Grateful Dead guitarist Jerry Garcia worked with many musical companions, including Howard Wales, a keyboardist who performed with Garcia in the early-1970s. Wales, a Wisconsin native who died in December 2020 at age 77, moved to the Bay Area in the early-1960s.
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Wales moved west with his Milwaukee-born blues-rock band A.B. Skhy, who frequently appeared on bills at the Fillmore in San Francisco. Legendary guitarist Jimi Hendrix purportedly joined the band during one of their shows at The Whisky A Go-Go in Los Angeles. Wales appeared on A.B. Skhy’s 1969 self-titled debut album, but had left the group prior to the recording of their second and final album, 1970’s Ramblin’ On. Around the time of his exit, Wales would meet and start performing with Garcia.
In Blair Jackson’s book Garcia: An American Life, Garcia described playing with Wales, stating:
Howard was so incredible, and we were just hanging on for dear life. For some reason, Howard enjoyed playing with us, but we were just keeping up. Howard was so outside. For both of us that was a wonderful experience… Playing with Howard did more for my ears than anybody I ever played with because he was so extended and so different. His approach was all extensions and very keyboardistic; not guitaristic.
Garcia and Wales first performed in public on April 20, 1970, when Wales was leading a weekly jam session at The Matrix on Fillmore Street in San Francisco. The jams continued through September of that year, with Garcia appearing regularly, along with drummer Bill Vitt and bassist John Kahn, forming what became a precursor to the Jerry Garcia Band.
“I met Jerry [Garcia] at the Avalon Ballroom, I remember that we ended up there on Fillmore Street [at The Matrix],” Wales recalled on the Good Ol’ Grateful Deadcast podcast. “I was the person that ran the jam on Mondays … Jerry and I met, and it was really great working with somebody that wasn’t afraid to go to other different genres and things … Jerry was such a wonderful friend and such a really good person.”
One of the nights at the Matrix was recorded and released in 1998 as the Garcia/Wales album, Side Trips, Volume One. In 1971, Wales, Garcia, Vitt and Kahn recorded the 1971 studio album, Hooteroll?, which also had contributions by guitarist Curly Cook, drummer Michael Marinelli, trumpeter Ken Balzall and saxophonist (and future Legion Of Mary member) Martin Fierro.
Garcia continued to play with Wales through January 1972, performing around the Bay Area and East Coast. At times they played as a trio with Vitt. Other shows included a bassist like Kahn, Roger “Jellyroll” Troy or Richard Favis. Guitarist Jim Vincent and drummer Jerry Love were also among those who shared the stage with Garcia and Wales.
Wales was brought in by the Grateful Dead to supply additional organ parts to “Truckin’” and “Candyman,” and piano to “Brokedown Palace,” on the band’s 1970 album, American Beauty. Wales later tried out to be a member of the Dead but his and the band’s styles did not mesh well.
In a 1991 interview with Jackson, Garcia described the experiences he had playing with Wales. Garcia told Jackson:
So they used to have this Monday night jam session, but Howard gradually sort of took it over. Howard’s this amazing organ player – difficult person, but wonderful musician. And for some reason he liked our playing, John [Kahn] and mine. We didn’t know each other, John and I. In fact we played with Howard for almost a year before we even actually started talking to each other. Really. We would just show up, plug in, and play. About half the set I’d be whispering to John, I’d be saying, “Hey, man, what key are we in?” Howard didn’t have tunings or anything, he just played. Sometimes he would do these things that were so outside that you just couldn’t – unless you knew where it was going, you had no idea where to start. Sometimes they’d turn out to be just these things like four-bar blues turnarounds, relatively simple musical things, but they were so extended the way he’d play them – god, what is this?
Anyway, I learned a lot – both of us learned a lot about staying awake and listening to what’s going on, playing with Howard. It was a real experience. We played with him for a couple of years, and then Howard went off and kinda – periodically he gets this thing of where he just can’t deal with the music world any more, and he just disappears. So we were there, stuck there, and we were supposed to play Monday night, and we didn’t have a player. John said, “Well, I just did some sessions with this guy Merl Saunders”.
After Saunders assumed hosting duties at The Matrix, where Garcia continued to appear for weekly jams, he and Garcia continued performing regularly until 1975. Wales went on to release his solo album, Rendezvous with The Sun in 1976.
Wales continued to perform live over subsequent decades and recorded several more albums through 2018’s Undisclosed Location. His final public performances came in 2020. In November of that year he suffered a cerebral hemorage which led to his death on December 7, 2020.
Below, listen to a January 26, 1972 recording of Garcia and Wales in concert at The Symphony Hall in Boston backed by Jellyroll, Love and Vincent:
Setlist (via jerrygarcia.com)
Set: Southside Strut > Up From The Desert > One A.M. Approach > Come On Baby, Jam > Outer Space Regions > Carry Me Back > Bass Solo > Get Funky Brother > A Trip To What Next > Would You Leave Me, Wales’ Boogie, Get Down Mama* > DC 502* > Drums > DC 502* > Sweet Little Angel > Sweet Cocaine > Shine On Love > Fighting For Madge, Hey Bo Diddley, Can’t Judge A Book
Encore: Gypsy Woman
* without Jerry