Sep 30, 2021

December 12, 1971: Bar Mitzvah Party, Airport Hilton, St. Louis

Members of the Grateful Dead and New Riders of the Purple Sage played at their first Bar Mitzvah when they jammed with members of the Spring Rain, on Sunday, Dec. 12.
The band members from Ladue included Sherri Weingart, Mark Slosberg, and Doug Heller, who were playing at the Bar Mitzvah party of Richie Gerber, a student at West Ladue, in the Hilton Airport Inn. Two other band members, John McSweeny and Steve Fisher, attend Country Day School and Bruce Byers attends John Burroughs School.
Several members of the rock groups who were staying at the hotel, stopped at the doors of the room to listen to the band. Guests at the party talked with the musicians, who signed autographs and gave posters to some of the guests.
When Sherri Weingart asked them if they wished to play, they responded enthusiastically with four numbers. Spring Rain then played for half an hour. Phil Lesh, the drummer for Grateful Dead [sic] then came up and played the drums while John McSweeney played some blues music on the piano. Other members of the band then drifted up to accompany the others.
Following the party the members of Spring Rain spent over an hour conversing with the other musicians about music and various other topics.
(from the Panorama, the Ladue High School student newspaper, December 1971)
+ + +

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!” 
Richie wasn't into rock & roll yet and wasn't interested in the Dead - he was more into hockey - so he didn't pay any attention to them.

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.” 

Co-author John Ellis would like to thank:
Thanks to Bob Glik & Andy Eidelman, and special thanks to Joe Schwab for starting the Facebook thread that included myself and Jesse Jarnow.
Special thanks to Mark Slosberg who made this possible; and to Richard Gerber, Debbie Gerber, and Jo Barry.
And thanks to the members of Spring Rain who contributed their memories (Bruce Byers, Steve Fisher, Doug Heller, Jon McSweeney, Mark Slosberg & Sherry Weingart).

