We are beyond honored to welcome former Grateful Dead vocalist Donna Jean Godchaux-MacKay herself to hear the wondrous story of how she went from Alabama to the top of the charts before fate led her to San Francisco, Keith Godchaux, and the Grateful Dead.
Donna Jean supplementary notes
by Jesse Jarnow
It was an honor and joy to interview Donna Jean Godchaux-MacKay and hear untold stories about her life and a musical career that has now spanned seven decades. Earlier this year, she released the timely new single, “Shelter (Muscle Shoals Remix)” with her current band, Donna Jean and the Tricksters, featuring Dark Star Orchestra/Zen Tricksters guitarist Jeff Mattson.
Donna belongs to a pair of major American musical families: the Muscle Shoals studio community and, of course, the Grateful Dead. From the mid-to-late ‘60s, known as Donna Thatcher, Donna was a regular around the local studios, recording her own demos and eventually connecting with Jeannie Greene and what became the vocal group Southern Comfort. First backing Percy Sledge on “When A Man Loves A Woman” in 1966, over the next half-decade they sang behind Elvis Presley, Neil Diamond, Cher, Boz Scaggs, Joe Tex, and many more, including a single of their own. While FAME Studios was the center of musical gravity in the area, Donna and Southern Comfort were based out of Norala/Quinvy Studios, owned by Donna’s one-time manager Quintin Ivy. As with many backing vocalists of the era, Southern Comfort didn’t receive credits on releases, so piecing together a complete discography for vocalist Donna Thatcher is a bit hard. The Lost Live Dead blog has written extensively about her early history.
After joining the Grateful Dead full-time in 1972, Bobby Weir became the first to call her full “Donna Jean.” During the Dead’s touring hiatus in 1975, Keith and Donna released Keith and Donna on Round Records, and put together the Keith and Donna Band. Over 8 months in 1975, they played some 70 shows with a band that sometimes featured Jerry Garcia and Bill Kreutzmann--chronicled by Lost Live Dead, of course--before the two jumped over to the Jerry Garcia Band in early 1976.
And thanks to Donna’s memory of when she went to go see Keith Godchaux play piano for the first time at Clifford’s Knights Inn in his hometown of Walnut Creek, we were able to find this clipping of Keith “Gottchaus” (from the Contra Costa Times, 4/17/70) just a few months before he met Donna and discovered the Grateful Dead.
Great job coming up with new insight into Donna's career in this and also in the Keith podcast. I'd love to see someone do her biography.