The Grateful Dead was one of America’s most eclectic and successful rock bands, playing live to more people than any other band in recorded history, and in the process developing rock music’s most celebrated cult following, known as deadheads. Founded in 1965, the Grateful Dead were at the forefront of the late 60s San Francisco music scene, playing a wide blend of folk, rock, blues and other influences to form their unique, psychedelic blend of music. Known for their extended instrumental jams which established the jam band style, the Grateful Dead played thousands of shows over the next 30 years until founding member Jerry Garcia’s death in 1995.
The founding members of the band included Garcia, drummer Bill Kreutzmann, vocalist and rhythm guitarist Bob Weir, bass player Phil Lesh, and keyboardist Ron ‘Pigpen’ McKenna. After McKenna died in 1972, the band had several other keyboardists over its history, including Keith Godchaux, Brent Mydland, Vince Welnick and Bruce Hornsby.
Their following of deadheads, who referred to the band simply as The Dead, began early in the band’s history to follow them on tour, watching as many of The Dead’s shows as they possibly could (they played as many as 85 live shows in a year). The tie-dyed t-shirt became the unofficial deadhead uniform, and they adopted a unique vernacular and a knowledge of the band’s songs and habits to rival any cult following of any cult product seen in modern America. Due to the large number of fans who would record all their shows, the band created a taping section for fans – the trading of show tapes was ubiquitous among hardcore deadheads.
Due to the deadheads attending multiple shows on a tour, the Grateful Dead broke with the common practice of playing the same songs on a given tour, playing a different set list from night to night and creating a rotation of songs which could be entirely different over a four show period.
Different kinds of deadheads received other slang names – there were Wookies (grimy fans resembling Chewbacca), spinners (for their dance style), wharf rats (supporting fans in staying drug free), and tapers (self-explanatory).
The influence of their fan base can be seen today in a more fragmented music industry, where one business model encourages free content (free taping of shows), eccentricity in one’s fans, and a loyal fanbase that follows a band on tour. The Grateful Dead’s cult following established this business model as the core of the jamband music scene, most exemplified in recent times by the band Phish.