Remembering Merl Saunders 02/14 Great American/SF

By: Joy Bashew Rosenberg

Remembering Merl Saunders
February 14, 1934 – October 24, 2008

Merl Saunders by Bob Minkin
I never saw organ and keyboard player Merl Saunders perform live, but I remember the first time I heard him on a clock radio in my suburban New Jersey bedroom, during a Philadelphia-broadcast "Grateful Dead Hour" in 1997. Cushioned between an Ominous Seapods tune and a snippet of an electronic tornado from a crazy new band called the Disco Biscuits, was the funkiest version of "After Midnight" I'd ever heard. The laid-back groove seemed effortless, as if the musicians were merely hanging out rather than recording an album. It was funky. It was sensual. It was a side of the organ I hadn't known before! It was Legion of Mary, the early '70s collaboration that featured Jerry Garcia and Merl Saunders, and it was easily the coolest thing I'd ever heard.

Born on Valentine's Day, February 14, 1934, Merl Saunders emerged on the music scene in the late '60s via San Francisco. By the time he stopped performing in 2002 due to a debilitating stroke, he was revered as one of that era's finest musicians. For over thirty years, Saunders, on his Hammond B3 organ - named "Jessica" - played music that made people all over the world feel good.

He'd begun playing in jazz clubs, but it was his collaboration with Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead in the early '70s that exposed him to a larger audience. The two developed a band over the next few years that culminated as Legion of Mary. It included Garcia on guitar, Saunders on organ, Martin Fierro on saxophone, and John Kahn on bass. Drums were alternated by Ron Tutt, Paul Humphrey, and Dead drummer Bill Kreutzmann.

Saunders/Garcia and Legion of Mary laid the framework for the Jerry Garcia Band by covering Motown, R&B, and blues classics with funk and reggae twists. Covers like the Soul Survivors' "Expressway to Your Heart," Smokey Robinson and the Miracles' "I Second That Emotion," "How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved by You)," and other songs by Bob Dylan, The Band, Stevie Wonder, and others. You want to dance? Try the Jerry Garcia and Merl Saunders Band's thirteen-plus minute rendition of Jimmy Cliff's "The Harder They Come," from Keystone, Berkeley, 9/1/74 (fourth release of the Pure Jerry disc series). Hallelujah! Merl and Jerry's connection was clearly a spiritual force.

High Noon was Merl Saunders' band in the late '70s and early '80s, and included guitarist Michael Hinton and drummer Mickey Hart. The Rainforest Band, which formed in the late '80s, at times included guitarists Steve Kimock and Michael Hinton, Merl's son bassist Tony Saunders, drummer Vince Littleton, and bassist Michael Warren. By the time he stopped, Merl had performed with musicians as talented and diverse as Frank Sinatra, Miles Davis, B.B. King, Lena Horne, and Phish. John Popper from Blues Traveler appears on Merl's 1991 live album, Save the Planet So We'll Have Someplace to Boogie (on Merl's own Sumertone record label). Another Garcia collaboration resulted in the 1990 release Blues from the Rainforest, which hit number four on the Billboard New Age chart. Although I heard his studio records, it wasn't until I heard tapes of his live shows that I truly came to appreciate Merl Saunders' music. My husband, Milton, introduced me to recordings of shows he'd seen at small clubs across the country in the early '90s. From these tapes, I gained a better understanding of Merl's sense of humor and his concern for the environment.

Mostly though, I heard how much the audience loved him, a fact they expressed during hearty grooves or in the cracks of silence between songs. On every tape, Merl interacts with the crowd, and the excitement is palpable. Every show was one big party. One of my favorites is August 14, 1993, at Fitzgerald's in Chicago, Illinois. Merl opens with the up-beat "Lovely Night for Dancin'," and the title track to his new album, "It's in the Air." A sexy, slowed-down version of "Leave Your Hat On" is next, and from the whoops, whistles, and good-natured laughter from the crowd, it appears that some female is taking the bump-and-grind tempo to heart (Milton recalls a bra strap exposure as Merl sang, "Baby, take off your dress..."). A serene instrumental, "Sunrise over Haleakala" is followed by a jazzy "Sugaree," "Mourning Moon," and a lounge-y rendition of "Fever."

