So I’ve been called Dino from birth. My real name is Richard Dean English, but my brothers and sisters started calling me Dino. I guess they got that from Dean Martin’s son. There was a band, Dino Desi & Billy. Pretty funny to have an Italian nickname for a guy named English.
My first musical memory was when I got my first record player. I think I was five. It was stereo with two speakers and fairly on the cheap side but I thought it was state of the art. I don’t know if it was my pick or how it ended up on the player, but really the first album that I got heavy into was Abbey Road, which came from my brother’s sizable record collection. I listened to that one over and over again.
I had older brothers around the house. I’m the youngest of five, three older brothers and one sister. The youngest next to me is ten years older, so… My, middle, brother saw the Dead in ’69 in St. Louis at Kiel Auditorium. That was one of his first shows. They opened for Iron Butterfly.
My first “music” was when I got together with a bunch of neighborhood kids and we basically had an air band – I used a tennis racket to air guitar along to records. But then we needed a drummer. So I started hitting pillows and plastic stools. When I started doing that I was like, wow!, this is fun! I had these little baseball bat souvenirs that you get when you go to a baseball ball game that I used for sticks. And that is kind of where it began. It felt good. It felt fun. And it was more fun than strumming the tennis racket.
I was probably 7 years old. I really loved it and I wanted to get a drum set but my parents wouldn’t let me. All my other brothers played guitar, so my parents wanted me to do that and not bang on things. So I started on acoustic guitar. Mostly, learning folk songs and it was kind of real boring to me. There was nothing to connect with. I realized the beauty of folk songs now. But my guitar teacher was having me play songs like “Michael Row Your Boat Ashore,” that kind of thing. So I just wasn’t connecting with it then.
I picked up electric guitar later on. I really got into song writing with a college buddy of mine. We started a band, and I got Jerry Saracini (now with Forgotten Space in Dallas) to play drums with me. I had played bass with him as well. And another drummer friend, Paul Chickey, was playing bass in this band. We were called Vitamin A. I’m actually getting most of that band back together for our Dark Star Jubilee, Memorial Day weekend, the next one (2024). So that will be the first time that I will step on stage playing guitar in quite a long time.
When I was 15, my brother said he had a friend who was trying to sell a drum set. And I had enough money at that point where I could buy it myself without my parents paying for it. And I had to convince them. I tried to convince them by saying I would only play after school, when they weren’t home yet. There was a period of time between when I got home around 2:30 and when my mom would get home around 4 and my dad 4:30, there was a little bit of time there. They said, yes, okay. That will work.
But then of course that slid into practicing till dinner time which was around 5:30. When my dad got home at 4:30. I moved to the brushes. And I would just play the brushes more rock style but used them so I didn’t disturb my parents. But it allowed me to practice a good 2, 2 and a half hours a day on the kit. And I did it every day from that point on, I was very regimented and hard core with my practicing. No one had to tell me to go practice. I just did it all the time. I knew I was behind at that point between the kids who started in band in 6th grade or concert band, and so I knew I had to do some catching up. So probably while those kids were out playing, I was practicing every day.
My first band was actually an all-girl band. I was the only guy. That worked out all right. That was fun. We played some garages. I can’t remember the name of the band but I kept playing with the bass player and the guitar player for some time into college. That was eventually called Carpe Diem, and it was kind of an alternative rock band. They were way into Bowie and they were into other stuff like The Who and The Police. And then when we got to college it turned into an original band so it was all original music.
And my next band, that was really what I consider my first band because we started actually playing places. That band was the Icons. We primarily wrote and played our own music. It was basically alternative rock style from the 80s. This was around ’88, and it just so happens that the lead singer in that band was James Gunn, who is now a writer director. He wrote and directed the last three Guardians of the Galaxy movies and he is going to be doing the new Superman movie.
I’m still stay in touch with the guys in the Icons. We recorded an album in ’94, and I am in the process of cleaning up the stereo masters for a new digital release. Unfortunately, we don’t have the original multi track recordings, but I have the stereo masters so I’m doing a little clean up work. It never got mastered, so we are mastering it and it’s going to be a fun thing to release to the public soon.
I went to a college called Central Methodist College, which is now called Central Methodist University. It’s in the middle of Missouri in a town called Fayette, about a half hour away from the larger college town of Columbia MO. There were only about 600 to 700 people at the school at the time. But they had a really good music department. I got in on a partial music scholarship and played percussion in the concert and jazz band.
I majored in music to start out with, but then half way through that is when the Icons started, and I dropped out of CMC, and attended school in St. Louis for a semester while we did this Icon project. Eventually we moved to Arizona to record at my brother’s professional recording studio. We were definitely starving musicians at that point so eventually I went back to CMC. I switched my major to business administration because I didn’t really want to be a high school concert band instructor. It took me about 6 years to get through college but I eventually graduated with a bachelor’s degree.
