• October 26, 2008
    http://www.dead.net/features/news/thinkin-about-merl-saunders
    Thinkin’ About Merl Saunders

    Merl and Melvin Seals at the "Comes A Time" benefit tribute to Jerry Garcia at the Greek Theatre in Berkeley, 9/24/05. Photo: Bob Minkin www.minkindesigns.com copyright 2008
    Merl and Melvin Seals at the "Comes A Time" benefit tribute to Jerry Garcia at the Greek Theatre in Berkeley, 9/24/05. Photo: Bob Minkin www.minkindesign.com © 2008 

    The Dead Family lost another one of its finest when keyboardist extraordinaire Merl Saunders died on Friday, October 24, at the age of 74. Although a stroke more than six years ago effectively ended his musical career (and left him unable to speak), his radiant smile still lit up every room he entered, and every gig by one of his many musical friends he attended. I’ll never forget the big “Comes A Time” concert at the Greek Theater a few years ago where he shared a piano bench with Melvin Seals (from the latter day Garcia Band) and, beaming every second under his trademark leather cap, managed to play a few notes with his working arm… No doubt about it, this cat had the music in him!

    Of course Merl will forever be associated with Jerry Garcia—it was a great partnership that produced an incredible variety of music in many different groups and situations through the years, but began at a little nightclub in the Fillmore district of San Francisco called the Matrix. You’ll forgive me if I lift/adapt a discussion of that early group and of Merl’s background from the un-cut version of my biography of Jerry, called Garcia, published in 1999, and based in part on hours of interviews with Merl:

    [Jerry and Merl hooking up together musically] was an outgrowth of the Monday night jams with [keyboardist] Howard Wales — somewhere along the line, Wales dropped out, and his spot was filled by Saunders. Garcia still played gigs with Wales from time to time, and he helped Wales make a record called Hooteroll?, which came out in late 1971, but once the quartet of Garcia, Saunders, John Kahn and [drummer] Bill Vitt got together, that group became Garcia's main musical focus outside of the Dead.

    Saunders was several years older than the other guys in the quartet and was already a journeyman musician by the time he hooked up with Garcia. Like so many African American keyboardists of his time, Merl grew up playing music in the church; in his case a Methodist church at Geary and Webster in San Francisco, “though I also used to sneak over to another church where the holy rollers were,” he added conspiratorially. As a teen, he and his family lived in a large house in Haight-Ashbury — in fact, Merl says that during the Summer of Love era, long after he'd moved out, his mother would sometimes call the police to complain about the noise being made by local hippie bands; and his father, who worked as a doorman at 2090 Pacific, actually knew Garcia before Merl did!

    As a teenager, Merl soaked up all the music he could — jazz, blues, R&B — and spent nearly every waking hour practicing the piano. “The thing about growing up in music during my generation is you had to learn how to play everything,” he said. “I listened to Stan Kenton, B.B. King, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, down to Clarence Gatemouth Brown, Ivory Joe Hunter and Louis Jordan, who doesn't get the credit, but he was the first rapper. Slim Gaillard — he came to my high school and played piano with his hands backwards; I thought he was amazing. I used to love Saunders King — my name is actually Sanders, but I changed it because I liked the sound of Saunders King. My mom and dad used to take me to this supper club and I'd hear Saunders King at 10 or 11 o’ clock in the morning, back when Fillmore Street was like 125th Street in  New York. I used to see Dinah Washington there in the afternoons. People like Duke Ellington and Harry James would play at the Warfield or the Golden Gate Theater, and then later I started going to the jazz clubs — Basin Street West, the El Matador, the Jazz Workshop, the Blackhawk. I saw some of the greatest musicians in the world in those places, and it made quite an impression on me.”

    Then, “when I was in Paris in the service, I heard Jimmy Smith, which really got me interested in the organ. Later on, he and I became friends and he showed me the fundamentals of playing organ.” Saunders was also influenced by Hammond B-3 masters like Jimmy McGriff and “Brother” Jack McDuff. Merl spent several years on the road playing in an organ trio, eventually settling in New York City, where he did session work and played on commercials. He also had a stint conducting a band at the Riviera Hotel in Las Vegas before he moved back to the Bay Area. There, he hooked up with Michael Bloomfield, and through him met Kahn, Vitt and Garcia. Their first work together was at Wally Heider's on an album by a singer named Danny Cox.

    “The chemistry between us was instant,” Merl noted. “I'd hear Jerry playing and the music was going one way and I'd hear him sort of drifting off in this other much cooler direction, so I'd be right there with him, and we'd sort of smile at each other, like, 'Hey, this is happenin'.  If there's two people going one way, even if it's not the regular way, then there's no mistake. And John Kahn was following along with us, too.”

    In Saunders' memory, his first couple of Matrix gigs with Garcia and Vitt were without John Kahn and very loose. But once the quartet started playing together regularly at the Keystone Korner and the New Monk in Berkeley (later renamed the Keystone Berkeley), the music began to go in all sorts of interesting directions. Whereas the gig with Howard Wales was almost completely free-form and all instrumental, the quartet with Merl jammed out on some of his own funk-oriented original songs, Motown and R&B tunes (usually sung by Garcia), and jazz standards, which were something new for Garcia.

