During the Sixties, she was present at the creation of many legendary R&B records at the Muscle Shoals Sound Studio, and spent most of the next decade singing in rock’s most successful touring band, the Grateful Dead.
But for Donna Jean Godchaux, there is no time better than now.
“I have a much clearer idea of who I am as a vocalist as well as a person and so I have a lot more confidence,” Godchaux said recently from her home in Florence, Alabama. “I’ve never had the liberty that I have now, both in my songwriting, in my singing, in my life and every expression of who I am and so it comes through … I’m having the time of my life.”
These days, music is a family affair – husband David Mackay plays in Godchaux’s band, and both of her children are successful musicians. Zion Rock Godchaux, her son with late Grateful Dead piano player Keith Godchaux, is one half of the dance rock duo Boombox, while Kinsman Mackay leads the hip-hop Grown Folks Band.
All three bands performed at last summer’s Grateful Fest at Nelson Ledges Quarry Park in Ohio. Though their musical styles don’t exactly mesh, Godchaux seized the moment.
“I got to sing with both of my children,” says Godchaux, the excitement rising in her voice. “Call it our golden years or however you want to say it – we have everything going for us as a family.”
Musically, the Donna Godchaux Band featuring Jeff Matson, opening for Dark Star Orchestra at the Lowell Memorial Auditorium on Saturday, November 21, is never far from the band that brought Godchaux to fame. “I’m not gonna get away from that, and neither is Jeff,” she says, “Our musical history, heritage and everything that’s valuable to us in music really comes out in the that kind of expression.”
To that end, a typical DGB set includes “St. Stephen,” “Bertha,” “Samson and Delilah” and other Dead chestnuts. But, says Godchaux, “this band has a little bit more range in what it does in that we’re really incorporating the soulful Muscle Shoals and Memphis sound, as well as reaching very deeply into our Grateful Dead roots.” The band’s original songs, many recorded for the 2008 release, Donna Jean and the Tricksters, reflect those influences.
As a teenager, Godchaux lived across the river from Muscle Shoals Sound Studio, where soul greats Wilson Pickett, Aretha Franklin, Arthur Conley and others recorded. “The stars fell on Alabama, and there was a great surge of energy directly at this little Podunk west Alabama burg,” says Godchaux.
“I got studio fever at age 12, and by the time I was 15, I was singing on demos,” she says. “By high school, I was singing on hit records.” Godchaux backed Percy Sledge on “When A Man Loves A Woman,” and sang as part of the three-woman group “Southern Comfort” on records by Elvis Presley and Cher.
Duane Allman later became a member of the Muscle Shoals house band, and rockers like the Rolling Stones and Traffic began making the pilgrimage to Alabama, looking for that special sound. One of them was Boz Scaggs, who recorded his eponymous debut album there.
Godchaux, who sang backup on “Loan Me A Dime,” says Scaggs’ record was “an anomaly as far as Muscle Shoals music goes. Most everything that had been recorded there was basically R&B, and then Boz Scaggs comes in with this kind of San Francisco R&B thing, which was very different than what we were used to. Duane Allman also had that psychedelic edge, which was not your usual Muscles Shoals fare.”
She was intrigued by the new sound, and a few months later, Godchaux left Alabama for California – a move that eventually led to her joining the Grateful Dead. But she says it was wanderlust, not music, which spurred her to head west. “I think [recording with Scaggs] contributed to my curiosity about different musical expressions from what I was used to. Everything in the studio was very arranged and very perfect and produced and pristine and that may have had a little bit to do with it.”
But, she continues, “I would have to say that I knew that I knew” – she says it twice for emphasis – “that I was supposed to go out to California. I just knew it. I don’t know how else to explain it, except that I had an itch, an urge and an inspiration to go there that I could not deny. I had to go to (Atlantic Records president) Jerry Wexler and tell him I was going to quit the voice group and all of that. You know, it’s a heavy thing. I was in the middle of a very lucrative career and I just knew that I needed to be in California. I wanted an adventure and I think I not only wanted it in the physical and the geographical sense, but I wanted it in a musical sense as well.”
When she met Keith Godchaux, neither knew the other was a musician. “Keith and I fell in love before he ever heard me sing or I ever heard him play the piano,” she says. “Keith and I got married and I came home one day and said, let’s listen to some Grateful Dead. He said, I don’t want to listen to it any more – I want to play it. I said okay, let’s go get in the band.”
The couple went to see Jerry Garcia at Keystone Korner, a San Francisco nightclub. Keith was too shy to speak with the Grateful Dead guitarist, so Donna took over. “Keith is your next keyboard player,” she told him – unaware that the band’s regular keyboard player, Ron “Pigpen” McKiernan, was sick with a liver disease that would eventually kill him.
“Once again I was in the right time and place,” says Godchaux. “Within a couple weeks, he was in the band. So it worked out!”