man playing the violin with emotion
Papa John Creach in 1974. Image by Jim Summaria under CC BY-SA 3.0

Papa John Creach

Born in 1917, Papa John Creach may very well have been the oldest person to ever play with the Grateful Dead. And by the time Papa John did take the stage with the boys in 1970, he had already had an incredibly long and varied music career, far beyond his membership in Jefferson Airplane and Hot Tuna. 

Born in Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania, Papa John grew up studying the violin. When he moved to Chicago as a teenager, Papa John quickly enmeshed himself in the city’s music scene, playing bars, doing symphonic work, and picking up gigs wherever he could. As he described,

Because of all the nationalities in Chicago, I had to learn to play everything. At some jobs it was strictly German music, or Polish. Now, they used to dance and knock holes in the floor.

By the 40s, Papa John was starting to play some jazz, getting his first electric violin in 1943. In 1945, he moved to Los Angeles where, among other things, he appeared in Fritz Lang’s The Blue Gardenia, a classic noir film, with Nat King Cole.

It was in Los Angeles in 1967 that Papa John became friends with drummer Joey Covington at a union hiring hall. Three years later, when Covington joined Jefferson Airplane, he introduced them all to Papa John. And by the fall of that year, Creach had become a member of both the Airplane and Hot Tuna. Given the close connections between the Dead and the Airplane, Papa John was also surely hanging out and playing with Jerry and the rest of the band by then. And that is what brought Papa John to the stage with the Dead, alongside Jorma Kaukonen and Jack Casady, in Brooklyn on November 11, 1970.

The recording of that show is pretty awful. But the playing is clearly hot, and it is a hoot to hear the Brooklyn Deadheads talking and getting excited. And, as bad as the recording is, you can definitely tell when Jorma, Jack, and Papa John take the stage in the middle of Goin’ Down the Road Feelin’ Bad; the crowd goes nuts. 

The 11th of November was a Wednesday night back in 1970. The Airplane were playing at the Fillmore East that weekend, which explains their presence in NYC. From reports, the Brooklyn hall, an old movie palace, was only a quarter full for the mid-week Dead gig. Those lucky souls got to see something special.

After the GDTRFB, John’s Other comes out smoking, with Creach in the lead; it is, after all, his own tune from Hot Tuna’s album, First Pull Up Then Pull Down. Then we get Uncle Sam Blues, the WWII era tune from trumpeter Oran “Hot Lips” Page that the Airplane and Hot Tuna covered and which Papa John almost certainly brought to those bands. The rest of the night is a ton of fun, chock full of – after the Around & Around – excellent jams, including on instrumental versions of Hot Tuna’s Ode to Billie Dean and Lightnin’ Hopkins’s Come Back Baby. 

There is some question as to whether Papa John also joined the Dead a few days later for a Good Lovin’, presumably also with Jorma and Jack. If it did go down (and was not just part of the November 11th show), then this time it was at the Fillmore East, on November 16. Either way, the Good Lovin’ sounds like it was a solid one. But the recording here also leaves a lot to the imagination. Although, you can definitely hear Papa John through the middle portion of the tune killing on violin.

If you are not already familiar, you can get a better sense of just how good Papa John is by listening to this crisp recording of Soul Fever off his 1971 eponymous album. And at 1:40, Jerry comes in for a brief solo. Over the next two decades until his passing in 1994, Papa John continued both his solo career and his association with the Airplane, playing in various iterations of the band.

Shows Papa John Creach was a guest at:


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