Midway through the first set, Merl addresses the crowd: "This is the environmental generation," he says. "We do care about Mother Earth and what surrounds it." He then relates his trip to the Amazon rainforest in Peru with some of his band members. "We spent time with the children and the indigenous people, and played music for everyone; it was totally outrageous," he says. Then he asks, "Would you like to go to Peru? Close your eyes and I'll take you right there."

Merl Saunders
The band launches into "Blues from the Rainforest." Ambient, omnipresent sound swells, courtesy of Merl on the keyboard. Low-rumbling thunder warns of an impending storm. You can almost feel the humidity of the jungle, but you are safe in the verdant womb, surrounded by the hum of insects. An intergalactic love ship coming for you! Then, a bird call:

"We love you, Merl!"

Ah, bootlegs.

The recording is signed by guitarist Michael Hinton, who, along with Merl, signed many tape inserts, posters, and CDs, a testament to their approachability and kindness. Below the setlist, Hinton wrote, "One of my favorite shows from that period and a treat! Energy and spirit abound. Rejoice!" Completing the insert is a tiny ink sketch of a guitar player. The now-fading tape brings sweet memories for Milton each time we listen to it. For me, it gives a glimpse of a joyous, musical moment in time.

October 29, 2003: I'm at the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco for the Hepcats Ball, featuring Phil Lesh, Martin Fierro, guitarist Barry Sless, and Don't Push the Clown featuring Terry Haggerty, Bobby Vega, Ray White, and Prairie Prince. The night is a benefit for Allen Cohen, publisher of the San Francisco Oracle, who's awaiting a liver transplant. Milton spots Merl Saunders off to the side. It's the first time he's seen him since the stroke.

He brings me through the crowd to where Merl is being aided by a companion into a seat. Merl's face is all smiles, despite having to lean heavily on a cane and another person. Wearing his trademark leather beret, Merl receives physical greetings and well wishes from an endless line of friends throughout the evening, one of the finest nights of my life. Phil sings "Broken Arrow," the first time I've heard it live. Allen Cohen, from his bed via satellite, reads his very touching poem, "The Last Moments of Peace." Chet Helms is the emcee, the first—and last—time I see him in person. And Ram Dass, also post-stroke, takes the stage at set break, speaking with great difficulty but strong emotion. "The soul is carried by love," he says. I look around. There is not a dry eye in the place.

Merl Saunders passed away on October 24, 2008, almost five years to the day from the Hepcats Ball. But his music remains, music that represents the values that I hold dear: loving life, having fun, and caring about our environment and each other. I always find myself singing and dancing around my living room when I hear Merl's songs. One of my favorite chants:

I feel all right,
I feel like dynamite!

On the cover of the 1991 release It's in the Air, Merl is sitting in the driver's seat of a blue convertible 1960 MGA Roadster two-seater; the Rainforest Band, with their instruments, stand behind him. The car is perched atop the Marin Headlands, the bright orange Golden Gate Bridge draped across the inimitably blue San Francisco Bay in the background. Merl, his bent arm hooked over the door, is wearing tinted glasses, a moustache, and a beret with its brim cocked slightly to the side. The sun glints off the chrome and the curve of the back fender. But Merl's smile is the brightest thing in the picture. It reminds me of my favorite lyric from "Roadrunner," which Jerry and Merl played together, Jerry's strained vocals crooning: I love the life I live, and I live the life I love!
Merl appears to be doing just that. It's a good reminder.

