If the Wyoming Valley were settled in some sleepy, artsy county in Northern California, within the influential sphere of San Francisco, it would be logical that an impressive number of residents would have artistic and business connections to the Grateful Dead and its extended musical family.
But fixed in Northeastern Pennsylvania, the valley’s collection of natives who have bonded, collaborated and worked with the community that emanates from the seminal West Coast jam band is a pleasant wonder, perhaps a proud peculiarity.
Through hard work and just being in the right place at the right time, several valley natives — including three musicians, a photographer, a visual artist, a journalist and one determined X-ray technician — have been professionally involved with the Grateful Dead and its lineage.
The Grateful Dead formed in 1965 as the Warlocks in Palo Alto, Calif. By 1967, band members Jerry Garcia, Phil Lesh, Bob Weir, Bill Kreutzmann, Mickey Hart and Ron “Pigpen” McKernan lived at 710 Ashbury St. in San Francisco and were key figures in the ’60s counterculture.
Over decades of live performances, the band became known as pioneers in improvisational rock ‘n’ roll, a style that brought together jazz, blues, folk and psychedelia.
After the death of lead guitarist and band leader Garcia in 1995, core members went on to play together under several names, including The Dead.
In 2015, Weir, Lesh, Kreutzmann and Hart came together for the first time since 2009 for three Fare Thee Well shows at Soldier Field in Chicago.
Minus Lesh, the core members continue to tour as Dead & Company.
Through collaborative and individual efforts, former Grateful Dead members have worked with a broad spectrum of creative people, building a network of artists in the band’s tradition. That network has been joined by dedicated Northeastern Pennsylvanians.
Of all the Wyoming Valley natives who have touched the Grateful Dead family, Sue Stephens was connected at the highest level.
Stephens, who grew up on Kidder Street in Wilkes-Barre and graduated from St. Mary’s High School, was Jerry Garcia’s bookkeeper for nearly 25 years.
After graduating from Mercy Hospital School of X-Ray Technology in Wilkes-Barre in 1969, Stephens moved to Washington, D.C., San Francisco and eventually Stinson Beach, where Garcia lived in 1972.
“It was a small town, and they’d see me sometimes hitchhiking out of Stinson Beach at 6:30 in the morning to catch a bus to San Francisco out there in the fog in my white uniform,” said Stephens, 67, who now lives in Woodacre, Calif. “Jerry’s manager (Richard Loren) figured I’d show up for work every day, and he offered me a job as his assistant.”
Stephens said that by the time she became employed by Garcia in May of 1974, the Grateful Dead already was a phenomenon, but the band was on hiatus.
“We were booking shows for all of Jerry’s bands at the time,” she said. “At the same time, we worked with Jerry on post production and theatrical distribution of the Grateful Dead movie. Then, in 1976, they returned to touring, and it just never stopped after that.”
Stephens’ duties also included paying Garcia’s bills and handling his checking account.
Although the band already was widely popular and influential, Stephens said it took a few years before the gravity of the movement dawned on her. She said she knew she “wasn’t in Kansas anymore” when the band traveled to Egypt in 1978.
Stephens became a trusted member of the family, and in 1990, that relationship reached new heights when Garcia walked her down the aisle at her wedding in Marin County, Calif., an event she called “quite the garden party.” She said Garcia was a “wonderful soul with a great sense of humor.”
“He was such a creator and an intelligent, wonderful man,” Stephens said. “They called him the ‘reluctant Messiah.’ He didn’t want to be the leader. He just had that quality.”
Stephens worked with Garcia’s estate until 1999.
Forty Fort native and music promoter Tom Moran said keyboard player and vocalist Freeman White was the first Wyoming Valley musician to play with a former member of the Grateful Dead, vocalist Donna Jean Godchaux.
White, a West Pittston native, was involved with Dead tribute band Jam Stampede in 2009 and did some networking during a gig at the River Street Jazz Cafe in Plains Township.
“Our drummer couldn’t make it, so we had Joe Chirco filling in with us, who was Donna’s drummer,” said White, 46. “I was talking to Joe after the gig, and he mentioned Donna might be looking for a keyboard player.”
