Last Grateful Dead keyboardist
Monday 05 June 2006
Leo Vincent Welnick, keyboard player: born Phoenix, Arizona 21 February 1951; married; died Forestville, California 2 June 2006.
Although Vince Welnick only played keyboards for the psychedelic rock band the Grateful Dead during their final years, from 1990 to 1995, he was accepted by their fans, the "Deadheads", who would hold up stickers saying "Yo, Vinnie!" to indicate their approval.
In 1990, the Dead had suffered the death of their third keyboard player - Ron "Pigpen" McKernan had succumbed to alcoholism in 1973, Keith Godchaux had died in a car crash in 1980, and now Brent Mydland had taken a drugs overdose. Although Welnick knew little about the band, he joined them on keyboards and high harmonies. After being told of the "keyboard curse ", he said, "I am aware that I could die doing this job, but I was dying of boredom before the job came up, so I thought I'd take my chances."
Welnick was born into a musical family in Phoenix in 1951. His mother loved playing boogie woogie and he quickly developed a love for Chopin. He played in church and formed various rock'n'roll bands with his schoolfriends. In the late 1960s, Welnick was a founder member of the Beans, who moved to San Francisco and hung out with the rock crowd. "You could get into any show for free by saying you were the bass player for the Steve Miller band," he said. "He had a lot of different bass players, so that would always work."
With an expanded line-up, the Beans became the Tubes. Al Kooper produced their first album The Tubes (1975), which included the anthemic single " White Punks on Dope". One of the Tubes, John Waldo, assumed the name of Quay-Lewd for a glam-rock parody, "Don't Touch Me There". When they came to the UK in 1977, local councillors banned their performance in Portsmouth.
Although they were a very successful live band, their records did not sell so well until Todd Rundgren produced Remote Control (1978), which included the single "Prime Time". The Tubes then appeared on Top of the Pops and also in the Olivia Newton-John film Xanadu (1980).
After the middle-of-the-road hits "Don't Want to Wait Anymore" (1981) and "She's a Beauty" (1983), the Tubes released the compilation T.R.A.S.H. (Tubes Rarities and Smash Hits). When the group disbanded, Welnick worked with Rundgren both in the studio and on the road. He is featured on Rundgren's Nearly Human (1989) and the live album Second Wind (recorded in 1990 and released the following year). He also recorded with both Dick Dale and the Persuasions.
Going from the exuberant Tubes to the laidback Dead might have been a culture shock, but Welnick immediately fitted in. He loved the adventurous way the band embraced so many genres - rock, folk, jazz, bluegrass - and specialised in improvised marathons. He was entranced by their leader, Jerry Garcia, "looking over the top of his glasses and smiling at you if you had done well". Welnick wrote "Samba In the Rain" with the group's lyricist, Robert Hunter, which became a stage favourite. Every one of the Dead's shows was recorded and undoubtedly records featuring Welnick will be released for many years to come.
The police in many cities probably revelled in Dead concerts as they could always be sure of a drugs bust. In August 1992, the police in Atlanta made 57 arrests over three nights and gathered a remarkable haul of LSD, magic mushrooms and cocaine. By way of irony, a few days later the Dead played for military personnel in Norfolk, Virginia.
In 1994 the Grateful Dead were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but Jerry Garcia's health was failing, the result of 30 years' smoking. He died in August the following year and the band broke up. From then until his death, Welnick suffered from depression. He formed the Missing Man Formation (the very name a tribute to Garcia) and wrote songs for the group's only album, released in 1998. He also worked with one of the original Dead members, Bob Weir, in Ratdog.
As well as depth of feeling, musical finesse and a nice sense of weirdness, Vince Welnick brought a huge knowledge of keyboards to the Grateful Dead, writes Ken Hunt.
The Dead had an uncommonly dense melodicism because it had two people playing melodies in Jerry Garcia, its lead guitarist, and Phil Lesh, playing contrapuntal melody on electric bass. The fundamental problem for any keyboardist was that there were very few places to slip in notes or textures beyond vamping chords. Tom Constanten, the Dead's second keyboardist (after Pigpen), said:
One of the problems I had with Jerry . . . is that we would think of doing the same thing at the same time. With his amplification he had a lot more beef than I did. I wound up getting shunted off the highway. Vince had something similar.
But Welnick slipped in keyboard textures of a very different sort to anyone in the Dead keyboard circle.
He once told me that "getting in the band was a culmination of a vision I had I was about 11":
I slammed on the brakes of my Stingray bicycle under a streetlight one night and I saw this sea of humanity with their arms outstretched and I'm standing on a stage. I'd seen that a few times at big gigs, like, when the Tubes played with Led Zeppelin. But really the vision came true when I stepped out on the summer tours with the Grateful Dead.
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