Happy Birthday Phil Lesh: Relive the Grateful Dead Legend’s Best Moments

by Charles Craighill

Today, the original Grateful Dead founder and legendary bassist, Phil Lesh, turns 81 years old. Even 25 years after the original cast parted ways with Jerry Garcia’s death, Lesh still punches that bass line. The big boy bringing in that bottom end has been a driving force in music for almost sixty years. Let’s take a look back at some of his greatest moments.

Playing In The Band

Long before the Grateful Dead took form, Phil Lesh went to school and trained in classical and Avante Garde jazz. He and Jerry Garcia knew each other back in the days in the bay area, so when Garcia decided to form a band, Phil was on his shortlist.

However, at that time, the band went by the name of the Warlocks. After discovering another band had the same name, Phil Lesh and his company had a decision to make. To find their perfect band name, Jerry Garcia pulled out a dictionary to find the name.

As legend has it, Jerry’s chubby little pointer finger landed on the name “Grateful Dead,” and the rest is history. Well, If Phil had his way, it might not have ended up that way. The bassist apparently stood adamantly against that band name. Now, sixty years later, I doubt Phil feels upset about the decision.

The Fallout from the Phil Lesh Zone

After a few years of gaining notoriety around the Bay Area, Phil Lesh began gaining notoriety as a talented bassist. The more fans that showed up to the show, the more would gravitate toward Phil’s side of the stage. In fact, many of the “tapers” would choose to tape the show from Phil’s side of the stage to get the emphasis on the bass clef. One of the best to come out of those tapes was “Fallout From the Phil Zone,” a live album that highlighted some of the legendary bassist’s best work.

This live album featured some of those classic runs that Phil Lesh brought to the table with the Grateful Dead. His understanding of musical theory catapulted the Dead into a new stratosphere with improvisation. Between his and Bob Weir’s jazz backgrounds and Jerry’s virtuoso mind, the band found a niche in the San Francisco music scene.

Brown Eyed Women

Perhaps the most outstanding performance from Phil Lesh’s career came in their 1972 European Tour. In their Denmark show from that tour, Phil put on an absolute clinic in rhythm bass for the song “Brown Eyed Women.”

In the iconic intro, Jerry plays the hypnotic line while Phil Lesh tickles harmonies underneath. Despite being played live, that recording could serve as a studio take with any recording musician. Several other songs on that album, including “Morning Dew,” feature some of Phil’s most tasteful bass licks of his career.

Phil Lesh and Friends

After Jerry Garcia passed away in 1995, Phil Lesh, Bob Weir, and the other remaining members of the Dead had to figure out how to continue without their point man. Each of them took on some side projects to continue the Grateful Dead’s legacy in music. For instance, dead cover bands like “Dead and Company” and “Phil Lesh and Friends” all feature original members of the Grateful Dead.

However, the band’s legacy extends beyond Phil Lesh and the original members. Other bands have followed in their footsteps, both playing their own music and that of the Dead. For instance, Phish somewhat took over the live improvisational with their own music, while Joe Russo’s Almost Dead made their own spin on the Dead’s music.

While Phil Lesh continues to make the music of the Grateful Dead with his band, his impact with Jerry Garcia and the rest of the original members continue to impact music today. Happy birthday to the jam band star, we can’t wait to see you playing live again.