Jerry Garcia was one of the most successful, accomplished, and beloved musicians of his era. Best known as principal songwriter, lead guitarist, and vocalist for the Jerry Garcia Band and the Grateful Dead, he had an eclectic musical career that ranged from folk to rock to bluegrass. Touring and recording continually, he performed in thousands of live shows and played on 120 albums.
Jerome “Jerry” John Garcia was born August 1, 1942 in San Francisco. His mother was a third generation San Franciscan and his father was a classically trained jazz musician who immigrated from Spain at age 15. For the first five years of his life, he had an idyllic childhood, enjoying a loving family and the environment of the city.
Then, in 1947, tragedy struck when he saw his father drown while fishing. Living with his grandparents after the accident, Garcia developed asthma and spent a lot of time in bed, drawing. As he matured, he pursued his interest in visual art and music. Introduced to early rock & roll and rhythm & blues by his older brother, he got his first electric guitar when he was 15.
By the mid-1960s, music claimed Garcia’s full attention. He played with various musicians around the Bay Area, including with a group that would become embedded in the mythology of ‘60s San Francisco, the Grateful Dead. The band was one of many that brought together young people in a counterculture challenging the social and political structures of the era.
By the end of the 1960s, Garcia’s life was that of a hard- working musician, spending most months of every year on concert tours and making records the rest of the time. He started his own band, the soulful Jerry Garcia Band, and recorded solo records.
By the 1970s, through the ‘80s and into the ‘90s, Grateful Dead and Jerry Garcia Band concerts had become the go-to place for young and not so young people. Audiences could count on hearing good music, seeing their friends, making new friends, dancing around and generally having “a real good time.”
Garcia was also known for his collaborations with many other bands and musicians, including Merl Saunders, the breakthrough bluegrass band Old and in the Way, and the acoustic music he made with David Grisman.
In the 1980s, Garcia began painting and drawing again, enjoying a more private creative outlet that also gained him respect and success as a visual artist.
When Garcia died on August 9, 1995, a week after his 53rd birthday, fans gathered across the country to mourn. A tie-dyed flag was flown at San Francisco City Hall, and 25,000 fans gathered at a memorial in Golden Gate Park. “There’s no way to measure his greatness or magnitude as a person or as a player,” said Bob Dylan, who toured with the Grateful Dead in 1987. “He really had no equal. His playing was moody, awesome, sophisticated, hypnotic and subtle.”
A quarter-century after his death, Jerry Garcia’s music still carries the spirit of San Francisco, of California, with its egalitarianism, its appreciation for other cultures, its respect for tradition and its openness to new experiences. His success demonstrated an American ideal: if you work hard enough, your dreams can come true.