My first encounter with Grateful Dead, .… So I had a friend in college that I would be hanging out with and he had a calendar on his wall with pictures of the Grateful Dead, and he would play me some Grateful Dead and try to get me into it. He knew I was a drummer and music major and was asking me if I ever checked the GD drummers. I had not. I was into progressive rock mostly. Now I know that there is definitely a progressive rock element in the Grateful Dead but didn’t realize it then. There is a little bit of everything in the Grateful Dead.
But I listened to it and I just wasn’t getting it. It sounded real loose and sloppy, and I was used to really tight music. I just wasn’t getting it. And the same kind of scenario happened when I started playing with Jerry (Saracini). Jerry was really instrumental in turning me onto the Grateful Dead. I was playing bass with him and we would be hanging out and he would slip a GD tape into the cassette player in the car. And he was like check this out, he would set the scene. “They were rumored they were going to break this song out. This is a first performance, listen to the crowd go crazy”! I could see it was a meaningful thing to him, but again, I still just was not getting it.
I was living up in Fayette at Central Methodist, and somebody had an extra ticket to go see the Grateful Dead at Sandstone Amphitheater in 1991. I am up for anything, so you know I will give it a try. And I went just for fun. I didn’t know what I was getting into. I went in one person, and pretty much came out someone else, basically the same, but a little different as well. I had experience with a little psychedelics, but never had done any of that at a rock show — mostly it was just like running around the woods with my college buddies. But I heard it was the thing to do so I’m like, ok. I didn’t recognize any of the songs except for “Truckin’” and “Good Loving.” However, once they hit “Drums” into “Space,” and then Jerry dropped into “Comes A Time”, It just floored me. I still get emotional thinking about it. It was official. Jerry had blown my mind. “Comes A Time” is still my favorite GD song.
Shortly after that is when I started a song writing partnership with my friend Tony Vrooman who I went to college with and started this jam band, Vitamin A, which was kind of new thing back in ’91. You know I guess Blues Traveler was around at that point but it was still kind of a new thing and there was still this cross between alternative rock and there was still that heavy influence in that too.
Inspired, I was concentrating on this original band, Vitamin A when I graduated college. I worked at a record store during the day. The idea was to gig as much as possible and try to make as much of a living playing music that I could. So I was playing in this band and the best time to do shows was basically on the weekends because that is when people would come out.
So on the weekdays I started going to see this Grateful Dead band where it was kind of a jam, and I got to sit in one time on drums. “Eyes Of The World” was the first GD song I played. It went really well and it was a lot of fun. That was The Schwag, which at that point was a conglomeration of Blue Dixie and The Kind, two St. Louis based jam bands. So eventually I started playing with them on more of a regular basis.
And then Jerry died and it was very traumatic for the community We started taking playing GD music more seriously. I really felt compelled to do my part to keep the music alive so I started taking more gigs with the Grateful Dead band and learning more of the music. I started playing with Rob Koritz in that band actually. We played together previous to playing together in DSO.
At one point he dropped out. Rob Koritz’s buddy, a guy named Chopper, David Campbell, ended up moving. He was the lead singer in that band at the time, and he moved to Virginia, and so when Chopper dropped out Rob Koritz dropped out as well. But there was a period of almost three years where we played together and it was great fun where we developed a great way of playing together.
The Schwag had a really decent lead guitar player at the time who is no longer with us. His name was Nick Romanoff. He could really hit that Jerry tone, really fluid, a really good player. Unfortunately, he didn’t take care of himself very well, as he kind of followed in Jerry’s foot-steps in that kind of thing too. But real, real nice, real great guitar player. It was fun playing with him.
So then DSO came into the picture. I was hearing all this buzz about Dark Star Orchestra this, Dark Star Orchestra that from the Dead Heads who would come see us. We were playing anywhere within 6 hours of St. Louis, sometimes farther. From St. Louis, that can encompass a lot of cities; Chicago, Indianapolis, Memphis, Springfield, Fayetteville, Arkansas, Kansas City up into Iowa, lots of different places. So we would do weekend tours Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays and hop around different cities in that sort of manner.
We were up in Chicago playing the same night as Dark Star Orchestra. We were playing a little dive bar across town at for three dollars and for maybe about 150 people, something like that. Me and the lighting guy decide to go check out this band to see what all the hype is about. They were playing at the Park West which is a 1000 seat venue. We go up to the door and try to talk our way in because we were only going to be able to see a little bit before we had to had back to our gig. The ticket seller was like “$10.” I was floored it was that much. That was a lot of money for me then! They wouldn’t let us in. But I know how these things work, I just go around to the back door and walk in. So I snuck into my first Dark Star show.
And I go in and the place was full, you know, it’s like my God, there was like a thousand people there. And, yeah, I was able to catch some of the first set and I thought they were pretty good. They had some good things going on. I realized they were actually pulling off what we were trying to do.
So after that weekend, I got back home to St. Louis. I’m thinking, well, those guys seem to have this Grateful Dead thing down so maybe I should switch back to original music and follow my original music dream of playing my own songs. And so I did that.
I had a really good singer-songwriter I was working with at that point and I knew Dark Star had a very good website. And this was the very beginning of websites. I was suggesting to him that we needed to get a website, and showed him the DSO website as an example. I dialed it up and boom, a window pops up, “Dark Star Orchestra looking for a drummer”. My singer friend threw up his hands and was like “okay I guess you should go do that.” I replied “no, no I’ve done that.”
But I thought about it and it was my calling it so I decided I should give this a shot. I sent an email to Scott Larned (a founding member and keyboardist for DSO). I didn’t know who I was sending it to. There was an email link. So I sent an email and told him what I had been up to. I mentioned my experience playing Grateful Dead music for some years by that time and how I knew most of the tunes. I mentioned that I had played with Trey (Anastasio) and Mike Gordon before, which I had had that experience just randomly when they were hanging out in St. Louis, so that was a little attention grabber as well.
DSO was playing up in Columbia, Missouri, a couple hours outside of St. Louis and Scott suggested I come to the show and meet the band. We started conversing on the phone regularly. He would say, call me this time, and I had to go find a pay phone. I was delivering papers at the time so I had to pull over and find a pay phone and call him. Anyway, we arranged the meeting up in Columbia, Missouri. I went and met the band and the drummer Ahmer Nizam. He was very nice. He was actively trying to get somebody to replace him as he didn’t want to leave the band hanging. He had other life plans. The band had really taken over his life at the time but he was newly married and had other life plans.
Anyway, so that got me an audition. They played every Tuesday night at their local club, Martyrs in Chicago, which holds about 400 people. That is where they started. I went and played a gig. There was no audition. It was sink or swim. Scott had heard the tapes I had given him of me playing Grateful Dead tunes and I think they knew reasonably well that I would be able to hang well enough.
They told me what show we were going to play so I could study up. I had actually had experience trying to do the show thing before with the Schwag as we tried to do that a few times, but we kept running out of time while trying get the whole show in. So it didn’t really work out with that band. But Dark Star had enough time to make sure that it was able to happen, a four hour show.
The show went really well. At the end of the show, they took me aside and said, that was great. You are hired. And then they kind of took me aside and were like, do you know any other drummers, because they were having some issues with the other drummer. I mentioned I had played with a great drummer named Rob Koritz back in St. Louis for a bunch of years. Scott suggested maybe we get him up here in a couple weeks and see how that goes.
Rob started talking with Scott. And eventually both of us go up there a few weeks later and do a show. And then after that, you know that they were like okay, this is good. So Ahmer wasn’t quite ready to leave the band just yet, so he did one more tour. So him and I did one tour together in the summer of ‘99 which was tons of fun. Then towards the end of the summer, Rob Koritz came on and we were off and running.
I always kind of make a little joke about this every time we hit the bands anniversary date, which is November 11, 1997, the first Dark Star show. That being there is not one single person currently in the band or the crew that was present for the original show. Lisa came in two or three gigs later. So she’s pretty much the original. It’s basically been a “hand me down” ever since then. When someone drops out, we seek out the best person for the spot and just keep it rolling.
But it’s the music that holds it all together. I feel extremely fortunate that I was able to see Jerry and experience the phenomena of the Grateful Dead. Because it truly was magical. And now in 2023, there are lot of really great players out there who can play this music Everybody brings their own spice into the equation. Of course there is no duplicating Jerry, or any of the others for that matter. Everybody brings their own thing to it. It’s impossible not to because everyone has their own fingerprint. Everyone’s take on it is inherently built in. And so it’s ever evolving in the Grateful Dead music scene in that all the different players come together and they have slightly different perspectives and slightly different creative elements to bring to the music. There is a nice kind of a group mind agreement to keep this whole thing going. So that’s what we do.
And, yeah, you know Dark Star, we are in our 26th year right now. And as I mentioned before there is no one left from the original band. So I think it will probably continue on to be that way. As one person drops out we have always looked for the best person to fill the position in the past. I really love playing with DSO in its current form and I hope it stays this way. But I also realize it’s kind of inevitable that eventually all of us will move on, and at that point hopefully it will continue on into the future with the younger generation. And the music will live on. It’s a handmedown. That’s the way I look at it.
See Dino English and Dark Star Orchestra at Skull & Roses Festival