Donna Jean is a singer from the Muscle Shoals area of Alabama. As a young girl she would listen to the radio all day and sing the songs of current popular stars of the era. At the age of 12, Donna Jean got a chance to see the studio of the legendary producer Rick Hall and the path was set for her life as a singer. She would end up eventually working at the famous Muscle Shoals studios as a session singer. Donna Jean appeared on recordings of Elvis Presley, Percy Sledge, Cher, Etta James, and many others. Soon after her friends moved out to California to the happening music and art scene, Donna Jean followed and quickly settled in. While attending a Grateful Dead concert in San Francisco, Donna Jean told the person next to her " When I sing again, it’s gonna be with THAT band." In her circle of friends was a keyboard player and her future husband Keith Godchaux. She made a point to approach Jerry Garcia and tell him that he needs to hear Keith play. Jerry agreed and soon after hearing him, Keith was a member of The Grateful Dead. It wasn't long after that Donna Jean also became a member as a backup singer. Donna Jean performed with The Grateful Dead from 1972 through 1979 and added wonderful harmony vocals to enhance the sound of the band. The Grateful Dead is known as a live touring band and Donna Jean contributed on the classic Europe 72 tour (documented on LP record) and the iconic Egypt pyramid shows. After her tenure with the band, Donna Jean concentrated on family life with Keith. They would eventually return to music with their band called "Heart of Gold Band" but things were put on hold when Keith was killed in a tragic car accident. Today, Donna Jean is still very active writing, singing, and performing, as she leads The Donna Jean Godchaux Band with Jeff Mattson. I caught up with her following her appearance at the 2016 New Orleans Jazz Festival.
R.V.B. - Congratulations on your career in music. You have a lot to be proud of. What kind of music was playing around the house when you were growing up and what types of songs did you start singing at first?
D.J.G. - I was singing from the first day I can remember. Back in 1953 at age 6, I listened to the radio all day long, memorizing songs by female artists such as Kay Starr, Georgia Gibbs, Gogi Grant, Teresa Brewer, and Jo Stafford (to name a few). I would learn the melody, and when I had that down, would learn the other two harmony parts. My instinct for harmony came early and natural. I could just hear it.
R.V.B. - What would you consider the moment of you making singing your career?
D.J.G. - I always knew that singing would be my career, but got an early taste of it up close at age twelve when I visited Rick Hall’s studio in Florence, Alabama. When I walked in and saw the console, speakers, wires, etc., I was immediately consumed with “studio fever.” That was, for sure, a moment. (Rick Hall became the founder of “FAME” studios in Muscle Shoals.)
R.V.B. - How did you become involved as a session singer in Muscle Shoals? What did you enjoy the most about singing in the studio? Did you make a lot of friends there?
D.J.G. - Since I grew up in the Muscle Shoals area, I was around when all the studios started cropping up (around 1960ish). So many of my friends were musicians and songwriters, that we all just grew up and fell right into it. I sang on my first demo when I was 15, and by high school was singing background on records at FAME, and later at the famed “Muscle Shoals Sound Studios.” (Sometimes I had to go straight from cheerleader practice to the studio in my uniform.) I loved everything about the studio. It became my teacher as well as my life. Literally all my musician/friends from that time are still my best friends today. It’s very special. Just Google “The Muscle Shoals Swampers,” or “FAME Studios,” and you will get an inkling of the many hit records that were recorded in this small, north Alabama area. (You’ve interviewed David Hood, so you know what I’m talking about.) If you haven’t yet, watch the movie “Muscle Shoals,” which beautifully tells the whole story with some of the best music ever made. I had the honor of singing on the album, “When A Man Loves A Woman,” by Percy Sledge, Cher’s first solo album, “3614 Jackson Highway,” R.B Greaves’ hit “Take A Letter Maria,” Boz Scaggs’ self-titled first album (featuring Duane Allman), and sang on sessions with Etta James, Neil Diamond, Ben E. King, Dionne Warwick, and many others. Not bad for this just-out-of-high-school southern girl, eh?
