Phil Lesh

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Phil Lesh
Phil lesh 12-06-2013.jpg
Phil Lesh performing at Terrapin Crossroads December 6, 2013
Background information
Birth namePhilip Chapman Lesh
Born (1940-03-15) March 15, 1940 (age 79)
Berkeley, California
Genres Rock
Occupation(s)Musician, songwriter
  • Bass guitar
  • trumpet
  • vocals
Years active1961–present
Associated acts

Philip Chapman Lesh (born March 15, 1940) is a musician and a founding member of the Grateful Dead, with whom he played bass guitar throughout their 30-year career.

Grateful Dead American rock jam band

The Grateful Dead was an American rock band formed in 1965 in Palo Alto, California. The band is known for its eclectic style, which fused elements of rock, folk, country, jazz, bluegrass, blues, gospel, and psychedelic rock; for live performances of lengthy instrumental jams; and for its devoted fan base, known as "Deadheads". "Their music", writes Lenny Kaye, "touches on ground that most other groups don't even know exists". These various influences were distilled into a diverse and psychedelic whole that made the Grateful Dead "the pioneering Godfathers of the jam band world". The band was ranked 57th by Rolling Stone magazine in its The Greatest Artists of All Time issue. The band was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1994 and a recording of their May 8, 1977, performance at Cornell University's Barton Hall was added to the National Recording Registry of the Library of Congress in 2012. The Grateful Dead have sold more than 35 million albums worldwide.


After the band's disbanding in 1995, Lesh continued the tradition of Grateful Dead family music with side project Phil Lesh and Friends, which paid homage to the Dead's music by playing their originals, common covers, and the songs of the members of his band. Lesh operates a music venue called Terrapin Crossroads. He scaled back his touring regimen in 2014 but continues to perform with Phil Lesh & Friends at select venues. From 2009 to 2014, he performed in Furthur alongside former Grateful Dead bandmate Bob Weir.

Phil Lesh and Friends American rock band

Phil Lesh and Friends is an American rock band formed and led by Phil Lesh, former bassist of the Grateful Dead.

Terrapin Crossroads Music venue

Terrapin Crossroads is a music venue in San Rafael, California, founded by former Grateful Dead bassist Phil Lesh.

Furthur (band) band

Furthur was a rock band founded in 2009 by former Grateful Dead members Bob Weir and Phil Lesh. The original lineup also included John Kadlecik of the Dark Star Orchestra on lead guitar, Jeff Chimenti of RatDog on keyboards, Jay Lane of RatDog on percussion, and Joe Russo of the Benevento/Russo Duo on drums. Named after the famous touring bus used by Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters in the 1960s, Furthur was an improvisational jam band that performed music primarily from the extensive Grateful Dead songbook, as well as their own original music and that of several other well-known artists. In addition to the original members, the band's lineup included backup vocalists Sunshine Becker of the a cappella ensemble SoVoSó and Jeff Pehrson of the folk rock bands Box Set and the Fall Risk.


Lesh was born in Berkeley, California, and started out as a violin player. While enrolled at Berkeley High School, he switched to trumpet and participated in all of the school's music-related extracurricular activities. Studying the instrument under Bob Hansen, conductor of the symphonic Golden Gate Park Band, he developed a keen interest in avant-garde classical music and free jazz. After attending San Francisco State University for a semester, Lesh was unable to secure a favorable position in the school's band or orchestra and determined that he was not ready to pursue a higher education. Upon dropping out, he successfully auditioned for the renowned Sixth Army Band (then stationed at the Presidio of San Francisco) with the assistance of Hansen but was ultimately determined to be unfit for military service.

Berkeley, California City in California, United States

Berkeley is a city on the east shore of San Francisco Bay in northern Alameda County, California. It is named after the 18th-century Irish bishop and philosopher George Berkeley. It borders the cities of Oakland and Emeryville to the south and the city of Albany and the unincorporated community of Kensington to the north. Its eastern border with Contra Costa County generally follows the ridge of the Berkeley Hills. The 2010 census recorded a population of 112,580.

Golden Gate Park United States historic place

Golden Gate Park, located in San Francisco, California, United States, is a large urban park consisting of 1,017 acres (412 ha) of public grounds. It is administered by the San Francisco Recreation & Parks Department, which began in 1871 to oversee the development of Golden Gate Park. Configured as a rectangle, it is similar in shape but 20 percent larger than Central Park in New York City, to which it is often compared. It is over three miles (4.8 km) long east to west, and about half a mile (0.8 km) north to south. With 13 million visitors annually, Golden Gate is the fifth most-visited city park in the United States after Central Park, Lincoln Park in Chicago, and Balboa and Mission Bay Parks in San Diego.

