Grateful Dead Engineer Owsley Stanley, Dead at 76

Owsley Stanley, live engineer for the Grateful Dead and co-creator of the band’s legendary Wall of Sound, an early pre-cursor to the modern line array, died in car accident March 13 at the age of 76.
Author:
Publish date:
Owsley Stanley at a 1967 arraignment. Source: BoingBoing

Owsley Stanley at a 1967 arraignment. Source: BoingBoing

New York (March 15, 2011)—Owsley Stanley, live engineer for the Grateful Dead and co-creator of the band’s legendary Wall of Sound, an early pre-cursor to the modern line array, died in car accident March 13 at the age of 76.

Best-known in pop culture for his 1960s notoriety as an LSD chemist, Stanley reportedly produced more than 1.25 million doses in San Francisco during the height of the hippie era. Creating product for the likes of the Beatles and Jimi Hendrix, he was later immortalized in song by Steely Dan (“Kid Charlemagne” is said to be loosely based on him) and the Grateful Dead’s own “Alice D. Millionaire”—a goof on a Los Angeles Times profile headline that referred to him as an “LSD millionaire.”

As a result, Stanley’s chemical exploits often overshadowed his sound work with the Dead. He recorded many of the band’s early concerts and rehearsals, and likewise recorded other acts of the period, taping shows by Jefferson Airplane, Janis Joplin, Taj Mahal, Santana, Miles Davis, The Flying Burrito Brothers, Jimi Hendrix and Johnny Cash, among others. Many of the recordings were later released as live albums.

In 1972, following his release from two years in federal prison for a 1967 drug arrest, Stanley began work on the massive Wall of Sound audio system. Co-created with Dan Healy, Mark Raizene, Ron Wickersham, Rick Turner and John Curl, the system combined a half-dozen independent PAs arranged behind the band to act as a combined house and monitor system. A total of 11 channels fed the system: vocals, guitar, lead guitar, piano, three drum channels, and four bass channels—one for each string, which were separated by a quadraphonic encoder. The 75-ton system, which required four semi-trucks for transport and 21 people to load-in, was powered by 92 amplifiers for a total of 26,400 watts.

The band’s first performance using the system, at Stanford University's Roscoe Maples Pavilion on February 9, 1973, was a disaster (every tweeter blew during the first song). Nonetheless, in March, 1974, the behemoth hit the road with the Dead, and was reportedly crystal-clear compared to other concert systems of the time. The Wall of Sound played its last show a mere seven months later, however, when the band briefly retired in October that year. When the Grateful Dead returned to the road two years later, the unwieldy—and long since disassembled—system was left at home.

Stanley also co-designed the Grateful Dead’s famed lightning bold skull logo with Bob Thomas, inventing the icon to be stenciled on the band’s road cases and gear in order to make them more readily identifiable at festivals. Another of the band’s icons, the dancing bear, was reportedly a tribute of sorts to Stanley, who was nicknamed “Bear” as a teen.

Stanley’s later years were spent keeping a low-profile in Australia, where he died in a car crash, hitting trees on an embankment after driving off the side of a highway in Queensland. He is survived by his wife Sheila, four children, eight grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren.