically, as well as having been in the Grateful Dead and totally embraced that. So this band is a combination of both of those things. And it just works for me so well, I can’t tell you!
That’s exactly what I was getting to, is that you can really hear that they have adapted to where you came from, kind of effortlessly.
Exactly. And it’s not that they’re reaching for that… they’re there. I’ve never seen anyone that listens to more music than Jeff Mattson. He has a wealth of knowledge about all different kinds of music, and he listens to everything. And so, developing a band around some of my songs that have that definite backbeat, Muscle Shoals rhythmic kind of thing was just a piece of cake. They didn’t have to reach for it. It’s just there.
I’m very happy, in my older age… I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again… I am so comfortable in my own skin. I’m not trying to be something I’m not. I know who I am, I know my strengths, I know my limitations, I’m not trying to prove anything. So, I’m at the most liberty that I’ve ever been in my life, and it feels great.
You radiate that…
…and I’m having the time of my life.
You talked about that aspect of Muscle Shoals music that was very tightly arranged, but it also had — as opposed to, say, Chicago or Philly Soul or Motown — Memphis and Muscle Shoals and Southern Soul in general had something very organic…
…organic and groovy…
…and a lot of it comes from church, a very gospel feel to it, and that speaks to your roots as well.
Exactly. Even though it’s tight, I call it the back-porch groove, where it’s not right on top of the beat, but a little bit laid back, which makes it so groovy. Take your “Mustang Sally,” for instance, or the Staple Singers’ “I’ll Take You There.” Honey… what do ya want?
Nothin’ like it…
It doesn’t get any better than that.
I just want to backtrack a little bit and go back to your pre-history, before Grateful Dead, and how you got a foot in the door at Muscle Shoals. You were a local girl, and you said you had a vocal quartet you sang with?
There were four girls. But that wasn’t initially the case, that kind of came into being, really, with the song “When A Man Loves A Woman” by Percy Sledge. My best friends produced that, and another of my best friends was the singer that I got in the vocal group with. But initially, when I was 12 years old, I went to my first recording studio. And they just started popping up. It’s just like this little Podunk northwest corner of Alabama, that if you were going to try to choose where something big would be happening, it would not be there. And yet it did. So my mother knew the cousin of Rick Hall, who ran Fame Recording. This was before the big studio came into existence. This was one of his beginning smaller ones, and I walked into that studio and I just got studio fever. I knew I was gonna be in that studio. I knew I was gonna work there. I knew I was gonna sing. I never wanted to do anything else. So from there, I just kept singing, I wrote a song at age 12 and performed it on TV… played the piano and sang this song that I wrote and won a talent contest… and I grew up with all of these musicians… David Hood, Roger Hawkins, Jimmy Johnson, Dan Penn, Spooner Oldham were my friends. They played at my sock hops. And I would get up and sometimes sing a song. So, these were my buds, you know, from when I was in junior high school. Once I got into high school, the studios were getting more defined, and there was Muscle Shoals Sound, where a lot of the hits came out of. And I was just in there. I was there. It was just another case of being in the right place at the right time. I just found myself in the studios all the time. I started doing demo sessions first, and by the time I was 16 I was starting to sing on full-fledged recording sessions for money. And then at 17 and 18, it got to be hit records, Number One records.
That must be something at that age. To know that something you sang on was a Number One record.
Oh, yeah! And I was head cheerleader at my high school. So I would have to go from cheerleader practice to the recording session in my little short skirt and everything. Which now the guys in Muscle Shoals talk about: “Yeah, we used to love it when you would come into the studio!” [Laughs] But that was a kick. And I guess it really began to rev up very quickly when “When A Man Loves A Woman” was such a hit. And I actually got to take the Billboard magazine to Percy, who was in the hospital… I got to take the Billboard magazine into him to show him that “When A Man Loves A Woman” was Number One.
I’ve had a very rich and varied musical history, and I’m very thankful for it. Cher recorded there at Muscle Shoals, so I was on Cher’s first solo album, and Boz Scaggs… then, of course, we went on to sing with many people, which culminated in getting to sing with Elvis Presley in Memphis on his comeback albums.
