Donna Jean Godchaux started her career singing vocals on legendary recordings of artists like Elvis Presley and Percy Sledge. On February 19, 2013, the Grateful Dead vocalist performed with the Dark Star Orchestra at Vinyl Music Hall in Pensacola, Florida.
The woman whose voice is found on “Suspicious Minds”, “When a Man Loves a Woman” and other recordings from her days as a session singer at legendary Muscle Shoals Sound and Fame studios is still making her voice heard.
Deadheads were treated to a special concert as the wife of late Grateful Dead keyboardist Keith Godchaux played with one of the world’s greatest Grateful Dead tribute bands.
One week before the concert, I interviewed Dark Star Orchestra drummer Rob Koritz for the Pensacola News Journal Music Matters column.
– Michael Hulin-Smith
Rob Koritz Full Interview
MS: How did a classical and jazz drummer end up in the greatest Grateful Dead tribute band in the world?
RK: (laughs) That’s a great question. Even though I was studying classical and then studying jazz, I was still a Deadhead all the time. That was really when I was getting into the Dead and listening to jazz and even classical and other styles. I could hear where the Grateful Dead’s influences were coming from. Jazz is all over what they’re doing. I just became a really big Deadhead and then, while I was here in St. Louis playing legitimate gigs, for lack of a better term, jazz gigs, original bands and all that, I started playing in a Grateful Dead coverband with the other drummer and that’s pretty much how it happened. And I did that for a lot of years and left that to pursue some other things and a couple of years later, found out about Dark Star and they brought me in and that’s pretty much how it started almost 14 years ago.
MS: What’s the coolest about this entire Dark Star Orchestra experience for you?
RK: Probably, the very coolest thing about it has been the opportunity to play with so many of my heroes. I got to play with pretty much every member of the Grateful Dead, a bunch of other bands who’ve had a huge influence on me growing up. It’s actually kind of neat to have them sit in with us and gotten to play with them. That’s something I never could have imagined when I started playing with this group. That a pretty cool thing.
Is there one highlight, one particular moment where it just blew your mind that you were playing with this person?
RK: If I had to pick one time that really got me, it was probably one of the earlier ones. It was in 2002, the first time Bob Weir came and played with us at the Warfield Theater in San Francisco. At that point, we hadn’t really played with anybody. I think we might have played with Donna at that point. We hadn’t played with a whole lot of Grateful Dead guys and I was just like, “Wow. This is amazing. I can’t believe he wants to play with us. He’s enjoying himself.” He’s very talented.
MS: I know the thing is, with fans especially, with the new deadheads growing up, who didn’t get to see the Dead, what’s been the response from the next generation of deadheads for you?
RK: That’s actually one of the coolest things about this gig. Is getting to play this music for so many people who didn’t get to see it when it was performed by the Grateful Dead. First of all, I think it’s just so amazing, it’s really a testament to the music that there’s still new fans coming on almost 20 years after the band stopped performing. It shows how important this music is in the American music vernacular. I think it’s great that they want to come out. Hopefully, we’re doing it justice and turning them on and giving them a little, very little taste of what the Dead might have been like back in the day.
MS: Aside from the Grateful Dead, what kind of music did you listen to growing up?
RK: I grew up listening to country, the oldies, reggae, early rap and hip hop, classical, rock n’ roll, jazz. You know, pretty much almost everything, even show tunes, playing show orchestras. I literally listened to everything. I still do. The only stuff that I don’t listen to is really heavy metal and speed metal and stuff like that. And not a real big fan of new country either. When I listen to country music I like to listen to the old guys.
MS: The original guys like Haggard and Cash.
RK: Yeah, Willie and Waylon. Kris Kristofferson, Hank Williams, there’s a ton of great old country. I don’t really listen to the new stuff, contemporary country.
MS: How did you make the transition from listening to actually playing music?
RK: I started playing, I got a snare drum and six months of drum lessons on my 7th birthday. It was “Six months and see how it goes.” And that’s what the present was. I started playing when I was seven and started taking lessons and took lessons from seven years old all the way through graduating from college.
