November 24, 2010

The Zodiacs

Sometime in early 1965, the Mother McCree’s Uptown Jug Band, with gigs drying up and rock bands sprouting all around them, decided to take the plunge and go electric. For years, Garcia had floated around in various bluegrass bands, playing at folk clubs like the Tangent in Palo Alto, where electric guitars were a forbidden, despised instrument.
But the Warlocks were not taking a total step into the dark – for Garcia, Pigpen, and Kreutzmann had played in a blues-rock band back in 1963.

Bob Weir: "Garcia had done a few electric gigs with Pig in a band called the Zodiacs before I'd ever known them, and so they had a little experience with R&B."
Sara Garcia: “For money, Jerry had played in a rock & roll band with Troy Weidenheimer. They played fraternity parties. What they had to put up with was awful.”

In fact, Garcia’s rock & roll connection went back even farther than that. Several of Garcia’s friends said that he’d played the brief solo in Bobby Freeman’s Do You Wanna Dance back in 1958, when he was 15:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t-CzCDIiylE
Sara Garcia, David Nelson, Rock Scully, and Phil Lesh all independently claim that Garcia played guitar on this single - presumably he told them so. It’s rather mysterious how it could have happened; there’s some more discussion here:
http://www.whitegum.com/introjs.htm?/songfile/DO1YOUWA.HTM
(Other Dead researchers have firmly refuted this story in the comments. But it appears Garcia did do some session work for Bobby Freeman when he was on Autumn Records, around '65 or so. Garcia later said, "I did some various sessions around San Francisco; demos and stuff like that.")

In 1959, Garcia was briefly in a band called the Chords, ‘featuring the Golden Saxes,’ a group mainly featuring ‘40s big-band tunes like Misty. As Garcia said, “kind of easy-listening stuff. Businessman’s bounce, high school version.” They mostly played for fellow high-school audiences – sometimes they’d play a rock song such as Raunchy, one of the first big instrumental rock hits:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wnbSEm8Pnxk
Garcia remembered, "We had a five-piece combo - a piano, two saxes, a bass, and my guitar. We won a contest and got to record a song. We did Raunchy, but it didn't turn out very well."
But it wasn’t long before Garcia discovered folk music and left rock & roll behind.

By 1963, Garcia was playing in as many bluegrass bands as he could put together. As one friend noted, “He loved to play, and it didn’t take much encouragement or much of an occasion to get him to throw a ‘band’ together. For sidemen he would use whoever was handy to fill out his band, oftentimes naming the band on the way to the gig.”
Trouble was, there wasn’t much money in it, and there weren’t that many bluegrass players around. As Garcia said, “Bluegrass bands are hard to put together because you have to have good bluegrass musicians to play, and in Palo Alto there wasn’t really very many of them – not enough to keep a band going all the time.” So on the side, Garcia also played in a rock band with his friend Pigpen (who was not such a folkie purist, and was happy to accompany anyone who’d play the blues).

http://jgmf.blogspot.com/2010/11/swains-music-store-palo-alto-ca.html quotes this article:
“Towards the end of 1962 [Pigpen] got a part-time job at Swain's Music Store in Palo Alto, and it was there more than anywhere else that the Grateful Dead seed began to grow.... Swain's Music Store, where Pigpen was working, was run by a guy named Troy Weidenheimer who had ideas about forming his own rock'n'roll band. He of course knew Pigpen, Pigpen knew Garcia, Garcia knew Kreutzmann, and so…a short-lived band called the Zodiacs was formed. Troy played lead guitar, Pigpen was on harp. They used a wide selection of drummers but most of the time it was Bill Kreutzmann, and Garcia would sometimes join in on bass guitar when he wasn't involved with his own bluegrass groups.”

Blair Jackson:
“Occasionally, Jerry picked up a bass and Pigpen sang with a local group called the Zodiacs, which played frat parties and other dances on the Peninsula, churning out the radio hits of the day, along with hipper R&B selections. The group was fronted by a guitarist named Troy Weidenheimer, who could play Freddie King lyrics like the master himself….”

