John Marmaduke Dawson, New Riders Founder, Dies at 64
By Jeff Tamarkin
Fans of Bay Area psychedelic-cowboy country-rock are shedding a tear today for John Marmaduke Dawson, the primary singer and songwriter of the New Riders of the Purple Sage from its 1970s heyday until the 1990s. Dawson, 64, died July 21 in Mexico, where he had been living for some time. The cause of death was stomach cancer.
A founding member of NRPS commonly used acronymJohn Collins Dawson was born June 16, 1945. While taking guitar lessons in Palo Alto, Calif., in 1959, he first encountered Jerry Garcia, David Nelson, Robert Hunter and other musicians active in the local folk music scene. Given the nickname Marmaduke by another scenester, Dawson continued to play guitar throughout the 60s but it wasnt until the fall of 1969 that he seriously began writing songs and performing them informallywith Jerry Garcia joining in.
According to Grateful Dead publicist Dennis McNally, Garcia wanted to practice pedal steel guitar somewhere other than his living room, and his friend John Dawson had a Monday night solo gig at a pizza joint in Menlo Park, so Jerry said hed come down and back him up. Well never know if Jerry was aware of the material John had already written, but it was wonderful stuff: Last Lonely Eagle, Garden of Eden, Glendale Train, Henry. With material like that, the band simply had to become a reality, and so it did.
The original New Riders of the Purple Sage, in addition to Dawson and Garcia, featured Nelson on lead guitar, engineer Bob Matthews on bass and the Grateful Deads Mickey Hart on drums. The Deads Phil Lesh soon replaced Matthews and, some time after NRPS began touring as the Deads regular opening act, Lesh was himself replaced by Bay Area bassist David Torbert. The groups gigs during 1970 immediately established NRPS as an integral component of the Deads musical orbit, and before long they were able to fill halls as a headlining act.
Signed to Columbia Records, the group released its self-titled debut albumwith every song written by Dawsonin 1971. By that time, Hart had been replaced by former Jefferson Airplane drummer Spencer Dryden (who later became the bands manager)both drummers appear on that first album. That same year, Garcia left to concentrate on the Dead and his side band with keyboardist Merl Saunders, and NRPS brought in Buddy Cage on pedal steel. NRPS continued touring on their own and releasing a new album approximately every year throughout most of the 70s. Among their most popular was 1973s The Adventures of Panama Red, the title track of which (written by Peter Rowan) became an FM radio favorite of the era.
A series of lineup changes began in 1974, when Torbert left to join a new band with the Deads Bob Weir, Kingfish. Dawson, however, soldiered on, remaining at the helm of NRPS into the 1990s. The group left Columbia for MCA Records during the mid-70s and later released several recordings (mostly of vintage material) on the Relix label. More recently, Kufala Records has been issuing vintage NRPS concert material from the 70s on CD.
In the late 1990s, John Dawson retired, saying that he was tired of being on the road. (He rejoined the band for a one-off appearance at a party in California in 2001). Dawson relocated to Mexico but gave his blessing to a reunited NRPS that formed around Nelson and Cage in 2006. The New Riders of the Purple Sage remain active today.