    “That required a whole lot of quick education for me, and Merl was responsible for that,” Garcia said. “He really helped me improve myself on a level of harmonic understanding. Playing with him required a whole different style from three-chord rock 'n' roll or even 10-chord rock 'n' roll; it was a whole different thing. But what I was able to bring to that situation was the ability to use odd-length runs in conventional formats. I was able to use ideas that were rhythmically uneven because of working in odd time signatures so much with the Dead.”

    Garcia said that working with Merl also taught him a great deal about musical structure: “He filled me in on all those years of things I didn't do. I'd never played any standards; I'd never played in dance bands. I never had any approach to the world of regular, straight music. He knows all the standards, and he taught me how bebop works. He taught me music. Between the combination of Howard and Merl, that's where I really learned music. Before it was sort of, ‘OK, where do I plug in?’ I picked up the adult version of a music attitude from those guys."

    Merl Saunders Photo: Bob Minkin www.minkindesign.com copyright 2008Merl says that Garcia was an eager and gifted pupil with an insatiable desire to learn new things, whether it was working off a relatively easy tune like “My Funny Valentine” or some incredibly complex number by the supremely gifted pianist Art Tatum, who became one of Garcia's favorite musicians. “I saw Art Tatum play when I was about 15 years old and I got so disgusted I stopped playing piano,” Saunders said with a laugh. “I thought, 'What's the point?' He was so amazing you could never hope to be that good in your wildest dreams. I was hurt; I was crushed. But he was a genius, and of course I came to appreciate him more, and I actually studied him a bit. I managed to learn a few of his runs and I'd be there warming up on this stuff and Garcia would be saying, ‘Hey man, what's that run?’ ‘That's Art Tatum.’ And we'd go over them together. Then we'd be out at the Keystone in the middle of a song and all of a sudden I'd hear him doing an Art Tatum run, and I'd look over and he'd have this big smile on his face! Man, when Jerry would get on something, he'd keep going with it until he got it. He'd stumble through it at first, but he understood music so well and he had such a good memory that he could eventually get almost anything he tried down. And getting down Art Tatum is not easy — on piano or guitar.”

    Merl added a couple of  organ overdubs to the Dead’s live “Skull & Roses” album and Garcia played on two of Merl’s early ’70s solo albums on the Fantasy label , Heavy Turbulence and Fire Up (since condensed to a fine single-CD). The mid-1973 version of what was usually called the Saunders-Garcia Band (but actually had no formal name; we all just called it “Jerry and Merl”) was documented beautifully on the live double-album Live At Keystone (released later, with bonus tracks, as three separate CDs). In early 1974, saxophonist Martin Fierro (who also passed away within the last year) joined the group and brought in an even greater emphasis on jazz and Latin flavors. With the addition of drummer Ron Tutt, the band became known for a period as the Legion of Mary. Those groups—without and with Tutt—are captured on the Pure Jerry series release Keystone Berkeley September 1, 1974 and Rhino’s The Jerry Garcia Collection Vol. 1: Legion of Mary. Listening to all those CDs you can hear the full range of Merl’s keyboard genius, from beefy B-3 lines, to funky clavinet, soaring synth and shimmering electric piano. Merl also wrote many fine tunes for the group, including “Soul Roach,” “Keepers,” “Wondering Why,” “Manchild” “Save Mother Earth,” and others.

    Jerry and Merl (and John Kahn) next played together in Reconstruction (January through September 1979), the jazzy, horn-fueled band that also featured saxophonist Ron Stallings, trombonist Ed Neumeister and drummer Gaylord Birch; a totally different-sounding aggregation with a repertoire that had very little carryover from Jerry’s (or Merl’s) previous groups. “The approach was to play jazz and rock together but still be danceable,” Merl told me. “It was a great band for a while. Jerry liked that it gave him a totally new structure to work with, with these great horn players and a different set of tunes. These were really excellent musicians. And because they came from outside the Grateful Dead world, they related to Jerry as just another player, not a ‘star.’ I remember after one of our first gigs, Gaylord Birch, who had this long history playing with the Pointer Sisters and Edwin Hawkins and all these other groups, but didn't know about the Dead or Dead Heads, came up to me and said, ‘What was happening up there? What was that roar I heard coming up to the stage?’ And I said, ‘Oh, that was when Jerry moved his leg!’” he laughed.

    It would be a number of years before they would once again collaborate on a musical project together, but when they did it was an interesting one: Merl became the musical director of the 1985 TV series The Twilight Zone, and he brought in the Grateful Dead to re-work the famous theme, and both Garcia and Mickey Hart also contributed quite a bit of incidental music and effects to different episodes, under Merl’s direction.

    A year later, though, something happened that really brought the depth of their friendship into focus: When Jerry nearly died in the summer of 1986 after slipping into a diabetic coma, it was Merl more than anyone else, who literally sat by Jerry’s side and helped him regain his musical gifts—which had become scrambled and elusive following the coma—by patiently re-teaching him the fundamentals, rebuilding his skills a little at a time. And even before he was ready to attempt to play, Merl helped him get some of his strength back: “I'd take him for a walk. We'd take 10 steps, then take 10 steps back. His attitude was great. He wanted to get better, but he was scared, too. He got tired very easily, but he never really got discouraged. The most he'd say would be, ‘Oh man, this is harder than it looks!’”