According to Dennis McNally, Troy was the manager at Dana Morgan’s Music Store, where Garcia was giving guitar & banjo lessons. Regardless of which music store Troy was at, he was also a music teacher, and he and Garcia were already acquaintances.
They had met back in ’61 at the Boar’s Head folk club in San Carlos - Garcia would play folk songs there; Troy would play Ventures or Jimmy Reed songs on electric guitar; and Pigpen would play solo blues on guitar & harmonica. (David Nelson and Robert Hunter would also play there.) So when Troy wanted to form a band, he didn’t have to cast far for fellow members.

http://jerrywrite.blogspot.com/ is an interesting essay by Norm van Maastricht, a friend of Garcia’s in the early Tangent bluegrass days, which talks a lot about Garcia at that time, and his love of practicing banjo and playing loud instruments. “Hunter, Nelson, Garcia and I hung out together a lot. We would pool our money and [rotate coffeeshops] and nurse cups of coffee for hours… We talked about getting gigs and maybe getting famous one day. ‘Fame! Cookies! Comic books!’ as Garcia would say…”
“Jerry would let me know when a Playing Opportunity was coming up [and] we four would load us and our instruments into that old car and go anywhere we could play… We played a lot of little gigs, usually at no pay. Sometimes it would just be a house party. Sometimes a coffeehouse in San Francisco… We’d just pile in the car, get there, set up and play, get in the car and go home… You just played as much as you could. Sometimes they even fed you. They seldom paid you.”
“Troy Weidenheimer taught guitar over at Swain’s House of Music in Palo Alto. He would get together with us from time to time… Troy was an excellent guitarist. He played and taught electric jazz and rock. He would laughingly refer to our [folk] music as ‘hamburger music’, but he would come by and jam all the same.”
Dark rumours circulated that Garcia was “secretly fooling around with an electric group,” playing blues and rock, definitely a no-no among the Tangent crowd…

McNally: “Troy had a band called the Zodiacs, and that summer [‘63] he invited Garcia to join it – as the bass player. It was great fun, Jerry would say, despite the fact that it was ‘out of my idiom’…. The band also included a young local drummer named Bill Kreutzmann, and Jerry’s old friend Ron McKernan on harmonica.”

McNally also reports that Troy attemped to teach Bob Weir guitar circa ‘63/64, “but Troy taught a straight-ahead big-band style, and it did not appeal to Weir.” (So Weir gravitated to Jorma Kaukonen for guidance instead.)

Eric Thompson (one of Garcia’s bluegrass bandmates):
“While Jerry was teaching folk guitar, Troy was teaching electric guitar; he was known around town. Troy had an R&B band that played Stanford frat parties, and Jerry sometimes played bass in it, and Pigpen was the singer. Troy could not only play exactly like Freddy King, he could move like Freddy King, too. During that period, Freddy had his blues song hits in the chitlin’ circuit and his instrumental hits in the frat circuit, and he was playing both kinds of gigs. So that was part of the Troy niche, those instrumental hits Freddy King had – Hideaway, San Hozay, The Stumble…it was like surf guitar in a way, instrumental music that you could dance to. When Jerry got interested in the electric guitar again, he devoured the Freddy King stuff, but he’d already been watching Troy do it, so he already knew a lot about it.”

(I don’t know much about what the Zodiacs played other than Freddy King covers, but the music clearly had a big impact on Garcia. This article talks about Hideaway’s later appearances in Grateful Dead shows:
http://www.thebestofwebsite.com/Bands/Grateful_Dead/Misc/Hideaway.htm
Probably the closest we get in early Dead shows to the atmosphere of a Zodiacs set are things like Heads Up & the blues instrumental from 3/19/66, or the instrumental on 3/25/66.)

Pigpen remembered in 1970:
"I was in a band with Troy Weidenheimer called the Zodiacs. The Zodiacs were playing beer-drinkin' fraternity parties at Stanford, and Troy played lead, his old lady Sherry played rhythm, Garcia would occasionally sit in on Fender bass, Roy Ogburn would play bass and drum, and I'd sing and play harmonica. The Zodiacs played really wet gigs, man...they'd rent the men's dressing room and we'd play in there with the showers and benches...weird frat-house parties and stuff... Troy got the gigs; he was the leader. Each of us would make 20 bucks per gig. But it ain't worth having to contend with 200 football players...they thought we were strange, long-haired freaks. [We'd play] Searchin', Walkin' the Dog, Sensation, San-Ho-Zay, some Jimmy Reed tunes. We played Gert Chiarito's Midnight Special show on KPFA. Me and Jerry did one, too. I played harmonica and Jerry played guitar."

Garcia was already familiar with Pigpen from the folk clubs, but said: "As early as when we were playing in the Zodiacs together, I discovered that Pigpen was not a guy who wanted to be a performer. I had to practically force him to perform. He'd always be out in the parking lot or somewhere when we were supposed to go onstage."

Garcia later spoke at length about Troy Weidenheimer’s influence on him:
“Troy taught me the principle of ‘hey – stomp your foot and get on it.’ He was a great one for the instant arrangement…fearless for that thing of ‘get your friends and do it,’ and ‘fuck it if it ain’t slick, it’s supposed to be fun.’ He had a wide-open style of playing that was very, very loose; like when we went to play gigs at the Stanford parties, we didn’t have songs or anything, and he would just say ‘play B-flat,’ you know, and I’d play bass, and we’d just play along and he’d jam over the top of it; so a lot of my conceptions of the freedom available to your playing really came from him. He would take chorus after chorus, but he directed the band right in the now… We never rehearsed or anything ever, we would just go to the shows and play – and he was so loose about it, he didn’t care, he just wanted it cookin’ so he could play his solos; and he was just a wonderful, inventive, and fun, good-humored guitar player. One of the first guys I ever heard who exhibited a real sense of humor on the guitar. He was quite accomplished. I mean, in those days he was certainly the hot-rod guitar player of Palo Alto, as far as electric guitar was concerned. While I was a folkie and all that…”

Troy Weidenheimer says,
"My band the Zodiacs was active for about 4 years and began with 4 friends at Menlo College in Menlo Park, Ca. It was always a blues band. The Zodiacs is where Pigpen worked out his harp playing and blues singing.
My regular bassist was a jazz player on Fender bass and my preferred drummer was a very young jazz drummer. Kreutzmann was a stand in when the jazz drummer was unavailable. We often had a jazz sax player also. In the later years we usually played with an RnB quartet from East Palo Alto called the Outer Limits. So we billed the band "The Zodiacs and the Outer Limits".
There were opportunities for me to play in Jerry's bluegrass or electric groups but I was pretty put off by the drug and acid trips that were becoming part of that scene in San Francisco, and I was really only interested in a blues/jazz style of music, whereas Jerry's first bands tended to sound a lot like folk-rock groups.
By the way my wife Sharon Huddleston was key to that band. She was a great rhythm guitarist and good blues singer. I met her at the same time I met Jerry and a group of folkies who hung out together around Palo Alto. She was only about 16 but a very solid natural musican and singer. She had been mainly playing folk stuff and acoustic blues from the 30's before meeting me. We got married within a year or so and she bought a Gibson electric and started playing rhythm in my band. Whenever Jerry played with us it was always on bass, but at casual jams at parties we would both be on acoustic guitars or often Jerry on banjo. At most of the parties there would be an acoustic jam going in one room and a jazz/blues jam usually with a drummer in another room. In those days I was almost always in the jazz jam on electric, and Jerry would be in the acoustic folk/bluegrass jam."

I don’t know how long Garcia played with the Zodiacs – or if he was even in the band at the same time Kreutzmann was. Garcia later fuzzily remembered, “I may have played a gig with him once when I was playing electric bass in a rock & roll band on weekends.” (Garcia had, coincidentally, met Kreutzmann sometime earlier, when he bought a banjo Kreutzmann’s father was selling.)
But soon Garcia retreated back to the folkie world, making a bluegrass trip east in ‘64. By the end of ’64, though, he’d become dissatisfied with the opportunities in bluegrass, and the call of rock music started to sound more appealing. “In the area I was in, there were virtually no bluegrass musicians: very few, certainly nobody very good… I wanted to have a great bluegrass band, but I only got occasional chances to put a bluegrass band together that was (by my standards) even acceptable. Although I had fun, none of them was serious or a very good attempt.”
In the meantime, “I decided to put together a jug band, because you could have a jug band with guys that could hardly play at all.”

