“Betty has proven it,” says Chris Robinson. “Some of us are in this for something other than just the status and the comfort of money and what other people define as success. That’s her euphoric thing: capturing the sound.”
By now, the tale of Betty Cantor-Jackson has been told many times over. A sound engineer that caught on to the Grateful Dead phenomenon in its infancy, Betty taped hundreds of shows during the band’s heyday. Her tapes were lost in an auction years later, but bootlegs made their way into circulation during a time where tape collecting was king. The legacy of shows like 5/8/77 were no doubt amplified by her work: pristine recordings during the Grateful Dead’s peak years.
At the center of this legacy was an intimate relationship between Betty Cantor-Jackson and Jerry Garcia. She earned his trust in all aspects of life, but the music was sacred, and Betty was the queen. She taped Jerry Garcia Band shows for the entirety of his life. “I would go do it just because I loved the music and he was my friend and I loved him,” she tells. His death was felt strongly by the entire community, but, for Betty, it also meant the end of an era that was defined by capturing his music.
Following Jerry’s death, Betty stopped taping shows altogether — that is, until 2011, when Betty rekindled her former passion after she was roped into working as the stage manager for Wavy Gravy’s 70th birthday party and Seva benefit concert. The Black Crowes had just gone on another hiatus, and lead vocalist Chris Robinson was in the early processes of working with a new band. This collective was playing residencies across California and performed at the birthday benefit.
One listen, and Betty was hooked. “The first time I heard Chris in my ears, I said, ‘My god, a real singer! Oh, thank you!’ They have such a wonderful sound.”
She introduced herself to the band, and Robinson immediately knew who she was. “I was like, ‘Oh wow, this is Betty!’ We hit it off that night, because she’s a real smart-ass, and I am too.”
The wheels were set in motion from that very first chance encounter, as he remembers fondly, “She basically said, ‘I hope you’re into it, because I’m recording your band, and there’s not much you can do about stopping me.’ That was the starting place.”
As the Chris Robinson Brotherhood began to take shape into what it is today, Betty’s taping of the band became a regular occurrence. Robinson had the idea to turn Betty’s recordings of the Brotherhood into an official live release series dubbed Betty’s Blends.
“With the success of the first Betty’s Blend — I mean successful in that it sounds great, it came out, the art’s cool. . . . It’s not like we sell a lot of records — but that started the whole thing. Subsequently, it’s become its own little thing. We’ve been able to fly Betty to other parts of the country, and Betty comes on the bus with us.”
Betty tells me that touring with the band makes her feel “special” and “young again.” The good vibes are assuredly mutual, as Robinson notes how excited the band is when she’s working a show.
“We usually have her set up with all of her gear on stage with us,” says Robinson. “During the course of an evening, you look back and see Betty back there with the headphones on, smoking a joint, jamming and dancing away. We must be doing pretty good tonight!”
For Betty, the CRB is the culmination of a long and challenging career in sound production. She got her start in San Francisco clubs during the late 1960’s, working as one of the first female engineers ever. Her gender and young age made it an uphill battle, and even today, she fights for recognition of her work with the Grateful Dead and Jerry Garcia.
Robinson tells me a story that exemplifies this perfectly. “A few years ago, we were in Denver for some New Year’s Eve shows. It was the night before New Year’s Eve, and we had played until three in the morning. We’re leaving, and people are sweeping up the remains of the first night. ‘Spill The Wine’ by Eric Burdon & War comes on, and Betty says, ‘Oh yeah, that’s mine.’ I said, ‘Wait a minute. I’ve listened to that record 50,000 times. You were the engineer on that record?!’ No one had given her credit because she was a nineteen-year-old girl.”
Perhaps that’s what makes the Betty’s Blends series all the more special. Her name is right there on the cover, plain as day for all to behold.
Betty’s Self-Rising Southern Blends, Vol. 3
“There’s finally someone I wanted to record,” says Betty. “I hadn’t wanted to do that since Jerry passed. I used to record every gig I could get to of Garcia’s. I hadn’t wanted to do that since he died. Now I want to record any time I can get to where the CRB is. If it’s feasible, I will go record, because I really like this music. It’s good!”
She lingers on the music and the band, appreciating that they’re prolific, that they love to stretch out when they play and are always growing as musicians. She praises guitarist Neal Casal and calls Robinson’s lyrics “Hunter-esque,” incredibly high accolades for any songwriter.
When I tell Chris Robinson that his lyrics have been deemed “Hunter-esque” by Betty Cantor-Jackson, even he is taken aback. “Well that’s cool. I’ll take that. He’s one of my favorites too.”
Naturally, Chris returns the compliments by praising Betty’s unwavering devotion to her craft, saying that what she does is “not like recording. It’s more like capturing something. There’s a visceral aspect to that, which I think, in its essence, is why she was interested in our music and our band. That’s how we’re finding our way across the cave floor. I think you can remove the generations and change the names, but that’s the real magic of what she does and what she represents.”
For Chris, achieving that visceral aspect was the result of a lengthy career in music. “I was in the Black Crowes for all these years, and that was a unique experience, but that was something that happened to us. This is something that we’ve built, and it’s a different perspective. No matter how talented you are or how charismatic of a performer, it’s almost like you won the lottery. This is something that I use to farm, because we really planted the seeds and tended the garden.”
Interestingly enough, Chris mentions that Betty was “the first person in the world” to tell him that she’d never heard the Black Crowes. He tells a great story about how he invited Betty to see the Crowes during their 2013 reunion tour. After their set, she replied, “Eh. When’s the CRB starting up again?”
Her passion has not gone unnoticed nor unappreciated by the band, who recognize that having her around has helped them take root in the San Francisco music scene.
“What’s interesting about the Grateful Dead is how they did all these amazing things and created this thing outside the regular music business,” says Robinson. “The times are different, the age is different, but there are some things that are consistent. Timothy Leary was an egomaniac, and ‘Turn on, tune in and drop out’ was a cliché, but, in this anxiety-filled world that we live in called 2017, those three things can be done and you can still be integrated as a normal person. That’s what the CRB has done in the music business.” He continues, “I think it’s just an allegory for a way of making sense of the madness, and doing it in a troubadour folk singer tradition. I think that’s what Betty feels.”
One thing is for sure: Betty loves the work she’s doing with the band. Betty’s Self-Rising Southern Blends, Vol. 3 was just released last Friday, May 5th (order it here), and she’s already started working on Volume 4.
“It’s wonderful to have that again,” she concludes about her newfound musical spark. “That’s what I had with Garcia Band. Just having fun catching the music.” Isn’t that what it’s really all about?
Check out two recordings from Vol. 3, below.