"What a long, strange trip it's been" is a lyric from one of the Grateful Dead's best known songs and pretty much tells a bunch about the long history of this band. The earliest traces of the band began in 1960 when band founder and leader Jerry Garcia met Robert Hunter who would become the band's main lyrics man. The Dead evolved in 1964 from Mother McCree's Uptown Jug Champions which featured Garcia on banjo and guitar along with guitarist Bob Weir and keyboardist Ron "Pigpen" McKernan. They played mainly folk and bluegrass music In 1965, the group was renamed the Warlocks and now included Phil Lesh on bass and Bill Kreutzmann on the drums.They first started to be noticed at Ken Kesey's Acid Tests where they were the house band. The Acid Test were a series of now-legendary public LSD parties (documented in Tom Wolfe's book The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test), where Stanley Owsley manufactured the then legal LSD and plied the band and party goers with copious amounts of the drug.
By the end of '65 the band changed their name to the Grateful Dead and they were all living in a communal house situated at 710 Ashbury Street in San Francisco.They started to build a large following with their free concerts and were considered amongst the leaders of the then growing hippie movement in San Francisco. In 1966 they signed with MGM Records but the resulting recording sessions didn't go well and the label dropped the group a short time later.With 1967 came the Summer Of Love and the Dead were the top draw at the Fillmore Auditorium and other local venues. Also in '67 they would release their self-titled debut album for Warner Bros but it wasn' well received. Even very early on for the Dead it seemed that live shows were their bag and the studio work almost a secondly thing. After the Monterey Pop Festival that year the Dead added a second drummer, Micky Hart. In 1968 their second album Anthem Of The Sun was much better received. The album was recorded both in the studio playing 'live' and also at 17 different concerts. In late 1969 the Dead would put out their first true live album Live Dead, which came after their third studio album Aoxomoxoa, released in early '69, had put them in deep debt to their label. Live Dead was their first true great album. The song "Dark Star" set the pace, clocking in at 23 minutes with some great playing from Garcia and the rest of the band. This album showed what the band was truly all about, unlike what was heard on the previous studio albums. 1970 would see the release of two studio companion albums Workingman's Dead and American Beauty. Both albums would become classics, containing songs like "Casey Jones" and "Truckin" and finally the band had a good feel of how to go about it in the studio. Yet their next two albums would be live ones, 1971's double album The Grateful Dead  (which ended up with the same title as their debut album after Warner would not let then release it under the title they wanted, "Skull Fuck"), and the 1972 triple album, Europe '72. Guess it made sense that the Dead would release these live sets at this time. Even though they were getting plenty of FM air time with their latest studio albums, they still considered themselves a live act first and the new merging masses of Deadheads across the USA were becoming as big as the bands' live shows.
Europe '72 would be the last album to feature Pigpen. His health had been deteriorating steady for the last couple of years from heavy drinking and sadly he passed away in 1973 of liver failure. He was replaced on keyboards by Keith Godcheaux and at the same time his wife Donna joined the band on vocals. Also in '73 was the release of their album Wake Of The Flood which was a commercial success. The Dead would end up releasing ten albums in the 70s ending with 1978's Shakedown Street which was produced by Lowell George. At the end of 1979 the Godcheauxs were ask to leave the band as they just didn't seem to fit in to the band's plans. The following year Keith would be killed in a car crash. In 1980 their new album Go To Heaven was released with new keyboard player Brent Mydland. Although the album was considered a disappointment to many Deadheads, it contain the band's first hit single "Alabama Getaway", but a "pop" album was not what the masses wanted.
The decade of the 80s would prove a tough time for the Dead with Garcia's heroin problem starting to take control. In fact from '81's live album Dead Set they would not have another release for six years. They instead kept touring to sold out shows that now spanned generations of fans. In 1986 Garcia collapsed and came close to death when he went into a diabetic coma. After that a cleaner Garcia emerged and in '87 a surprise would be found on their new release In The Dark. The Dead were still considered a cult phenomenon prior to its release. But one song in particular "Touch of Grey" along with its video became a worldwide Top Ten hit, their first, and now even more new fans flocked to the group. Hunter's lyrics were just perfect for Garcia and his now aging image: "Oh well a touch of grey, kinda suits you anyway" and "I will survive". The song seem to put a smile on everybody's face, even the Deadheads loved it and didn't mind the fact it was a mainstream hit.
But the success of "Touch of Grey" would not last, as far as future studio albums and the band's health went. They released Built To Last in 1989 which would receive poor reviews and would turn out to be their last studio album. Problems were also now showing up at live shows for the Deadheads. Clashes with the police and two fan deaths (one while in police custody) in one month alone. Then in 1990 death would hit the band again when Mydland would die of a drug overdose, the third keyboard player to die in the band. Bruce Hornsby and then Vince Welnick would take over the keyboards for the band after that. In 1992 Garcia was again hospitalized with diabetes and an enlarged heart, forcing the Dead to postpone their upcoming tour. The band did come back after that to tour and Garcia looked better. But on August 9, 1995 the Dead came to an end when Garcia was found dead in bed in a drug treatment center he had just entered. His death was as much an important ending in music as was the breakup of the Beatles in 1970. With Garcia's and the Dead's passing, things in hippieland will never quite be the same again.