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
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.