[JPL] Star keyboardist Merl Saunders dies

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Sun Oct 26 07:59:00 EDT 2008

Star keyboardist Merl Saunders dies
>  Joel Selvin,  Chronicle Senior Pop Music Critic Saturday, October 25, 2008
>     (10-24) 16:44 PDT SAN FRANCISCO -- Keyboardist Merl  Saunders, the gentle
> lion of the San Francisco music scene best known as  co-captain of guitarist
> Jerry Garcia's solo excursions outside the  Grateful Dead, died Friday at
> Kaiser Permanente Medical Center after  fighting infections.
>    The 74-year-old musician suffered a debilitating stroke 6 1/2 years ago
> and, although he lost the ability to speak, he made numerous sentimental
> guest appearances at shows over those years playing with one hand. "I never
> met anybody so happy who had a stroke," said Grateful Dead  drummer Mickey
> Hart. "In the end, the only thing that lit him up was the  music. Sometimes
> he'd cry, but I've never seen anybody so happy in the  realm of music." The
> native San Franciscan attended Polytechnic High School with singer  Johnny
> Mathis. After serving in the Army from 1953 to 1957, he played jazz organ on
> the same circuit as Jimmy Smith and Brother Jack McDuff. He worked as  musical
> director of the Billy Williams Revue and served in a similar  capacity in
> Oscar Brown Jr.'s off-Broadway show "Big Time Buck White." He  backed up Dinah
> Washington and jammed with Miles Davis. Mr. Saunders, who  was rarely seen in
> public without his trademark aviator shades and black  leather fisherman's
> cap, started playing with Garcia in 1971 at a small  Fillmore Street nightclub
> called the Matrix, where the Grateful Dead  guitarist liked to hold informal
> jam sessions on Dead nights off. Within  months, the loose-knit band was
> playing to packed houses at small local  clubs like the Keystone Korner in
> North Beach every weekend the Dead  wasn't working. Members sometimes included
> former Creedence Clearwater  rhythm guitarist Tom Fogerty and former Journey
> rhythm guitarist George  Tickner. The Saunders-Garcia Band, as the group came
> to be called, backed Mr.  Saunders on his 1971 solo album, "Heavy Turbulence,"
> and recorded two  albums for Berkeley's Fantasy Records. "Merl was an ensemble
> guy, a groupist," said Hart, who played with Mr.  Saunders in his early '80s
> solo group, High Noon. "He brought those  sensibilities to the Garcia band. He
> let Jerry have his flights of  fancy." Mr. Saunders told The Chronicle in 1972
> that playing with Garcia  offered them both an opportunity to experiment and
> explore different forms  of music. "We do it just for fun," he said. With the
> addition of saxophonist Martin Fierro in 1974, the group  transformed into the
> Legion of Mary and disbanded the following year. Mr.  Saunders also played in
> Reconstruction with Garcia in 1979 and 1980.  Garcia appeared on Mr. Saunders'
> 1990 solo album and video, "Blues From  the Rainforest," a surprise hit on the
> New Age music charts. After Garcia fell into a diabetic coma in 1986 and lost
> some of his  basic motor skills, Mr. Saunders spent hours daily with the
> stricken  guitarist running scales, working him out on jazz standards such as
> "My  Funny Valentine." Mr. Saunders' music appeared on such soundtracks as
> "Fritz the Cat" and  "Steelyard Blues." He worked on the TV series "Nash
> Bridges" and, as  musical director of the 1985 TV series "The New Twilight
> Zone," inveigled  the Grateful Dead into a new recording of the classic theme
> song. He recorded numerous albums, toured constantly and earned a welcome
> spot in the post-Dead jam band scene. Mr. Saunders headlined the Haight
> Street Music Fair for 24 consecutive years. After his stroke, Mr. Saunders'
> musician son, Tony Saunders, completed  his final solo album, "Still
> Groovin'." The album featured duets with  Bonnie Raitt and Mavis Staples. Huey
> Lewis stepped up with a lead vocal  after Mr. Saunders was disabled.  In his
> first public appearance following the stroke, Mr. Saunders  attended the
> September 2004 CD release party at the Great American Music  Hall, and played
> a handful of notes on the keyboard. Mr. Saunders cheated death twice before.
> He was booked to return to San  Francisco on United Flight 93 out of Newark,
> N.J., on Sept. 11, 2001, but  decided to take an earlier flight so he could
> get home in time to watch  the 49ers on Monday Night Football. In 2002, he
> underwent surgery for  cancer, only weeks before his stroke. He is survived by
> his longtime companion, Deborah Hall; his sons, Tony  of Martinez and Merl
> Saunders Jr. of Novato; daughter Susan Mora of  Oakland; six grandchildren;
> and one great-grandchild. A memorial service will be held at 11 a.m. Wednesday
> at First AME Zion  Church, 2159 Golden Gate Ave., San Francisco. E-mail Joel
> Selvin at jselvin at sfchronicle.com. This article appeared on page B - 1 of the
> San Francisco Chronicle

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