Was Sammy Hagar Really Invited to Join the Grateful Dead?
Sammy Hagar has shared the stage with countless legends over the years, but one of the most notable was a jam with the Grateful Dead's Jerry Garcia at Sweetwater Music Hall.
It wasn't unusual to find famous musicians at that intimate space in Mill Valley, Calif. “All of us local guys, we all lived here. Carlos [Santana] lived here, Neal Schon lived in Mill Valley at that time,” Hagar tells UCR. “Jerry, Bob Weir, Grace Slick – the list goes on. Everybody would just go down there and play all of the time.”
Only a lucky few were ever in attendance, however, since Hagar said the capacity of the original Sweetwater Music Hall – which closed in 2007 – was 101. The “one guy,” he jokes, must have been on the toilet.
Local business owner John Goddard was the catalyst for some of the most memorable gatherings. He owned Village Music, a used record store that attracted touring musicians. “If Elvis Costello was playing San Francisco, he’d come over to Mill Valley to go to this record store,” Hagar says, “because he had used records and he had the stuff, man. If he didn’t have it, he’d find it for you.”
Goddard’s parties at Sweetwater became legendary. “He’d get Elvis Costello, Jerry Garcia, me – you know, anybody, to play ‘em. He was such a cool guy,” Hagar says. “We all loved his music store so much. He’d have this event there every year.”
April 24, 1989, was a signature night, as Village Music celebrated its 21st year. Costello offered a generous opening set that evening at Sweetwater, which held a special place in his heart since it was reportedly the first place Costello played in the States.
The list of guests kept growing as the evening progressed, including Hagar, Weir and Jerry Scheff and James Burton from Elvis Presley’s band, among others. “The one I played, Jerry was there, Pete Sears [from Jefferson Airplane], I think, was on bass. It was the A team.”
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Hagar shared vocals with Commander Cody, who led the band through a version of “Riot in Cell Block #9,” a Leiber/Stoller number he recorded for 1973’s Live From Deep in the Heart of Texas. Then Hagar suggested “Going Down,” the well-traveled blues staple later covered by Jeff Beck, Deep Purple, the Who, Led Zeppelin and others.
“Jerry [Garcia] said, ‘What key?’ I said, ‘A’ and Jerry [started playing the riff]. He starts up this real meek [riffing] and then the band kind of kicks in and [Costello] goes, ‘I’m out of here,’” Hagar says, with a laugh. “You see him on the video, he ducks out! Elvis Costello [says] ‘I don’t know this damn blues tune, man. I’m a folk-punk artist!’”
This wasn't Hagar's only time on the Sweetwater Music Hall stage, but it's certainly his most memorable. “I’ve jammed with everybody there, again and again and again,” he adds. “It’s just that one with Jerry Garcia. C’mon! What a trip!”
The invite to play came personally from Jerry, though Hagar says the formality was hardly necessary. “I remember Jerry coming up to me and saying, ‘Hey man, Sammy, I really dig your shit. You wanna jam,’” he says, with a chuckle. “Just the way he said it: He was such a humble guy.”
They'd met before, Hagar adds, “but it was as if he had to give me a compliment first, otherwise I probably would have said, ‘No, you don’t like me!’ It was funny, because I loved Jerry. He was the most humble and sweetest guy on the planet.”
Hagar remained friends with Weir, who once referred to the former Van Halen frontman as "more fun than a frog in a glass of milk." He also regularly appeared onstage with members of the band following Garcia's death, beginning with the first show they played as the Dead in February 2003 at the Warfield concert venue in San Francisco.
Rumors about officially joining the lineup inevitably followed. “I don’t know how true it is, but Bob would always kind of hint at it,” Hagar tells UCR. “I would always go play with them, whenever they’d do some kind of reunion after Jerry [died].”
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Their live takes on "Loose Lucy," originally found on the Grateful Dead's 1974 album From the Mars Hotel, ended up catching the attention of Garcia’s ex-wife, Mountain Girl.
Hagar remembers her saying, “You own that song now, Sammy. You should be in this band,” which prompted an apparent joke from Weir: “Bob’s going ‘Yeah, you should be in the band.’ We never really talked about it seriously. I kind of had a conversation with Bob. You know, ‘What if I just played with you guys for one show, and we did a benefit or something together?’”
Those discussions “never got serious,” Hagar adds, and Weir later emerged with a different lineup for a group billed as Dead & Company.
Featuring classic-era members Weir, Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzmann, the band will once again be joined by John Mayer, Oteil Burbridge and Jeff Chimenti for a new tour starting in August. Meanwhile, Hagar is now preparing to launch his first-ever residency in Las Vegas in October.
In the end, Hagar wonders if he would have struggled within the larger dynamic of the Dead, “because I’m so ambitious that I want to do so many other things, and I probably would have gotten thrown out of that band too,” Hagar says with a laugh. “But the lineup they have now with John Mayer – man, that band is smokin’. I love what they’re doing now.”
Still, Hagar allows, “I certainly would have considered it.”
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