    Once Garcia picked up a guitar, “It came back very slowly,” Merl said. “He had to learn chords all over again and he had a lot of trouble remembering how to do even the simplest stuff. And I didn't want to push him. ‘Man, I'm tired.’ He'd been playing for five minutes. ‘OK, that's fine. Put it down. Let's go for a walk.’ And we'd do that for a few minutes until he'd get tired. We'd talk about music. I'd tell him about songs I was working on and that would get his mind going. We'd talk in musical terms. And slowly he started to get his strength back. But it sometimes took an hour or two for him to get even a simple chord down. Then, as we got farther into it, some things started to come back to him a little, but it took a lot of work. The first song he wanted to learn again was ‘My Funny Valentine.’”

    The last major project Merl and Jerry worked on was Merl’s wonderful instrumental album, Blues from the Rainforest in 1990, which Merl dubbed “an enivonmental new age musical suite.” What started out as a duo concept to feature just Merl and percussionist Muruga Booker, was soon expanded to include Garcia and others. “When I wrote [the title song] I also heard a part for Jerry in my head,” Merl told me in a 1990 interview for The Golden Road.  “So after I had about half the album done, I sent him a rough sketch of what we were doing and, man, he couldn’t wait to come down and work on it…It’d been 15 years since we worked on album together." Besides being on the title track, Jerry is also prominent on the beautiful “Blue Hill Ocean Dance” which Merl said “became a sort of odyssey under water. Jerry did his MIDI guitar with a flute sound, and it sounds like both of us are just scooting along the bottom of the ocean!”

    Aside from his work with Jerry through the years, Merl always kept busy playing music—touring with various  bands (such as The Rainforest Band, which he formed after the success of Blues from the Rainforest) and playing sessions with a wide variety of folks through the years, including Bonnie Raitt, Taj Mahal, Tom Fogerty (who was a member of the Saunders-Garcia Band for a while), Robert Hunter, The Dinosaurs, Jerry Miller, Norton Buffalo and others. He led the big jam at the Haight Street Fair for a quarter century, and he was also known to play beautiful solo piano in small clubs and hotels; he could truly do it all!

    There’s SO much we’ll miss about Merl, but mostly it’s the joy and spirit he brought to everything he did. He was truly one-of-a-kind!

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Merl and Melvin Seals at the "Comes A Time" benefit tribute to Jerry Garcia at the Greek Theatre in Berkeley, 9/24/05. Photo: Bob Minkin www.minkindesigns.com copyright 2008
Merl and Melvin Seals at the "Comes A Time" benefit tribute to Jerry Garcia at the Greek Theatre in Berkeley, 9/24/05. Photo: Bob Minkin www.minkindesign.com © 2008 

The Dead Family lost another one of its finest when keyboardist extraordinaire Merl Saunders died on Friday, October 24, at the age of 74. Although a stroke more than six years ago effectively ended his musical career (and left him unable to speak), his radiant smile still lit up every room he entered, and every gig by one of his many musical friends he attended. I’ll never forget the big “Comes A Time” concert at the Greek Theater a few years ago where he shared a piano bench with Melvin Seals (from the latter day Garcia Band) and, beaming every second under his trademark leather cap, managed to play a few notes with his working arm… No doubt about it, this cat had the music in him!

Of course Merl will forever be associated with Jerry Garcia—it was a great partnership that produced an incredible variety of music in many different groups and situations through the years, but began at a little nightclub in the Fillmore district of San Francisco called the Matrix. You’ll forgive me if I lift/adapt a discussion of that early group and of Merl’s background from the un-cut version of my biography of Jerry, called Garcia, published in 1999, and based in part on hours of interviews with Merl:

[Jerry and Merl hooking up together musically] was an outgrowth of the Monday night jams with [keyboardist] Howard Wales — somewhere along the line, Wales dropped out, and his spot was filled by Saunders. Garcia still played gigs with Wales from time to time, and he helped Wales make a record called Hooteroll?, which came out in late 1971, but once the quartet of Garcia, Saunders, John Kahn and [drummer] Bill Vitt got together, that group became Garcia's main musical focus outside of the Dead.

Saunders was several years older than the other guys in the quartet and was already a journeyman musician by the time he hooked up with Garcia. Like so many African American keyboardists of his time, Merl grew up playing music in the church; in his case a Methodist church at Geary and Webster in San Francisco, “though I also used to sneak over to another church where the holy rollers were,” he added conspiratorially. As a teen, he and his family lived in a large house in Haight-Ashbury — in fact, Merl says that during the Summer of Love era, long after he'd moved out, his mother would sometimes call the police to complain about the noise being made by local hippie bands; and his father, who worked as a doorman at 2090 Pacific, actually knew Garcia before Merl did!

