Howard Wales, the American keyboardist who collaborated with Jerry Garcia on 1971’s Hooteroll?, died on Monday. He was 77. No cause of death has been listed, but Wales suffered a medical emergency on December 6th and was rushed to the hospital where he died on the 7th.
Throughout his 50-year music career, Wales worked with everyone from James Brown to The Four Tops to Ronnie Hawkins as a session musician. He is best remembered, however, for his experimental jazz work with Garcia, as well as his keyboard contributions to the Grateful Dead‘s American Beauty.
Wales first met the Grateful Dead guitarist in 1970 when he hosted a jam night at The Matrix in San Francisco. It was here that their relationship formed and, when it came time to record American Beauty that same year, the Dead gave Wales a ring and he contributed organ to “Truckin'” and “Candyman” as well as piano to “Brokedown Palace”. That same year, one of Wales’ famous jam nights at The Matrix was recorded and later released in 1998 as the bootleg Side Trips: Volume 1. Garcia and Wales would officially collaborate in 1971 on Hooteroll?, a joint effort of experimental jazz that rose as a beacon of Garcia’s studio prowess and abilities outside the Dead.
“Howard was so incredible, and we were just hanging on for dear life,” Garcia said in the book Garcia: An American Life. “For some reason, Howard enjoyed playing with us, but we were just keeping up. Howard was so outside. For both of us that was a wonderful experience. … Playing with Howard did more for my ears than anybody I ever played with because he was so extended and so different. His approach was all extensions and very keyboardistic, not guitaristic.”
In 1972, he auditioned for the Grateful Dead as original keyboardist Ron “Pigpen” McKernan‘s health began to decline and the group was ready for somebody who fully supported their ever-burgeoning improvisational tendencies. Despite the band’s interest in furthering their sonic exploration, they still didn’t feel Wales’ sound was right for the band. It was around the tail end of 1972 that Wales and Garcia’s collaborations tapered off, as the guitarist began to cement his relationships with drummer Bill Vitt and bassist John Kahn—both of whom he met at Wales’ jam nights—who would eventually form the core of the Jerry Garcia Band.
Wales would go on to cut his first solo record, Rendezvous with the Sun, in 1976. After that, he didn’t record another album until 1992 with The Monk in the Mansion, which apparently kickstarted his creative output as he put out another six records between 1992 and his death including 2018’s Undisclosed Location.
In 2017, he reflected on his career in an interview with the Aquarium Drunkard, saying, “I went on the road when I was 18. … I played with fake IDs and things like that. I was in a group – believe it or not – that had green hair with space suits. … The thing about music with me is that I’ve got a whole swath of all kinds of stuff from these really ‘Why did you do that?’ kind of things to incredible stuff. I think that in today’s world you don’t really see that anymore. … I would say this about the old days: It was a hell of a lot more about love than now. You don’t find too much of the love aspect here. It’s really terrible. [Laughs] I’ve been in music a long time.”
Jerry Garcai, Howard Wales – Hooteroll? – Full Album
[H/T Ultimate Classic Rock]