Grateful Dead

Farewell to Marmaduke: John Dawson (1945-2009)

By Gary Lambert

Marmaduke at Capitol Theater, Port Chester, NY in 1970. Photo: Marcia Cohen

The extended Grateful Dead family and Dead Head community lost a great talent and a dear friend on July 21, when John “Marmaduke” Dawson, longtime singer, songwriter and guitarist with New Riders of the Purple Sage, passed away peacefully after a long period of failing health. He was 64 and had been living in retirement in Mexico.

One of the best-loved and longest-running entries in the country-rock field, New Riders of the Purple Sage came into being in 1969, when John Dawson, looking for an outlet for his original songs, conspired with Jerry Garcia, who had started playing pedal steel guitar, to form a little country-tinged bar band. They recruited David Nelson, a musical associate and friend of Garcia’s going back to the thriving Palo Alto folk scene of the early 60s, to play lead guitar. Grateful Dead audio engineer/producer Bob Matthews was the original bassist (later replaced by Phil Lesh and then, more permanently Dave Torbert); Mickey Hart played drums for the band’s first year, after which he was replaced by Jefferson Airplane alum Spencer Dryden.

After gigging for a while in the Bay Area whenever gaps in the Grateful Dead’s schedule allowed, the New Riders began to obtain a higher profile when they began to tour as featured support act with the Dead. Especially memorable were the marathon “Evening with the Grateful Dead” shows during much of 1970, which opened with an acoustic Dead set (with occasional guest appearances by NRPS members), followed by a full set by the Riders and closing with electric GD. John Dawson emerged as an energetic and engaging front man, singing songs from his own rapidly growing body of original work, as well as country standards (“Together Again,” “Truck Drivin’ Man”), and some classic rockers thrown in for good measure (“Lodi,” “Honky Tonk Woman”).

Marmaduke with David Nelson in 2007. Photo: Bob Minkin/minkindesign.com c. 2009

Dawson’s songwriting skills were impressively displayed on NRPS’ eponymous debut album, released in 1971. He was the sole composer of all ten of the records tracks, which included such perennial favorites as “I Don’t Know You,” “Portland Woman,” “Glendale Train,” “Henry” and “Last Lonely Eagle.” Those last two songs, in particular, illuminated a unique aspect of John’s talent: an ability to infuse country songwriting with a distinctly hippie-flavored POV (“Henry” was a rollicking breakdown about a pot smuggler’s Mexican exploits, while “Eagle” was a socially and environmentally conscious lament for endangered nature and lost values). In addition to his notable body of work for NRPS, John has another indelible songwriting credit: as co-writer, with Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter, of one of the most enduring songs in the Grateful Dead canon, “Friend of the Devil.”

When Jerry Garcia, stretched a bit thin by his multiple musical endeavors, left NRPS in late 1971, the band didn’t miss a step: with the addition of pedal steel ace Buddy Cage, they were able to emerge from the Grateful Dead’s shadow, adding such excellent albums as “Powerglide,” “Gypsy Cowboy” and “The Adventures of Panama Red” to their catalog, and becoming a popular national touring act in their own right.

John continued touring and recording with the Riders, through various personnel departures and returns, into the 1990s. While his health problems prevented him from joining in on various NRPS reincarnations in recent years, he remained close friends with his old bandmates, and did reunite with David Nelson and Buddy Cage for one final performance together in 2001, at a birthday bash for longtime NRPS friend and archivist Rob Bleetstein.

Thanks for a great ride, McDuke.

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Joined: Aug 7 2013
John

Farewell to John who taught me to flip bottle caps late one night in Duluth Minnesota. Riding that Glendale train to the great concert in the sky. Hopefully, he will not need to sing each and every song (inside joke).

ebb
ebb's picture
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Joined: May 1 2009
marmaduke's passing

bye john. thank you so much. teddyb

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Joined: Jan 11 2008
Thanks.....

...for all the wonderful tunes and the good times that went with them.Have a nice ride,Big Brother

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Joined: Jan 11 2008
Thanks.....

...for all the wonderful tunes and the good times that went with them.Have a nice ride,Big Brother

shwack's picture
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Joined: Apr 12 2008
swing low sweet chariot

" Dim lights,thick smoke (and loud loud music)..."

rest gentle McDuke

shwack in nh

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Joined: Jul 25 2009
Marmaduke

Very sad news. By all accounts, JD was a lovely person & he has brought happiness to millions of us all around the world. RIP. Keep the faith.

Steve, Bristol UK

wolff's picture
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Joined: Jun 13 2007
RIP JD

Doesn't seem like it ever stops... boy what great times one of my favorite playin football at Kezar with uncle bobo and the gang what great times nrps the dead waylon and the gang
say hi to everybody jd we will meet again
peace wolff
ps hey jer now you don't have to sing all the time

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Joined: Jul 26 2007
RIP Duke

sad news indeed, NRPS was my first concert ever just two blocks from my house at Montclair State College in 1975. Panama Red was in the air that night for sure! Also remember the band waiving to the crowd from their helicopter at Englishtown in 1977. And of course seeing him at the Sweetwater for Mr. Boys 40th Birthday blowout.

enlightend rogue's picture
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Joined: Jun 4 2007
Sad News

It's funny how I just started breaking out all the old recording's with the release of the new one. I used to see NRPS all the time hear on LI back in the 70's. My favorite show I saw was when they opened for JGB at the old commack arena in 78. I had seen them many times before but this night they just opened all there tunes up for some really great jams. They brought those song's to places I'd never seen them do before.Kinda figured this day was coming with the news i've been reading about him but it still shock's you right away . RIP Marmaduke I will always remember you fondly!
Rogue

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Joined: Jun 12 2007
Fare Thee Well

Thank you for all the beautiful music.
Peace,

Aaron

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