D.J.G. - Working with Elvis Presley in Memphis was truly amazing. I had been a HUGE fan of his since I was 11 years old, and never dreamed I would have the opportunity to SING with him. He had heard our voice group (“Southern Comfort”) on a demo we did for a songwriter named Mark James, called “Suspicious Minds.” From what I heard later, Elvis said, “I want that song and I want those girls.” He was so kind, encouraging, a real gentleman, and gorgeous! This was the 1969 Elvis, looking good! On that first session we did “Suspicious Minds,” “In The Ghetto,” “Kentucky Rain,” “Rubber-neckin,’ and others. We girls were very professional in the studio, but when we left, half of Memphis could hear us screaming our lungs out. We had just sung with Elvis Presley!
R.V.B. - Why did you move to California? For the music or just a change in scenery? Where did you set up shop?
D.J.G. - It was 1970. I had always wanted to go to California. After doing session work for years, I was ready for a big adventure. Leaving a lucrative career was a huge step, but I knew I had to go. I had no musical aspirations in moving to San Francisco, just instinct and a sense of excitement that was palatable. My only “set up” was moving in with two of my hometown friends who had recently moved there and were already in an apartment.
R.V.B. - How did you meet your husband Keith? Did the two of you take in any other music in the Bay Area other than the Grateful Dead?
D.J.G. - I met Keith through friends I made after settling in. EVERYBODY there was into The Grateful Dead. After my studio years in Muscle Shoals where the music was arranged and produced, I was not immediately impressed with their records. I didn’t “get it” until I saw them live at Winterland in San Francisco that summer. Unlike my friends who were with me, I refused to take or smoke anything so as to “have my head on straight.” But..It was The Grateful Dead at their most magic that night. I remember saying to whoever was sitting next to me, “When I sing again, it’s gonna be with THAT band.” I left there with my head blown off. Keith was there, and part of our group, but I had never heard him play piano. I didn’t hear him play until after we fell in love and decided to get married. (I know that’s crazy, but it’s a true story.)
R.V.B. - You seem to really be a go getter and know how to make things happen. After you got your husband in the band as the keyboard player, how did it come about to network yourself into the Grateful Dead as well?
D.J.G. - When Keith and I met with Garcia at a rehearsal warehouse, we brought a reel-to reel recorder with songs we had written and me singing. Garcia and Keith jammed together and clicked instantly. The next day, after Keith played with the full band, he was asked to join. I was invited at the same time, but I wanted him to get to do it first. I stayed home those first two tours. When I did join, it was surprisingly natural and a lot of fun learning their unique harmony approach.
R.V.B. - What is your take on the "mojo" of The grateful Dead? Is it a combination of the music... the fans... the drugs... and the interaction of the band - that made the Dead's mystique?
D.J.W. - What you are calling the “mojo” of The Grateful Dead has been written about for 50 years. The combination of many factors adds up to a total experience that is like no other in rock and roll. What I call the “Good ole Grateful Dead’s” music was otherworldly. Mickey Hart referred to that magic as “when the 7th man shows up.” No song was ever played exactly the same because no moment in time was exactly the same. The guys spent as much time listening to one another with their ears as they did playing notes with their hands. It would take way more time than I have right now to really get into THAT. The fans are certainly another “instrument” in the band. The reciprocal flow of that energy is part and parcel of Grateful Dead music. There’s so much more to say about it all, but not enough time. Sorry!
R.V.B. - Are there any special gigs in your memory banks?
D.J.G. - I loved the entire Egypt experience. It was truly magical in every way. Who gets to play music in front of the Sphinx and pyramids? No rock band had ever obtained permission from the Egyptian Department of Antiquities to play there until the Grateful Dead. I also enjoyed the Europe tours. Because music has no language barrier, the fans were as rabid across that pond as they were in the States. Some of the best Grateful Dead music was played there, which is duly noted on “Europe ’72.” I would be hard put to come up with favorite shows in the U.S. We played so many that it is somewhat of a blur. (I’m scratching my head right now.)
R.V.B. - What are you most proud of during your tenure with The Grateful Dead? Did the extracurricular enhancement of recreational intake activities help or hinder your creativity as a member of the band?