Free jazz is an approach to jazz that developed in the 1960s when musicians attempted to change or break down jazz conventions, such as regular tempos, tones, and chord changes. Musicians during this period believed that the bebop, hard bop, and modal jazz that had been played before them was too limiting. They became preoccupied with creating something new. Free jazz has often been combined with or substituted for the term "avant-garde jazz". Europeans tend to favor the term "free improvisation". Others have used "modern jazz", "creative music", and "art music".

Shortly thereafter, he enrolled at the College of San Mateo, where he wrote charts for the community college's well-regarded big band and ascended to the first trumpet chair. (A snippet of tape of Lesh on trumpet at CSM can be heard on "Born Cross-Eyed" from the Grateful Dead's 1968 release Anthem of the Sun .) After transferring with sophomore standing to the University of California, Berkeley in 1961, he befriended future Grateful Dead keyboardist Tom Constanten before dropping out again after less than a semester. At the behest of Constanten, he studied under the Italian modernist Luciano Berio in a graduate-level course at Mills College in the spring of 1962; their classmates included Steve Reich and Stanford University cross-registrant John Chowning. [1] Lesh’s inborn intelligence and curiosity, coupled with his considerable involvement with learning institutions and esteemed mentors, later led to his being one of the decided intellectuals of the Grateful Dead.

College of San Mateo

College of San Mateo (CSM) is a community college in San Mateo, California. It is part of the San Mateo County Community College District. College of San Mateo is located at the northern corridor of Silicon Valley and situated on a 153-acre site in the San Mateo hills. The campus was designed by architect John Carl Warnecke. The college currently serves approximately 10,000 day, evening and weekend students. The college offers 79 A.A./A.S. degree majors, 75 certificate programs and approximately 100 transfer areas and majors.

Community colleges in the United States Public, two-year colleges

In the United States, community colleges, are primarily two-year public institutions of tertiary education. Many community colleges also offer remedial education, GEDs, high school diplomas, technical degrees and certificates, and a limited number of 4-year degrees. After graduating from a community college, most students transfer to a university or liberal arts college to complete a bachelor's degree, while others enter the workforce.

Big band Music ensemble associated with jazz and Swing Era music

A big band is a type of musical ensemble of jazz music that usually consists of ten or more musicians with four sections: saxophones, trumpets, trombones, and a rhythm section. Big bands originated during the early 1910s and dominated jazz in the early 1940s when swing was most popular. The term "big band" is also used to describe a genre of music, although this was not the only style of music played by big bands.

While volunteering for KPFA as a recording engineer during this period, he met bluegrass banjo player Jerry Garcia. Despite seemingly opposite musical interests, they soon formed a friendship. Following a brief period as a Post Office Department employee and keno marker in Las Vegas (initially rooming with Constanten, who soon departed to study under Berio and other members of the Darmstadt School in Europe); a second stint with the Post Office in San Francisco; and a collaboration with the likes of Reich, Jon Gibson and Constanten upon the latter's return from Europe under the auspices of the San Francisco Mime Troupe, Lesh was talked into becoming the bassist for Garcia's new rock group (then known as The Warlocks) in the fall of 1964. This was a peculiar turn of events, as Lesh had never played bass before. According to Lesh, the first song he rehearsed with the band was "I Know You Rider". [1] He joined them for their third or fourth gig (memories vary) and stayed until the end.

KPFA listener-sponsored community radio station in Berkeley, California

KPFA is a listener-funded talk radio and music radio station located in Berkeley, California, U.S., broadcasting to the San Francisco Bay Area. KPFA airs public news, public affairs, talk, and music programming. The station signed on-the-air April 15, 1949, as the first Pacifica Radio station and remains the flagship station of the Pacifica Radio Network.

Bluegrass music is a genre of American roots music that developed in the 1940s in the United States Appalachian region. The genre derives its name from the band Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys. Bluegrass has roots in traditional English, Irish, and Scottish ballads and dance tunes, and by traditional African-American blues and jazz. Bluegrass was further developed by musicians who played with Monroe, including 5-string banjo player Earl Scruggs and guitarist Lester Flatt. Monroe characterized the genre as: "Scottish bagpipes and ole-time fiddlin'. It's Methodist and Holiness and Baptist. It's blues and jazz, and it has a high lonesome sound."

