Jerry Garcia debuted it at a 1973 performance in front of the Hell’s Angels, and he played it at so many concerts that his “Wolf” guitar became nearly as recognizable among Dead Heads as the Grateful Dead frontman himself. Now, the legendary instrument is owned by Boston tech executive Brian Halligan.
The cofounder and chief executive of Cambridge marketing software company HubSpot paid $1.9 million for Garcia’s guitar on Wednesday at a charity auction in Brooklyn held for the Southern Poverty Law Center.
Halligan is a longtime Dead fan who cowrote the 2010 business book, “Marketing Lessons from the Grateful Dead: What Every Business Can Learn from the Most Iconic Band in History.” He has been to about 100 shows of the Grateful Dead and the band that reformed after Garcia died in 1995.
Halligan credits the band’s signature approach in which it tried to make every concert a little different and welcomed fans to record performances and distribute the tapes for free — a kind of viral marketing strategy that increased their popularity and also profoundly influenced his career and HubSpot’s business strategy.
“They were the original social media marketers before there was social media,” he said. “They kind of turned the model of the music business back then on its head.”
Owning an authentic Garcia guitar comes with high expectations, but Halligan acknowledged Dead Heads will never confuse his modest guitar chops with those of the master’s. He expects his first Dead song on the guitar is the simple, but popular, “Ripple.”
“Now I’m going to have to get my act together,” he said. “Everybody’s going to expect me to be fantastic.”
Wolf, created by famed guitar-maker Doug Irwin out of amaranth and curly western maple, bears a signature inlay of a hungry, cartoonish canine just below the bridge. Irwin added that feature during a repair job after Garcia had toured with the instrument for a few years.
The guitar had previously been owned by Dan Pritzker, a musician and heir to the family that owned the Hyatt chain, according to Guernsey’s, the New York auction house that sold it. Pritzker bought Wolf in 2002 for nearly $1 million — at the time a record price for a guitar.
Guernsey’s said this week’s sale is also a record — if you account for a matching donation that came along with Halligan’s purchase and brought the total to $3,532,500. The amount Halligan paid included a $300,000 buyer’s premium.
The benefit for the Southern Poverty Law Center was held Wednesday evening at Brooklyn Bowl. In addition to the auction, it featured a performance by Joe Russo’s Friends with Benefits, a group that included Nels Cline of Wilco, John Scofield, and Billy Martin of Medeski Martin & Wood.
Richard Cohen, president of the law center, said the organization was “deeply touched that people want to take this kind of action in light of the current challenges facing our country.”
“The act of donating such a prized possession is extraordinary and will significantly help our work over the next four years as we fight to protect the ideals of our democracy,” Cohen added in a statement.
The sale comes on the eve of the Friday debut of a new documentary on the Grateful Dead, called “Long Strange Trip ,” on Amazon.
Halligan said he was prepared to be outbid, but within minutes unexpectedly found himself the owner. He mainly wanted the instrument because of its connection to Garcia and to show his support for the law center, a civil rights group with an emphasis on calling out racism and hate.
Halligan said he will lend Wolf to Garcia’s family whenever they ask, but he’s definitely keeping it.
“I’m never going to sell it,” he said. “It’s going to be with me the rest of my life.”Andy Rosen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @andyrosen.