The Dead and the New Riders had played at the Fox Theatre on December 9-10, 1971, and were still in town before heading on to Ann Arbor for their next show on December 14. During their stop in St. Louis, they stayed at the Airport Hilton…and gave another impromptu performance before leaving.
Richie Gerber, a student at West Ladue Junior High, turned 13 in 1971 and had his Bar Mitzvah ceremony on Saturday, December 11. The party for him was held the next day, Sunday December 12, around 6 pm in a ballroom at the Airport Hilton. It was a kids-only party without about a hundred 13-year-olds attending. Unbeknownst to Richie, “the Grateful Dead were staying at the same hotel where my party was held.”
The party music was provided by Spring Rain, a professional teenage band that was one of the most popular bar mitzvah bands in town. They worked 2-4 engagements a month, playing songs by Carole King, James Taylor, Elton John, Buffalo Springfield, and so on; and they also featured a special oldies set (with songs by Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, etc.). "We did the stuff that got the kids out on the dance floor." They were 15-to-16-year-old students attending Ladue, Country Day, and John Burroughs high schools. The band members were:
Bruce Byers - guitar
Steve Fisher - singer
Doug Heller - drums
Jon McSweeney - piano player
Mark Slosberg - bass player
Sherry Weingart - lead vocals
Richie had an older sister, Debbie Gerber. During the performance, she and two of her friends left the party room and went walking down the hall to the hotel lobby. In the lobby was an open bar surrounded by tables. As the girls walked by, they saw members of the Dead hanging out at the bar – Weir, Lesh, Kreutzmann, Godchaux & “Marmaduke” Dawson of the New Riders. (I’ll refer to them as “the Dead” for short, although Garcia & Pigpen were not there.) Being "attractive cheerleader" types, the girls caught the Dead's attention as well. Richie says, “My sister Debbie wandered by the bar and received a "cat call" from within. She turned, and it was Phil Lesh and Bob Weir.”
The Dead had spent some time at the bar and they were toasted. This did not deter the girls - Debbie was a Dead fan. Richie recalls, “Debbie was 17 at the time and was, well, a flirt. She and two of her friends starting nudging their way toward the band members. Debbie started talking with them, told them why she was there, and they mentioned they overheard the music. For a while, they were flirting with Debbie and her friends (Lynn Kessler and another friend) and Debbie was urging them to come in and play a few songs. Long story short, she convinced them to come to the party.”
The party room was down the hall, but Spring Rain could still be heard in the bar. The Dead did not need much urging to come check out the party, and they “stopped at the doors of the room to listen.”
Spring Rain was playing unawares. Mark Slosberg’s 13-year-old younger sister Jo came over to tell him, "Mark, Mark, the Grateful Dead are here!" He was annoyed at her pestering and told her to go away. She said, “No, look – they really are in the doorway.” She pointed and sure enough, there they were.
Doug Heller recalls, “We were playing a big party. These long-haired guys stick their heads into the ballroom. They heard us playing, they later explained.” Mark says, “They had been drinking in the lounge when they heard us and wandered over.”
Richie himself was not too impressed: “Everyone was in awe, but me… When my sister said ‘I have a surprise for you, someone wants to say hello,’ I was hoping for Garry Unger!”
Spring Rain stopped their set and somehow had the presence of mind to ask the Dead if they would like to play a song or two during their break. Everyone encouraged the Dead to play. According to the article, “When Sherri Weingart asked them if they wished to play, they responded enthusiastically.” The Dead didn't want to interrupt the band, but agreed to play during Spring Rain's break.
They took over Spring Rain’s instruments and played 2 or 3 New Riders songs, led by Marmaduke. Steve Fisher also remembers Bob Weir singing a song: “One of the tunes they did after a quick rearrange of the Altec Lansing speakers was El Paso.”
Richie recalls, “When the band members saw them, after they picked their lower lips off the floor, they handed their instruments over to the Dead, as we sat back and watched them play for 45 minutes!”
As soon as the 13-year-old party guests saw the Dead were there, they realized they had to get the word out. There was one place to go: the bank of pay phones in the hotel lobby. Mark remembers, “All of the kids with older siblings ran out to the lobby and called them on the pay phones.” Their homes were nearby, so within 15-20 minutes, their friends and older teen siblings started arriving, having rushed to the Hilton. Richie recalls, “I definitely remember people showing up to watch as word got around town.” With a hundred more high-schoolers quickly crowding in, the ballroom soon turned into a madhouse.