MS: You went to the University of Arizona.
RK: I did my classical stuff at the University of Arizona, yeah.
MS: What is the most challenging part of the music you’re playing now?
RK: The most challenging part of this music these days is, part of it is you have to be challenged to listen. You can’t play this music, especially with two drummers, without being totally aware of what every other person onstage is doing. That’s the only way improvisation works. So, the biggest challenge is keeping your ears open all the time. Second challenge is trying to get the eras right that we play. Making sure that stylistically I’m playing in the 1970’s or 1980’s and doing that justice while at the same time, I get to express myself creatively and still be me. That’s the only real big challenge.
MS: We all know there’s rabid, diehard Grateful Dead fans, so I can imagine the concerts; what’s the craziest thing you’ve seen at one of your concerts?
RK: Oh man, I don’t know. I’ve seen a lot of crazy stuff. I couldn’t give you an answer on that. I’d have to think about what’s the absolute craziest thing I’ve ever seen at a concert. I don’t know. There’s lot of different things. Definitely, just when you think you’ve seen it all, something else happens.
MS: What’s the best advice you’ve ever been given?
RK: As in music?
RK: That’s a great question. Sorry, this is my last day at home before I start this tour. Great question, no one’s ever even asked me that question in all the interviews I’ve done.
MS: Thank you.
RK: Play for the song. Don’t worry about playing for yourself and trying to fit in everything you know how to play. Play for the song. Play to do the right kind of accompaniment. Play for the singer. Play, if it even means playing simple, you play completely simple; you just play what’s right for that song.
MS: That’s excellent advice. A lot of guys don’t do that. They try to put everything in one song.
RK: Yeah, like, “Hey, look at me.” And that’s not what it’s about. It should be “Hey, listen to us.”
MS: who shared that with you?
RK: Gosh, you know. I’ve heard it from a couple of different people, but I remember hearing it from my band leaders and when I got into college studying jazz and then you can pretty much, I grew up reading-I still read it-all the Modern Drummer magazines and I don’t think you can go through an issue without seeing an article where somebody said that because it’s just the most important thing.
MS: what would Rob of today, tell a younger Rob just starting out?
RK: Practice more. That’s an easy one. (laughs) Practice more, be more dedicated.
MS: Are you pretty tough on yourself? Are you pretty critical of your work?
RK: Yeah, I’m probably my worst critic, for sure. I’ve gotten better at it over the years. I’ve learned how to let go of things because they happen so fast. I’d be mad at myself for something I did, but it happens so fast, the audience doesn’t even notice it. It’s all in your head. So I’ve learned to let go a lot.
MS: As far as being a family man and an artist, how do you juggle it all with the tour, and everything?
RK: It’s really hard; today’s the hardest day of the year for me. I’m about to leave, it’s only January. I’m about to leave tonight for the longest tour of the year, what will be our longest tour in 2013. I’m leaving tonight. I’m going to kiss my wife and my 19 month old son goodbye. It will be over a month before I see them again. That’s the tough part, but we all chose to do it. I think that’s every artist’s dilemma. You don’t want to choose between your family and what you love to do, so you have to find a way to do them both, but it’s definitely very hard when it comes time to leave to go on the road.
MS: This is my crazy food question; do you prefer crunchy or creamy peanut butter?
RK: Do I what?
MS: Do you prefer crunch or creamy peanut butter?
RK: (Laughs) That’s funny. I had a peanut butter and jelly last night and it was crunchy. It was crunchy. It was honey roast crunchy.
MS: Is there anything else you want the fans to know?
RK: I want them to know that they are what we’re doing, we do it because we love this music and it’s that important to us. I want them to bring a friend. And anybody that might be skeptical because we’re a cover band or tribute band, or whatever you want to call it, Deadheads can be pretty particular fans, give it a chance because, most times, you come out and give it a chance, you will be pleasantly surprised at what you hear.