As a teenager, Merl soaked up all the music he could — jazz, blues, R&B — and spent nearly every waking hour practicing the piano. “The thing about growing up in music during my generation is you had to learn how to play everything,” he said. “I listened to Stan Kenton, B.B. King, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, down to Clarence Gatemouth Brown, Ivory Joe Hunter and Louis Jordan, who doesn't get the credit, but he was the first rapper. Slim Gaillard — he came to my high school and played piano with his hands backwards; I thought he was amazing. I used to love Saunders King — my name is actually Sanders, but I changed it because I liked the sound of Saunders King. My mom and dad used to take me to this supper club and I'd hear Saunders King at 10 or 11 o’ clock in the morning, back when Fillmore Street was like 125th Street in  New York. I used to see Dinah Washington there in the afternoons. People like Duke Ellington and Harry James would play at the Warfield or the Golden Gate Theater, and then later I started going to the jazz clubs — Basin Street West, the El Matador, the Jazz Workshop, the Blackhawk. I saw some of the greatest musicians in the world in those places, and it made quite an impression on me.”

Then, “when I was in Paris in the service, I heard Jimmy Smith, which really got me interested in the organ. Later on, he and I became friends and he showed me the fundamentals of playing organ.” Saunders was also influenced by Hammond B-3 masters like Jimmy McGriff and “Brother” Jack McDuff. Merl spent several years on the road playing in an organ trio, eventually settling in New York City, where he did session work and played on commercials. He also had a stint conducting a band at the Riviera Hotel in Las Vegas before he moved back to the Bay Area. There, he hooked up with Michael Bloomfield, and through him met Kahn, Vitt and Garcia. Their first work together was at Wally Heider's on an album by a singer named Danny Cox.

“The chemistry between us was instant,” Merl noted. “I'd hear Jerry playing and the music was going one way and I'd hear him sort of drifting off in this other much cooler direction, so I'd be right there with him, and we'd sort of smile at each other, like, 'Hey, this is happenin'.  If there's two people going one way, even if it's not the regular way, then there's no mistake. And John Kahn was following along with us, too.”

In Saunders' memory, his first couple of Matrix gigs with Garcia and Vitt were without John Kahn and very loose. But once the quartet started playing together regularly at the Keystone Korner and the New Monk in Berkeley (later renamed the Keystone Berkeley), the music began to go in all sorts of interesting directions. Whereas the gig with Howard Wales was almost completely free-form and all instrumental, the quartet with Merl jammed out on some of his own funk-oriented original songs, Motown and R&B tunes (usually sung by Garcia), and jazz standards, which were something new for Garcia.

“That required a whole lot of quick education for me, and Merl was responsible for that,” Garcia said. “He really helped me improve myself on a level of harmonic understanding. Playing with him required a whole different style from three-chord rock 'n' roll or even 10-chord rock 'n' roll; it was a whole different thing. But what I was able to bring to that situation was the ability to use odd-length runs in conventional formats. I was able to use ideas that were rhythmically uneven because of working in odd time signatures so much with the Dead.”

Garcia said that working with Merl also taught him a great deal about musical structure: “He filled me in on all those years of things I didn't do. I'd never played any standards; I'd never played in dance bands. I never had any approach to the world of regular, straight music. He knows all the standards, and he taught me how bebop works. He taught me music. Between the combination of Howard and Merl, that's where I really learned music. Before it was sort of, ‘OK, where do I plug in?’ I picked up the adult version of a music attitude from those guys."

Merl Saunders Photo: Bob Minkin www.minkindesign.com copyright 2008Merl says that Garcia was an eager and gifted pupil with an insatiable desire to learn new things, whether it was working off a relatively easy tune like “My Funny Valentine” or some incredibly complex number by the supremely gifted pianist Art Tatum, who became one of Garcia's favorite musicians. “I saw Art Tatum play when I was about 15 years old and I got so disgusted I stopped playing piano,” Saunders said with a laugh. “I thought, 'What's the point?' He was so amazing you could never hope to be that good in your wildest dreams. I was hurt; I was crushed. But he was a genius, and of course I came to appreciate him more, and I actually studied him a bit. I managed to learn a few of his runs and I'd be there warming up on this stuff and Garcia would be saying, ‘Hey man, what's that run?’ ‘That's Art Tatum.’ And we'd go over them together. Then we'd be out at the Keystone in the middle of a song and all of a sudden I'd hear him doing an Art Tatum run, and I'd look over and he'd have this big smile on his face! Man, when Jerry would get on something, he'd keep going with it until he got it. He'd stumble through it at first, but he understood music so well and he had such a good memory that he could eventually get almost anything he tried down. And getting down Art Tatum is not easy — on piano or guitar.”

Merl added a couple of  organ overdubs to the Dead’s live “Skull & Roses” album and Garcia played on two of Merl’s early ’70s solo albums on the Fantasy label , Heavy Turbulence and Fire Up (since condensed to a fine single-CD). The mid-1973 version of what was usually called the Saunders-Garcia Band (but actually had no formal name; we all just called it “Jerry and Merl”) was documented beautifully on the live double-album Live At Keystone (released later, with bonus tracks, as three separate CDs). In early 1974, saxophonist Martin Fierro (who also passed away within the last year) joined the group and brought in an even greater emphasis on jazz and Latin flavors. With the addition of drummer Ron Tutt, the band became known for a period as the Legion of Mary. Those groups—without and with Tutt—are captured on the Pure Jerry series release Keystone Berkeley September 1, 1974 and Rhino’s The Jerry Garcia Collection Vol. 1: Legion of Mary. Listening to all those CDs you can hear the full range of Merl’s keyboard genius, from beefy B-3 lines, to funky clavinet, soaring synth and shimmering electric piano. Merl also wrote many fine tunes for the group, including “Soul Roach,” “Keepers,” “Wondering Why,” “Manchild” “Save Mother Earth,” and others.

