LIFE AFTER THE “DEAD” Text by amy collins » Photos by patrick hood
When talking with singer-songwriter Donna Jean Godchaux about her new album and her history with the Grateful Dead, it didn’t take but a few minutes to understand this is a woman with an incredible sense of peace and light about her music career, and life in general. You can hear that light and clarity on her latest album, Back Around, with Jeff Mattson, which was released in February of this year. “Everything that you’ve ever done, no matter what vocation you’re talking about, adds up to what you do now,” she said. Godchaux may be known best for her eight years performing with The Grateful Dead, but she had already established a successful singing career well before meeting Jerry Garcia. She was barely a teenager when Rick Hall opened his Florence Alabama Music Enterprises (FAME) studio over City Drug Store near the Shoals Theater in the 1960s, and not long after, Godchaux found herself balancing a promising vocal career with the responsibilities of a Sheffield High School cheerleader. She was a frequent voice on hit records produced at FAME studio, and by age 22 she’d sung on Percy Sledge’s “When a Man Loves a Woman” and Elvis Presley’s “Suspicious Minds” and “In the Ghetto,” both on his album From Elvis in Memphis. Godchaux appeared on records by Cher, Neil Diamond, Dionne Warwick and Boz Scaggs. Still, youth and curiosity took hold and she headed for San Francisco. “I just wanted to go to California really badly, and even though I had a career going here, which was really going, I wanted the next adventure in my life. I had no connections in San Francisco. I just had to go to California,” she said. It was there that she met her first husband Keith Godchaux, a jazz pianist. “When we fell in love, I’d never heard him play and he’d never heard me sing.” Together they discovered The Grateful Dead and attended shows, and knew they wanted to be a part of the creative energy the band was producing. “The music was like nothing I’d ever heard,” Godchaux said. “It was a blend of jazz and rock ‘n’ roll and R&B, a blending of so many genres of music, and the way they played it was very jazz oriented in that it was very intuitive. Every night was different. It was always fresh, even if you’d played a song a million times before. That’s what attracted me to the Grateful Dead.” In 1979 the Godchauxs left the band to form their own group, The Heart of Gold Band, which disbanded after Keith Godchaux died in a tragic car accident. Remarried to her now husband, David MacKay, Godchaux has led vocals for several groups over the years, including a reincarnated Heart of Gold Band, Donna Jean and the Tricksters, and the Donna Jean Godchaux Band with Jeff Mattson—her current project, for which MacKay plays bass guitar. Mattson is
July/August 2014 | noalapress.com | 19
Annual entertainment issue featuring profiles of nine North Alabama musical acts; Local comedians; Donna Jean Godchaux; Three Southern maker...