R.I.P. Merle Saunders 1934-2008

Photo Courtesy of Robert Minkin

The music world lost another great player this week with the death of Bay Area keyboardist Merle Saunders. Saunders started out in Junior High in a band with Johnny Mathis and after a stint in the Army from 1953-1957 he started on the chitlin’ circuit with players like Brother Jack McDuff and Jimmy Smith. He played with many major musicians, including Dinah Washington and Miles Davis, but became more well known for his collaboration with Grateful Dead guitarist Jerry Garcia. This unlikely pair came about after Garcia, off of tour with the Dead, would hold jam sessions at Club Matrix in 1971, and Saunders joined up with him shortly after. This unity of two different styles of music allowed both of them to expand their audiences, and eventually packing clubs. CCR member Tom Fogarty, Journey’s George Tickner, and other musicians often sat in with them to jam. The Saunders-Garcia Band backed Saunders up solo and recorded Heavy Turbulence for Fantasy Records. He continued to collaborate with Garcia, even after Garcia’s diabetic coma in 1986, helping him to get back to playing. Merle Saunders has been called “The Gentle Lion” of the San Francisco Bay area music scene. From his collaborations in Jazz, the Grateful Dead, to TV Soundtracks (Nash Bridges), Movie Soundtracks (Fritz the Cat), headlining worldwide concerts and beyond, Merle Saunders was an ambassador of music and the Hammond B-3.

In a weird coincidence, I received a press release and a copy of Rodger Collins new release Through My Eyes, who has a song called “The Drive 2 Step” (featuring Mystery Train), who features Merle Saunders, Jerry Garcia, and Tom Fogerty in what is called “a once in a lifetime session”. Merle Saunders, you will be missed. See another tribute to Saunders over at Funky 16 Corners. Keep Diggin’!

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