July 26, 1990 – Brent Mydland was born in Munich, Germany on October 21, 1952, the child of a U.S. Army chaplain. The family moved to the San Francisco Bay Area when he was just one and he spent most of his childhood living in Antioch, California, an hour east of San Francisco. He started piano lessons at age six and had formal classical lessons through his junior year in high school. In an interview he commented that: “my sister took lessons and it looked fun to me, so I did too. There was always a piano around the house and I wanted to play it. When I couldn’t play it I would beat on it anyway.” His mother, a graveyard shift nurse, encouraged Mydland’s talents by insisting that he practice his music for two hours each day. He played trumpet from elementary till his senior year in high school; his schoolmates remember him practicing on an accordion, as well as the piano, every day after school.
“In my late teens I went and saw a lot of groups, and thank God I did, because the era didn’t last much longer.” When asked if he had musical aspirations in high school he admitted to wanting to originally be “a high school band teacher or something, I played trumpet in the marching band … then my senior year I got kicked out of the marching band for having long hair … they told me “sorry we’ll lose points for your long hair”, so that was the end of my band career. I gave up the trumpet and concentrated on the keyboards.” Brent graduated from Liberty High in nearby Brentwood, California, in 1971.
Of his early musical experiences Mydland has stated: “Late into high school I got into playing rock ‘n’ roll with friends and it was like I had to start from the beginning almost, because if I didn’t have a piece of music in front of me I couldn’t do much. I changed my outlook on playing real fast after that. I think dope had something to do with that.”
Influenced by rock organists such as Lee Michaels, Ray Manzarek and Goldie McJohn of Steppenwolf. Mydland was in a series of local bands. In the late 1960s he bought the first albums by Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead, and during this interview he stated that he was in a band “where I used to sing “Morning Dew” and we did “Good Morning Little Schoolgirl” too.”
When asked if that scene, which was based heavily on extended jams, had influenced him musically at all he said: “For a while, yes, but I could never find people that could make that kind of music sound good. We’d jam along and then. It’s nice to have people who add to it and change it instead of “Ok, I’ve got my part”; that gets boring really fast”.
He went on to state that: “In senior year I got together with a guitar player; he knew a drummer and bass player who were both pretty good. We were serious about it for about six weeks or so and then it kind of fell apart. I ended up living in a quonset hut in Thousand Oaks, California, writing songs and eating a lot of peanut butter and bread and whatever else was around. In one of the bands, I played with a guy named Rick Carlos and he got a call from John Batdorf of Batdorf & Rodney asking him to come to L.A, to play with them. A couple months later they were looking for a keyboard player who could sing the high parts, so I went down there and joined the band. I got to do a tour with them which was great experience. Then after that fell apart John and I put together Silver; Silver lasted about two years. We put out an album on Arista and were going to do a second but Clive Davis, Arista’s president, kind of choked it”.
“After Silver I bummed around L.A for about six months and then hooked up with Weir through John Mauceri, who I’d played with back in Batdorf & Rodney, and I joined the Bob Weir Band. With Bobby, at first, I’d say to him: “Well, should I play this instrument on this song, or this other instrument?” And he’d say, “I don’t care. Why not play one this time and the other the next time if you feel like it.” It loosened me up a lot and it got me more into improvisation. I liked it a lot.” So much so that he had no apprehension to join the biggest jamband of the all, when he replaced Keith and Donna Godcheaux on the keyboard for The Grateful Dead.
After two weeks of rehearsals, he played his first concert with the band at the Spartan Stadium, San Jose, on April 22.
Mydland quickly became an integral part of the Dead owing to his vocal and songwriting skills as much as his keyboard playing. He quickly combined his tenor singing with founder members Weir and Jerry Garcia to provide strong three-part harmonies on live favourites including “I Know You Rider”, “Eyes of the World” and “Truckin'”. He easily fit into the band’s sound and added his own contributions, such as in Go to Heaven (1980) which featured two of Mydland’s songs, “Far From Me” and “Easy to Love You”, the latter written with frequent Weir collaborator John Perry Barlow. On the next album, In the Dark (1987), Mydland co-wrote the defiant favorite “Hell in a Bucket” with Weir and Barlow; he also penned the train song “Tons of Steel”.
