Phillip Chapman Lesh was born in Berkeley, California in 1940. He is best known as a founding member of the Grateful Dead, with whom he played bass guitar throughout their 30-year career.
After the band's disbanding in 1995, Lesh continued the tradition of Grateful Dead family music with side project Phil Lesh and Friends, which paid homage to the Dead's music.Recently, Lesh has been performing with Furthur alongside former Dead bandmate Bob Weir.
Lesh's first instrument was the violin, then in high school he switched to trumpet. He had a keen interest in avant-garde classical music and free jazz; he also studied under the Italian modernist Luciano Berio at Mills College. There, his classmates included minimalist composer Steve Reich, and future Dead keyboardist Tom Constanten.
While still a college student he met then-bluegrass banjo player Jerry Garcia. Despite different musical interests, they formed a friendship and eventually Lesh was talked into becoming the bass guitarist for Garcia's new rock group, then known as the Warlocks. According to Lesh, the first song he rehearsed with the band was "I Know You Rider." He joined them for their third or fourth gig and stayed for the entire band's history.
Lesh had never played bass before joining the band, and ended up learning it as he played. One advantage to this approach was he had no preconceived attitudes about the instrument's traditional "rhythm section" role. Indeed, he has said that his playing style was influenced more by Bach counterpoint than by rock or soul bass players with some jazz influence.
Lesh, along with Paul McCartney, Roger Waters, Brian Wilson, John Entwistle, and others became an innovator in the role of the electric bass in rock during the mid-1960s; adopting a more melodic approach to the instrument instead of a conventional timekeeping role within the beat of the song, and chord structure. In many Dead jams, Lesh's bass is as much a lead instrument as Garcia's guitar.
Lesh was not a prolific composer or singer with the Grateful Dead, although some of the songs he did contribute—"New Potato Caboose," "Box of Rain," "Unbroken Chain," and "Pride of Cucamonga"—are among the best-loved in the band's repertoire. Lesh's high tenor voice contributed greatly to the Grateful Dead's four-part harmony sections in their group vocals in the early days of the band, later handled by Donna Godchaux. In the 1980s, he resumed singing, but as a baritone.
Lesh's interest in avant garde music was a crucial influence on the Dead, pushing them into new territory, and he was an essential part of the group and its mystique, best summed-up in the Deadhead truism: "If Phil's on, the band's on."
After the Grateful Dead disbanded following Garca's death, Lesh continued to play with its offshoots The Other Ones and The Dead, as well as performing with his own band, Phil Lesh and Friends. One memorable tour paired him with Bob Dylan.
|Phil Lesh and Friends|
In 1998 Lesh underwent a liver transplant as a result of chronic hepatitis C infection; since then, he has become an outspoken advocate for organ donor programs and when performing regularly encourages members of the audience to become organ donors.
In April, 2005, Lesh's book Searching for the Sound: My Life with the Grateful Dead was published. The book's name comes from the lyrics of a Grateful Dead song entitled "Unbroken Chain one of the few songs Lesh sings. This is the only book about the Grateful Dead written by a member of the band.
In 2009, Lesh went back on tour with the remaining members of The Grateful Dead and called it The Reunion Tour. Following the 2009 summer tour Lesh proceeded to found a new band with Bob Weir named Furthur, which debuted in September 2009.