Godchaux sang for the Grateful Dead from 1972 to 1979 after then-husband Keith Godchaux was brought in to play piano in 1971. Keith died in a car accident in 1980, shortly after the couple left the band.
White was invited to a practice session in Long Island and was asked to join the Donna Jean Godchaux Band. White is an active member, although the band’s activity has slowed.
“It was absolutely educational,” White said of the experience. “(Donna’s) an amazing person. They would have harmony parts worked out and, on the spot, she would remember harmonies she sang on ‘Cosmic Charlie.’”
In March, White will go on tour with Jerry Garcia Band tribute band The Garcia Project, playing full, classic set lists at top venues in Northern California and the Bay Area.
White credits Moran for putting together Jam Stampede and making introductions that led to his opportunity with Godchaux. Moran, in turn, credits the owners of venues Murray’s Inn and the River Street Jazz Cafe, because those owners allowed him to book as he saw fit.
“Without (Tom) Murray and Rob Friedman, none of this would have happened,” Moran said.
Ryan O’Malley, a Pittston resident, has been a correspondent for the Times Leader media family over the past 13 years. His music journalism has put him on the phone and in close proximity to musical icons and Rock & Roll Hall of Fame members, but he considers interviewing every living member of the Grateful Dead one of his greatest accomplishments.
O’Malley, 35, got his first interview with former members of the band in 2003 when he interviewed Donna Jean Godchaux before she performed at the River Street Jazz Cafe. In following years, interviews with Tom Constanten, who played keyboards for the Grateful Dead from 1968 to 1970, and core member Mickey Hart led O’Malley to set a personal goal.
The self-proclaimed Deadhead went on to interview other core members Lesh, Kreutzmann and Weir and completed the task in 2013 when he interviewed Bruce Hornsby, who played keyboards and accordion with the Grateful Dead as a guest and a touring member from 1988 through 1995.
“It took me a whole decade to get it done,” O’Malley said. “When I had Hornsby, it felt like everything I started 10 years before on a personal mission as a Deadhead was completed.”
O’Malley said Weir proved to be the most elusive, as the journalist requested an interview several times but never got one until 2011, when Weir had to step into an interview because Furthur guitarist John Kadlecik had a scheduling conflict.
“It was a cool accomplishment for me, especially the Weir interview, because I fought to interview Bobby for eight years, and it finally happened on a whim,” O’Malley said.
Mike (MiZ) Mizwinski
Yatesville native Mike Mizwinski has built a reputation as a stellar guitar player and songwriter in his solo project, MiZ, and as a member of several bands, including Jam Stampede.
Mizwinski has shared stages with numerous notable musicians, but he has developed a camaraderie with Kadlecik, who founded premier Dead tribute band Dark Star Orchestra and played with core members of the Grateful Dead in Furthur.
According to Moran, who booked Mizwinski and Kadlecik and saw them cross paths, the musicians would form a bond and enjoy sitting in with each other on multiple occasions. Two notable performances were a 2012 set at the Gramercy Theater in New York City, where Kadlecik joined Jam Stampede, and a 2015 show at the River Street Jazz Cafe in Plains Township, where Mizwinski sat in with the John Kadlecik Band.
Mizwinski also recorded an album, “East Hope Avenue,” that was publicized by Grateful Dead publicist, author and historian Dennis McNally.
“Mike Mizwinski, I believe, reached out to me and sent me some music,” McNally said. “I was — and remain — deeply impressed with his skill. So when he asked me to work with him, it was an easy ‘yes.’ He’s gifted and likable and a brilliant musician.”
One of McNally’s acclaimed histories on the Grateful Dead, “A Long Strange Trip: The Inside History of the Grateful Dead,” features a photograph of jazz saxophonist Branford Marsalis taken by the late photographer Bradley Gelb.
Gelb was born in Brooklyn, N.Y., and lived on Coney Island as an infant, but his family came to Wilkes-Barre when he was 3 years old. His professional work included film editing in California and years of touring with and photographing musicians, including the Grateful Dead.
Gelb passed away in 2013 at the age of 50 after a long battle with Crohn’s disease, leaving behind volumes of live-music photography and the legacy of a gregarious and creative soul.