Jerry and Merl (and John Kahn) next played together in Reconstruction (January through September 1979), the jazzy, horn-fueled band that also featured saxophonist Ron Stallings, trombonist Ed Neumeister and drummer Gaylord Birch; a totally different-sounding aggregation with a repertoire that had very little carryover from Jerry’s (or Merl’s) previous groups. “The approach was to play jazz and rock together but still be danceable,” Merl told me. “It was a great band for a while. Jerry liked that it gave him a totally new structure to work with, with these great horn players and a different set of tunes. These were really excellent musicians. And because they came from outside the Grateful Dead world, they related to Jerry as just another player, not a ‘star.’ I remember after one of our first gigs, Gaylord Birch, who had this long history playing with the Pointer Sisters and Edwin Hawkins and all these other groups, but didn't know about the Dead or Dead Heads, came up to me and said, ‘What was happening up there? What was that roar I heard coming up to the stage?’ And I said, ‘Oh, that was when Jerry moved his leg!’” he laughed.

It would be a number of years before they would once again collaborate on a musical project together, but when they did it was an interesting one: Merl became the musical director of the 1985 TV series The Twilight Zone, and he brought in the Grateful Dead to re-work the famous theme, and both Garcia and Mickey Hart also contributed quite a bit of incidental music and effects to different episodes, under Merl’s direction.

A year later, though, something happened that really brought the depth of their friendship into focus: When Jerry nearly died in the summer of 1986 after slipping into a diabetic coma, it was Merl more than anyone else, who literally sat by Jerry’s side and helped him regain his musical gifts—which had become scrambled and elusive following the coma—by patiently re-teaching him the fundamentals, rebuilding his skills a little at a time. And even before he was ready to attempt to play, Merl helped him get some of his strength back: “I'd take him for a walk. We'd take 10 steps, then take 10 steps back. His attitude was great. He wanted to get better, but he was scared, too. He got tired very easily, but he never really got discouraged. The most he'd say would be, ‘Oh man, this is harder than it looks!’”

Once Garcia picked up a guitar, “It came back very slowly,” Merl said. “He had to learn chords all over again and he had a lot of trouble remembering how to do even the simplest stuff. And I didn't want to push him. ‘Man, I'm tired.’ He'd been playing for five minutes. ‘OK, that's fine. Put it down. Let's go for a walk.’ And we'd do that for a few minutes until he'd get tired. We'd talk about music. I'd tell him about songs I was working on and that would get his mind going. We'd talk in musical terms. And slowly he started to get his strength back. But it sometimes took an hour or two for him to get even a simple chord down. Then, as we got farther into it, some things started to come back to him a little, but it took a lot of work. The first song he wanted to learn again was ‘My Funny Valentine.’”

The last major project Merl and Jerry worked on was Merl’s wonderful instrumental album, Blues from the Rainforest in 1990, which Merl dubbed “an enivonmental new age musical suite.” What started out as a duo concept to feature just Merl and percussionist Muruga Booker, was soon expanded to include Garcia and others. “When I wrote [the title song] I also heard a part for Jerry in my head,” Merl told me in a 1990 interview for The Golden Road.  “So after I had about half the album done, I sent him a rough sketch of what we were doing and, man, he couldn’t wait to come down and work on it…It’d been 15 years since we worked on album together." Besides being on the title track, Jerry is also prominent on the beautiful “Blue Hill Ocean Dance” which Merl said “became a sort of odyssey under water. Jerry did his MIDI guitar with a flute sound, and it sounds like both of us are just scooting along the bottom of the ocean!”

Aside from his work with Jerry through the years, Merl always kept busy playing music—touring with various  bands (such as The Rainforest Band, which he formed after the success of Blues from the Rainforest) and playing sessions with a wide variety of folks through the years, including Bonnie Raitt, Taj Mahal, Tom Fogerty (who was a member of the Saunders-Garcia Band for a while), Robert Hunter, The Dinosaurs, Jerry Miller, Norton Buffalo and others. He led the big jam at the Haight Street Fair for a quarter century, and he was also known to play beautiful solo piano in small clubs and hotels; he could truly do it all!

There’s SO much we’ll miss about Merl, but mostly it’s the joy and spirit he brought to everything he did. He was truly one-of-a-kind!

