Owsley Stanley

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Owsley Stanley (born Augustus Owsley Stanley III on January 19, 1935) was a maverick in every sense of the word, and he was either a genius or a dangerous threat to society (or both), depending on one’s…
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Owsley Stanley (born Augustus Owsley Stanley III on January 19, 1935) was a maverick in every sense of the word, and he was either a genius or a dangerous threat to society (or both), depending on one’s point of view. Chiefly known as the first private citizen to manufacture mass quantities and strains of LSD in the early '60s, Stanley -- affectionately known as Bear to his friends -- also almost single-handedly developed the modern notion of concert PAs and sound systems through his pioneering engineering and sound work with the Grateful Dead. Coming from a prominent Kentucky family known for its politicians (his father was a government attorney, and his grandfather and namesake, A. Owsley Stanley, served as governor of the state, as did another relative, William Owsley, back in the 19th century), Stanley was clearly intended for other things.

After being expelled from Charlotte Hall Military Academy for bringing alcohol on campus, he ended up committed to St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Washington, D.C. before briefly studying engineering at the University of Virginia -- he dropped out in 1956. He enlisted in the U.S. Air Force and served 18 months in the service until his discharge in 1958. That’s when Stanley really began to follow his own drummer. He began to study ballet and supported himself for a time as a professional dancer before enrolling at the University of California at Berkeley in 1963, quickly immersing himself in the underground drug scene there. He dropped out after a semester, took a tech job at KGO-TV, and began producing LSD in his own makeshift lab, which hardly endeared him to the local authorities.

He relocated to Los Angeles and continued to produce LSD before returning to the Bay Area a few months later, where he became the prime supplier of the drug to novelist Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters, his “Owsley Acid” becoming the street standard for such things. Stanley met the Grateful Dead at one of Kesey's famous Acid Tests in 1966 and soon began working as a soundman for them. But Stanley was so much more than just a soundman to the Dead -- he designed, along with Bob Thomas, the band’s lightning bolt skull logo, for instance, and he was constantly building and adding to the group’s PA system until it, too, became a period standard. He also, in the interest of improving how he could best deliver a true sound for the band at live shows, began taping the Dead's shows, building up an impressive archive of the band’s early career as a groundbreaking live act. Many of those shows have since been released to the public as tapes, LPs, and CDs and are highly treasured by fans and collectors.

Stanley continued to make LSD -- it’s estimated that he produced some 1.25 million doses of the stuff -- until his lab was busted in 1967 with some 350,000 doses of LSD on hand. Ultimately, his defense that the doses were all for personal use didn’t really hold much water in court, and he spent three years in prison. He continued for a time to work sound at Dead shows after his release, and had a stint as a broadcast television engineer, but he eventually ended up leaving Northern California in the early '80s with his wife Sheila and settling in Queensland, Australia, where he kept a low but decidedly maverick profile until his death in a car accident on March 13, 2011.