Born in Alabama in 1947, Donna Godchaux was a successful session singer by age 15, singing on albums with legends like Elvis Presley. In 1970, she moved to San Francisco, and soon married Keith Godchaux and joined the Grateful Dead. She toured with them until 1979, when she left and formed a band with her husband. After Keith's death in July 1980, Donna remarried and returned to Alabama, where she continues to record and tour.
Donna Jean Thatcher, later known as Donna Godchaux, was born in Muscle Shoals, Alabama on August 22, 1947. She visited her first recording studio at age 12, and knew that she would be a singer. By age 15, she was a session singer and was working with artists like Elvis Presley, Percy Sledge, Boz Scaggs and Cher. Donna can be heard on such tracks as Elvis Presley's "Suspicious Minds," and Percy Sledge's "When a Man Loves a Woman." In 1970, she decided she wanted to experience a new life, and moved to California.
The Grateful Dead
In 1970, Donna met and married Keith Godchaux. One night after a Grateful Dead show in San Francisco, she accosted Jerry Garcia and told him that she needed his home phone number because her husband was going to be his new piano player. Unbeknownst to her, the Dead's keyboardist at that time, Ronald "Pigpen" McKernan, was sick and would soon have to stop touring due to his illness. Garcia handed over his phone number and soon after, both Keith and Donna, joined the Grateful Dead. Donna performed in the band as a back-up vocalist.
Godchaux recorded and toured with the Grateful Dead for eight years, until, in 1979, both she and her husband left the band by mutual agreement. Keith was addicted to drugs and his playing suffered; Donna was an alcoholic, and had a violent temper when she drank. After Sex Pistols singer Sid Vicious died of an overdose in January 1979, Donna decided that she'd had enough, and flew home two days before the end of the band's tour.
Later Musical Career
The following year, Donna and Keith formed the Heart of Gold Band, which took its name from a line in the Grateful Dead song, "Scarlet Begonias." Tragically, Keith Godchaux died in a car accident a few days after the Heart of Gold Band's first show, in July 1980. The band played only a few shows after Keith's death, and separated in 1981.
Godchaux ultimately met and married another Bay area musician, bass player David MacKay. They soon married, and then returned to her hometown to work at the Muscle Shoals Sound Studios.
Godchaux took on a number of different musical projects, including recording with the Jerry Garcia Band and, after Garcia's death, playing with The Other Ones, with some of her former bandmates. She also wrote and played her own music, and around 2003, Godchaux and MacKay reformed Heart of Gold Band.
In 2009, Godchaux formed the Donna Jean Godchaux Band, also known as Donna Jean and the Tricksters, a seven-piece rock band that utilizes some of her early gospel and soul influences. The band frequently tours around the country.
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