Lee Johnson

A ‘Grateful’ sound
Lee Johnson knew he had been entrusted with the musical legacy of one of the world’s greatest rock bands when he began work on a new symphony 15 years ago.

What he didn’t know was how fans of the Grateful Dead would react to his work.

He didn’t have to worry. Those fans, known as Deadheads, have embraced Johnson’s Dead Symphony No. 6 since its premiere in Baltimore in 2008.

Johnson, the college’s Fuller E. Callaway Professor of Music, says the initial idea for the symphony came in 1995 from friend and producer, Mike Adams.

“Mike is a Deadhead, and he asked me to see if it was possible to make a symphony off what he considers great, symphonic sounds – the music of the Grateful Dead,” Johnson says. “To a composer, of course, great sounds have to be translatable into what is appropriate for the orchestra. Some melodies may sound great on a guitar with a singer, but they will die in the midst of 75 orchestral musicians.”

Once he heard the music of the Grateful Dead, Johnson knew he was on to something. It resonated with him, but Johnson knew his work would be carefully scrutinized by the Grateful Dead’s legions of fans.

“They have some tremendous, and I think fair, expectations,” he says. “They want to have their legacy respected, and they want to share their fascination for what the Grateful Dead did and meant to them.”

Writing about Johnson’s work, famed Grateful Dead biographer and publicist Dennis McNally said, “… I flinched a bit when I first heard the idea of a symphonic take on the Dead; I feared ‘Dead with strings.’  That’s emphatically not Lee Johnson’s Dead Symphony. He got the Dead’s music, which is rooted in improvisation.  Since having a 75-piece symphony improvise is….a bad idea, he did the improvising himself in the score, and the result is a take on familiar melodies, with variations, and not a simple new coat of strings. It’s a superb piece of music, and something special for LaGrange.”

Finally, the work that won praise from music critics and fans alike comes home, as the LaGrange Symphony Orchestra presents the Southeastern premiere of Johnson’s piece Oct. 5 at LaGrange College’s Callaway Auditorium.

Grateful Dead fans have filled audiences at previous concerts in Baltimore, California and Chicago. Johnson says he’s hoping to see Deadheads at the LaGrange concert.

“They are usually easy to spot,” he says with a laugh. “(Symphony concerts) are usually more of a formal occasion, but the Grateful Dead audience brings an absolutely raw energy to the concert hall. Every maestro and every house manager has said, ‘I’ve never seen anything like this before.’ To have an audience so engaged is very exciting. For new music, it’s a great opportunity.”

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