The Dead stopped playing after a few songs; and after their break Spring Rain came back to do their oldies set led by Steve Fisher. He called it their “Screamin’ Steve schtick… We would do that act after a short break where I would go and dress it up (black leather jacket, black wing tip shoes/white socks, slicked hair etc.), then come back out and do Blue Suede Shoes, Great Balls of Fire…” The Dead didn’t leave: “They were in the back of the banquet room howling with laughter.” Steve was somewhat intimidated as the Dead whooped it up during his set while all the 13-year-olds ran around in excitement.
After this half-hour set, the Dead then played with Spring Rain. Mark says, “Spring Rain still had some time left to play on the gig so we came back. It was just a jam…we jammed jointly on some blues changes. Spring Rain probably started out with a 12-bar thing to get the set going and it just ramped up from there.”
The article reported that the Dead’s drummer (Kreutzmann) “came up and played the drums while Jon McSweeney played some blues music on the piano. Other members of the band then drifted up to accompany the others.” Doug Heller didn't know the Dead and wasn't happy about giving up his drum set to Kreutzmann: "I was not thrilled about that."
Mark thinks it was only about ten minutes. “It was just a basic jam. I don’t remember much soloing. We weren’t really improvisers or soloists at that point.”
Mark may have given his bass back to Phil Lesh to play. Lesh was interested in Mark’s bass: “I had a fretless Fender Precision bass that he had never played on before… He was actually a little confused because he was a bit toasted.”
Jon McSweeney, who was blind, stood out among the players in Spring Rain. According to Bruce Byers, “the piano player was a real talent and actually jammed with the band and made the playing interesting. The other guys in the band would not have held their own without the keyboard player being so good.”
The Dead took note. Mark remembers, “They were particularly interested in our blind piano player Jon McSweeney, who at the time was our best musician and really carried us. I think they were just drunk enough to think they might have run into the next Stevie Wonder or Ray Charles.”
Jon himself says, “I was terribly sick that night, but I wanted to be a pro and not let the band down, so I showed up. Near the end of our first set, someone told me there were some Dead and New Riders members in the room. Then, during our break, they played about four songs! After that, we got to jam with 'em a little, and we talked with 'em a bit. I told Bob Weir I'd just started learning guitar, and he said, "Whatever turns you on." It was magical; I just wish I hadn't felt like shit. 'Course, I would've been REALLY bummed if I'd skipped the gig and found out later!”
After the music was over, many of the young girls there hung out with the Dead outside in the hallway, away from the adults. The Dead signed autographs, some of them on the girls’ chests. (Some girls lowered their dresses so there would be more room to sign on.) One girl remembered, “They were all pretty horny…Lesh in particular.” Mark’s sister Jo comments, “Phil Lesh was a total letch but we teenage girls didn’t think too badly of him – he was famous. We were 13-year-old midwesterners.” Others at the party didn’t notice – Mark observes, “In the bar with the parents later they were all on their best behavior.”
Afterwards, the bands headed to the lobby to sit around the bar, and talked for “over an hour.” The Dead wanted to talk more with Jon the blind piano player. Steve recalls “talking with Jon, his mom, and Bobby Weir at that table in the bar with our cokes.” Mark says, “After the gig, the band members sat around in the bar with us, but they were mostly talking to Jon and his mother who was there to pick him up from the gig.” Bob Weir also recommended that Spring Rain go record at the studio at Scotty's Music, and warned them not to take drugs.
The Dead stuck around for quite a while talking to the kids and parents, but eventually retreated to their rooms. Spring Rain still had some work ahead of them, as Mark recalls: “We still had to break down all of the equipment for the night.” All the teens went home with a memorable experience to tell about their crazy night. "It was the talk of the high school for years to come." Mark says, “I never had to do anything else in high school to be ‘known.’”
But Spring Rain didn’t get the chance to meet the Dead again when they returned to St. Louis in 1972. Mark recalls, “The following year we all tried to get into the stage door at the next Dead show at the Fox but were denied.” Steve adds, “The next year we went to see them at the old Fox Theatre and we were dismissed as hangers-on and not allowed in the back stage door, while we had envisioned ‘hanging with the guys’ like last year.”
Richie says, “Many photos were taken… We had at least 15 pictures of the Dead playing and interacting with Spring Rain. I remember one picture with one of the band members standing behind Debbie, who was holding a guitar, trying to show her a few things (Debbie was taking lessons at the time). Unfortunately, my mother had a fire at her home years ago which took many of the photo albums… None of the Dead photos survived.”