Godchaux continues to share her God-given gift

Date: 11/16/2009

By Craig Harris

Special to Reminder Publications

Donna Jean Godchaux Band with Jeff Mattson and the Dark Star Orchestra

Calvin Theater, Northampton

Nov. 20 at 8 p.m.; $27

For further information, call 584-1444

There's a lot of music history in Donna Jean Godchaux (born Donna Thatcher). Not only was she, along with her late husband, Keith Godchaux, a member of the Grateful Dead in the 1970s, but the Sheffield, Alabama-born vocalist had already sung on a hall of fame collection of hit singles by then.

In the three decades since, she's continued to plow new ground -- singing with the Heart of Gold Band, Donna Jean and the Tricksters and the latest of incarnation of the Donna Jean Godchaux Band, which includes her second husband, David MacKay, on bass, Joe Chirco on drums, and features Jeff Mattson, the former leader of the Zen Tricksters, on lead guitar and vocals.

"This band is really close to my heart," said Godchaux, 62, who, along with the Donna Jean Godchaux Band with Jeff Mattson, joins the Dark Star Orchestra at Northampton's Calvin Theater on Nov. 20.

"It reminds me of the Jerry Garcia Band. It's stripped down but it's got everything that it needs. Nothing is missing," she said.

Godchaux's partnership with Mattson continues the collaboration that they began when they joined forces at the jam band festival, the Gathering of the Vibes, in 2005.

"I sang with various bands throughout the whole weekend," Godchaux recalled, "including [Mattson and] the Zen Tricksters. I really got to bond with them. They're great human beings as well as great players," she said.

The collaboration continued when Godchaux and the Zen Tricksters were booked to perform at a Rex Foundation benefit concert in New York a few months later.

"Jeff and I started exchanging material," she said. "He sent me their songs and I sent him mine. Then, we had a couple of rehearsals and really hit it off. Before you know it, we had combined forces and turned it into Donna Jean and the Tricksters."

Family has always played a role in Godchaux's musical pursuits. Though he wasn't involved with Donna Jean and the Tricksters, MacKay's bass playing previously supported his wife's vocals in a version of the Donna Jean Band that also included Godchaux's eldest son, Zion "Rock" Godchaux, and continued in a reorganized Heart of Gold Band that also included her second son, Kinsman MacKay.

"We were on the road a lot," she said.

Her sons' involvement should come as no surprise to those who have followed Godchaux's career. By the time she had been in her teens, she had already established herself as a background singer.

"I was privileged to be living in this little berg in northwest Alabama that became one of the recording capitals of the world," she said. "A music scene literally grew up in my backyard."

Singing on demo recordings by the age of 15, Godchaux was still in high school when she began harmonizing on hit records including Percy Sledge's "When A Man Loves A Woman" and Elvis Presley's "Suspicious Mind."

"It started with a bang," she said of her time as a studio singer, "and ended with a much bigger bang. I remember special moments like singing on Cher's first solo album and working with Boz Scaggs and all the fantastic musicians, including Duane Allman, who played on that session. I got to sing on one of Neil Diamond's finest sessions, sang with Etta James, Joe Tex, Joe Simon, Ben E. King and Solomon Burke -- so many amazing artists."

Increasingly restless, after nearly a decade on the thriving recording scene in her hometown, Godchaux moved to San Francisco, where a friend had moved a few months before.

"It was a very difficult decision," she said, "to leave a prosperous career as a singer in Alabama and move. But, I had to go to California. I absolutely had to go."

Initially unimpressed by the their music, Godchaux changed her mind after friends persuaded her to attend a Grateful Dead show.

"I got my little pea-brain so blown off the planet," she remembered. "I turned to whoever was sitting next to me and said, 'When I sing again, it's going to be with that band.'"

Soon after meeting (and marrying) keyboards player Keith Godchaux, her prophesy became truth.

"I came home one day," she remembered, "and said, 'Let's listen to some Grateful Dead.' Keith said, 'I don't want to listen to it anymore. I want to play it.' So, I said, 'Okay, let's get into the band.'"

Cornering the Grateful Dead's Jerry Garcia at a San Francisco music club, Godchaux took action.

"I told him, 'This is your new keyboards player. We need your home phone number so we can get in contact with you.' He gave it to me. A day after Keith rehearsed with Jerry, he was in the band. It's like a Cinderella story but it's true."

For Godchaux, that fairy tale-turned-reality continues.

"I could not be happier," she said. "I have a really great band and I'm getting to sing some of my favorite songs. I'm a very happy camper."