Built to Last (1989) featured several more of Mydland’s songs: the moody “Just a Little Light”, the environmental song “We Can Run”, the live performance driven “Blow Away” and the poignant “I Will Take You Home”, a lullaby written with Barlow for Mydland’s two daughters.
Mydland wrote several other songs that were played live but not released on any studio albums, such as “Don’t Need Love”, “Never Trust A Woman”, “Maybe You Know”, “Gentlemen Start Your Engines”, and “Love Doesn’t Have To Be Pretty”; the latter two written with Barlow. He also co-wrote “Revolutionary Hamstrung Blues” with Phil Lesh collaborator Bobby Petersen, although the song was performed live only once.
His high, gravelly vocal harmonies and emotional leads added to the band’s singing strength, and he even occasionally incorporated scat singing into his solos. Mydland’s vocals added colour to old favorites such as “Cassidy”, “Mississippi Half-Step Uptown Toodeloo”, “Ramble on Rose”, the Band’s “The Weight”, and even wrote his own verse for Willie Dixon’s “Little Red Rooster”. He sang lead on many covers, including Traffic’s “Dear Mr. Fantasy”, the Beatles’ “Hey Jude”, and the Meters’ “Hey Pocky Way”.
Brent was also a capable songwriter whose credits include “Hell In A Bucket,” “Tons Of Steel,” “Just A Little Light,” “Blow Away” and the tender “I Will Take You Home.” “He could take something and turn it into a fully scored, well-thought-out, harmonically structured masterpiece in about a minute and a half,” songwriting partner John Perry Barlow told the New York Times. “Brent could pick his way through anything immediately, which meant he had the special requirement it was going to take to walk into the Dead overnight. He was musically central to the band, but he was so good at what he did that he was able to become fundamental to everything that the band was doing musically without it being immediately apparent to the audience.”
Mydland’s voice and approach was also on display for a number of covers the Dead performed during his time in the group such as “Dear Mr. Fantasy,” “Hey Pocky Way” and “Gimme Some Lovin’.” The keyboardist died just days after the Grateful Dead completed Summer Tour 1990 at The World in Tinley Park, Illinois on July 23, 1990. The encore that night was the Dead’s recently debuted cover of “The Weight” by The Band. All of the Dead’s vocalists sang lead for one verse of “The Weight.” Brent’s verse ends and the final words he sang as lead vocalist were “I gotta go, but my friends can stick around.”
The keyboardist who had been with The Grateful Dead for 11 years, longer than any other keyboardist, died of a drug overdose at his home in Lafayette, California, on July 26, 1990. He was 38. He was known mostly as a drinker, but in his later years he turned to hard drugs as he was struggling to cope with family issues and severe depression.
Watch the eerie and emotional performance of “The Weight” from July 23, 1990.
• In 1994, he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a member of the Grateful Dead.
• After joining the Grateful Dead, Mydland played in Bob Weir’s Bobby and the Midnites during 1980 and 1981.
• In 1982, he recorded and mastered a solo studio album, but it was never released.
• In the Summer of 1985, he performed with fellow band member Bill Kreutzmann in their band Kokomo’ along with 707’s Kevin Russell and Santana’s David Margen.
• Also in 1985, he performed at the Haight Street Fair with Weir, John Cipollina, and Merl Saunders, among others.
• In 1986, Mydland formed Go Ahead with several San Francisco Bay area musicians, including Bill Kreutzmann, also former Santana members Alex Ligertwood on vocals and David Margen on bass, as well as guitarist Jerry Cortez. The band toured during the time Jerry Garcia was recovering from a diabetic coma, and also briefly reunited in 1988.
• He also did numerous solo projects and performances, as well as duo performances with Bob Weir numerous times throughout the 1980s, with Weir on acoustic guitar and Mydland on grand piano.
• Brent had a love for Harley Davidson motorcycles, and was an avid rider. A Harley which was owned by Mydland was featured on a 2013 episode of Pawn Stars.