Meaning of the band’s name: Grateful Dead

Fans of psychedelic rock band The Grateful Dead will tell you that to love the band is to love their lifestyle. These same people, when asked what their favorite song from the band is, will often tell you something like: it’s a great song, man.

Indeed, the jam band is infamous for their raucous, elongated, trippy shows and fans who travel across the country to take part.

But what about the band’s real name? And were they always known as The Grateful Dead? Well, that’s what we’re going to study here. So, without further ado, let’s dive into the band’s world, with one of their most popular tracks below.

Early Band Days

The band was formed (under a different name) in 1965 in Northern California in the town of Palo Alto. Blending rock, folk, country, jazz, bluegrass, blues and many other genres, the band’s brand of psychedelic music has become the essence of legend, especially via the band’s concerts, which often include long jams lasting 10, 20, 30 minutes or more.


Today, the band’s fans are known as “Deadheads”, both for their appreciation of the band and their penchant for dating psychedelic drugs.

Born in the Bay Area, where the American counterculture was booming in the 1960s, the band’s founding members include guitarist and lead vocalist Jerry Garcia, rhythm guitarist Bob Weir, keyboardist Ron McKernan, bassist Phil Lesh and drummer Bill Kreutzmann. Together they created a group that will live in infamy.

Their first name

Originally the group was known as the Warlocks. The members of that first team had played together in various San Francisco bands, including Mother McCree’s traditional Uptown Jug Champions jug band. Lesh was the last member to join the Warlocks before the group officially changed its name to Grateful Dead.

The band’s first gig was at Magoo’s Pizza Parlor, located at 639 Santa Cruz Avenue in the suburb of Menlo Park. It took place on May 5, 1965. The location is now a furniture store.

The band continued gigging, playing bar shows like Frenchy’s Bikini-A-Go-Go. They also played a regular gig which included five sets a night, five nights a week for six weeks at the In the bedroom at Belmont.

The change of wizards

The band ended up changing their name from The Warlocks after discovering that another band was known by the same nickname. Additionally, The Velvet Underground was also known as The Warlocks but had to change their name for the same reason.

The Grateful Dead

The group of musicians then landed on the name The Grateful Dead. According to legend, this name was chosen from a dictionary. Said Lesh, “[Jerry Garcia] picked up an old Britannica Dictionary of World Languages … [and] … In that silver elf voice, he said to me, ‘Hey, man, how about the Grateful Dead?

The definition of the nickname was “the soul of a deceased person, or his angel, showing his gratitude to someone who, out of charity, arranged his burial”.

And according to Alan Trist, the director of the group’s music publishing company, Ice Nine, Garcia found the name in the Funk & Wagnalls Folk dictionary when his finger landed on that phrase while playing a game of “Fictionary.” In Garcia’s biography Captain Voyagesauthor Sandy Troy said the group was smoking the psychedelic drug DMT at the time.

The term “grateful dead” also appears in a number of folktales from various cultures.

The group’s first concerts

The Grateful Dead’s first show was in San Jose on December 4, 1965, during one of Ken Kesey’s Acid Tests. Kesey was an author and promoter of psychedelic drugs.

While some early demo tapes have survived, the first of some 2,000 concerts known to have been recorded by fans of the band came from a concert at the Fillmore Auditorium in San Francisco on January 8, 1966. And later that month- there the band played Trips Festival, which was a three-day psychedelic rock weekend party produced by Kesey and others. Hippies unite!

After Jerry Garcia

After Garcia’s death in 1995, former band members, along with other musicians, toured as The Other Ones in 1998, 2000, and 2002. They later toured as Dead in 2003, 2004 and 2009.

In 2015, the four surviving band members marked the band’s 50th anniversary in a series of shows billed as their final performances together. Since then, other bands have sprung up from these players, including Dead & Company, Further, the Rhythm Devils, Phil Lesh and Friends, and many more.

The Grateful Dead (Picture: Clayton Call)

Corina C. Butler