Perhaps more then any other band, the Grateful Dead helped develop and propagate the 1960s San Francisco hippie image, and it’s an image they unwaveringly maintained throughout their 30-year career. Hugely popular as a touring act, the band was singular in a number of aspects, including the way it combined Blues, Country, and Folk influences with a devotion to psychedelia-drenched improvisation, the way it achieved large-scale popularity without radio hits, and the rabid intensity of its itinerant army of fans, called Deadheads.
The roots of the Grateful Dead go back to 1964, when lead guitarist/vocalist Jerry Garcia, keyboard player Ron "Pigpen" McKernan, and guitarist/vocalist Bob Weir formed Mother McCree's Uptown Jug Champions, an acoustic band playing mostly Blues and Folk music in the San Francisco Bay Area. Inspired by the raw sound of the Rolling Stones, the band went electric, adding bassist Phil Lesh and drummer Bill Kreutzmann, and morphing into the Grateful Dead, which would soon feature a second drummer, Mickey Hart.
The Dead started to build a following among San Francisco’s growing counterculture community, which was transitioning from the era of the beatnik to the age of the hippie. As young people flocked to the city in the mid and late 1960s, the band’s audiences grew larger, and their sound more psychedelic. They were often featured at Ken Kesey’s "Acid Tests," a series of happenings where attendees would ingest LSD (legal at the time) and listen to music, and their association with drug culture became part of the band’s identity.
The Dead were signed to Warner Brothers, but capturing the energy and improvisational aspects of their stage performances proved to be a challenge in the recording studio. Many critics feel the peak of the band’s studio output to be a pair of largely acoustic, Country- and Folk-flavored 1970 albums, “Workingman's Dead” and “American Beauty.” Those albums contained the songs “Uncle John's Band,” "Casey Jones," "Truckin'," "Sugar Magnolia," and "Friend of the Devil" all of which would become Dead classics and staples of FM album oriented radio. That’s not to say they were chart hits — those eluded the band until they notched a surprise Top 10 hit late in their career with the 1987 single "Touch of Grey," which was bolstered by a music video that became popular on MTV.
The band – whose core lineup stayed largely intact, with several different keyboard players — toured prolifically, and became renowned for lengthy free-form concerts featuring extensive jamming, a communal atmosphere, and state-of-the-art sound systems. They were also renowned for the devotion of their fans, who traded tapes, cataloged set lists, gathered in arena parking lots and in some cases followed tours, traveling extensively to see the band again and again. Through the Dead’s relentless touring, the band’s music was introduced to new generations of fans and their popularity grew to the point where in the early 1990s they were the largest grossing live band in the U.S. It was only the unexpected 1995 death of Jerry Garcia that brought their “long strange trip” to an end. Various Grateful Dead members continue to tour and spread the band’s legacy as the Other Ones, the Dead, and Furthur.