Blair Jackson says that the Zodiacs kept playing concurrently with Mother McCree’s jugband in ’64, but I'd guess Garcia was out of the band by then. Bill Kreutzmann, meanwhile, became the drummer in another popular R&B band called the Legends. Mike Shapiro (of the band William Penn & His Pals) claimed that Troy was also a guitarist in the Legends, but that wasn't so. (Shapiro also reports, "We were actually in a Battle of the Bands with the Grateful Dead. They won and I never really could figure that out because they were really bad back then." This was in '65 with the Warlocks, at the Cinnamon Tree in San Carlos.)

McNally describes the Legends: “Fronted by a black vocalist named Jay Price, the Legends…covered James Brown, Junior Parker, Freddie King, the Isley Brothers’ Shout, and Ray Charles’ What’d I Say. They wore red coats, black ties, and black pants, and played YMCA dances, fraternity parties, and shows at the local navy airstrip…” Kreutzmann later said, “It wasn’t too soulful,” but one Palo Alto high-schooler remembered, “They were the best band at the school…they were great…they made the kids dance like they weren’t supposed to…”

Meanwhile, Mother McCree’s was going through an identity crisis.
Garcia said, “We played any place that would hire a jug band, which was almost no place, and that’s the whole reason we finally got into electric stuff.” He also wanted to have “big fun… I was up for the idea of breaking out. You know: ‘give me that electric guitar – fuckin’ A!’ … For me, playing the electric guitar represented freedom from the tremendous control trip [of banjo playing.] What I wanted to do more than anything else was not be in control nearly so much. And playing the electric guitar freed me!… It was much easier putting together a rock & roll band than having a bluegrass band.”
Lesh: “Some say it was Garcia’s idea to turn Mother McCree’s into an electric blues band, but Garcia told me it was Pigpen’s idea. At first he wanted to electrify the jug band, but then changed his mind, saying, ‘No, let’s get a drummer and make it a blues band.’”
Garcia: “[The electric band] was Pigpen's idea. He'd been pestering me for a while, he wanted me to start up an electric blues band....because in the jug band we used to do blues numbers like Jimmy Reed tunes and even played a couple of rock & roll tunes, and it was just the next step.... Theoretically it's a blues band, but the minute we get electric instruments it's a rock & roll band....”
They didn’t have to look far for a drummer, or for instruments, as the entire band was working in Dana Morgan’s Music Store - Garcia and Weir both taught guitar there, Kreutzmann was a drum teacher there, the bass player was the owner’s son Dana Morgan Jr, and (according to McNally) Pigpen was the janitor. Three of them had already been Zodiacs, and one was even a Legend, so they had some rock experience. So becoming an electric band was as simple as borrowing some instruments from the store… (Garcia’s folkie banjo students who dropped by Morgan’s were shocked and saddened to see that he had succumbed to the electric demon!)
But as John Dawson said, “Dana had all the stuff to play on, so they let him be the bass player. But he couldn’t play bass for shit, man.” So Dana was fired – unfortunately, that meant the band was kicked out of Morgan’s music store, and had to return their instruments. (Dana Morgan Sr said, “I just hated the noise they were making… They kept sneaking back in. Finally I got so tired of them I sold the instruments.”) Undaunted, the band simply moved to other stores, borrowing instruments from Guitars Unlimited and Swain’s House of Music (and buying what they could, with the help of their parents). As for a bass player? Garcia had played bass in a rock band himself, despite never playing bass before, so he had no hesitation in asking another non-bass player to join…

And what of Troy Weidenheimer, guitarist for the first embryonic pre-Dead band? He later moved to Vancouver, Canada, where he opened his own music store, Troy Music. Though their doors closed long ago, he still teaches music:
http://www.rakun.com/music/
He says, "I am still playing and teaching. Fortunately I've not had any physical problems so at age 69 am playing better guitar than ever, and in the last 7 years have learned mandolin, fiddle and keyboard which helps keep music fresh for me. We now live in the woods near Charlottesville, Virginia."
He was recently in an acoustic trio called the Elsah String Band, which you can see in a video here:
http://www.meramec.org/lotm/archives/2007/09/at_the_focal_po.html

The Zodiacs were a brief musical episode that remains a mysterious little early side-trip in the Dead's story. But any additional information is welcome!

