Former Grateful Dead vocalist Donna Jean Godchaux-MacKay celebrates her birthday today. Born Donna Jean Thatcher on August 27, 1947 in Florence, Alabama, Donna Jean would go on to find work as a session singer in the nearby music mecca of Muscle Shoals where she lent her voice to a number of recordings including hits by Percy Sledge, 1966’s “When A Man Loves A Woman,” and Elvis Presley, 1969’s “Suspicious Minds,” among others.
With an already impressive resume, Donna Jean moved to California in 1970 where she would meet and marry Keith Godchaux and also introduced the pianist to Jerry Garcia in Fall 1971. Keith would join GD shortly after and Donna sat in for a memorable “One More Saturday Night” at the band’s New Year’s Eve show in 1971. The singer officially joined the Grateful Dead during another memorable run in Spring 1972 at the Academy Of Music in New York City.
Donna Jean’s vocals not only gave bassist Phil Lesh a much-needed respite from handling the high harmony register but also, coupled with Keith’s funky foundational piano stylings, shaped the Grateful Dead’s ‘70s sound. Donna’s impact especially can be seen and heard in a series of soundcheck videos as the Dead prepared for a six-night residency at the Orpheum Theater in San Francisco in Summer 1976.
While the soundcheck from July 12 features Donna Jean signature songs like “The Music Never Stopped,” it also showcases her harmony work on tunes like “They Love Each Other” and “Eyes Of The World” (on which Donna and Jerry share a smile) as well as a duet with guitarist Bob Weir on “Dancing In The Street.” Naturally, the soundcheck also gives fans a glimpse into some work in progress as Donna nails down her part on the tricky “Gonna make em shine” bridge conclusion of “Stella Blue.”
To celebrate Donna Jean’s birthday, watch the vocalist soundcheck with the Grateful Dead in ‘76 below for this edition of Sunday Cinema:
Also, check out the full soundcheck along with audio of the July 12 Orpheum show below via Dennis Koda and Charlie Miller: