Hunter died on Monday at his Northern California home with his wife, Maureen, at his side, former Grateful Dead publicist Dennis McNally told The Associated Press on Tuesday.
“We loved Bob Hunter and will miss him unimaginably,” Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart said, adding the lyricist was “a visionary wordsmith extraordinaire.”
The family did not release a cause of death.
Although proficient on a number of instruments including the guitar, the violin, the cello and the trumpet, Hunter never appeared on stage with the Grateful Dead during the group’s 30-year run.
When he did attend the group’s concerts, he was content to either stand to the side of the stage or sit anonymously in the audience.
Hunter’s most memorable Grateful Dead songs include “Cumberland Blues”, “It Must Have Been the Roses,” “Terrapin Station,” “The Days Between,” “Brown Eyed Women,” “Jack Straw, “Friend of the Devil,” “Box of Rain,” “Uncle John’s Band” and “Black Muddy River.”
Some would say that Hunter’s poetic skill rivalled that of Bob Dylan, with whom he sometimes collaborated.
“He’s got a way with words and I do too,” Dylan told Rolling Stone in 2009. “We both write a different type of song than what passes today for songwriting.”
“There was nobody like Bob Hunter and there never will be,” Hart said on Tuesday. “He explained the unexplainable and the words struck deep.”
“Truckin’,” arguably Hunter and the group’s best-known song (and the one containing the memorable line, “What a long, strange trip it’s been”) was designated a national treasure in 1997 by the Library of Congress.
Once asked by The Associated Press who his influences were, he laughed and replied that, “just to throw people off,” he would often cite both the great 19th-century theatrical songwriting team of Gilbert and Sullivan and the American folk music balladeer Woody Guthrie.
After a moment’s reflection, he added more seriously, “Actually, that’s pretty close to the truth.”
Other influencers included novelists James Joyce, John Steinbeck and Hans Christian Andersen, musician Josh White and the traditional European ballads published by American folklorist Francis James Child.
Born Robert Burns on June 23, 1941, Hunter was seven when his father abandoned him and his mother, resulting in his spending several years in foster homes. It was an experience he said scarred him emotionally and left him feeling forever the outsider.
When he was 11, his mother married McGraw-Hill publishing executive Norman Hunter, who gave the boy a new last name and an appreciation for such peerless writers as William Saroyan and TS Elliot.
Hunter toyed with becoming a novelist himself but eventually turned to music. By his senior year of high school, he was playing the trumpet in a fusion Dixieland-rock band. Hunrer attended the University of Connecticut for one year where he studied drama, became a Pete Seeger fan and turned his interest to folk music.
He met Garcia in 1960 at a production of the musical “Damn Yankees,” introduced by a former girlfriend who by then was Garcia’s first wife. The pair quickly formed a folk music duo called Bob and Jerry.
Both homeless for a time, they lived out of their cars, parking them side-by-side in a Palo Alto, California, vacant lot. They survived those days, both would say later, by eating tins of pineapple that Hunter had pilfered from a military installation during his brief time in the National Guard.
Hunter had moved to New Mexico by the time Garcia, Bob Weir, Bill Kreutzmann, Phil Lesh and Ron “Pigpen” McKernan had formed the Grateful Dead. Hart would join soon after.
When Garcia asked him to send some lyrics along that could be set to music Hunter quickly responded with future Grateful Dead classics “China Cat Sunflower” and “St Stephen.” Garcia then asked him to return to the San Francisco Bay Area and write for the band.
Eventually, Hunter would write for all of the group’s members, and when the Grateful Dead was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1994 he was included as the lyricist.
He and Garcia were inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2015.
Over the years Hunter also released nearly a dozen albums of his own, published several volumes of poetry and co-wrote songs with Dylan. He also published two books translating the works of German poet Rainer Maria Rilke.
Hunter’s survivors include his wife and daughter Kate.
The man behind the words for Truckin’ and Ripple, among others, died at his home in Northern CaliforniaRobert Hunter, the man behind the words for many of the Grateful Dead’s finest songs, has died at age 78.Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart says...
Lyricist who wrote many of the best-loved songs of the Grateful DeadAlthough the Grateful Dead enjoyed a reputation for lengthy musical improvisations, their career was based on a solid core of songwriting craft. Robert Hunter, who has died aged 78...
Tributes have been pouring in for one of the greatest wordsmiths in the history of rock. Robert Hunter, who died this week at the age of 78, was responsible for penning some of the band's best known songs and most profound lyrics. Jeff Glor reports.
Mr. Hunter wrote some of the band’s signature songs, including “Uncle John’s Band,” “Scarlet Begonias” and “Dark Star.”
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