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

Dean Budnick | 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.