Grateful Dead guitarist Jerry Garcia collaborated with several musicians outside of his work with the legendary band. Among the many keyboard players Garcia worked with, the exemplary and long-running playing of Hammond B-3 organist Melvin Seals led Garcia to call him “the master of the universe.”
Seals followed several other keyboardists who were at one time or another one of Garcia’s close musician companions. Keyboardists like Howard Wales and Merl Saunders, as well as Grateful Dead members Ron “Pigpen” McKernan, Keith Godchaux, Brent Mydland, Bruce Hornsby and Vince Welnick were among those who impacted Garcia’s playing (mid-1970s Dead associate Ned Lagin should also be mentioned among this group).
Seals made his live Jerry Garcia Band debut on January 22, 1981 at the Keystone in Palo Alto, California. He remained a member of the band through their final show in April 1995, becoming the longest-tenured keyboardist in the band. Seals’ time as a JGB member was second in length behind only bassist John Kahn, another of Garcia’s primary collaborators outside of the Dead.
Seals’ connection to Garcia came by way of the former having played with Maria Muldaur, a vocalist who was in a relationship with Kahn in the 1970s. Muldaur, who had hit in 1973 with “Midnight At The Oasis,” contributed backing vocals on Garcia’s solo album’s Compliments (1974) and Cats Under The Stars (1978).
Seals discussed first meeting Garcia on The JamBase Podcast:
Seals: When I got with Jerry, I was just recently out of working with Elvin Bishop. And when I worked with Elvin Bishop, I did some work with Maria Muldaur. Her boyfriend was John Kahn, bass player of Jerry Garcia Band. And so the interesting thing, I was very involved with the church. I had a gospel record company. I had a gospel label producing a lot of gospel music, it was just in me. And so, you know, I was very close to the church and what we were doing there.
And I got with the Jerry Garcia Band through John Kahn. He did some work, played with Maria when I was working with Maria, and he was just paying attention to me. And one day he came up and said, “Man, would you be interested in playing in another band?” As a musician, you always keep the door open. I didn’t even know who he was talking about. He never said anything. One day, I get a phone call, “Hey, you up for doing some gigs this weekend?” or I think it was rehearsal this weekend and the gigs next weekend. And yeah, I was available. And so, we’re going to rehearse, he gave me an address and told me what time and I was trying to be on time to give a good representation, you know?
So I got there before everybody else. And the caretaker of the building let me in, they were expecting me. So I walk in and I’m looking around, the first thing I’m looking around, and I see all these logos. Now, I’m not familiar with the Grateful Dead. I knew their name. Wasn’t a Deadhead. OK? I know their names because, when one would have a birthday, Channel 7 would say “Today’s Mickey Hart’s birthday.” Or you’d hear the trouble that was caused when they would play New Year’s in Oakland, the scene that was going on. That’s all I knew. Didn’t know Jerry, anybody else.
I walk in and I see these backdrops, logos. It was a little hard to process because I’m a church boy and all these logos were skeletons. One with a violin in his hand, one skeleton with a rose in his head and just — skeletons. Not to put a bad drift on things, but wasn’t too long ago that massacre happened with Jim Jones, the cult. And so I’m walking in and I’m looking at this, I know nothing, but I’m looking around and I don’t know what’s going on, you know? And so it kinda was a little scary for me not knowing this was their logos. So I was pretty scared, you know, joining.
So anyhow, I do this, I’m looking around, I see all this stuff then comes in all the musicians. They all came in at one time: John Kahn, Greg Errico on drums, Jerry Garcia, Jimmy Warren on keyboard and two background singers and then some side people …
We go over and I get on the organ and we do three songs. We do, “How Sweet It Is,” “The Harder They Come” and there was another Motown song [“Second That Emotion”] … And the guy on guitar says to me, “You play some pretty good organ.” And I say back, “You play some pretty good guitar,” and they’re just laughing because everybody knew I didn’t have a clue. I had no idea. And they just really welcomed that because that was so different from everybody else trying to get the gig and trying to take pictures and utilize the situation. I had no idea. I didn’t care. So I quickly found out, started learning as we did the first set of gigs over at the Keystone I believe it was, this is Jerry Garcia, he’s with the Grateful Dead.