February 2, 1970: Fox Theatre, St. Louis & 1973 Panegyric for Pigpen

What do you say about a 27-year-old drunk who died? Well, perhaps a thing or two. When I heard that the body of Ron "Pigpen" McKernan had been found in his Marin County apartment, I immediately remembered a Greateful Dead concert of a couple of years ago. For sheer energetic joy I still think it is the best rock concert I've ever been to, and Pigpen was the star. 
The concert was in February of 1970 at a marvelous neo-Babylonian movie theater in St. Louis called the Fox. It was, I believe, the first rock concert to be held there; theretofore, management had always resisted rock's barbarian incursions, but as one of America's worst ghettos closed in on midtown St. Louis, they had decided, I think, to get as much money out of the place as possible before the whole fabric of Mid-Western Civilization went ping. They had spades, why not hippies? 
The ambience of the theater had a lot to do with making the occasion so memorable. The lobby of the theater was about the size of the Boston Garden and it was decorated with what appeared to be all the artifacts left over after David Wark Griffith finished "Intolerance." There were waterfalls everywhere, lambent over limestone, so that the place had the cool feel and the fresh, gritty smell of the Carlsbad Caverns. There were huge porcelain elephants stationed at either side of a flowing marble staircase - well, it looked like marble - enormous bulbous (pun intended) chandeliers and huge phony torches jutting out from the walls, held by swags. That place was a motherfucker. 
So the people who came to the concert were already in a state of wonder even before the music started. Plus - remember, this was the Midwest, and not really all that far from the South - it was even at that late date one of the first signs that there was this enormous community around St. Louis of the sort of people who go to Grateful Dead concerts. I hadn't realized that there were that many freaks in Missouri, thousands of them, as if you had shaken every commune in the Ozarks and in the rich Missouri bottomland around Columbia, dumped the contents into Volkswagen buses, and given them all a shove down I-44 and I-70 towards St. Louis. A lot of them probably hadn't seen each other since (a) Woodstock; (b) Jimmy Driftwood's folk festival in Mountain View, Ark.; (c) the Kansas pot harvest. It was like a reunion; the whole hip scene was on the verge of turning into an overbearing drag or worse in the wake of Altamont and the psychedelic hard-sell, but there was a lot of untapped innocence lurching hairily around the Fox Theater in St. Louis that night three years ago. 
The concert started about two hours late. The Grateful Dead had been busted for possession of marijuana a couple of days before in New Orleans and the seven tons of equipment that they hauled around the country had been impounded in lieu of bond or something. A lot of it had just arrived and had been too hastily assembled and besides the PA wasn't working very well, so Owsley Augustus Stanley III, keeper of the ohms, was hopping around kicking various pieces of heavy electronic equipment like a rube at a used car lot. 
Owsley was sending various roadies and quippies scurrying after parts and tools and cursing everybody from Thomas Alva Edison on. For a while, it looked like things would never start because Owsley was in charge and things had better be JUST RIGHT for him because he was sensitive to the slightest untoward wiggle in the holy vibrations the Dead were going to send up to the sky, thence to fall like manna on the hungry ears of earth. I mean, THIS WIRE DOES NOT BELONG HERE.
Finally, though, Owsley was appeased and after a brief set by a warm-up group, the Dead came out. In those days, they were just getting into the sweet country harmonies that showed up under the influence of David Crosby and Graham Nash, and they opened the set with three or four numbers in the "Workingman's Dead" manner. If I tell you that was the first night I heard "Uncle John's Band," their most exalted song, and it turns out they actually didn't do that one until later in history, put it down to the memory striving Platonically for perfection but do believe me, I remember the last half of the concert very clearly. 
After a long and not entirely satisfactory trip down tape-loop lane, the music slowly evolved to a vaguely familiar chord and the trace of a melody began creeping through, somewhere in the interplay between Garcia's guitar and Lesh's bass line. There was a pause, and the three stringed men leaned into their microphones and sang into the silence: 
"St. Stephen with a rose, 
In and out of the garden he goes..." 
At that, a kid in the front row yelped and leapt to his feet as if someone had jabbed him in the ass with an ice-pick. Then everyone was up, and the band took off. There was boogie in the aisles and romping in the balcony, and it wasn't any of your half-assed obligatory Led Zeppelin kind of boogie, nor any of your Seconal and Sopors Black Sabbath stumble-fucks, this was joyous aisle-stomping. It kept up for half an hour and the band never let up, as they sometimes do, never let the beat dwindle away, and toward the end the music was building to a huge vibrating crescendo. People were screaming and bouncing around and hugging each other, whole aisles were dancing with their arms around each other like rock and roll Rockettes. 
And then...along came Pigpen. He had been shaking a tambourine in a bemused sort of way, holding it up by his ear as if it were a seashell and he was listening for the ocean, but now he put it down on top of a speaker and walked to the front of the stage, with Garcia, Lesh, and Weir stretched out behind him. He was wearing a big-brimmed cowboy hat with the sides rolled up, and the hat band was actually a swash of colored cloth that hung down in back by his long pigtail. 
With the band rocking along behind him, he picked a microphone off a stand and held it out in front of him the way a knife-fighter would. He made a dagger gesture with the mike and, even though he didn't move his feet, his body seemed to make a little rush forward at the audience. He poked again at the audience with the mike and the band cut back on the volume and left him a hole. Glaring at the audience as if he had just caught the whole bunch of them in bed with his old lady, but with a thin smile at the corner of his lips, he stepped forward and then began to sing: 
"Without a broke my heart." 
His body began to rock back and forth, the band came in louder and stronger than ever and buddy, that was all she wrote. Pigpen shouted and growled and screamed, he made little rushes across the stage, he did his Big Mama Thornton routine and his Otis Redding routine and his Little Richard routine and the place just went crazy as he hopped around the stage, screaming again and again, "Turn on your lovelight... Turn on your lovelight." As the concert came to a close with explosions of drums and shrieking of guitars, and the applause and cheers began swelling up from the audience, a tall black woman with the biggest Afro in town jumped up on stage and began hugging and kissing Pigpen, swinging him around like a doll. Pigpen just went limp in her arms and, for the first time all night, he grinned. 

