When the album “Deadicated: A Tribute to the Grateful Dead” was initially released by Arista Records on April 23, 1991, no one could have predicted, in a little more than four years, the band’s iconic guitarist Jerry Garcia would be gone. But as this August 9 marks 25 years since the man known as Captain Trips took his final journey, the groundbreaking album is also coming up on a major anniversary next year.
Featuring a who’s-who of then-alternative mainstays and rock veterans — among them: Jane’s Addiction, Los Lobos, Elvis Costello, Suzanne Vega, the Indigo Girls and Cowboy Junkies to frequent Dead collaborator Bruce Hornsby, New Orleans legend Dr. John, Warren Zevon and David Lindley, reggae band Burning Spear, Lyle Lovett, Dwight Yoakam and unlikely Aussie rockers Midnight Oil — “Deadicated” was the rare commercial and critical success for a tribute album. While it wasn’t the first, its performance at retail opened the door to many more such compilations in the 1990s and into the 2000s.
How successful was it? “Deadicated” climbed to No. 24 on the Billboard 200 — which actually beat the No. 27 peak of the Grateful Dead’s previous (and final) Arista studio album, “Built to Last” — and saw two singles, Jane’s Addiction’s idiosyncratic “Ripple” and Los Lobos’ anthemic opener “Bertha,” crack the Alternative Airplay charts, reaching Nos. 13 and 24, respectively.
Proceeds from the album amounted to more than $1 million, according to former Arista executive Roy Lott, who’s credited with A&R on the album but was in essence its executive producer, and went to the Rainforest Action Network and Cultural Survival, the latter dedicated to defending the rights of indigenous peoples.
The idea for “Deadicated” was the brainchild of the album’s listed executive producer, Ralph Sall, a musical multi-hyphenate who’s credited with producing such tribute compilations as 1994’s “Common Threads: The Songs of The Eagles,” 2000’s “Stoned Immaculate: The Music of the Doors” and 2014’s “The Art of McCartney,” which included everyone from Bob Dylan, Brian Wilson, Willie Nelson and Billy Joel to Kiss. Sall is also a successful composer and music supervisor for film and TV, who went on to work on “Encino Man,” “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” “Speed,” “Billy Madison,” “Three Kings” and “Mean Girls” as well as the small-screen series “Weed” and “Degrassi: The Next Generation.”
“I was a Deadhead who just wanted tickets to a show,” says Sall of his motivation for the album. “The idea was to put the focus on the Grateful Dead as songwriters. Too much attention was being paid at the time to the overflow, unruly crowds showing up for the concerts, and everything surrounding the band except the music itself. I felt those Jerry Garcia/Robert Hunter compositions deserved more credit than they were being given.”
Lott, Arista’s point-man for the group, agreed in light of a succession of violent incidents at venues hosting the band and many thousands of tailgaters. “We wanted to change the media conversation around the Dead to the work rather than the violence and mayhem at the shows.”
A former film production executive at 20th Century Fox, Sall decided to pitch the concept album as he would a movie, then proceeded to cast it the same way, sequencing the album as if it were a concert. Each side representsa one of two sets, starting off with Los Lobos’ “Bertha” and Bruce Hornsby and the Range’s “Jack Straw,” and ending with the more adventurous backstretch featuring Midnight Oil’s “Wharf Rat,” Burning Spear’s “Estimated Prophet,” which launched a veritable avalanche of Dead reggae tribute albums, Dr. John’s piano-driven New Orleans honky-tonk take on Jerry’s “Deal” and Jane’s Addiction’s eccentric but winning “Ripple.”
“I wanted people to hear that, for instance and think, ‘What a great Jane’s Addiction song,’ then realize, ‘Wait, that’s a Grateful Dead cover?” says Sall. “I tried to cast the songs in ways that, in a parallel universe, they could be by those particular artists. If the pairings were successful, people would hear the performing artist in those songs, rather than simply faithful versions of the originals.”
The album’s 15 tracks concentrate heavily on the Dead’s two most song-crafted collections, 1970’s “Workingman’s Dead” — itself recently reissued as a 50th deluxe edition by Rhino — and “American Beauty.” Ten songs are Garcia/Hunter tunes, with two Bob Weir/John Perry Barlow numbers (“Cassidy” and “Estimated Prophet”), and one apiece from Weir/Hunter (“Jack Straw”), Garcia, John Dawson and Hunter (“Friend of the Devil’) and Garcia, Weir, Phil Lesh and Hunter (“Truckin’”).
The album includes just one Arista artist, folk-rocker Michelle Malone, who joins Georgia Satellites’ Dan Baird, along with Mike Campbell, Benmont Tench and Stan Lynch from Tom Petty’s Heartbreakers as the Harshed Mellows for a rollicking version of “U.S. Blues,” one of three songs from 1974’s under-appreciated “Live from the Mars Hotel.” The most recent track at the time was the Cowboy Junkies’ typically languid, but exquisite “To Lay Me Down,” included on the 1981 Arista live double album, “Reckonings.”
“I would send the songs to Jerry as they were being completed and he was very encouraging,” remembers Sall. “Robert Hunter told me the record was like getting a dozen roses every day for the rest of his life.”
“Deadicated” was a labor of love for Sall, who produced nine of the songs, penned the liner notes with Lott and even designed the iconic rose-in-skeleton-hand album cover.
Incredibly, since Garcia’s death 25 years ago, the remaining Grateful Dead members are more popular than ever, with Dead and Company selling out arenas thanks to the addition of John Mayer.
“Jerry’s death was traumatic for all of us, but the group’s ability to carry on is testament to those songs,” says Sall. “Dead and Company are actually a tribute band, but they do it so well. People don’t want to let go. Jerry’s spirit still hovers over the shows.”
Although “Deadicated” is currently out of print and unavailable on the major streaming services, the complete album can still be heard on YouTube, and some of the individual songs have found their way onto participating artists’ own releases. Original versions of the disc are selling for close to $50 on Amazon, where the three-decade-old album is still charting, most recently, at British Punk (No. 21), Bakersfield (19) and Power Pop (38).
These days, Sall is hard at work on a U2 gospel-style tribute and, when COVID-19 allows, he hopes the long-awaited second chapter to “Deadicated.”
“How can I not include ‘Scarlet Begonias’ or ‘Terrapin Station,’ two songs I always looked forward to hearing at a show?” says Sall, while the now-retired Lott, who worked at Arista for almost 20 years, from 1978 to 1997, suggests “Playing in the Band” and “Fire on the Mountain” for the next set.
“There’s something about this record that will always be special to me,” Sall concludes. “It was the first, and it set the template.”