Still the whole big picture wasn’t there, but I’m getting a glimpse of, “Oh, this is that guy.” But I had no idea what I was potentially getting into and where it could have went, and where it went is why I’m able to work today. Through the years of playing with Jerry, he gave me some kudos. He said I was the guy that he was looking for and he even gave me a name. He called me “master of the universe.” With his fans, Jerry loving me meant his fans loved me.
Later in 1981, Seals joined Garcia at Dead’s Club Front recording studio in San Rafael, California to record what became Garcia’s final solo studio album, 1982’s Run For The Roses. Seals contributed organ to the title track, “Midnight Getaway,” “Leave The Little Girl Alone” and “Valerie” and a cover of “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door.”
Seals’ was onstage with Garcia, Kahn and the JGB lineup of drummer David Kemper and vocalists Jacklyn LaBranch and Gloria Jones on October 4, 1986 at The Stone in San Francisco. The Jerry Garcia Band concert marked Garcia’s first public performance after being hospitalized due to a diabetic coma.
“I think there’s more of a spiritual focus to what we’re doing now,” Seals told Grateful Dead biographer Blair Jackson. “Any time you come that close to death, it makes you think about things differently and it does something to you inside.”
Seals was part of one of Garcia’s final studio recording sessions, held on January 20, 1995 at Fantasy Studios in Berkeley, California. The Jerry Garcia Band assembled to record covers of “Cigarettes & Coffee” and “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes” for the soundtrack to the 1995 feature film, Smoke.
Seals briefly appeared with Garcia in the music video for the recording of “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes.” The other JGB members, drummer Donny Baldwin, Kahn, LaBranch and Jones were also part of the video shoot, which occurred on April 17, 1995 at the Tosca Café in San Francisco and included the star of the film, Ashley Judd.
Smoke Gets In Your Eyes
A week later, Garcia led the final JGB performance on April 23, 1995 at The Warfield in San Francisco. Garcia died on August 9, 1995 at age 53. In early 1996, Kahn assembled the surviving JGB members for a pair of concerts in Santa Cruz, which presented few songs from the group’s previous live repertoire. Kahn died in May 1996 at age 48, leaving Seals as the de facto keeper of the JGB legacy.
Seals discussed continuing after Garcia’s death in an interview published by The Music Box in July 1998:
“I was kind of like the next in line. [I was] the next person that had been with [Jerry] the longest in [terms of] seniority. So I started looking at what has been happening — what [Grateful Dead guitarist] Bob Weir’s doing, what [Grateful Dead drummer] Mickey Hart’s been doing.
“I saw an interview [with] Jerry and they asked Jerry ‘well what do you think when it’s all over?’ And Jerry commented, ‘what when I die or something? Well I’d like to believe that the music is bigger than me, and it will live on.’ And I kept rewinding the video and looking at it…I kept rewinding it, and I kept looking at what was happening. Bob Weir changed his style. He went out and was doing something totally different. He wanted to get away from it. Mickey had the drum thing. It was totally different. The thing John Kahn wanted to do is totally different. And no one is doing it. I said, ‘I want to go back out and do exactly what we used to do with Jerry. Not change any of it. Go back and make it as close as possible to the real deal. When I got into that band they taught me a lot. Let me put it back.’”
“So I started getting some musicians together — the ones that were remaining (Jackie LaBranch, Gloria Jones, and Donny Baldwin). [We] rehearsed and rehearsed and rehearsed and listened to Jerry tapes and just tried to make it just the way it was. Of course we don’t have Jerry, and we know that. But if you can get past that and close your eyes and just remember, I think you will feel something.”
With an ever-evolving lineup, Melvin Seals & JGB continues to honor Garcia’s musical legacy. The group currently consists of guitarist John Kadlecik, bassist John-Paul McLean and drummer Jeremy Hoenig. In May of this year, Melvin Seals & JGB recruited saxophonist Dave Ellis for the debut of the project “Legion Of Melvin,” which is a tribute to the short-lived Garcia/Saunders group Legion Of Mary.