In Memoriam: Drummer Bill Vitt

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Acclaimed drummer Bill Vitt has died. The news was confirmed by the Jerry Garcia Twitter account. Vitt was best known for his work with Garcia and Merl Saunders in the early and mid-1970s.

The Sacramento native moved to Los Angeles in the mid-1960s with the aim of focusing on studio work. Longtime Frank Sinatra producer Don Costa took Vitt under his wing and got him gigs backing the likes of Eydie Gorme and Cathy Carlson as per the drummer’s 2012 chat with Jambands.com. Bill went back to northern California at the of the decade and immediately found work performing with Michael Bloomfield in a band dubbed Electric Flag when the drummer started athat would soon change its name to the Michael Bloomfield Band. While in the Bay Area, Vitt also performed with Sons Of Champlin.

Bill Vitt took part in the famed jam sessions at the legendary Matrix club in San Francisco soon after returning to the area. It was through his friendship with keyboardist Howard Wales that he met Jerry Garcia. Vitt appears on Wales and Garcia’s 1971 album, Hooteroll?. The Grateful Dead guitarist was looking for a more relaxed project to spend time on when his main band was off the road. After The Matrix closed, a number of the musicians who took part in the jams at the club moved the festivities to Berkeley’s The Keystone. Vitt, Garcia, Saunders and bassist John Kahn played The Keystone many times and their July 10 and 11, 1973 performances at the venue were immortalized in the two-volume Live At Keystone releases in 1973. A definitive 4-CD set from the shows was issued in 2012 as Keystone Companions: The Complete 1973 Fantasy Recordings.

“Everything was pretty spontaneous,” Vitt told Pop Matters in a 2017 interview about the Saunders/Garcia gigs, “that made us really listen to each other because there wasn’t really an arrangement. There’d be a head of a song and then someone would take a solo and it was wide open. That’s different than being in a band where you rehearse everything, go to a gig and play it all exactly how you rehearsed it. That can get very boring after a while, unless you keep changing your material.”

The drummer also performed and/or recorded with Pee Wee Ellis, Sonny & Cher, Charlie Musselwhite, the Coasters, James Cotton and many others as per John Patrick Gatta’s interview with Bill. Vitt landed in New Orleans early in the ’80s and forged a musical relationship with Dumpstaphunk bassist Nick Daniels and other Crescent City luminaries. He then retired to Sonoma County and started work in the wine industry. More recently, Bill Vitt returned to the Bay Area and participated in a Jerry Garcia tribute led by guitarist Steve Kimock that included dates at Sweetwater Music Hall in 2013 and 2014, an appearance on Jam Cruise and a tour in 2015.

Merl’s Tune