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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

DSO monitor mixer Will Popp examining moldly tapes with Rob Eaton

Rob Eaton may be best known these days as a member of Dark Star Orchestra—where he has taken on the Bob Weir role since 2001—but for many years prior to that, he served as an engineer at Manhattan’s Power Station Studios, working with Pat Metheny, David Crosby and Kronos Quartet among many others. His studio skill set served him in good stead when the person who had acquired the second batch of Betty Boards contacted him.

In late 1995, Eaton received a call from a high-school teacher who had purchased one of the lots predominantly for the road cases that held the tapes. The teacher now hoped to sell the reels and wanted Eaton to assess them. In a cluttered barn, Eaton discovered a grimy, mold-infested collection.

“Out of 200 tapes,” he remembers, “only six boxes were legible and 75 to 80 tapes had no boxes at all—they had completely disintegrated from rot.” Still, Eaton believed he could resuscitate the reels, which he soon confirmed were part of Cantor-Jackson’s original collection. Eaton was staying with his friend Dick Latvala, the Grateful Dead archivist until his passing in 1999. “I spent all night long with some tools and cleaned up a portion of one of the reels. It was a reel from 9/6/73—a Garcia-Saunders show from the Capitol Theatre in Passaic that no one had ever seen before. So we knew this was a legitimate stash of tapes.” The teacher eventually hired Eaton to restore his collection, exchanging 40 tapes at a time via the mail.

This might have been the end of the story, but the Betty Boards have proven to be the gift that keeps on giving. The teacher never found a buyer for the tapes—his asking price was a million dollars—and two years ago, facing monetary struggles and fearing that that the bank might foreclose on his home, he contacted Eaton once again to see if he would be willing to take custody of the tapes. The teacher also explained that he had discovered another 50 reels while cleaning out the barn.

Eaton assented and on a day off during a Dark Star Orchestra tour, “I went to meet him at a parking lot of a Denny’s. He had a pickup truck and a trailer full of excrement and hay and the boxes I’d originally sent him back plus a wooden crate with 50 seven-inch reels thrown in it—no boxes, all tangled up. It was a complete mess. But most of those tapes turned out to be amazing. I would say 22 of those were from the June ‘76 tour—stuff that I had not seen before.

“If you had looked in the box, you would say there was no way they can be recovered but they could, if you took the time to do it. The challenge is that you can’t play them until you bake them at a low temperature for an extended period of time. That reformulates the back coding, which is what the oxide is on, and the oxide is what the music is recorded on magnetically. The seven-inch reels were on plastic hubs but I couldn’t transfer those to metal reels because it would ruin the tapes. So I modified a food dehydrator that I use to dehydrate mushrooms I collect here in the mountains of Colorado in the summer time.”

Eaton also went so far as to have a friend refurbish Betty’s Nagra IV-S Reel to Reel on which she recorded these shows, so that he could digitize the sounds of the tapes played back on the original machine that produced them.

Emboldened by success with this latest batch, Eaton set a new goal for himself: “I had this dream to try to reclaim all of this music and archive it properly so that it’s there for generations to come in the best possible form.” So through a chain of contacts, he eventually located Ken Genetti, who agreed to pass along a letter to the couple.

“Two months later, I got an email out of the blue,” Eaton remembers. “They said they’d be interested in restoring their tapes and archiving them properly. They also said there were a lot of tapes that hadn’t been touched. So the next time I was in San Francisco, I loaded up their tapes onto the semi tractor- trailer that DSO owns and brought them back East.”

But it didn’t end there.

While completing his work on the couple’s reels, Eaton began researching the original auction, hoping to identify the third individual who had purchased the Bettys. He eventually found him, and in January 2014, the pair entered into discussions about this final batch of tapes, which Eaton hopes to restore.

What then? Eaton has a plan that he already has set in motion. “What I’d love to see done—in a perfect world—is I think all the tapes need to go back to the vault,” he says. “I think the people that have purchased these tapes should be compensated. I don’t think we’re talking huge sums of money but enough to make them relinquish the tapes back to the Grateful Dead. They should be part of the collection. 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.”

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Comments

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

I have to agree with Dannyboy, GD have every right in the world to do what they want. If you are anti-capitalism, that is a separate story. For the joy and ecstacy that the Dead were responsible for in my life, they deserve every cent they ever got and get in the future. More power to the Dead. And thank you to them and Rob Eaton.

By WinemakerGreg - 03/12/14

Wonderful article- thanks! But maybe I’m missing something. In the spirit of Jerry’s saying, something like “once we’ve played it we are done with it,” why can’t the recordings be uploaded to the public domain free to use , perhaps accompanied by a donation link to a Betty fund? This would not conflict with the GD attorneys claiming no money can be made off the songs.

By -mountainjam - 03/12/14

How bout a DSO sponsored charity bi coastal benefit for all those involved in restoring these tapes? Perhaps locate a sponsor (maxell,apple, sony,nakamichi?) to underwrite and all proceeds to those deserving? DO IT ON THE DATES OF THE TAPES THEMSELVES! Ie 5/814, etc.  Great piece thx!

By save - 03/12/14

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