Bay Area musician Merl Saunders dies at age 74
By Jim Harrington
Article Launched: 10/24/2008 02:33:38 PM PDT
Bay Area musician Merl Saunders, seen in this undated promotional photo, died Friday in San...
Merl Saunders, a San Mateo native who made his mark on the Bay Area music scene by recording and performing with some of its biggest stars, including Bonnie Raitt, Creedence Clearwater Revival's Tom Fogerty and the Grateful Dead's Jerry Garcia and Bob Weir, died early Friday at Kaiser Hospital in San Francisco.
The 74-year-old keyboard player succumbed to a systemic infection and the lingering effects of a stroke he suffered six years ago, which left him paralyzed on one side of his body.
Saunders never experienced the same kind of fame and recognition as those players, but his deep contributions to the Bay Area music scene were cherished by thousands.
"Merl was the sun rising over the keyboards every time I looked over at him," comments Weir.
Saunders was a multi-talented keyboardist who was equally comfortable performing rock and jazz. Born on Valentine's Day 1934, Saunders was proficient on the piano by age 10 and his ability to position himself in the company of greatness was also honed at a young age. For instance, he was a bandmate and classmate of Johnny Mathis while in junior high school.
Saunders later made the transition to the Hammond B-3 organ, which quickly became his instrument of choice, and managed to wrangle an apprenticeship of sorts with the great B-3 master Jimmy Smith.
In 1970, Saunders embarked on a lengthy partnership with vocalist-guitarist Jerry Garcia, a restless musical soul that was always on the look for collaborators outside the Grateful Dead. The two musicians would work together in the band "Legion of Mary" and the ensemble "Garcia/Saunders," performing local club dates and producing Saunders' best-known recordings, including "Heavy Turbulence," "Fire Up" and "Live at the Keystone."
Their 1990 collaboration, "Blues from the Rainforest," was a Billboard Top 10 in the New Age category.
Saunders obviously benefitted from his association with the Dead's world-famous guitarist. Yet, this collaboration was a two-way street.
"When Jerry first started playing outside the Dead, he pretty consciously chose keyboard partners who would broaden his horizons," says Dennis McNally, the longtime Grateful Dead historian and publicist. "At that point, in the early '70s, Jerry knew rock, R&B, country and folk very well indeed. Merl, though he'd spend most of his career playing in rock bands, was a Jimmy Smith devotee who had at his command the Great American songbook — the classics of Tin Pan Alley and Broadway. And he really shared that sophistication with Jerry and with succeeding musicians in the so-called jam-band world who listened to him. ..."
Over the years, Saunders became a senior member of the jam-band scene, and he performed with such top second-generation acts as Phish, Blues Traveler and Widespread Panic. He was also known as a very generous band leader who provided opportunities for such uip-and-comers as Sheila E., Bonnie Hayes and Bob Steeler.
Outside of the rock world, Saunders managed a successful career in jazz and blues music. Notably, the B-3 titan performed and recorded with such true legends as Harry Belafonte, Frank Sinatra, Lionel Hampton, Miles Davis, B. B. King, Paul Butterfield and Bonnie Raitt.
Saunders is survived by longtime companion, Debra Hall, three children — Anthony Saunders, Merl Saunders Jr. and Susan Saunders — as well as by several grand children and great grandchildren.
There was no announcement Friday regarding funeral or memorial services.
Reach Jim Harrington at email@example.com. Read his Concert Blog at www.ibabuzz.com/concerts.
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