Banjo musical instrument

The banjo is a four-, five-, or six-stringed instrument with a thin membrane stretched over a frame or cavity as a resonator, called the head, which is typically circular. The membrane is typically made of plastic, although animal skin is still occasionally used. Early forms of the instrument were fashioned by Africans in the United States, adapted from African instruments of similar design. The banjo is frequently associated with folk, Irish traditional, and country music. Banjo can also be used in some rock songs. Many rock bands, such as The Eagles, Led Zeppelin, and The Allman Brothers, have used the five-string banjo in some of their songs. Historically, the banjo occupied a central place in African-American traditional music and the folk culture of rural whites before entering the mainstream via the minstrel shows of the 19th century. Along with the fiddle, the banjo is a mainstay of American old-time music. It is also very frequently used in traditional ("trad") jazz.

Since Lesh had never played bass, it meant that to a great extent he learned "on the job", yet it also meant he had no preconceived attitudes about the instrument's traditional rhythm section role. In his autobiography, he credits Jack Casady (who was playing with Jefferson Airplane) as a confirming influence on the direction his instincts were leading him into. [1] While he has said that his playing style was influenced more by Bach counterpoint than by contemporaneous rock and soul bass players, one can also hear the fluidity and power of a jazz bassist such as Charles Mingus or Jimmy Garrison in Lesh's work, along with stylistic allusions to Casady. [2] Lesh has also cited Jack Bruce of Cream as an influence. [3]

Rhythm section group of musicians within a music ensemble or band who provide the underlying rhythm, harmony and beat for the rest of the band

A rhythm section is a group of musicians within a music ensemble or band who provide the underlying rhythm, harmony and pulse of the accompaniment, providing a rhythmic and harmonic reference and "beat" for the rest of the band. The rhythm section is often contrasted with the roles of other musicians in the band, such as the lead guitarist or lead vocals whose primary job is to carry the main melody of the song.

Jack Casady American bass player

John William Casady is an American bass guitarist, best known as a member of Jefferson Airplane and Hot Tuna. Jefferson Airplane became the first successful exponent of the San Francisco Sound. Their singles, including "Somebody to Love" and "White Rabbit", had a more polished style than their other material, and successfully charted in 1967 and 1968. Casady, along with the other members of Jefferson Airplane, was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1996.

Johann Sebastian Bach German composer

Johann Sebastian Bach was a German composer and musician of the Baroque period. He is known for instrumental compositions such as the Art of Fugue, the Brandenburg Concertos, and the Goldberg Variations, and for vocal music such as the St Matthew Passion and the Mass in B minor. Since the 19th-century Bach Revival he has been generally regarded as one of the greatest composers of the Western art musical canon.


Phil Lesh with Tooloos at the Keystone Berkeley; December 19, 1976 Photo: David Gans Phil-Lesh.gif
Phil Lesh with Tooloos at the Keystone Berkeley; December 19, 1976 Photo: David Gans

Lesh was an innovator in the new role that the electric bass developed during the mid-1960s. Contemporaries such as Casady, Bruce, James Jamerson and Paul McCartney adopted a more melodic, contrapuntal approach to the instrument; before this, bass players in rock had generally played a conventional timekeeping role within the beat of the song, and within (or underpinning) the song's harmonic or chord structure. While not abandoning these aspects, Lesh took his own improvised excursions during a song or instrumental. This was a characteristic aspect of the so-called San Francisco Sound in the new rock music. In many Dead jams, Lesh's bass is, in essence, as much a lead instrument as Garcia's guitar.

Lesh was not a prolific composer or singer with the Grateful Dead, although some of the songs he did contribute (including "New Potato Caboose", "Box of Rain", "Unbroken Chain" and "Pride of Cucamonga") are among the best known in the band's repertoire. Lesh's high tenor voice contributed to the Grateful Dead's three-part harmony sections in their group vocals in the early days of the band, until he largely relinquished singing high parts to Donna Godchaux (and thence Brent Mydland and Vince Welnick) in 1976 due to vocal cord damage from improper singing technique. In 1985, he resumed singing lead vocals on select songs as a baritone. Throughout the Grateful Dead's career, his interest in avant-garde music remained a crucial influence on the group.

