78 Things You Should Know About Phil Lesh
Celebrate Phil Lesh’s 78th birthday with these facts about everyone’s favorite bassist.
- Phil Lesh was born Phillip Chapman Lesh on March 15, 1940 in Berkeley, California.
- He is the only child of Frank and Barbara Chapman Lesh.
- Chapman always had the radio playing at home, which sparked Phil’s early interest in classical music.
- One of Phil’s earliest memories was listening to Brahms’, conducted by Bruno Walter and the New York Philharmonic sometime in 1944. In an ironic twist six years later, when he was ten, his violin teacher took him to hear the same conductor performing the same symphony in San Francisco.
- His maternal grandmother, Jewel “Bobbie” Chapman, cared for him growing up while his parents worked.
- Lesh’s father was an amateur musician. Phil remembers watching his dad play piano as a child.
- Phil grew up listening to and playing classical music. He started playing the violin at age 8.
- Lesh played in the Young People’s Symphony Orchestra in Berkeley, CA
- Phil switched to playing trumpet at age 14 while enrolled at El Cerrito High School.
- He was also a member of the marching band at El Cerrito.
- As a sophomore, his parents moved so that he could transfer to Berkeley High School so he could enroll in more advanced music education courses. Phil talked about this in an interview for Hank Harrison for The Dead Book in 1973 “The reason I switched high schools was because I could get harmony lessons elsewhere. They wouldn’t teach me anything about what I really wanted to know. You see, I spent the first two years at marching band at El Cerrito. It was marching band and social studies time. They didn’t have any harmony classes at El Cerrito and no ear training classes. They didn’t have any kind of classes except fucking blowing your horn on the band master’s chart. So I went to Berkeley.”
- Growing up in Berkeley, Phil and his friends often ventured to San Francisco to hang out at City Lights Bookstore or the Co-Existence Bagel Shop.
- Phil was a trumpet student under Bob Hansen who was also the conductor of the symphonic Golden Gate Park Band.
- At 15 while studying trumpet with Hansen during high school, Lesh performed in a semi-pro orchestra in Berkeley as first chair trumpet.
- The Grateful Dead’s only sample of Lesh playing the trumpet (which he recorded in college) was in their song “Born Cross-Eyed” on ‘Anthem of the Sun.’
- During his time at Berkeley High School, Phil started his life long interest about avant-garde classical and free jazz .
- Phil attended San Francisco State University for one semester in the fall of 1957.
- During his short time at San Francisco State, he was the third chair trumpet in the school’s band. As third chair, he wasn’t playing at the level he wished he was whch did not work for Phil.
- Lesh worked for the U.S. Postal Service while in college. He was fired because he grew his hair too long.
- He auditioned for the Sixth Army Band in the late 1950’s; however, he was deemed unfit for military service. (Shocker!)
- Lesh briefly worked in the San Mateo Junior College library in 1959. His job was to judge the quality of incoming recordings. In other words, if they were scratched, he would send them back for duplicates. So he got to listen to all the new recordings. All the jazz and all the classical recordings he loved and cherished.
- Phil composed music for the College of San Matteo’s big band while he was a student there in 1959. Lesh went on to play first chair trumpet in the band. During Phil’s year at the local college, his most notable performance took place on the main stage at the Monterey Jazz Festival in 1960.
- Phil enrolled in University of California, Berkeley in 1961, but dropped out half-way through the first semester.
- He dropped out because the curriculum, as a music major, was too restrictive for him to explore all the aspects of music he wanted to learn about.
- He serendipitously met future Grateful Dead keyboardist Tom Constanten during his time at UC Berkeley.
- Lesh briefly studied under Italian modernist composer Luciano Berio in the spring of 1962 while taking a graduate-level course at Mills College.
- He composed multiple pieces under Berio, but Lesh found it difficult to have his works performed because he was not an established composer.
- One of the biggest compositions Lesh wrote in 1963 which was a huge orchestral work called “Foci” for four orchestras and required 123 players and four conductors to perform it properly. Needless to say, it will be difficult to perform it.
- Once Phil began composing, he lost interest in playing the trumpet and began to focus more on writing music. Phil laments, “The experience of playing in big bands and writing compositions for big bands was one turning point. After that I was no longer interested in playing trumpet. I was interested in composing. I wasn’t interested in playing instruments any more in a band where I was a part. I was interested in playing the whole band. From there it got heavier and heavier.”
- He met Jerry Garcia at a party in Palo Alto, California where they were introduced by a mutual friend and shared a joint.
- Lesh claims that he’s never seen anyone play the banjo as well as Jerry Garcia did when they met in 1962.
- Lesh worked at KPFA, a Berkeley based radio station, as a recording engineer while enrolled at UC Berkeley.
- Lesh convinced Garcia to record a demo tape at KFPA so Lesh could present it to the station manager to get Garcia radio time.
- Lesh learned how to play bass after he became a member of The Grateful Dead.
- The first song he rehearsed with the Grateful Dead, who were then called the Warlocks, was “I Know You Rider.”
- Lesh spotted an album by another band called the Warlocks in a record store in San Francisco in 1965, which led the band to change their name to The Grateful Dead. In Blair Jackson’s book on the Dead, Garcia is quoted as saying: “One day we were over at Phil’s house…He had a big dictionary. I opened it and there was ‘Grateful Dead’, those words juxtaposed. It was one of those moments, you know, like everything else went blank, diffuse, just sort of oozed away, and there was GRATEFUL DEAD in big, black letters edged all around in gold, man, blasting out at me, such a stunning combination. So I said, ‘How about Grateful Dead?’ And that was it.