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A good solid obit to a real nice & talented guy. May his vibes expound
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What a fantastic musician. Solid chops. Great big soul. The world grows a little colder. Thanks for the memories. Bruce
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I bought live at Keystone when it first came out 35 years ago. I have never, ever gotten tired of listening to that record. Those songs sound as fresh now as they did then. God bless you Merl, my best to your family. Maybe right now Merl, Jerry and John, and jammin' away! Peace, Meeko
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I appreciated reading this. I had just read of his death and came here to see what more I could find. I know what I'll be listening to later. Marc
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The first time I saw Merl and The Rain Forest Band was at the Boulder Creek Brewery in Northern Ca. . The Blues for the Rain Forest CD had just came out so we thought we were in for a mellow ,like rolling the forest type show .. well ..no sireee .. Merl and his band rocked hard the whole night and I saw them every chance I got after that . Thanks for all the great music and memories . "all good things in all good time "
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Although all of us down here are saddened by the loss of another family member...there are some very lucky souls out there who are just totally enjoying the jams now that Jerry and Merl are back together. Nothing left to do but smile, smile, smile.
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I never saw Garcia and Merl play together but have many tapes from these shows..i have Listen to over and over again.. When me and my wife got married back in 1992 our wedding party and my wife and myself were introduced at our reception with Keepers from the Keystone Vol. 1 playin in the background.....
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Really nice article, thank you Blair. What a life he had and what life he gave. One of the true greats of music. Really,really nice article....wow. tears are flowing. peace,pk
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I missed out the photo opportunity of my life, when I was to slow to take a picture at the Wolfgang's in 1986. It was at a Dinosaurs concert when Merl in the intermission hung somebody's guitar over his shoulders and posed as a heavy metal guitarist just in my front, beaming at me with a big smile. I was stunned and my finger wouldn't move, so there was no picture taken at this once in a lifetime opportunity ... but I took other photos during the show and I more or less climbed the stage with my amateur camera and focused on Merls right profile. A couple of times he gave me big smiles and luckily I wasn't thrown off the stage. Thank you Merl ... Micke Östlund, Växjö, Sweden ------------------------------ My record collection: jazzmicke
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And another one's gone. Thanks for the great B-3 riffs Merl.They must be having one hell of a jam in Heaven. Ken
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I have been a fan since '89 and listen regularly to the recording that I have with Merl playing with Jerry in their various incarnations. I had the opportunity to see Merl in Colorado, NY, and GA and was always amazed at his vitality and energy. I have been looking for news of his whereabouts for sometime now and was somehow expecting the worst while hoping for the best. He is in a good place now I know and is at peace. My prayers are on the winds for his family and to those who knew him personally. Jam on brother. "Taking good care..." "You're either on the bus or you're off the bus." ~Kesey
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That would be recordings... "You're either on the bus or you're off the bus." ~Kesey
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Blair: Thanks for this post about Merl Saunders. It was incredibly informative and a fitting tribute to a great musician.
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RIP Merl, Thanks for the music & for being a part of the soundtrack of our lives... I only saw you play live once at The Embassy in London, ON, & the memory of that show is burned in my soul. Long May You Run...
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Rest in peace.. Great Obit Blaire. I remember seeing Merl and the Rainforest Band in the early 90's at the Count Basie Theatre in Red Bank. The set list was typical for his time but the standout was 'Boogie on Reggae Woman'. The whole house was boggieing at the same time and the band was kickin...It was a great time for all. Thanks for the memories Merl. Tell Jerry we love him.. Jimbo
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I was lucky enough to jam harmonica with him once when I was sitting in with Kingfish. Greatest musical moment of my life that I'll cherish always. He was the greatest... Loved the groove he made. RIP
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Jerry and Merl together again............................
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Jerry, John and Merle Tonight with Special Guest Janis
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10 years 7 months
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I have run into few people as kind as Merl. I was a tripped out kid at a festival, bug eyed and making no sense. He treated me like an old friend. He gave me one of his Rolling Rocks and talked to me back down to earth. He answered my crazy questions and tried to explain to me that Jerry was just a man like any other person. (That summer I had recently seen the Garcia Band with Melvin and I thought Jerry was transmitting cosmic secrets to me.) Merl listened to my trip talk and set me straight. It was one of those nights a person never forgets. I had the opportunity to see him play again several times in the 90's. He always had time for the fans. He would hangout after his set and talk to anyone who wanted. That last time I saw him was at Wilmer's Park in Brandywine, MD. He said he remembered me (who knows) and that I seemed like I had "gotten it all together". He signed my albums and even hung out with my dog (the one I use in my posts). He was still drinking Rolling Rock. I'll never forget your kindness Merl. Thanks for all that great music!
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I have been listening to Merl pretty constantly the past couple of days. What a talent and spirit to be in our corner of the world. If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear to man as it is, infinite. William Blake
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thanx for the update, he sure looked good for someone recovering from a stroke......must be that wonderful smile..................
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chillin'
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11 years 5 months
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Wonderful Article,I did'nt know that Merle was on his way elsewhere. I had the pleasure of playin with him and Vasser,David Nelson ,Falzarano and a number of others at a Benifit in Staten Island,NY back in the 90's. After we played i spoke with hin at length and we clicked. He was a wonderful person. I'm honored to have had the chance to spend some Musical moments with him. Fly on my BROTHER!!!! Mike Bones
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Thanks for all the great music, thanks for all the good times. Merl was a special musician. The first time I saw Jerry solo was with Merl and the Legion of Mary at the Tower Theater in Philadelphia. I was just begining to understand what this musicial scene had to offer (and boy did it have alot to offer), but I do remember they played an incredible version of Stevie Wonder's "Reggae Woman" and I remember Merl's keyboard work on that tune inperdicular just blew me away. Thanks for all the great music and good times and thanks for such a wonderful article. Shine on Merl...
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A true legend Merl was...I love how both Merl and JErry both thought so highly of one another. You know being a younger Deadhead, I didn't know too much about the Legion of Mary project until recently. I always knew it was one of JErry's side gig's but didn't really know the music at all until I started listening to the Dead channel on Sirius. The first tune I heard was Let it Rock and I remember looking down at the Sirius menu because I had never heard it before and it just rocked! I dig every tune I hear from LOM...reminds me of all the jazz and blues my dad listened to growing up. Anyway, great article! As with Jerry, he will definitely be missed. Hopefully they're both up there working on new tunes ;o)
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Thanks for the wonderful words Blair. We have lost one of the nicest, coolest musicians and pray that his spirit is free to jam forever. His passing grabbed me like a hand on my shooulder as I had just been reading about his relationship with Jerry last week in your book. I really could not believe it as... well ,i'm at a loss for words. Miss you Merle! Peace! ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ "Walk into splintered sunlight Inch your way through dead dreams to another land" Robert Hunter ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
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When I heard that Merl had passed, I went to jerrygarcia.com to see if a tribute would be posted. To my surprise, jerrygarcia.com no longer exists. I found my way here, and loved reading Blair Jackson's piece, but I must ask: will there EVER be another Jerry solo release? The website no longer exists! It seems like a great time to celebrate both Jerry and Merl with a LOM release, but I know it's basically a pipe dream. Does anyone know ANYTHING about the the complete disappearance of Jerry solo releases? Does anyone else care?
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One of my finest Merl moments was speaking with him during the set break at The Patio in Broadripple, in Indy (must have been around 2002 or so). It was a snowy night and he was in full swing! He told me that Monday Night Football (September 10, 2001) saved his life due to oversleeping. I loved seeing him perform with Donna at the Grateful Celebration at the Electric Factory in '97 for the DP 10 release party. He invited Donna out to sing along on Sugaree; he then launched into a jam with Donna there dancin' away. When they finally sang together, it was awesome. Thank you Merl and Jer for the awesome music from SF, Keystone, and Blues from the Rainforest. "Find the pearl/color it blue/dwelling inside..." Good night! --Brandon
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It s absolutely sad to hear about Merl s passing . But what i ll always keep with me , is his fresh and talented playing , that graces all tapes and discs / LP s i ve heard of him . rest in peace friend
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Once some final legal hurdles are overcome, hopefully soon, there will be more Jerry releases. As they say in Italy, pazienza! Patience! All good things in all good time...

 

With any luck, too, this site will become the clearing house for Jerry news and features, as well. Stay tuned...

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It seems as though the Legion of Mary is now together, for the most part. Jerry probably met Merl at the Golden Gates and said, "Come on man, we've got a gig in a few minutes!" Rest your weary head now Merl, your time on this plane of existence is done! May you smile down upon us all now! Peace! Puff ~Don't lend your hand to raise no flag atop no ship of fools!~
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Wow! I never thought Blair Jackson would respond directly to my post. Thanks for the update!
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I am so sad as I read this I am crying away. I never got to see him live, just listen to recordings, especially with Jerry. I've been seeing JGB a lot with Melvin Seals and Stu Allen and I imagine he was a lot like Melvin except--sorry, Melvin--a little better. Truly great. It says in the obit that he changed his name from Sanders to Saunders because "I liked the sound of Saunders King". Coincidentally, I was a fundamentalist Christian from 1972-5 and went to a black Pentecostal church in Oakland for 6 months in 1972 from March to September. I was the only white member at that time. Christ Holy Sanctified Church of America, Inc. on 59th St. and Telegraph Ave., Bishop Ulysses S. King, Pastor. Now called Memorial Tabernacle Church his son Jr. Pastor. Bishop King's brother is/was blues guitarist Saunders King. Reverend Emile Jackson (and wife Lily) told me when I joined the church that Bishop King's brother had quit the church and gone out to be a blues musician and to play blues for the devil and money instead of gospel for the Lord and was going to hell. I used to think that they had me (maybe others too) in mind when they wrote "Sugaree" and "Estimated". Woody once showed me the fiddler on the cover of "Blues for Allah" and said, "That's a picture of me!" How about the cover of "Go To Heaven"? Sorry if I offended anyone. Eric Abrahamson Yale University Pierson '71 P.O. Box 1112 Berkeley, CA 94701 510-809-1369 x6149 ericabrahamson@aya.yale.edu ericabrahamson2@horizon.csueastbay.edu ericabrahamso@hotmail.com http://www.EricAbrahamsonsBlog.BlogSpot.Com http://www.h
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thanks for alllllll the great times we had merl You are awesome now go have some fun with the broscheer's steve
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...just looking at him makes me smile. jerrygarcia.com had the clearance sale a few months back, I had checked in to see if there were any new Pure Jerry releases, or maybe Volume 2 of the Jerry Garcia Collection (Vol. 1 was Legion of Mary). No such luck, and they only had small Tshirts left. Dammit. Did get a free CD (Shining Star, already had it) and one of those tricked out little vegetable crate CD holders as a "surprise gift". Checked back a week later to buy a too small Tshirt for my daughter to sleep in or grow into, and the site was gone gone gone. Can we ask about "legal hurdles"? Thanks again for the memorial to Merl, MarkintheDark
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Your post has inspired me to pull out my vinyl copy of "Fire Up"; it's as great as I remembered. Could anyone else have had the patience to teach Jerry to play again?
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In the End of the Road documentary, one of the segments that didn't depress me was the interview with Merle. He mentioned how he found out about Jerry's passing, and how his first gig after finding out he found it difficult to play. When he suddenly felt a hand on his shoulder, and noticed it wasn't any of the band members, he felt a sudden urge to play which took the crowd on a healing ride. I'm sad that I never got to see him live.
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The one and only time I was able to see Merl was at the very last MAMA Fest in Timonium (Maryland Annual Music and Arts) in 2000 with my middle son, which was his first concert. After Merl smoked the crowd with his set, we implored him to come down and talk with us, which was incredibly easy... he seemed on his way to do so, like it was already on his mind. There weren't that many folks there, as Ratdog was the big headliner later that night, and Merl stood there with us and talked for the longest time I've ever spent with an artist of almost any kind, in his ranking. I was amazed at how nice and easy going he was as he stood there with his elbow on the crowd barrier. I spoke to him about all the great places I had seen Jerry and, of course, The Grateful Dead. I lamented a bit about how the "scene" was disappearing and wondered if my kids would have the same life changing experiences I had had, in our Golden Age, which at that time seemed fleeting. He implored me to come to San Francisco to a street festival they did there on a weekend in June (I think Blair called it the Haight Street Fest?) and as I was about to walk away, Merl gave me a big bear hug, almost as if he thought I needed one. It was an incredible moment for me, one I'll never forget. Thanks Merl (and Blair for this thread), I hope to see you on the "Other Side". Here's the poster (from 1999, 'cause they didn't print any for the last year's event in 2000) with Merl's autograph. Happy Halloween everyone! Mine and my family's love to each and everyone here at dead.net! Merl Saunders "The task is, not so much to see what no one has yet seen; but to think what nobody has yet thought, about that which everybody sees. ." - Erwin Schrödinger
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Have never heard a bad thing said about the man...
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it is really soothing to hear about those moments and remember/recognize how approachable and how empathic these artists that we adore were with us. Not only their passion with their playing but their compassion and taking time with us at those unexpected moments. You took me back there tonight. Loved riding with you on that synaptic trail ;o} !!!!!!!! The Truth is realized in an instant, the act is practiced step by step.
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and thank you for the inspiring music which was your gift to the world.As we all are part of the global Grateful Dead family the day will come when we will meet in an endless river of bliss.
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God Bless Merl Saunders, and thank you! Have fun in that pie in the sky. Say hey to Jerry, Pigpen, Keith, Brent, and not to forget Vince. God Bless all of you and rest in eternal peace. Much Love
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11 years 1 month
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and walk on the sun...music may be the first,but never the last,because its eternal..happy trails merl to the net show!!
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11 years 4 months
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I had the opportunity to interview Merl Saunders when I was the host of a late night Dead Show in Spokane Washington in the late 80's early 90's. We had met up at a Dinosaurs show and finished the interview by tape over the phone. Merl is an extremely inteligent and eloquent man and things just rambled on. He was telling me about the conversations with Jerry after the coma and the relearning of the "music" Jerry said that playing an instrument was a discipline, playing music is art. I could have written a book with the things Merl told me about the bedside chats and don't think I didn't think about it. As things would have it, the tape ran out and that portion of the interview is but another of the fractalized memories I hold in my coffers. Thanks for a great article and tribute to a great man and musician.
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The Orion Nebula amongst the anointed judges afterlife>life everlasting Zion kingdom come the time stood still for the eternityThere are things you can replace and others you can not. without love in the dream it will never come true.
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isn't that always the way -- the interview goes into the stratosphere right about the time the tape runs out... Thanks for the story!

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  • marye
    9 years 5 months ago
    capt
    isn't that always the way -- the interview goes into the stratosphere right about the time the tape runs out... Thanks for the story!
  • Judah Isreal
    9 years 5 months ago
    The Orion Nebula amongst the
    The Orion Nebula amongst the anointed judges afterlife>life everlasting Zion kingdom come the time stood still for the eternityThere are things you can replace and others you can not. without love in the dream it will never come true.
  • capt tapes
    9 years 6 months ago
    Merl by the bedside
    I had the opportunity to interview Merl Saunders when I was the host of a late night Dead Show in Spokane Washington in the late 80's early 90's. We had met up at a Dinosaurs show and finished the interview by tape over the phone. Merl is an extremely inteligent and eloquent man and things just rambled on. He was telling me about the conversations with Jerry after the coma and the relearning of the "music" Jerry said that playing an instrument was a discipline, playing music is art. I could have written a book with the things Merl told me about the bedside chats and don't think I didn't think about it. As things would have it, the tape ran out and that portion of the interview is but another of the fractalized memories I hold in my coffers. Thanks for a great article and tribute to a great man and musician.
  • paintedmandolin71
    9 years 11 months ago
    sleep in the stars
    and walk on the sun...music may be the first,but never the last,because its eternal..happy trails merl to the net show!!
  • Default Avatar
    whatalex
    10 years ago
    Love
    God Bless Merl Saunders, and thank you! Have fun in that pie in the sky. Say hey to Jerry, Pigpen, Keith, Brent, and not to forget Vince. God Bless all of you and rest in eternal peace. Much Love