You were on “Suspicious Minds…”
Yes, “Suspicious Minds,” “In The Ghetto.”
I was recently thinking about that period when Ronnie Tutt was playing drums for both Elvis and the Jerry Garcia Band, and jumping back and forth between Elvis tours and Jerry gigs, and then I thought, “wait a minute… we know someone else who had the experience of working with both Jerry and Elvis!”
Yeah, and Ronnie and I would talk about Elvis when I’d see him. I’d ask “How’s Elvis?” “Well, he’s doin’ all right, y’know,” and he would kind of give me the ins and outs of what was going on with Elvis. But the really cool thing… it was kind of amazing… was we were recording Cats Under the Stars, I think it was, and Ron had to leave a little early, because Elvis was going on tour. And I said, “Ron, I don’t know why, after all this time, I’m asking you to do this… but would you please tell Elvis I said hi?” And he said “Sure.” A few days later I got a call from Ron, and he told me that Elvis had died. And he said “Donna, I saw Elvis the day before yesterday, and I told him what you said, and he said, ‘Oh, tell her I remember her and I really hope I get to see her again sometime!'” And then he was dead. Isn’t that amazing? Still gives me cold chills, really, to talk about it.
…and here we are, right around that time of year when Jerry passed, and we’re thinking about where we were when we found out, or the last time we saw him…
Well, also very cool was that in April before the August that Jerry died, they were playing in Birmingham, and my husband David and my son and I had moved back to the Muscle Shoals area. And so I went down to Birmingham and saw the Grateful Dead. And then the next morning I got a call from Jerry — we were staying at the same hotel — and he asked me to come and have coffee with him in his room, which I did. And we had the best time. We laughed so hard, and talked about things that only he and I knew about. And then a few months later, he was gone as well.
You were really off everybody’s radar in our scene for a long time, and when you came back — I think the first time a lot of us got the chance to see you again was at the first “PhilHarmonia” event that Phil did, in 1997 — you were just glowing with the warmth you got from that audience…
Oh, my gosh… that just blew me away. Here I’m standing with all these incredible people on that stage… Bruce and Bobby and Mickey and Phil and Graham Nash and all these people. So, Phil said, “Here’s an old road buddy,” and the crowd just went absolutely… it brought me to tears… the acceptance… I couldn’t believe it.
And that has seemed pretty much continuous since then. Whenever I’ve seen you sit in with Bobby, or here at the Vibes or wherever, you’re embraced as family.
It is family, and I’m blown away and humbled by all of it, to tell you the truth.
Well, we missed ya!
Well, I’m BACK! Not with a vengeance, but with a renewed vigor, and renewed heart about the whole thing. I’ve never been happier. I wish I had been a little saner back in the Grateful Dead days, and a little bit less screwed up, with the cocaine and all that stuff, you know? I look back and think, “God, if I had the opportunity to go back and do that all again, I would do everything so much differently. But you can’t do that. So the best you can do in a situation like that is take today and make the best of it, and appreciate it, and put everything you’ve got into it, and just go for it.
Surviving all that, and living to tell the tale, and coming out of it stronger and happier and better, is an accomplishment in itself.
I’ll tell ya, I wouldn’t take anything for being in the Grateful Dead. The good, the bad and the ugly, anything… all I have are just beautiful, strong memories of being fortunate enough to be in the right place and the right time, and get to be in that band. And not only that band, but in that time.
…and for that audience…
…and for that audience. I’m just so thankful.
AS LONG AS YOU ARE STANDING STRONG NOTHING IS GONNA BE WRONG
Lady DONNA I saw you too just next to the pyramids in 1978 14 ,15,&16 September three nights on a row you were an you ´ll be always my number one singer keep it up and let the good time roll we love ya SWEET DONNA
Donna Jean - saw U many times doing the 70's with The Band and U were simply fantastic. Dec 31, 1978 was the best show
Great to hear U R back and doing music for the people again. I'll catch U down the road.
Thank You for a real good time
Excellent article. Rock On Donna Jean!!!