TimesDaily, Florence, AL
Hall of fame another stop on Godchaux Mackay's long strange trip
By Russ Corey Staff Writer
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FLORENCE — Russell Mefford has no problem expressing his feelings through music and songs, but the frontman for the Fiddleworms finds it difficult to describe what it’s like to perform with Donna Jean Godchaux-MacKay.
“I never thought in my life I’d get to play with Donna Jean,” Mefford said. “I don’t even know how to explain it. It’s part of the coolness of where we live.”
A Sheffield native, Godchaux-MacKay went from being a Sheffield High School cheerleader to singing background vocals on Elvis Presley recordings.
After moving to California in 1970, she became a vocalist for the iconic American jam band the Grateful Dead, along with her husband and Grateful Dead keyboardist Keith Godchaux. She later embarked on a solo career that continues to this day.
She is one of five Alabama music achievers who will be inducted into the Alabama Music Hall of Fame during its honors and awards banquet Friday at the Marriott Shoals Conference Center in Florence. Other inductees are the Southern rock band Wet Willie, the Muscle Shoals Horns, keyboardist Chuck Leavell and producer/engineer Johnny Sandlin.
“I am more than honored to be inducted into the Alabama Music Hall of Fame,” Godchaux-MacKay said. “Being included into this music community of the state of Alabama, where I met my lifelong dream, is, indeed, an honor.”
Godchaux-MacKay said she has had a variety of unique experiences in her life, so many that her brother, Ivan Thatcher, dubbed her the “Forrest Gump of Rock ‘N’ Roll.” Her Deadhead fans would simply call it “a long, strange trip.”
“Percy Sledge was in Helen Keller Hospital for treatment when Jeanie Greene and I took a copy of Billboard magazine into his room, and showed him that “When A Man Loves A Woman” was No. 1 in the nation,” she said. “What a memory that is. I will never forget it.”
Sledge died last year at the age of 74.
Meeting the King
She also has fond memories of being a young singer providing background vocals for “The King of Rock ‘N’ Roll” along with her friend and mentor, Jeanie Greene.
“The moment Elvis Presley walked into American Sound Studio in Memphis, I regressed to being in a theater in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, at age 10 watching ‘Love Me Tender,’ ” Godchaux-MacKay said. “Singing with him could never happen in a million years, but it did. Imagine our surprise when Jeanie got the call that Elvis wanted our voice group to sing on the Memphis sessions.”
She said Presley had heard the background vocals the singers added to his hit record “Suspicious Minds” and wanted that sound.
“Elvis was such a gentleman to us, complimentary and very sweet,” Godchaux-MacKay said. “We girls were all professionalism in the studio, but when the session was over, we went to the International House of Pancakes in Memphis and screamed to the top of our lungs.”
She also added background vocals to Percy Sledge’s “When a Man Loves a Woman” and R.B. Greaves’s “Take a Letter, Maria,” two classic tracks recorded in Muscle Shoals.
In the summer of 1970, despite having a career with the vocal group Southern Comfort, Godchaux-MacKay decided to move to California to follow her dream.
“I didn’t have a plan in mind, but history shows there was already one in the works for me,” she said. “I lived in the San Francisco Bay Area for 24 years.”
She saw the Grateful Dead perform at Winterland Arena in San Francisco, and eventually married keyboardist Keith Godchaux.
“I was mesmerized by their approach to music and sound,” she said. “I remember turning to a friend sitting beside me and saying, ‘When I sing again, it’s gonna be with that band.’ A year or so later, my husband, Keith Godchaux, and I were in the band.”
“The Grateful Dead stunned me when I heard them live,” Godchaux-Mac-Kay said. “They incorporated bluegrass, country, jazz, rock-n-roll, classical, blues, all kinds of music, collected and improvised into a live concert setting. Joining that band was a serious challenge, but one that jolted me into something new musically.”
Dark Star Orchestra guitarist Jeff Mattson said he first saw Godchaux-MacKay at a Grateful Dead show at the Nassau Coliseum in 1973. He also saw her perform with the Jerry Garcia Band and her band, Keith and Donna, with her husband. Dark Star Orchestra is a renowned Grateful Dead tribute band.
“Even early on, I loved that there was a female presence in the Dead’s music,” Mattson said.”When I got to see Donna sing some lead vocals with the Garcia Band and, of course, with Keith and Donna, I was blown away by her soufulness. I feel that starting in 1976 when she took over singing all the high harmonies in the Grateful Dead, the ensemble singing was the best it ever was in their 30-year history.”
It wasn’t until 2005 that Mattson finally met Godchaux-MacKay, after he was asked to coordinate a tribute to Jerry Garcia at the Gathering of the Vibes music festival near Bridgeport, Connecticut. She was one of the artists who would be performing at the tribute, which marked the 10th anniversary of Garcia’s death.
“I spoke to Donna Jean in the weeks preceding the show to help plan her participation, and she was gracious enough to offer to sit in with my band at the time, the Zen Tricksters,” Mattson said. “This had always been a dream of mine. She sat in and she spent the day hanging out with us. We became fast friends and, soon after, band mates.”
‘A consummate professional’
He continued to perform with her over the past decade, and the pair have co-written several songs, including some that appeared on “Back Around,” the 2014 release by the Donna Jean Godchaux Band with Jeff Mattson.
“Donna Jean is a consummate professional,” he said. “She spends as much time in the studio and in rehearsal as she has to to get it absolutely perfect, and she always nails it.
“At long last the Alabama Music Hall of Fame is recognizing her for the huge talent she is and her contribution to the Muscle Shoals sound and the San Francisco sound, and there is no one more deserving of that honor,” Mattson said.
Mefford said Godchaux-MacKay and her husband were members of a band he formed called Kenny and the C Notes.
“I met her and David when I was in kind (of a) low point of my life,” Mefford said. “It’s hard to put into words what they meant to me and my life and music. To say it’s an honor to get to play with both of those guys doesn’t do enough.”
Godchaux-MacKay has performed with the Fiddleworms on several occasions, and appears on the band’s albums “Live Bait,” “Volkswagen Catfish” and their latest release, “See The Light.” Her husband, David MacKay, is the band’s bassist.
Godchaux-MacKay has two sons, Zion Godchaux and Kinsman MacKay, both of whom are songwriters and musicians.
“My mom has always been an inspiration to me, just in being the quality of person that she is, music set aside,” Godchaux said. “But as a musician, I just hope that some of her personality is reflected through my music.”
Godchaux and Russ Randolph form the dance/trance/electronic duo Boombox while MacKay was part of the Grown Folks Band, which was originally a three piece that included Nate Slaughter and Colin Krout.
“I’m extremely proud of my mom,” MacKay said. “She has impacted so many people with her voice, Deadheads, Elvis fans, and pretty much anyone who has heard Muscle Shoals music. I’m honored to have the privilege to call her mother, and nobody deserves this more than her.”
Like many who grew up loving Shoals music, Godchaux-MacKay said her heroes include local musicians like Roger Hawkins, David Hood, the late Barry Beckett, Jimmy Johnson, Spooner Oldham and Donnie Fritts, to name a few.
“I was fortunate enough to grow up with greatness all around me,” she said. “I was schooled by the best of the best. The cool thing is that we have all remained good friends over the years.”
Godchaux-MacKay said she would not change the major decisions she’s made in her life.
“The major ones have been positive and part and parcel of who I am now, no regrets there,” she said. “The minor ones, of course, made through emotion, reaction or thoughtlessness are what every one of us has to learn from and then move on.”
Godchaux-MacKay said she will not be doing any extensive touring, but she wants to continue recording new material.
“I’m always up for recording,” she said. “There are songs I have written and already recorded on a couple of albums that I want to take another shot at. I’m ruminating on some new song ideas, and, as well, David is planning a solo project at the Nutthouse Studio that I will be a part of. Long story short, I guess, is that I’ll rock til I drop.”