In 1994, he was inducted into The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a member of the Grateful Dead. [4]

Post-Grateful Dead

After the disbanding of the Grateful Dead, Lesh continued to play with its offshoots The Other Ones and The Dead, as well as performing with his own band, Phil Lesh and Friends. [5] In 1999, he co-headlined a tour with Bob Dylan. [6]

Additionally, Lesh and his wife Jill administer their charitable organization, the Unbroken Chain Foundation. The couple have two children together, Grahame and Brian. Both Grahame and Brian follow in their father's musical footsteps. The three frequently play together both publicly and privately, for example in an annual benefit concert grouping known as Philharmonia, dating to 1997, most recently on December 18, 2011 at a Christmas gig including Bob Weir and Jackie Greene at the Tenderloin Middle School cafeteria attended by 250 people. [7]

In 1998 Lesh underwent a liver transplant as a result of chronic hepatitis C infection; since then, he has become an outspoken advocate for organ donor programs and when performing regularly encourages members of the audience to become organ donors (tracks identified as the "donor rap" on the live recordings of his various performances).

In April 2005, Lesh's book Searching for the Sound: My Life with the Grateful Dead ( ISBN   0-316-00998-9) was published. The book takes its name from the lyrics of a Grateful Dead song titled "Unbroken Chain," from their album From the Mars Hotel . "Unbroken Chain" is one of the few songs Lesh sings. This was the only book about the Grateful Dead written by a member of the band until 2015, when Bill Kreutzmann released his memoir, Deal: My Three Decades of Drumming, Dreams and Drugs with the Grateful Dead.

On October 26, 2006, Lesh released a statement on his official website, revealing that he had been diagnosed with prostate cancer—the disease that killed his father—and would be undergoing an operation in December 2006 to have it removed. [8] On December 7, 2006, Lesh released a statement stating that he had undergone prostate surgery with the cancer being removed. [9]

In 2009, Lesh went back on tour with the remaining members of the Grateful Dead. Following the 2009 summer tour Lesh proceeded to found a new band with Bob Weir named Furthur, which debuted in September 2009. [10]

In 2012, Lesh founded a music venue called Terrapin Crossroads, in San Rafael, California. The venue officially opened on March 17, 2012, with a first of a run of twelve concerts by Phil Lesh and Friends. [11] [12] When not on tour, Lesh's sons, Grahame and Brian, serve as the house band at Terrapin Crossroads [13]

Lesh began performing again with Phil Lesh and Friends in 2012. Furthur disbanded in early 2014 and, at age 74, Lesh ceased touring full time. Since then he has performed regularly at Terrapin Crossroads with various Phil Lesh and Friends line-ups as well as with the Terrapin Family Band. He also performs select show at venues throughout the United States, notably the Capitol Theatre, as well as at festivals.

He took part in the 2015 Fare Thee Well concerts and a short North American tour with Bob Weir in the spring of 2018.

In October 2015 Lesh announced that he had bladder cancer surgery. He stated that his prognosis was good and that he expected to make a full recovery. [14]

In August 2019 Lesh announced that he had to undergo back surgery, in which he and his band had to cancel upcoming engagements at the Outlaw Music Festival, Telluride Blues & Brews Festival, and Dirt Farmers Festival. He is expected to make a full recovery. [15]


  1. 1 2 3 Lesh, Phil (2005). Searching for the Sound: My Life with the Grateful Dead. New York: Little, Brown and Company. ISBN   0-316-00998-9.
  2. Jackson, Blair (1999). Garcia: An American Life. Penguin Books. p. 74. ISBN   0-14-029199-7.
  3. Ferris, Jedd (August 23, 2017). "A quick chat with Phil Lesh: Grateful Dead bassist talks Lockn' return and missing Jerry". C-VILLE.
  4. List of Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees
  5. Sullivan, James. "Phil's New Zone", San Francisco Chronicle, April 13, 1999
  6. Juanis, J.C. (December 7, 2012). "Watching The River Flow: On Tour With Phil Lesh And Bob Dylan (Fall 1999)". Relix.
  7., November 28, 2011
  8. Vaziri, Aidin (October 29, 2006). "Grateful Dead Founder Lesh Battling Prostate Cancer", SFGate. Retrieved October 17, 2015.
  9. "Phil Lesh Doing Well", JamBase, December 8, 2006. Retrieved October 17, 2015.
  10. "Phil Lesh, Bob Weir, Joe Russo, Jay Lane, Jeff Chimenti and John Kadlecik Form New Band 'Furthur', Set Dates For September", JamBase, August 14, 2009
  11. "Terrapin Crossroads Opening News!" [ permanent dead link ],, February 18, 2012. Retrieved February 26, 2012.
  12. Oksenhorn, Stewart (February 10, 2012). "With Phil & Friends, the Dead Live On", Aspen Times . Retrieved February 26, 2012.
  13. March 30, 2013
  14. Kreps, Daniel (October 17, 2015). "Grateful Dead's Phil Lesh Reveals Bladder Cancer Battle", Rolling Stone. Retrieved October 17, 2015.

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