“The dictionary entry reads along these lines:
GRATEFUL DEAD: The motif of a cycle of folk tales which begin with the hero coming upon a group of people ill-treating or refusing to bury the corpse of a man who had died without paying his debts. He gives his last penny, either to pay the man’s debts or to give him a decent burial. Within a few hours he meets with a travelling companion who aids him in some impossible task, gets him a fortune or saves his life. The story ends with the companion disclosing himself as the man whose corpse the hero had befriended.(Funk & Wagnall’s Dictionary). The name has also been attributed to this quote:
“We now return our souls to the creator,
as we stand on the edge of eternal darkness.
Let our chant fill the void
in order that others may know.
In the land of the night
the ship of the sun
is drawn by the grateful dead.”
— Egyptian Book of the Dead
- Lesh said he was influenced by Jack Casady of Jefferson Airplane while he was learning to play bass.
- Lesh was not a fan of rock music before joining The Grateful Dead and considers Bach counterpoint a bigger influence on his bass playing.
- The date of the Grateful Dead’s anniversary is marked by the day Lesh’s joined the band.
- Phil suffered vocal cord damage in 1974 due to improper singing in his tenor register and took a break from singing on stage.
- He began singing in the band again in 1982, but in a lower, baritone register.
- Lesh wrote 3 songs for the Grateful Dead — “Box of Rain,” “That’s It for the Other One,” and “Unbroken Chain.”
- In the early days of The Grateful Dead, Lesh often said the goal of the band was to “save the world.”
- Lesh believes that The Grateful Dead’s break in touring in 1975 completely changed the band’s dynamic and has said that “a certain spirit” was missing. Its hard not to mention the loss of Pigpen which no doubt contributed to this change in dynamic.
- He loves sci-fi books, like “More Than Human” by Theodore Sturgeon. So did Jerry Garcia. They bonded over this love of sci-fi books.
- His favorite book as a child was “Destination Moon” by Robert A. Heinlein.
- He still considers Bach and string quartets as some of his biggest musical influences.
- On April Fool’s Day in 1993, someone dressed as Barney replaced Phil on stage to start the second set at Nassau Coliseum.
- Lesh met his wife Jill while she was a waitress at diner he frequently went to.
- Phil and Jill have two sons, Grahame and Brian. Phil has played with both his boys publicly and currently tours with his son Graham currently with “The Terrapin Family Band.”
- Lesh regularly brought his kids on tour with The Grateful Dead so he could be present in their lives.
- His son Brian broke his leg while the family was on tour in October of 1990 in Stockholm, but he had to leave the hospital to play a show.
- He said having a family made him realize there was life beyond the Grateful Dead and helped him find balance in his life.
- In 2012, Lesh and family opened Terrapin Crossroads, a live music venue and restaurant in San Rafael, California.
- Phil admired the community vibe at Levon Helm’s Barn in Woodstock, NY and used that as his inspiration when creating Terrapin Crossroads.
- Phil often plays with and tours with The Terrapin Family Band, the house band at Terrapin Crossroads lead by Grahame Lesh.
- Lesh performed a 12 show run with Phil Lesh and Friends at Terrapin Crossroads to open the venue.
- On Sundays, Lesh hosts an event for kids at Terrapin Crossroads where he reads children’s books and performs songs.
- In 1997, he founded the Unbroken Chain Foundation, a nonprofit community service organization that focuses on the arts, education, and the environment.
- The organization borrows its name from one of the few Grateful Dead songs that Lesh sings, “Unbroken Chain.”
- From 1997-2011, Lesh occasionally performed with Bob Weir and Jackie Greene under the name “Philharmonia” for benefit shows with the Unbroken Chain Foundation.
- He released a biography titled “Searching for Sound: My Life with the Grateful Dead” in April 2005.
- Lesh’s biography was the first book written by a Grateful Dead member and was the only one until Bill Kreutzmann released a memoir in 2015.
- Lesh was inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall of Fame in 1994.
- Lesh performed with other members of the Grateful Dead — including Bob Weir, Mickey Hart, and Bill Kreutzmann — under the name The Other Ones from 1998 to 2002.
- Lesh was diagnosed with hepatitis C in 1998 and underwent a liver transplant the same year due to the inflammation and deterioration to the organ caused by the disease.
- He unofficially dedicated his first solo album, released in 2002, to the man whose liver he received. His name was Cody.
- He is an advocate for organ donation and is known to share his donor story with fans during shows.
- After recuperating from the transplant, Lesh returned to the stage with a three night Phil and Friends run featuring Trey Anastasio and Page McConnell of Phish.
- Two of his biggest heroes are John Coltrane and American modernist composer Charles Ives.
- He first heard John Coltrane while at a music summer camp in 1957 at College of the Pacific.
- Lesh believes the festival environment is the best way to listen to music.
- He’s a fan of recent country music, like Brad Paisley.
- Lesh contributed bass and vocals on David Crosby’s 1971 record “If I Could Only Remember My Name.”
- Phil Lesh and Friends co-headlined a tour with Bob Dylan in 1999.
- The first use of the band name “Phil Lesh and Friends” was at an acoustic gig at Berkeley Community Theater in 1994. The name was retired after that night and not used again until 1999.
- He describes the Phil Lesh and Friends’ sound as “electric chamber music.”
- In 2008, Lesh campaigned for President Obama by knocking on doors in Reno, Nevada.