D.J.G. - I’m more than proud to have been in THAT band at THAT time, and with THOSE guys. It was, and still is, an honor to say that I am the only female to have been a band member in The Grateful Dead. Fun as it was at the time, my only regret is centered around how “extracurricular enhancements” (as you put it) could affect my performance. That, and it was damn near impossible to hear myself onstage. That’s another story!
D.J.G. - In a mutual decision of both Keith & me and the band, we left in 1979. It was the right thing to do. The road and lifestyle was taking a toll on our marriage. Our son, Zion, was five years old at the time, and we knew that our priority had to be centered on our family. We did take a break musically, but later regrouped, and started the “Heart of Gold” band with Greg Anton, Mark Adler, and Steve Kimock. Just days after we played our first show in San Francisco, Keith was killed in a car accident. So tragic.
R.V.B. - Can you tell me a little bit on how you enjoyed taking more of a leadership role as a singer/musician in creating and performing music post Grateful Dead?
D.J.G. - I had already taken more of a leadership role in both the “Keith & Donna” band and the “Heart of Gold Band” as lead singer and songwriter, so the natural progression for me was to keep doing it. I love/hate the songwriting process! It’s infuriating sometimes, but so satisfying when the result is that you’ve written a song that you love to sing. Bringing that song into the studio and seeing it come to life is taking it to another level of satisfaction. I also love performing live. Singing in the studio is a whole nuther thing than singing onstage. I love them both!
R.V.B. - How did you hook up with Jeff Mattson? I know there is the music connection. Did he approach you or you approach him? Do you still enjoy touring with the Donna Jean Godchaux band? You mentioned that you still keep in touch with some of the Swamp Men like David Hood, and Chuck Leavell... do you still do any other studio work?
D.J.G. - Jeff Mattson and I hooked up in 2005 when I was asked by him to sing with the “Zen Tricksters” at a music festival. The Tricksters and I hit it off so well that we later teamed up as “Donna Jean & the Tricksters,” recorded a CD on Long Island, and hit the road. It was during that period that Jeff and I began writing together. We really are kindred spirits. That band morphed into “The Donna Jean Godchaux Band w/Jeff Mattson.” We recorded the album “Back Around” at “The Nutthouse Recording Studio” in the Muscle Shoals area, and is my favorite solo work to date. My husband, David, plays (rocking) bass in the band, so that is huge for me! I still sing in the studio with various projects, and, of course, stay closely in touch with my musician friends from waaaay back.
R.V.B. - What do you like to do in your off time in music? Any other hobbies?
D.J.G. - I always say about myself that if I’m not being creative, I’m dangerous. Therefore, if I’m not doing something musically, I’m working on some project. I’m deeply involved right now in creating a specialized greeting card concept that has pulled something out in me I didn’t know I had. If I’m not working on that, it’s something else that’s scratching that creative itch.
R.V.B. - Do you have any regrets about some of your decisions in your career? Would you have done anything different?
D.J.G. - Everybody has regrets in one way or another, but I wouldn’t change the main decisions I have made. To quote a line I wrote in mine and Jeff’s song “Back Around,” “Livin’ in what could’ve been can keep a heart in stone”
D.J.G. - Being inducted into the Alabama Music Hall of Fame is a great honor. I am in the company of so many amazing music people, that it is quite humbling. There’s nothing like being recognized by your peers, in your home state. Very special. It also didn’t suck that I got to sing a couple of my songs that night with a fabulous 18-piece band of sterling musicians! David Gans came out from California and introduced me at the induction. (I’ll bet not too many people have seen him in a tux.) The following Sunday, we went to the Nutthouse Recording Studio where owner Jimmy Nutt hooked David Gans up with Gary Lambert at Sirius Radio in New York. They are co-hosts of “Tales From the Golden Road” on The Grateful Dead channel. Along with well-known musicians from the area, we had big fun on that two-hour show.
Interview conducted by Robert von Bernewitz
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For more information on Donna Jean visit her website www.donnajeangodchauxband.com
Photo credits: Mike Thut, Mamarazi
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