Donna Jean was born in Sheffield, Alabama. Prior to 1970, she had worked as a session singer in Muscle Shoals, appearing on songs by Elvis Presley, Aretha Franklin and Otis Redding. She met fellow Grateful Dead member Keith Godchaux and they married in 1970. Donna introduced Keith to Jerry Garcia after Garcia's performance at San Francisco's Keystone Korner in October 1971. At the time, Donna Jean was not working as a musician. She joined the band shortly afterwards, remaining a member until February 1979.