In those days, Pigpen gulped down staggering quantities of cheap wine and liquor, but for the last year and a half of his life, he drank no alcohol at all. Since 1971, when he first went into the hospital with problems in his liver, stomach, and colon, he had appeared less and less with the Grateful Dead. There was the sense, at least from the outside, that the band had grown away from his kind of music anyway, the simple, raucous harp and organ rhythm and blues riffs he had absorbed through his father, a Berkeley R&B disc jockey in the Fifties. Jerry Garcia credited Pigpen with turning an acoustic group called Mother McCrees Uptown Jugband toward the electric blues in the early days in Palo Alto. 
Rock Scully, who became the manager of the band in 1966, about the time they discovered there already was a group called the Warlocks and stumbled on the words "Grateful Dead" in Phil Lesh's dictionary, told me, "Ron will be sorely missed; he was our bluesman." Scully recalled that, when he first met McKernan, "He was about the funkiest looking dude in the world - even the Angels were clean looking compared to him." 
But, Scully said, "He was really a quiet, introspective dude, he generally kept to himself." 
Last April, Scully recalled, Pigpen joined the Dead for a two-month tour of Europe. "It was his first outing with the band in eight months. He had been sick and operated on in the upper colon, and he had ulcers and I guess a hepatetic liver, but he said he was back on his feet and ready to work. 
"We traveled in two buses, and for some reason he insisted on hanging out in back of one of the buses. The buses bounced around a lot and I guess it was really bumpy back there over the rear wheels. He got thrown on to the floor a few times, and I'm sure all that bouncing didn't do his liver any good. But he seemed to be in good spirits.
"At the end of the tour, he came directly back to California, and about five days later we heard he was in the hospital and they had opened him up again. He hadn't drunk anything for almost a year, but apparently it was too late. He had what is called a terminal liver, we found out later, and he had developed pneumonia and he was just in terrible shape. 
"In mid-June, he made the Hollywood Bowl concert, that was the last one. He still looked just terrible and we said, 'Hey, go back in the hospital.'" 
McKernan did go back to the hospital and later moved in with his parents in Palo Alto and lived a quiet life, seldom leaving the house. "As far as we knew he was getting better," Scully said. 
He did seem to be feeling better and around the first of the year he moved into his own apartment in Marin County, where the other members of the Dead live. 
Scully said, "He came to the Dead office maybe 12 hours before he died. He died Tuesday night or Wednesday morning sometime, and during the day on Tuesday [March 6] he came to the office in San Rafael and said the doctor didn't see any reason why he shouldn't go back to work with the band. We were overjoyed. We were going into the studio in April to record, and we thought he was going to be with us. 
"So it was a terrible shock when we were told his body had been found. And we still haven't figured out if he knew all along that he was dying and just didn't want to lay that on us."

(by Harper Barnes, from the Real Paper, Boston, 4 April 1973)
Lovelight from 2/2/70 was released on Dave's Picks 6.

See also Barnes' original show review: 

More St. Louis Photographs 1968-1971

Only a selection of photos could be included in the post on the Dead's first St. Louis shows: 
Here are the rest of the photos from those shows we were able to find!

Photos by Craig Petty

Members of Public Service peeking out from behind the backdrop:

5/25/68 photo by Tom Tussey (cropped version) 

Craig Petty & Garcia; photo by Mike Dixon: 

Unknown photographer. 

Photos by Craig Petty. 

Photos by Jim Laverty. 

Photos by Craig Petty. 

2/2/70 Globe-Democrat photos 

Photos by Steve Reed. 

Photo by Steve Reed. 
Photos by Steve Deibel. 

Garcia playing a Les Paul:

3/17/71 photos by unknown photographer: 

12/9/71 Garcia tries out a store guitar: 
12/8/71 w/ Tony Dwyer:

Buddy Cage at Scotty's: 



(I couldn't find good recent interior shots of the Armory since it's been abandoned and gutted.) 


(For a little history see )


The pit:


(There are lots of photos online of the Fox in its newly restored condition; see this drone tour of the Fox.) 



(The only vintage photos of the gym interior we found had a game going on....)