On February 14, 2009, Valentine's Day, Merl's legacy will be celebrated by friends and family with a concert at the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco. Musicians who played with Merl and his son, Tony Saunders, will perform on what would have been Merl's 75th birthday: Melvin Seals (Jerry Garcia Band), Pete Sears (Jefferson Starship, Hot Tuna), Peter Albin (Big Brother and the Holding Company), mandolin player David Grisman, Michael Hinton, Michael Warren, Norton Buffalo of High Noon, and Bill Vitt, drummer of the original Merl Saunders and Jerry Garcia Band. Tony Saunders will play a new song he wrote for the occasion. Tony remembers playing music with his father as "the best stuff in the world." The evening is a benefit for the Haight-Ashbury Free Clinic, and the Aphasia Center of California (Oakland chapter), which seeks to improve communication skills in people who have had strokes.

Saturday February 14, 2009, Valentine's Day
Great American Music Hall San Francisco, CA Doors at 7:30 p.m. / Show at 8:30 p.m.
Emceed by Wavy Gravy and Max Gail
Featuring: Melvin Seals, David Grisman, Tony Saunders, Norton Buffalo, Narada Michael Walden and many more play a musical tribute

[Published on: 2/6/09]

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achalsey Fri 2/6/2009 05:44PM
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Its too bad we're loosing some of the best from that generation but their music will certainly live on through time. Ah, bootlegs indeed. R.I.P we miss you

funkyMOFO Fri 2/6/2009 06:03PM
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some of my life's fondest memories include slapping high fives with merle in the 90's up and down the cali coast. from the sweetwater to the coach house- he knew how to bring the joy. anyone remember those days? i barely do.... thanks for so much merle.

j-bizzle Fri 2/6/2009 06:20PM
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one of my favorite shows was There Comes a Time at the Greek. Watching him get down with Melvin during Deal - was truely an epic moment.

pornofunk starstarstarstarstar Fri 2/6/2009 06:42PM
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this guy makes me happy, inspired many

P.S cubs = amateur hour

GratefulRd Fri 2/6/2009 06:44PM
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merl 'papa bear' saunders...your the man! thanks for all the great years of music!

WaveSnacker starstarstarstarstar Fri 2/6/2009 06:54PM
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One of the coolest ever!

mudbuddy11 Fri 2/6/2009 07:07PM
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I saw merl several times. He came through lincoln nebraska at least twice a year in the late 90's, and that man always made sure you had a sweatin'-good-time. My last time seeing merl was comes a time... and it was as special as everyone leads you to believe. He always made the room come alive, with natural gift, and genuine skill, merl was a musician who can never be replaced. His music with Jerry may never be matched. I miss Merl. I miss Merl as much as any other who's gone before. Rest In Peace, Merl.

isthatyoujerry Fri 2/6/2009 08:13PM
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i love you more than words can tell!

Coconut Phil starstarstarstarstar Sat 2/7/2009 02:07AM
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Coconut Phil

I love the jams with Jerry, it's some of my favorite music. The show on Pure Jerry is really great music. Merl was a great artist, he will be missed.

fnghhhh Sat 2/7/2009 07:08AM
Show -9 Votes Thumbs down! Thumbs up!
BlowsAgainsttheEmpire starstarstarstarstar Sat 2/7/2009 08:21AM
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RIP and thanks for the music Merl Saunders.

futhepharmer Sat 2/7/2009 10:22AM
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Merl was a true brother. nothing but good vibes where he was concerned.

^^who let the child in? fnghhh...does your mommy know that you snuck into her bedroom at 7:30 in the morning to use her computer and steal money out of her purse?

Chaloupka starstarstarstarstar Sat 2/7/2009 11:55AM
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Merl sure did make some great music!

fishbassplayer starstarstarstar Sat 2/7/2009 12:38PM
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I will miss Merl. One great moment I had with Merl was in 1997 at a SCal fest called 'Dead On The Mountain' at Krakta Ridge ski resort in SCal. Merls band (w/ Barry Sleiss on guitar) was the headliner. I had a small spin art set up right off the stage for people to have fun with during the fest. During Merl's smokin set, I made a spin art during a heavy jam. After Merls set, I walked up to Merl and asked him to sign my spin art. He smailed and said "Sure, that's cool. I've never signed a spin art before!" I talked to him for a few minutes and thanked him for a wonderful set of groovy tunes, and for all the years of incredible music. What a wonderful human being. May the four winds blow you safely home Merl!

