By: Joy Bashew Rosenberg
Remembering Merl Saunders
February 14, 1934 – October 24, 2008
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."
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!"
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.
MERL SAUNDERS' 75TH BIRTHDAY BASH
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