Grateful Dead guitarist Jerry Garcia’s musical companionship with keyboardist Merl Saunders developed out of mutual respect and admiration for each other’s talents. Saunders brought a wide range of previous experiences to the relationship, having played professionally for many years before meeting Garcia.
Saunders was born and raised in San Francisco. His 1940s high school band included his classmate, vocalist Johnny Mathis. Saunders served in the U.S. military in the 1950s and around that time began playing organ with a variety of primarily jazz and blues musicians. By the 1960s he had formed the Merl Saunders Trio, touring as far as Bangkok, Manila and Tokyo in 1968. That same year saw the release of Soul Grooving, a studio album issued by Galaxy Records and credited to the Merl Saunders Trio and Big Band.
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After “writing cigarette commercials for black radio … and working with some outrageous musicians Eric Gale, Chuck Rainey, Bernard Purdie,” as Saunders told David Gans (reprinted in the Keystone Companions: The Complete 1973 Fantasy Recordings liner notes), by 1970, the keyboardist was again residing in San Francisco. Around that time, “[Producer Nick] Gravenites called [Saunders] up and said, ‘I hear you’re the rock ‘n’ roller who can read music.’”’ That resulted in Saunders working with bassist John Kahn at Wally Heider Studios on the debut album of singer-songwriter Danny Cox.
Starting in April 1970, Garcia and Kahn were regulars at a weekly Monday night jam session at The Matrix in San Francisco that was hosted by another of Garcia’s musical companions, keyboardist Howard Wales. The weekly jams, which also regularly featured drummer Bill Vitt, continued through September of that year. At that point, Saunders took over hosting the jams at the Matrix.
Garcia explained the circumstances surrounding Merl getting the gig at The Matrix, telling Blair Jackson in 1991:
Howard [Wales] went off and kinda – periodically he gets this thing of where he just can’t deal with the music world any more, and he just disappears. So we were there, stuck there, and we were supposed to play Monday night, and we didn’t have a player. John [Kahn] said, “Well, I just did some sessions with this guy Merl Saunders”
“The first few times we played,” Saunders told Jackson, “there would be between 20 and 30 people there and we’d split maybe $50 between us at the end of the night. And that was fine. Jerry’s really the guy who taught me the value of money — it don’t mean a fuckin’ thing. Having fun is what’s important.”
“I’d never played any standards,” Garcia told Jackson. “I’d never played in dance bands. I never had any approach to the world of regular, straight music. [Saunders] knows all the standards, and he taught me how bebop works. He taught me music.”
Saunders was a central figure in Garcia’s work outside of the Dead in the period spanning 1970 to 1975, playing in a number of different lineups. The official Jerry Garcia website marks September 7, 1970 as the date of the first concert under the billing Jerry Garcia & Merl Saunders. According to the site, Garcia and Saunders would go on to play more than 250 shows through June 1975 incorporating songs like “My Funny Valentine,” “Hi-Heel Sneakers” “Money Honey,” “How Sweet It Is,” “I Second That Emotion” and “One Kind Favor,” into their setlists.
Backing Garcia and Saunders was an evolving lineup of musicians that included Kahn, Vitt, Grateful Dead drummer Bill Kreutzmann, Elvis Presley drummer Ron Tutt and jazz drummer Paul Humphrey. Others who shared the stage with Jerry and Merl were Creedence Clearwater Revival guitarist Tom Fogerty, Journey guitarist George Tickner and Santana percussionist Armando Peraza, as well as saxophonist Martin Fierro and vocalist Sarah Fulcher.
Saunders appeared onstage with the Grateful Dead a total of three times: June 10, 1973 in Washington D.C., on March 23, 1975 in San Francisco and on March 9, 1985 in Berkeley, California. Saunders also provided overdubbed organ parts on the Dead’s 1971 live album Skull & Roses. In 1973, Garcia, Saunders, Kahn and Vitt released Live at Keystone, which was recorded over two nights at The Keystone in Berkeley, California in July of that year.
On September 5, 1973, Garcia and Saunders played a Hell’s Angels private party aboard a boat that sailed around the New York harbor. The performance was particularly notable for it being the first time Garcia played his Doug Irwin-custom built guitar known as Wolf.
Saunders contributed to Garcia’s 1974 self-titled solo album (Compliments).
In late-1974, Garcia and Saunders formed Legion Of Mary with Kahn, Tutt and saxophonist Martin Fierro. The short-lived project performed around 50 shows, the last coming in July 1975 and bringing an end to Garcia and Saunders’ run of collaborations. Later in 1975, Garcia, Kahn, Tutt and pianist Nicky Hopkins performed the first shows billed as the Jerry Garcia Band.
Kahn discussed the separation with Saunders, telling Jackson the project “didn’t seem to be headed anywhere for us … it was just a period of non-growth.” According to the bassist, they “just sort of ditched it … We hid and just didn’t have any gigs for a long time, and then we started another band. It wasn’t very well done.”
Saunders appeared on Garcia’s 1978 solo album, Cats Under The Stars. Garcia and Saunders reunited for another short-lived project, forming the jazz-centric Reconstruction with drummer Gaylord Birch, saxophonist Ron Stallings and trombonist Ed Neumeister. Reconstruction played around 60 shows but dissolved by the end of 1979.
According to jerrygarcia.com, “It’s possible that the initial intention was not to include Garcia as a permanent member. However, by the time they started to perform in January 1979, Jerry was in. This limited performances to when the Grateful Dead were off the road. On a couple of occasions, they attempted to sub Jerry Miller on guitar, but the crowds expected to see Garcia each time.”
Saunders made another appearance on Garcia’s 1982 solo album, Run For The Roses. In 1986, Garcia survived a life-threatening diabetic coma, and Saunders was integral to his longtime friend’s recovery. Saunders was said to have visited Garcia every day the guitarist was in the hospital and continued after he returned home, playing piano while Garcia healed. Garcia needed to completely relearn to play the guitar and did so with Saunders providing guidance. Jackson described Saunders’ role in Garcia’s recovery in a Dead.net article:
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.’”
Garcia appeared on Saunders’ 1990 studio album, Blues From The Rainforest, which was their final recordings before Garcia’s death in 1995. Saunders stopped performing in 2002 after suffering a stroke. He died on October 24, 2008 at age 74 in San Francisco.