Grateful Dead's last keyboardist, Vince Welnick, dies at 55
Vince Welnick and Nenad Bach at Vince's house
I knew Vince for a long time, almost 20 years, before he joined Grateful Dead. Great player and a friend. He played on my last album 'Thousand Years of Peace' on couple of tunes. Great musical sense and easy to work with. I enjoyed every moment with Vince, whether we recorded, talked about Croatia, Bosendorfer (my choice of Piano, as well as Vince's) or horses. We'll miss you.
Carolyn Jones, Chronicle Staff Writer
Saturday, June 3, 2006
SAN FRANCISCO - Vince Welnick, a keyboardist who possessed a fluid and precise style and played with the Tubes, Todd Rundgren and the Grateful Dead, died Friday in Sonoma County at the age of 51.
The cause appears to be suicide, Sonoma County sheriff's department said.
Mr. Welnick, whom friends called a gentle and sensitive man, was classically trained and spent hours practicing each day. Although he was a member of the Dead for just five years until the band folded after the death of guitarist Jerry Garcia, he left an indelible mark on his bandmates.
"He was a good soul, a very sweet guy," said band spokesman Dennis McNally. "He was also an exceptionally competent keyboardist."
In a statement posted on its Web site, the band said, "His service to and love for the Grateful Dead were heartfelt and essential. He had a loving soul and a joy in music that we were lucky to share. Our Grateful Dead prayer for the repose of his spirit: May the four winds blow him safely home."
Mr. Welnick was born in Phoenix, Ariz., where he started playing piano as a kid. He and friends put together a garage band called the Beans, which became the Tubes when they moved to San Francisco in 1969.
"Thank God for rock and roll, because it was a place for all us skinny artistic kids to go when it was 115 degrees outside and we didn't fit in anywhere else," said Michael Cotten, a member of the Tubes who designed many of the band's album covers and elaborate stage shows.
The Tubes toured constantly, and their rowdy antics and energetic shows -- which integrated rock music, video technology and outlandish costumes and sets -- earned them a devoted following. The band recorded more than a dozen albums and scored hits with "White Punks on Dope" in 1975 and "Talk to Ya Later" in 1981.
"It was an amazing time. We played everywhere, and I don't think Vince ever missed a show," said Tubes vocalist Fee Waybill. "But even with all the success, we were still a hippie band from San Francisco. We all lived together, traveled on the same bus, shared everything."
Throughout his time with the Tubes, Mr. Welnick also played with Todd Rundgren.
Mr. Welnick auditioned for the Dead in 1990 after keyboardist Brent Mydland died of a drug overdose. He was among a handful of musicians who sought the job, and he immediately impressed the band.
"He just magically appeared and he had the attributes they were looking for," McNally said.
Mr. Welnick cherished his years with the Dead and thoroughly appreciated both the tradition and hoopla of Deadhead lore and of the band, McNally said.
His soulful, high harmony vocals and classical training were a good fit for the band, and his "moment to shine" came whenever the band played The Who classic, "Teenage Wasteland," which begins with an instantly recognizable and utterly unique keyboard passage, McNally said.
It "opens with one of the most amazing riffs in rock and roll," he said. "Vince was great at that."
Mr. Welnick was devoted to his craft and spent hours a day practicing for most of his life, friends said. He was especially proud of his Boesendorfer piano, which is the piano equivalent to a Stradivarius violin.
"His fingers just flew on that thing," Cotten said.
Mr. Welnick was close to Garcia, and when the guitarist died of a heart attack in 1995, Mr. Welnick fell into a deep depression.
"He was extremely shattered by Jerry's death and was very frank about it," McNally said.
Still, Mr. Welnick continued to perform and write. He formed the band Missing Man Formation and performed with Ratdog, a band featuring Dead guitarist Bob Weir and bassist Rob Wasserman.
One of the highpoints of his post-Dead career came in April 2005 when the Tubes had an impromptu reunion at the Rio Theater in Santa Cruz.
Five of the original members were playing, and Waybill invited other alumni. They all wound up onstage, playing together.
"It was amazing, like walking on air," said Cotten, who's working on a Tubes documentary.
"The place was packed. People went nuts," said Waybill. "It was a great, great night. Vince was always up for things like that. He was really excited about playing with the Tubes again."
And so it was that Mr. Welnick's death came as such a shock.
"A few of us were just talking about Vince today and about the incredible music he brought us," Cotten said. "What they call chops, that's what Vince had. That's what we want to remember."
Mr. Welnick's death is the latest in a string of recent tragedies for the Dead. Three other members of the band's extended family have died since May 17 -- crew member Lawrence "Ram Rod" Shurtliff, drummer Hamza El-Din and road manager Jonathan Riester.
He also is the fourth of the band's five keyboardists to die, following Ron "Pigpen" McKernan, Keith Godchaux and Mydland.
"It's not a happy history," McNally said. "Each one of these guys had a fragility, which isn't that uncommon for musicians."
Mr. Welnick is survived by his wife, Lori Welnick.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.
Grateful Dead keyboard player Vince Welnick dies
By Sara Wykes
Vince Welnick, 55, who played keyboards with the Grateful Dead for five years before the death of band founder Jerry Garcia, died Friday.
Sonoma County sheriffs said he was taken, injured, from his home in rural Forestville near Santa Rosa, to a local hospital.
He died there, police said.
An unofficial spokesman at the Welnick home said, ``It looks like he took his own life.'' But that is not known for sure, he said. ``The family is very grieved, and trying to figure it all out.''
Welnick arrived in San Francisco in 1971 from his hometown of Phoenix, Ariz., already a keyboardist with a group called the Beans. The Beans became the Tubes and in 1983 their song ``She's a Beauty'' was a hit.
Welnick played with Todd Rundgren after the Tubes broke up, and in 1990, was invited to try out for the Dead.
Welnick told an interviewer with the Vermont Review that the tryout was exciting. Before he played, the band sent him tapes and CDs, but he didn't have a CD player. He practiced in the hayloft of his barn and then waited for two weeks before he heard he was in.
``That fact that I screamed a lot as a child paid off and got me into the Grateful Dead,'' he told the paper. At his first concert with the band, a sound man jumped on his piano seat to test his microphone and broke the seat into 100 hundred pieces, Welnick said.
``I was somewhat paralyzed playing at first. I remember . . . thinking to myself: `Come on fingers, let's get unstuck. Let's get loose here.' Then I heard this ripple in the audience and there was a kid who yelled, `Welcome Brother Vince!' and there were stickers that said, `Yo Vinnie' stuck to the side of my keyboard. The crowd was very forgiving.''
He told the interviewer that he'd never seen the likes of such music, friendship and spirit and did not know if he ever would again.
As a member of the Dead, he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
He was scheduled to play the House of Blues in Chicago later this month, according to a Web site devoted to his career.