West Pittston resident Barbara Gelb remembered her son’s work.
“He definitely had a passion,” Barbara said. “He went to most all the shows. He always had backstage passes and was very friendly with the people in the organization.”
McNally recalled Gelb as a nice guy who was one of a flock of Deadhead photographers he worked with on the road.
“He took a superb shot of Branford Marsalis with the Dead in Los Angeles (1993) that I was very pleased to have in my book,” McNally said.
Shavertown native Justin Mazer already has put together an impressive career as a guitarist at the age of 27. He’s performed with Mizwinski, roots rockers Leroy Justice and, currently, Tom Hamilton’s American Babies.
Mazer’s experiences have put him on stage with members of Grateful Dead offshoots RatDog and Phil Lesh and Friends, but his tenure in American Babies has brought him closer to the source because of Hamilton’s involvement in Grateful Dead projects Joe Russo’s Almost Dead and Billy & The Kids.
Earlier this year, American Babies played a Dead & Company after-party in Boulder, Colo., putting Mazer onstage with Dead & Company bassist Oteil Burbridge and Almost Dead keyboard player Marco Benevento. But Mazer’s connection to a founding member came on Nov. 18 when the Babies were joined by Weir at the Sweetwater Music Hall in Mill Valley, Calif.
Mazer described the experience as an exercise in “sheer concentration.”
“For the whole band to be locked in with a guy like that, who is unpredictable in the way he cues things and changes things, more so than ever, I had to be on my toes and be mindful of the dynamic of three guitars on stage,” Mazer said of playing with Weir.
“It allowed me to do what I consider myself to do best, which is fill in these pockets of space,” he continued. “Tommy (Hamilton) was covering the Jerry Garcia end of things sonically, and Bob is obviously Bob to the fullest extent, so I got to, at certain times, emulate pedal-steel guitar or piano voicings to fill in space between Bob and Tom, who play together so nicely.”
Dunmore native and artist Mark Loughney has been drawing and painting tirelessly over the past year and a half. The 39-year-old inmate at the State Correctional Institution-Dallas pours himself into his art while he serves a minimum of 10 years for starting a fire that injured four people in Dunmore in 2012, a crime for which he has expressed deep remorse.
His ability has earned him exhibitions in the Wonderstone Gallery in Dunmore and the Converge Gallery in Williamsport, as well as the attention of acclaimed Grateful Dead photographer Jay Blakesberg.
A Deadhead and a fan of Blakesberg’s work, Loughney reached out to him in 2012, before incarceration, to ask permission to base his portraits on Blakesberg’s photographs.
“I get requests like this on a regular basis … and most of the time, I say no,” Blakesberg said. “There was something about Mark’s work that I really enjoyed. It resonated with me … and I got a good vibe from the guy.”
By 2014, when Blakesberg reaffirmed his approval of Loughney’s work in a letter, Loughney already was serving his sentence.
“I wasn’t able to begin the project until April 2015, when I started cranking out pieces to send up to Mountain Sky in Jermyn for their Still Grateful Fest,” Loughney said.
Since then, Loughney’s work has been displayed at the Wonderstone Gallery in an exhibit called JAMFAN, and Blakesberg has asked Loughney to contribute to one of his projects.
Blakesberg is the principal photographer for the Lockn’ Festival in Virginia and is poised to release his second coffee-table book of photographs from the festival.
“I thought Mark’s renderings of my photographs of these artists that play at Lockn’ would be great to showcase in this book,” Blakesberg said. “It adds artistic value to my project.”
Blakesberg, who has published 11 coffee-table books of his work and has earned an outstanding reputation as a photojournalist in the live-music circuit, said he feels for Loughney.
At 19, Blakesberg was arrested with a large amount of LSD and was sentenced to five years in prison, of which he served less than a year.
“If I didn’t have the opportunity to get out in a short period of time, I wouldn’t have been able to create the body of work I created,” Blakesberg said. “I was given a chance, and I wanted to give Mark a chance. He’s donating art in exchange for exposure.”
Loughney also is creating art that Blakesberg plans to enlarge and show in his galleries at music festivals next summer.