Deadhead Takes a Strange, Very Long Trip to Solve a Jerry Garcia Mystery


Joe Jupille

was burning with anticipation.

It was early December. He was driving over San Francisco Bay, chasing a mystery. He had been chasing it for two decades, since his kids were small and life’s big questions seemed like they would have easy answers.

Now Mr. Jupille was middle-aged, and he was heading to a garbage dump in Marin County with high hopes and $1,500. It was his third trip there. It had a whiff of desperation. Also of trash.

Jerry Garcia

It was worth the bad smell. Mr. Jupille believed that across the bridge, hard by the dump, a source would answer the question that burned inside him and drove a quest even his family had failed to understand: Who were the backup singers with the Jerry Garcia Band in October and November of 1982?

“These ladies are very obscure, man,” he said.

From the Institute for

Jerry Garcia

Studies, which he founded with four friends, Mr. Jupille pursues—in Mr. Garcia’s words—the mysteries dark and vast in the guitarist’s four-decade career outside the Grateful Dead.

There is plenty to explore. The late guitarist-singer-songwriter played in jug bands, bluegrass bands, rock bands and a jazz-rock fusion outfit.

The core members of the Jerry Garcia Band, Mr. Garcia and bassist

John Kahn,

led a shifting onstage lineup of singers, drummers, keyboardists and the occasional flutist. They sometimes toured for weeks or staged one-night stands between Dead shows. Their sets included reggae, Motown, Garcia compositions and lots of

Bob Dylan,

all reworked in Mr. Garcia’s loose, improvisational style.

“There’d be like a 22-minute song,” recalled Melvin Seals, a gospel organist who played in the band from 1981 to 1995.

Mr. Jupille wants to impose order on that chaos through research he compiles on the Garcia institute’s and on his blog, Jerry Garcia’s Middle Finger. While Grateful Dead lovers are famously fanatical, Mr. Jupille, a longtime Deadhead, is of a cohort whose dedication transcends fandom.

Joe Jupille at the shipping container near the Marin County dump.


Justin Scheck/The Wall Street Journal

He describes a spectrum. At one end are people with a Grateful Dead compilation album. At the other are those with deeper inquiries:

Where was Mr. Garcia’s first gig of May 1962?

“Flatbed truck, Monterey, Calif.,” jerrybase shows.

Did a beardless Garcia play a Bob Dylan song on a Tuesday?

In February, 1966, “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” at Bear’s House in Los Angeles.

Mr. Jupille draws from his job as a political-science professor at the University of Colorado and expertise in cliometrics—using economic and mathematical theory to quantify historical study. His works include “Procedural Politics: Issues, Influence, and Institutional Choice in the European Union.”

Just as Mr. Jupille documented the EU’s evolution, he traces Mr. Garcia’s transformation from psychedelic pioneer to business and cultural institution, analyzing business records, song selection and bandmates.

His path began soon after the Sept. 11 attacks, when Mr. Jupille, now 51 years old, heard a 1975 recording from a tiny club in Berkeley, Calif. Mr. Garcia’s band played set-list regulars and, weirdly, “Day by Day” from Godspell.

“Jerry was a huge rock star, and here he was on an off-night in Berkeley playing Godspell,” Mr. Jupille said, “and it just hit me: What was he after?”

It was a question the professor also asked of himself. He understands his goal of establishing an encyclopedic account of Mr. Garcia’s work through a quote from Umberto Eco: “We like lists because we don’t want to die.”

Mr. Jupille ran into trouble with spotty record-keeping from the early 1980s, when Mr. Garcia’s drug abuse had deepened.

He turned to Mr. Seals, the organist, for help unmasking the women who sang backup in late 1982. Prior Garcia sources said Mr. Seals replaced a pair of well-known backup singers that year. The identities of the 1983 backup singers were well established. But nobody, including Mr. Seals, remembered who sang in between.

Mr. Jupille pursued Garcia associates during family visits to his parents near San Francisco. His children started drawing pictures of Mr. Garcia. His wife resented him.

“I get it,” Mr. Jupille said, looking back. “She has a right to not be stuck with four kids and her mother-in-law while I go to talk to some hippies.”

In 2005, a Garcia associate told him of a Marin storage unit full of Garcia files. The source, Mr. Jupille said, was “so skittish that it is very much like a calm sea, and one little ripple, man…” The source clammed up.

Jerry Garcia, far right, and keyboard player Melvin Seals, far left, performing in the Jerry Garcia Band at the Concord Pavilion in Concord, Calif., on Sept. 7, 1981.


Don Aters/Icon and Image/Getty Images

By then, Mr. Jupille said, “the only big structural piece” missing from his work identifying Mr. Garcia’s band members were the names of the two singers on the legendary guitarist’s less-than-legendary fall 1982 tour.

So when Mr. Jupille called former Garcia roadie and tour manager “Big”

Steve Parish

for help in 2010, he felt he could say “I am the world’s greatest expert on the Jerry Garcia Band.”

“I’m the f—king guy that knows more about Jerry than anybody on the planet,” Mr. Parish told Mr. Jupille. He said he knew the singers’ names but wouldn’t share because Mr. Jupille’s search was “the stupidest” thing he had ever heard.

In 2011, Mr. Jupille got a break. The spooked source agreed to meet in Marin. The person showed up at a storage unit with 40 keys. None worked.

A year later, the source resurfaced. A shipping container by the Marin dump was full of Garcia files. Inside was a locked file cabinet. Mr. Jupille yanked it open and found documents spanning the 1970s to the 1990s. He photographed as many as he could but didn’t find the two names.

Over the next nine years, Mr. Jupille kept trying to get complete access to the files. He got divorced.

Last summer, the source said Mr. Jupille could have the documents for $3,000, to help cover decades of storage fees. Mr. Jupille brought them home and found that records from the 1980s were missing.

In November, as Mr. Seals recounted his time with Mr. Garcia to The Wall Street Journal, the organist remembered something: He had turned to a high-school friend,

Elisecia Wright,

to sing backup in late 1982, he was pretty sure.

Reached in Georgia, Ms. Wright said she toured with Mr. Garcia in late 1982 and later with Mr. Dylan. She recalled Mr. Garcia’s amplifiers were too loud. “Rockers are so stoned they wouldn’t turn them down,” she said.

Mr. Jupille told the Journal he had never heard of Ms. Wright.

Joe Jupille spent years trying to get access to documents about the Jerry Garcia Band stored in a shipping container near the Marin County dump.


Justin Scheck/The Wall Street Journal

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