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What’s Become of the Bettys? The Fate of the Long-Lost Grateful Dead Soundboards

by Dean Budnick on March 11, 2014

In May 1986, a storage auction took place in California’s Marin County that would altogether change the nature of Grateful Dead tape trading, the group’s distribution of its live recordings and, ultimately, the Dead’s place in the Library of Congress’ National Recording Registry. An advertisement in a local paper drew in a few dozen curious parties anticipating the range of memorabilia and household items that typically become available through the auction of lockers that had fallen into arrears due to lack of payments. While the popularity of such events has blossomed in recent years due to television shows such as Storage Wars, back in 1986, bidders’ expectations were often minimal and true windfalls were rare. As it turned out, however, on this spring afternoon, there was bounty to be had: Among the items up for auction that day were hundreds of reel-to-reel soundboard tapes of the Grateful Dead originally recorded by Betty Cantor-Jackson during a golden age between 1971-80.

The Betty Boards, as copies of these recordings became known, eventually found their way into the collections of longstanding Deadheads and newbies alike, ending some aspects of a tape-trading hierarchy by which certain individuals lorded over their collections, denying access to those who were unfamiliar with the secret handshake.

The appearance and subsequent dissemination of these recordings became a source of fascination and speculation for Deadheads in 1986 and the questions have only compounded over the years: How did the tapes fall into the auction? Who won them? How and why were they initially distributed? Are there more recordings that have yet to make it into circulation? And jumping ahead to the present, where are those tapes today? Just what has become of the Bettys?

As it turns out, the story is quite complicated and some aspects of it remain a moving target. What can be said with certainty is that a new cache of tapes has been unearthed and a plan is underway by Dark Star Orchestra guitarist Rob Eaton, who has painstakingly restored many of the boards, to complete the job and then facilitate their return to the band. Eaton hopes that a series of official releases might follow that will also yield a small royalty to the woman who recorded the reels and then lost them due to her own financial hardship, even if Deadheads owe her a debt of gratitude.

Before the auction, before the boards, there was Betty.

Betty Cantor was still in her teens when she began setting up mics and helping to record sound at San Francisco venues— first at the Avalon Ballroom and then, the Carousel (the latter during the Grateful Dead’s brief stab at venue management in 1968). She worked alongside Bob Matthews, initially assisting with setups during the recording of the Dead’s Anthem of the Sun. A true pioneer, as a woman staking her claim in a patriarchal business, she partnered with Matthews into the early 1970s to produce and engineer live multi- track recordings (she had a hand or two in Live/Dead) as well as studio efforts (Aoxomoxoa and Workingman’s Dead).

While she worked for other artists during this period, she maintained a close relationship with the Grateful Dead, catalyzed by her marriage to crew member Rex Jackson, who would die a few years later in an auto accident. (The philanthropic Rex Foundation is named in his honor.)

“My late husband started recording on the road when he was on the equipment crew,” Cantor Jackson explains. “He and I purchased our own gear and tape. I recorded whenever I could get to the gigs. I recorded the Grateful Dead frequently when they were at home venues, I recorded any and all Jerry Garcia Band gigs I could get to for years, in all its configurations, as well as other bands I liked whenever I could. In those days, bands were cool and happy about me getting a feed. Rex was killed in a car accident in ‘76. In ‘77 and ‘78, I was put on Grateful Dead road crew salary, taping and handling Bobby’s stage setup.”

She later began a romantic relationship with Dead keyboardist Brent Mydland but, after that ended, she sensed that she had been frozen out. “Brent and I split up after a few years, with the last year spent in the studio working on his solo project. This put me in the category of the dreaded ‘ex.’ I didn’t think that could apply to me, but he was a band member. Everyone was paranoid of me being around, so I no longer had access to my studio or the vault.”

Trying times followed. In 1986, she found herself in a dire financial predicament and forced out of her home. “All my things were moved to storage facilities. There were moving fees and storage fees. I couldn’t pay,” she laments. “I had nowhere to go so I moved to Oregon and stayed with my in-laws until I got a job with the State of Oregon as a nursing assistant.”

Unable to foot the bill at the storage center, Cantor-Jackson forfeited the rights to her worldly possessions. She remembers contacting the Grateful Dead office to inform them of the situation, but the group took no action, resulting in a public auction of Cantor-Jackson’s personal assets, which included more than 1,000 reel-to-reel tapes—mostly Grateful Dead recordings, along with performances by Legion of Mary, Kingfish, Jerry Garcia Band, Old and In The Way, the Keith and Donna Band, and New Riders of The Purple Sage.

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Comments

Thanks to aLL the people who had the energy, devotion, and love to do this kind of thing for the generations to come. Bout time Betty gets here due!! I wouldn’t be a deadhead without her recordings when I was growing up.
Thanks,

By james LL - 03/11/14

“Brent and I split up after a few years, with the last year spent in the studio working on his solo project” 

So did anything ever come of Brent’s solo album?

By chuck - 03/11/14

No, it was never officially released.

By Relix - 03/11/14

Rob Eaton: “Another thing that’s important is if these tapes do get back to the vault, Betty should get her production royalty on anything that gets released, which is completely reasonable. Those were her tapes; those weren’t the Dead’s tapes. I’d love to see Betty get her due.”