Ned8 starstarstarstarstar Sat 2/7/2009 06:03PM
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Elenor Rigby on that Keystone session knocked me off my bicycle

bubbakushman Sun 2/8/2009 06:17AM
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jazzfest not sure what year but ekoostik hookah was playing the howlin wolf late nite.they went on at 3 am and played straight thru till 9 or 10 in the morning no set breaks,merl walked in probably at 5 or 6 and jammed with the boys for awhile it was amazing to say the least.what a memory, u are sadly missed mr.saunders,thank u for all the beautiful music u made R.I.P

alltimepanic starstarstar Sun 2/8/2009 12:17PM
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spent many days and nights chasin Merl and the Michaels and Vince all over the countryside ...great times ,anyone remember High in the Clouds in Leadville Co.Oh my goodness i miss those days.

does anyone out there have any bootlegs of Merl and the band, would love to get some .Merl was a truly good soul who brightened and enlighted every one he came into contact with.I was there for his 65th with Vassar ,i wish i could be there again...

keep on keepin' on Merl,i think of you often.

delidrum Sun 2/8/2009 07:31PM
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I was so thankful to have setup for one of his shows in Albany NY.Opened the back of his van and saw that Hammond keys.It was the same night that Jerry was at the Knickerbocber in Albany.His show was after Jerrys.After Merls sound check I asked if he was going down to see Jerry.He said with a big smile "He don't let me in to see him" With one of greatest laughes in the world.I will never forget it.Two of the best shows. I thought I would share this story. RIP.

webjammin starstarstarstarstar Sun 2/8/2009 11:19PM
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Thank you Merle for your gracious smile, and style. Seeing Merle live is one of those shoes where your legs hurt for 2 days after! What a beaming sould, thank you for shedding your light on us. RIP, may the heavens be blessed with your sweet sweet sounds!

tommont starstarstarstarstar Mon 2/9/2009 02:39AM
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Merl Saunders one of the all time greats! Joy I am sorry you never got to see Merl lay it down live but you obviously caught the groove and understand what he was all about from listening to tapes and talking to your guy. RIP Merl, this is sure to be a barnburner of a show! Merl w/ no e btw. Merle Haggard and Merle Travis but Merl Saunders Thanks for the nice piece on Jambase, Joy and thanks for all the fantastic music, Merl!

‹^› ‹(•¿•)› ‹^› {¬¿¬} Mon 2/9/2009 03:31AM
+2 Votes Thumbs down! Thumbs up!

‹^› ‹(•¿•)› ‹^›      {¬¿¬}

did anyone see the M and M shows?

Merl and Melvin?

Other than that I guess I caught the rainforest band prolly about

10 times. My most memorable moment was helping them

load in in asheville at the music zone.

I got to help PUT JESSICA ON STAGE!!! I felt so honored. :-)

Jazzzzz starstarstarstarstar Mon 2/9/2009 08:56AM
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Got my ticket for this Saturday, will be celebrating with love.......

BBFCFM515 Mon 2/9/2009 11:46AM
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Im going to have to bust out some old tapes that i have with Merl jamming with Jerry.

Joshc104 starstarstarstarstar Mon 2/9/2009 02:21PM
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That Tracklist above is Phantastic - Thanks JAMBASE !

Thank you Merl Saunders.

shaunfunk Wed 2/11/2009 12:02AM
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merl was one of those people whose smile would brighten up a room. He was one of those people who made you feel comfortable with yourself, that it was okay to dance like no one was watching. He was one of those people who stirred up the joy in others. We miss you merl, I am grateful to have felt your presence on this earth. Aloha

JAMBOE Fri 10/24/2014 05:30PM
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RIP Merl