From Muscle Shoals to the Dead to the Cabooze: the long, strange
trip of Donna Jean Godchaux-MacKay.
By PAUL LEVY, Star Tribune
March 28, 2008
Years before becoming the only female member of the legendary
traveling circus known as the Grateful Dead, singer Donna Jean
Godchaux-MacKay recorded with Cher, Neil Diamond, guitar god Duane
Allman, Dionne Warwick, Solomon Burke, Boz Scaggs ... and Elvis Presley.
"Our little voice group was working in Memphis and our friend Mark
James had written a song called 'Suspicious Minds,'" recalled
Godchaux-MacKay, who brings her new band, Donna Jean and the
Tricksters, to Minneapolis on Friday.
It was 1969, and the group, from Donna Jean's home base of Muscle
Shoals, Ala., had just recorded a demo at Memphis' American Sound
Studios. The King walked past an office where the demo was playing,
stopped in his tracks and said, "I want that song. And I want those girls."
"When we got the call, we screamed bloody murder," Godchaux-MacKay
recalled by phone from her home in northwestern Alabama. "He looked
great. He was trim. He was just the most gorgeous creature I'd ever
seen in my life.
"We did 'Suspicious Minds.' We did 'In the Ghetto.' And he was so
kind, so sweet, so encouraging. We had a wonderful time with him. And
when the sessions were all over, my friend Jeannie [Greene] and I
went to the nearest International House of Pancakes and just screamed
for two hours."
Godchaux-MacKay was just 12 when she began frequenting the Muscle
Shoals studio. She witnessed early recordings by Aretha Franklin. The
great Otis Redding was there, too: "Oh, my God, was he a presence."
At 15, she'd make a dash from high school to the studios, sometimes
still in her cheerleader's skirt. By then she was singing
professionally. She was part of a girls' vocal group that did
background parts for Etta James, Ben E. King and Joe Tex. On other
days, Wilson Pickett or the Staple Singers might be there. The studio
and its musicians were in such high demand that even British bands
such as the Rolling Stones and Traffic made their way to northwestern
Alabama, to what Godchaux-MacKay calls "this little podunk hometown
of mine," to see if the magic might rub off.
"I guess the stars just fell on Alabama or something," said
Godchaux-MacKay, now 62.
Not only did she sing on "When a Man Loves a Woman," arguably one of
the greatest records ever, but it was Godchaux-MacKay who brought
Percy Sledge a copy of the Billboard magazine proclaiming the single
No. 1 when Sledge was hospitalized with a kidney infection.
Playing in the band
But even as she grew in demand as a background singer, she thought,
"There's got to be something more to this." She packed up and moved
to California -- just truckin', and not caring whether she ever
recorded again. She married pianist Keith Godchaux ... and heard the
Coming from a structured background where the music was "very
arranged and very pristine," she said, "it just blew everything I
ever thought out of the water," she said. "I couldn't believe the
lyrics, the chord structures, how the harmonies blended. It changed
my world, expanded my thinking." She told herself: "When I sing
again, it's gonna be in that band."
In 1971, she sought out guitarist Jerry Garcia at a show and told him
Keith was going to be the Dead's piano player. Soon he was, with
Donna Jean following a month later.
It couldn't last forever, and the Godchauxs left the Dead in early
1979. It hadn't been all sugar magnolias and scarlet begonias. The
constant touring, endless outside influences and strain of
maintaining a marriage and raising a child in the anything-goes Dead
universe proved too much.
A year later, Keith was killed in an auto accident. After marrying
bassist David MacKay, Donna Jean moved back home, to Florence, Ala.,
where "I needed to take a break and raise my kids."
She'd known about the Zen Tricksters, a group of musicians who mixed
original tunes with Dead covers. At a festival three years ago, they
asked her to sit in and she discovered "what really fine musicians
and fine people they are." She thought, "Maybe we could join forces here."
The group, in which all seven members sing, just released a CD that
features several songs she wrote or co-wrote. Garcia often tried to
persuade her to write, she said.
She still speaks lovingly about the Deadheads, the faithful who
followed the band around the planet and are likely to make up much of
"I'm humbled by it," she said. "After all these years, people still
want to come out and see me. In this life, you can never predict. You
make a plan that's a good guideline, but you never know what's going
to happen -- the good things or the ill. Follow your heart and you'll
be OK. You know: 'Inspiration, move me brightly.'
"And if you have one of those experiences where you have to go to the
International House of Pancakes and scream, let it rip. Just let it rip."