Following the mid-1995 death of iconic Grateful Dead guitarist Jerry Garcia, Atlanta producer and devoted Deadhead Mike Adams envisioned a classical symphonic tribute to the band's musical legacy. While searching for "a local Mozart" to do the Dead justice, fellow producer Ricky Keller introduced Adams to LaGrange-based composer Lee Johnson.
Johnson was ideal, except for one anomaly: He wasn't familiar with the Dead's music. He'd grown up with traditional symphonic fare – Beethoven, Stravinsky and Shostakovich. Adams persisted, educating Johnson in all things Dead, with the hope of inspiring in him a Dead Symphony. Then, one song struck a special chord: "China Doll."
"'China Doll' sounded timeless in its original form, and its melodic turns and clever countermelodic bass were irresistible," Johnson says. "It signaled that this dream was going to come true, and to start that deep and private compositional process that would produce a major work."
Johnson composed most of the "China Doll" section first, but did not complete it right away. He felt the song that started it all deserved to also have the last word. "I deliberately stopped [writing] before the song's end, on an unresolved moment," Johnson says, "and let it hang there until the entire symphony was nearly finished."
For 10 years Johnson worked, taking songs such as "Here Comes Sunshine," "Mountains of the Moon" and the rarely heard "Blues for Allah" (which the Dead performed live only three times in 30 years) and transforming them into seriously symphonic soundscapes. Finally, Dead Symphony was recorded in Moscow by the Russian National Orchestra, with Johnson conducting.
"After a long and strange 10 years, I got to hear the final measures of this once-in-a-lifetime musical journey," Johnson says. "It was worth the wait."
Dead Symphony was released May 29 by Jammates Records in CD form and is also available as a digital download. See the official Dead Symphony website at www.deadsymphony.com for details.
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