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In memoriam: Owsley Stanley

The Grateful Dead’s legendary touring engineer and sound system innovator has died in a car accident at the age of 76. Otherwise known as Bear, Stanley was a key figure in the burgeoning US underground scene of the late '60s.

The Grateful Dead’s legendary touring engineer and sound system innovator – often referred to as ‘Bear’ – has died in a car accident at the age of 76, writes David Davies.

A key architect of the band’s groundbreaking Wall of Sound live audio set-up, Stanley initially rose to fame as a key figure within the burgeoning mid ‘60s US underground movement. Reportedly the first private individual to mass produce LSD – legal in the US until late 1966 – Stanley was closely identified with the counter-cultural epicentre of Haight-Ashbury. His early customers included One Flow Over the Cuckoo’s Nest author Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters, whose 1964 road-trip was immortalised in Tom Wolfe’s classic book, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.

With the authorities paying ever-closer attention to the activities of the underground, it was inevitable that Stanley would come in for special scrutiny. In late 1967, his lab was raided by police, who recovered 350,000 doses of LSD, leading to a two-year jail term.

Upon release, Stanley reconnected with the Grateful Dead, for whom he had already served as live sound engineer and financier. Now at their zenith as a live act, the ‘Dead’s high-impact space rock sound was bolstered in the early ‘70s by the introduction of the Wall of Sound audio system. Co-created by Stanley and five other engineers, the system featured six independent PAs configured behind the band to serve as a combined house and monitor system. Weighing in at a formidable 75 tonnes, the system drew power from 92 amplifiers to yield a total of 26,400 watts.

Early attempts at deploying the system were less than flawless, but by the time of the band’s 1974 shows the Wall of Sound had been perfected. Although it would have a short shelf-life in the group’s inventory, the system undoubtedly helped to encourage a wider rethink of live PA design.

It was around this period that the ‘Dead was also experimenting with multi-channel live recording, taking a 16-track machine on the road in 1972 to capture the entirety of its European tour – extracts from which were later released on the Europe ’72 album.

While an integral part of the ‘Dead’s extended family at this time, Stanley also recorded shows by Jefferson Airplane, Taj Mahal, Santana, Miles Davis, Jimi Hendrix and many others during this period.

The Grateful Dead would prove to be a major concert draw for the next 20 years, but Stanley gradually moved into broadcast engineering work. He subsequently relocated to Australia, where he cultivated an interest in sculpture.

Stanley passed away in an automobile accident on 13 March. He is survived by his wife Sheila, four children, eight grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren.