Philip Chapman Lesh (born March 15, 1940) is a musician and a founding member of the Grateful Dead, with whom he played bass guitar throughout their 30-year career.
After the band’s disbanding in 1995, Lesh continued the tradition of Grateful Dead family music with side project Phil Lesh and Friends, which paid homage to the Dead’s music by playing their originals, common covers, and the songs of the members of his band. Phil Lesh & Friends helped keep a legitimate entity for the band’s music to continue. Recently, Lesh has opened a music venue called Terrapin Crossroads. He scaled back his touring regimen in 2014 but continues to perform with Phil Lesh & Friends at select venues. From 2009 to 2014 he performed in Furthur alongside his former Grateful Dead band mate Bob Weir.
Lesh was born in Berkeley, California, and started out as a violin player. While enrolled at Berkeley High School, he switched to trumpet. Studying the instrument under Bob Hansen, conductor of the symphonic Golden Gate Park Band, he developed a keen interest in avant-garde classical music and free jazz. After attending San Francisco State University for a semester, Lesh was unable to secure a favorable position in the school’s band or orchestra and determined that he was not ready to pursue a higher education. Upon dropping out, he successfully auditioned for the renowned Sixth Army Band (then stationed at the Presidio of San Francisco) with the assistance of Hansen but was ultimately determined to be unfit for military service.
Shortly thereafter, he enrolled at the College of San Mateo, where he wrote charts for the institution’s well-regarded big band and ascended to the first trumpet chair. (A snippet of tape of Lesh on trumpet at CSM can be heard on “Born Cross-Eyed” from the Grateful Dead’s 1968 release Anthem of the Sun.) After transferring with sophomore standing to the University of California, Berkeley in 1961, he befriended future Grateful Dead keyboardist Tom Constanten before dropping out again after less than a semester. At the behest of Constanten, he studied under the Italian modernist Luciano Berio in a graduate-level course at Mills College in the spring of 1962; their classmates included Steve Reich and Stanford University cross-registrant John Chowning.
While volunteering for KPFA as a recording engineer during this period, he met bluegrass banjo player Jerry Garcia. Despite seemingly opposite musical interests, they soon formed a friendship. Following a brief period as a Post Office Department employee and keno marker in Las Vegas (initially rooming with Constanten, who soon departed to study under Berio and other members of the Darmstadt School in Europe); a second stint with the Post Office in San Francisco; and a collaboration with the likes of Reich, Jon Gibson and Constanten upon the latter’s return under the auspices of the San Francisco Mime Troupe, Lesh was talked into becoming the bassist for Garcia’s new rock group (then known as The Warlocks) in the fall of 1964. This was a peculiar turn of events, as Lesh had never played bass before. According to Lesh, the first song he rehearsed with the band was “I Know You Rider”. He joined them for their third or fourth gig (memories vary) and stayed until the end.
Since Lesh had never played bass, it meant that to a great extent he learned “on the job”, yet it also meant he had no preconceived attitudes about the instrument’s traditional rhythm section role. In his autobiography, he credits Jack Casady (who was playing with Jefferson Airplane) as a confirming influence on the direction his instincts were leading him into. He has said that his playing style was influenced more by Bach counterpoint than by contemporaneous rock and soul bass players—although one can also hear the fluidity and power of a jazz bassist such as Charles Mingus or Jimmy Garrison in Lesh’s work, along with stylistic allusions to Casady.
Lesh was an innovator in the new role that the electric bass developed during the mid-1960s. Contemporaries such as James Jamerson, Paul McCartney, and Jack Casady adopted a more melodic, contrapuntal approach to the instrument; before this, bass players in rock had generally played a conventional timekeeping role within the beat of the song, and within (or underpinning) the song’s harmonic or chord structure. While not abandoning these aspects, Lesh took his own improvised excursions during a song or instrumental. This was a characteristic aspect of the so-called San Francisco Sound in the new rock music. In many Dead jams, Lesh’s wise and inventive bass is, in essence, as much a lead instrument as Garcia’s guitar.
Lesh was not a prolific composer or singer with the Grateful Dead, although some of the songs he did contribute—”New Potato Caboose”, “Box of Rain”, “Unbroken Chain”, and “Pride of Cucamonga”—are among the best-known in the band’s repertoire. Lesh’s high tenor voice contributed to the Grateful Dead’s four-part harmony sections in their group vocals in the early days of the band, until he relinquished singing high parts to Donna Godchaux. In the 1980s, he resumed singing, but as a baritone. His interest in avant-garde music was a crucial influence on the Dead.
In 1994, he was inducted into The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a member of the Grateful Dead.
After the disbanding of the Grateful Dead, Lesh continued to play with its offshoots The Other Ones and The Dead, as well as performing with his own band, Phil Lesh and Friends. One memorable tour paired him with Bob Dylan.
Additionally, Lesh and his wife Jill administer their charitable organization, the Unbroken Chain Foundation. The couple have two children together, Grahame and Brian. Both Grahame and Brian follow in their father’s musical footsteps. The three frequently play together both publicly and privately, for example in an annual benefit concert grouping known as Philharmonia, dating to 1997, most recently on December 18, 2011 at a Christmas gig including Bob Weir and Jackie Greene at the Tenderloin Middle School cafeteria attended by 250 people.
In 1998 Lesh underwent a liver transplant as a result of chronic hepatitis C infection; since then, he has become an outspoken advocate for organ donor programs and when performing regularly encourages members of the audience to become organ donors (tracks identified as the “donor rap” on the live recordings of his various performances).
In April 2005, Lesh’s book Searching for the Sound: My Life with the Grateful Dead (ISBN 0-316-00998-9) was published. The book takes its name from the lyrics of a Grateful Dead song titled “Unbroken Chain,” from their album From the Mars Hotel. “Unbroken Chain” is one of the few songs Lesh sings. This was the only book about the Grateful Dead written by a member of the band until 2015 when Bill Kreutzmann released his memoir, Deal: My Three Decades of Drumming, Dreams and Drugs with the Grateful Dead.
On October 26, 2006, Lesh released a statement on his official website, revealing that he had been diagnosed with prostate cancer—the disease that killed his father—and would be undergoing an operation in December 2006 to have it removed. On December 7, 2006, Lesh released a statement stating that he had undergone prostate surgery with the cancer being removed.
In 2009, Lesh went back on tour with the remaining members of the Grateful Dead. Following the 2009 summer tour Lesh proceeded to found a new band with Bob Weir named Furthur, which debuted in September 2009.
In 2012, Lesh founded a music venue called Terrapin Crossroads, in San Rafael, California. The venue officially opened on March 17, 2012, with a first of a run of twelve concerts by Phil Lesh and Friends. When not on tour, Lesh’s sons, Grahame and Brian, serve as the house band at Terrapin Crossroads.
Phil Lesh and Friends made appearances in the summer of 2013 at both Mountain Jam Music Festival and Gathering of the Vibes Festival. Lesh is currently on tour full-time with Phil Lesh and friends, having announced a temporary hiatus with Furthur for 2014.
In October 2015 Lesh announced that he had bladder cancer surgery. He stated that his prognosis was good and that he expected to make a full recovery.