7 comments:

  1. There's an interesting comment on a Palo Alto site (http://www.paloaltohistory.com/gratefuldead.html)

    "I was one of the founders of The Legends, along with Howie Schonberger (our
    best musician) and Bob Kelley (founder and artistic director of Theaterworks). Bill took over for Nick Hammer. We featured Bill on Bobby Blue Bland's "Turn On Your Love Light/Don't Cry No More," which became a Grateful Dead standard."
    -Byron

    Robert Kelley is a well known and successful Theater director based in Palo Alto.

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    1. Could the Zodiac Killer have had an association with the Zodiacs band?

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  2. I've never bought into the story that Garcia played on Bobby Freeman's "Do You Wanna Dance." Garcia did say in a Relix interview (don't ask me when) that he played on a bunch of Bobby Freeman sessions, but he has no idea what was used. I had always felt that Garcia was referring to the Autumn Records period, when Freeman was appearing on Broadway, not 1958.

    As to Sara, Phil Lesh, Nelson etc repeating the story, I think that was just a self-referential loop. Garcia did a few sessions in 1965 or something, and that morphed into playing on a single in 1958.

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  3. It is a rather unbelievable story, but as it's "in print" & attested by many of Garcia's friends, it was worth mentioning.

    Eli Polonsky says,
    "There are also those who refute this claim, including legendary oldies DJ and reissue producer Little Walter DeVenne who claims that Freeman originally sent a demo with vocal, percussion and piano but with no guitar or bass to Jubilee Records in New York, where those instruments were added by session musicians. The liner notes inside a Bobby Freeman reissue CD seem to correlate a similar story... Without any mention in any "official" histories, it seems very unlikely that the guitar solo in the hit song as released was actually by Garcia."

    Bobby Freeman did release some singles on Autumn Records in '63-65. If Garcia did do session work for him at this time (as Rock Scully said), it's easy to see how people's fuzzy memories could plant Garcia into Freeman's 1958 hit. (Though not so easy to see how people who'd known him intimately since 1961 would've made that mistake.)

    The idea of Garcia doing Autumn Records session work circa '65 is a very intriguing detail...there must be a story there, but I don't have any leads on that.

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  4. Great post, LIA! Somehow the Zodiacs had kind of slipped my radar. And it's interesting because it defies the more common, linear narrative that has Jerry plugging in for good with the Warlocks in '65.

    I don't buy the Bobby Freeman '58 story for a second. The kid had been playing electric guitar for a year, for some of that time in the funky "open tuning" he said he started with, before someone corrected him. How does he get a recording session, unless he is a Derek Trucks-like hotshot (and there's no evidence that he was)? Doesn't pass the giggle test to me.

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  5. I've made some corrections to the post, with Troy's comments.

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  6. Gans interviewed David Nelson in January 2012 about the pre-Dead days:

    "There was talk about going electric. Yeah! Jerry and me both recalled, remember those nights just a couple years ago we'd get together and just do old rock and roll songs all night long? Once you do one - “Oh yeah, let's do 'Searchin',” you know. “Let's do all that kind of stuff.” And Jerry even had a couple of gigs through Stanford University where it was him and Troy Weidenheimer, who already played electric, because electric wasn't out of the question. Not at all. It was to the world, the media and everything. But...rock and roll is where I started in music actually. And Troy Weidenheimer was a working electric guitar player. We used to just admire him and sit there and watch him play. I later played a couple of gigs - I played bass with Troy Weidenheimer."

    ReplyDelete