Amen to that.

I’m just a fan & have no idea what actually went on behind the scenes, but if I & all my former band mates were each worth upwards of 20 or 30 million plus dollars, I hope I’d do the decent & fair thing & settle up my past debts.

By D - 03/11/14

Cheers to all that are working to bring these tapes back to the light of day. Would love to know exact dates? June 76’ is great stuff. Would love it all

By Rory - 03/11/14

...fantastic article. was amazed & fascinated reading this history that affected my music-listening-enjoying-experience that blossomed in my 1st couple of yrs in college.

....read like a modern music noir detective novel wink

thanks to all involved who are working towards a positive resolution with the collection for all parties. amazing example of the skilled intuition, art and expertise of the restorer.

...and it would be great to see Betty get her due. i started collecting in ‘85 and within 2 yrs was spoiled by Betty’s Barton. it was a revelation.

cheers & all the very best with this…

By Lou - 03/11/14

Outstanding!  There’s no other place for the reels to be except in the vault.  “All of them!”  Agree with Rob 100%.  There’d be no reels if it wasn’t for Betty. 

By Dozin.com - 03/12/14

God Bless Betty! Can’t believe the Dead would let her fall into such dire financial straits without a little support but I don’t know the whole story. I do know that on top of her incredible recording abilities, Betty was a stone cold fox back in the day. SEXY. AS. HELL! Thank you Betty, hope you’re well….!

By JoeyDVt - 03/12/14

The Dead were assholes to do Betty like that, not paying her for her work, and letting her go broke because Brent (!) broke up with her?

By September East - 03/12/14

This story is weak. Why raise all those questions in paragraph three and then answer almost none of them, especially when the answers are well known to many?

The one fact is that Betty’s excellent ear for sound and mixing resulted in many of the best recordings of the Dead ever made. That she got so little from her efforts while others gained so much is a travesty. But then the reality of how many people in the GD camp acted and still act in regards to money is a sad truth that no one wants to address.

How much money is still being milked from old shows, sold at crazy high prices by GDP, from fans who’ve already paid and paid and paid for decades? Plus all the paraphernalia, shirts, etc….why isn’t more of that money going to truly worthy causes, instead of fattening the already obscenely fat bank accounts of men (and greedy exes) who already have way more than they could ever need?

Greed sucks, but greed from a band who espoused sharing as a lifestyle really really sucks.

There’s enough for everyone! Give Betty her share. And hey fellow longtime fans…stop supporting the greed of GDP, and keep trading and sharing, the way it was meant to be.

By Flying Hearts - 03/12/14

Gee, Flyng Hearts, I think all those questions in paragraph three were answered. Is it possible you didn’t read all three pages? You make some good points, though.

By Ted - 03/12/14

So, wait. They have the 5.8.77 boards? I thought they were long gone, even from these collections.

By mmINDY - 03/12/14

Bring on the new stuff! This is very exciting news. If they do it through Dave’s Picks as opposed to some ultra expensive release with fancy packaging done by someone that doesn’t even care about the band I don’t mind paying the $96/year (if you pre-order) Dave’s picks sub.
That being said Dave’s promo videos where he whores himself are super annoying and unnecessary.

By Joey - 03/12/14

Hey Joey, last time I checked those promo videos required you to actually click on them in order to watch. So….if you are annoyed, just ignore them. Pretty simple.

By Matt - 03/12/14

Great piece, nice to know we can anticipate some new tapes in the future (hopefully). And once again, without knowing the complete story: I have to agree that the Dead org doesn’t look good regarding the way they treated Betty. She deserves more.

But my favorite line from the article:

“So I modified a food dehydrator that I use to dehydrate mushrooms I collect here in the mountains of Colorado in the summer time.”

Collecting shrooms in the mountains in Colorado? ... of course you do, Rob. Of course you do! Love it.

By A - 03/12/14

A superb article.  Thank you Betty, Rob and everybody else involved - so many of us benefit from this great work!

By BarryW - 03/12/14

Very interesting read. 

So out of the original 1,000+ reels—which I’m assuming make-up about 250 - 300 shows—that were lost, auctioned-off and stored away for years, is there a guess or indication as to the number of Betty Boards or shows that were actually salvaged?  Has Rob Eaton commented on this?

Since none of the present tape owners have the right to sell their content, I think it only makes sense for the band to purchase them, professionally remaster them and commercially release them under a Betty Boards Series (... with some of the proceeds going to her, of course).  You would think the band would jump on this opportunity.  I wonder why this has not yet been made more transparent.  Let’s face it, we would much rather listen to this uncirculated live material.

By Manny - 03/12/14

I hate seeing “fans” putting down the Dead for earning a good living on their amazing legacy. Especially when so much of it is in free domains already.

By DannyBoy - 03/12/14

Rather than wait for the Dead to ‘do the right thing’ by Betty, how about starting a gofundme or kickstarter and anyone who has enjoyed her work can donate an amount directly to Betty? Fabulous story, thanks Relix!

By CrazyFingers - 03/12/14

Kicking members of the “family” when they were down is a pattern with them, Crazyfingers (ask Pigpen).
I like your idea. I’ll pony up for that kickstarter if Betty wants it.

By September East - 03/12/14

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