Saturday, July 18, 2020

Merl Saunders: Late 60s Highlights (Stairway To Jerry)

Soul Grooving, by the Merl Saunders Trio and Big Band, released on Galaxy Records in 1968

Merl Saunders (1934-2008) is now well-known for his famous association with Jerry Garcia, playing with Garcia and other members of the Dead in the 1970s, 80s and 90s. Once Saunders became part of the extended Garciaverse, Deadheads kept track of his musical doings. But Merl Saunders had an extensive career prior to Garcia. He would occasionally allude to it, but most interviewers wanted to turn the story back to Jerry, so all we got were bits and pieces. I am trying to put together Merl Saunders' pre-Jerry arc here, so we can see the components of Saunders music before the inflection point.

Merl Saunders, born Merl Washington, was San Francisco born and raised. I don't know exactly where he lived, but I'm pretty sure it was in the Haight-Ashbury or the Western Addition (which included the Fillmore district). Saunders went to San Francisco Polytechnic High ("Poly"), which was at 710 Frederick Street, just across from Kezar Stadium. All we really know is that Saunders had a band in high school, because he was the first one to offer singer Johnny Mathis a gig (Mathis went to Washington High, but I think they knew each other from sports). [update: Fellow scholar and regular Commenter Bill sends over an interview he did with Merl on KZFR-fm in Chico in 1999: Merl's high school band in the late 40s was called the Educated Men Of Music. It included singers Jean Turner (later with Stan Kenton) and Mathis, plus flute player Freddie Gene Smith (later with Smokey Robinson].[update II: fellow scholar JGMF reports that Mathis lived a few blocks from the Saunders family in the Haight-Ashbury].

Saunders was in the US Air Force from 1953 to 1957. Since getting drafted was all but inevitable, a four-year hitch often let the recruit choose his specialization, instead of just being a grunt. Since the US had a true citizen army in the 50s, I wouldn't be surprised if Merl spent much of his Army time playing music (certainly Mickey Hart did that in the US Air Force)[update: the KZFR interview confirms that Merl mainly played music in the Service]. After the Air Force, Saunders seems to have become a musical professional. I know that Saunders was a postman in San Francisco at some point, perhaps the early 60s, but many aspiring musicians (ok, well, not Jerry Garcia) take regular day jobs when they have to.

Since Saunders was an organ player, he most likely played more extended gigs at various places, rather than one-nighters. It's hard to lug a Hammond organ around, and it makes more sense to leave it in one place for a week or more. Organ trios were a distinctly African-American musical style from the late 50s onwards, based on the style of the great Jimmy Smith [update: the KZFR interview confirms that Merl toured organ lounges coast-to-coast on the "Chitlin Circuit." He hung out and played a little with Jimmy Smith as well].

There was a circuit of those kinds of clubs around the Bay Area back then, like Jack's (at 1601 Fillmore, across from the Fillmore Auditorium) or Minnie's-Can-Do Club (at 1915 Fillmore) in the Fillmore. Jack's, originally Jack's Tavern, and later Jack's On Sutter (it was at 1931 Sutter), had been one of the first and most important jazz clubs in the Fillmore district back in the 1940s. One of the house bands at Jack's was led by Saunders King, whose presence was so powerful that young Merl Washington changed his stage name to Merl Saunders. It had to be a kick for Merl to play Jack's himself, even if the club had moved to the new location at Fillmore Street (which is now The Boom Boom Room).

An article in the October 18, 1967 Oakland Tribune notes a performance by Merl Saunders at the Jazz Workshop in San Francisco
In the October 18, 1967 Oakland Tribune, jazz critic Russ Wilson gave a good review of the Merl Saunders Trio's appearance at San Francisco's Jazz Workshop. The trio included Jimmy Daniels on guitar and drummer Eddie Moore. Moore was Merl Saunders' first cousin. From the description, it sounds like the trio was a quality band, but pretty much in the typical groove of organ trios of the time, jazzing up popular songs.

Wilson mentions some of the bookings for the Saunders Trio, including The Trident in Sausalito, Harvey's Wagon Wheel in Lake Tahoe, Caesar's Palace in Las Vegas and a gig in Chicago. So Saunders was definitely getting around by this time.

Russ Wilson reviewed the Merl Saunders Trio appearance at The Trident in the May 24, 1968 Oakland Tribune. Saunders was filling in for Vince Guaraldi

May 21-June 9, 1968 The Trident, Sausalito, CA: Merl Saunders Trio
Sausalito was once a fishing village on the opposite side of the bay from San Francisco. Ultimately it became a Ferry terminus to the North Pacific Coast Railroad. However, when the Golden Gate Bridge opened in 1937, Sausalito's waterfront declined rapidly. Sausalito had always had a colorful history, with bootleggers, rum runners and bordellos, and that aspect of the community was ascendant for some years. By the 1960s, however, the seedy history of Sausalito had made it a desirable bohemian enclave.

The Trident was owned by one Frank Werber, who had made a fair amount of money as the producer of The Kingston Trio. Under his Trident Productions banner, he produced a variety of other acts as well. In the mid-60s, he dipped his toes in the folk-rock waters, signing and producing Bay Area acts like Blackburn & Snow and The Sons Of Champlin.  In 1966, Werber and the Kingston Trio opened up The Trident Restaurant on the water (at 558 Bridgewater), which also regularly featured jazz. It instantly became the in place for upscale downsiders and downscalers with an upside.

In 1967 Frank Werber gave up the record business, a rare man who took his money out of the biz before he lost it. He kept The Trident, however. As the San Francisco bohemian underground became rock and roll royalty, The Trident was a main hangout for record company people, Bill Graham, rock stars, film stars and other cool people. The Trident was famous for having spectacularly beautiful waitresses, all reputedly braless. The Trident also booked jazz five or six nights a week, an interesting paradox in a club that celebrated the rock and roll life. Nonetheless, the quality of jazz performers at The Trident was uniformly high, whether local performers or recruited from out of town.

According to Russ Wilson's review in the Oakland Tribune, the Merl Saunders Trio was engaged when, per Wilson, "oddly enough... pianist Vince Guaraldi sprained a finger Saturday night getting off an airplane, and notified the club he couldn't keep his booking for the following Tuesday, according to club manager Lou Ganapoler" (Vince Guaraldi scholars take note). The peculiar tone of Wilson's explanation suggests that there was more to Guaraldi's sprained finger than he is saying, but no matter: Merl and his trio were on board. Apparently Saunders had filled in for a few days the previous year (1967) when another headliner had been unable to make it, so they weren't a complete unknown to The Trident.

Wilson names a few songs that the Saunders trio played, such as "Up, Up And Away," "You Better Love Me," "Little Bird" and "Sometimes I'm Happy." Wilson praises Saunders as "an organist who knows his stops as well as his keyboards, and who builds on this foundation with musicality, taste and a strong ability to swing..."[Saunders] perceptive use of these basics often makes his output superior to that of widely known jazz organists." The critic does add that "there are times when Saunders and his cohorts fall into a dismal swamp, as they did with the current pop tune "Up, Up And Away." These two points fairly sum up Saunders ability as a keyboard player: he is versatile, sticks to the basic and knows how to swing, while sometimes falling into unneeded noodling.

It is interesting also to read Wilson's comments about guitarist Jimmy Daniels. He says "on appropriate numbers he utilizes a blues vibrato that gets into the nitty-gritty and on ballads he plays with a full melodic sound that enhances the tune." A few years later, Saunders would play with another guitarist who would utilize even more blues vibrato and play with a full melodic sound, as well.  It is interesting to see that Merl Saunders's sound was well established prior to playing with Jerry Garcia and John Kahn in 1970.

From Russ Wilson's July 28, 1968 column in the Oakland Tribune

This brief listing in Russ Wilson's Jazz column in the Oakland Tribune of July 28, 1968, gives an insight into Saunders true breadth, and serves as a reminder to one of the forgotten markets of sixties music. The notice says

Organist Merl Saunders' trio is on a Far Eastern tour that has included Bangkok, Manila and Tokyo, where the group now is playing club and TV engagements.
While I would love to know more about this tour, it's a reminder that up to 500,000 American soldiers were in Vietnam, which meant that at any given time a lot of soldiers were in Manila, Bangkok and Tokyo. The perennial presence of American soldiers had in turn given Asian nations a taste of American music,  too, so there were many opportunities to tour Asia. Many groups toured Vietnam, too, under some quite weird conditions (for example, rock bands were always told not to play The Animals song "We've Gotta Get Out Of This Place").

Merl Saunders was interviewed many times, but of course almost all those interviews were Jerry, Jerry, Jerry, so I don't recall ever hearing about a Far Eastern tour. Whether Merl's trio played venues that attracted servicemen, locals or both, it had to be an odd experience to play American music in Asia at the height of the Cold War. Saunders himself was a veteran, so that too may have added a different perspective. It certainly puts playing the Keystone Berkeley for a bunch of hippies in a different light.

An ad for Meile Saunders Trio (sic) at the EXIT in Palo Alto, from the January 24, 1969 Stanford Daily

January 24-25, 1969 the Exit, Palo Alto, CA: Smoke/Merle Saunders Trio
By 1969, Palo Alto actually had a groovy little rock scene downtown. But it wasn't much of a jazz town. In the January 24, 1969 Stanford Daily there is an ad for an apparently new club called the EXIT. There had been a juke joint over the county line in East Palo Alto called The Exit Inn, but I don't know if they played organ music. In any case, Exit is a typical sort of hipster club name, and may have had no connection to the East Palo Alto place. 3489 El Camino Real was way south of downtown, not far from a lengthy strip of motels. So there would have been plenty of potential patrons, but it wasn't any part of the downtown bohemian scene that had been pioneered by young folkies like Jerry Garcia.

Although I don't know when Merl's Soul Grooving album had been released, it was sometime in 1968. In 1968, just having an album, even if no one had really heard it, was an important credential for a working jazz musician. Galaxy Records was a subsidiary of Fantasy Records, apparently created for musicians who were in the union. In the 60s, Fantasy Studios were in Oakland, on 30th Street and Peralta, near the Emeryville border. Creedence Clearwater recorded their early, famous albums there, and Merl became friends with the band. Thus when Tom Fogerty left Creedence in late 1970, he was already friendly with Merl, so it was a natural fit to join Jerry Garcia, Merl and John Kahn in their casual pickup band.

The cover of Soul Grooving is also the only photo I have seen of Merl prior to meeting Jerry. Merl has said he went from being a snappy looking dude in a suit to a casual guy with a beard and tennis shoes, just one of the many ways that Garcia influenced Saunders.

The Playbill for "Big Time Buck White," starring Muhammad Ali, with Merl Saunders as musical director. The show lasted a week.
November 15-December 6, 1969 George Abbott Theater, 152 W. 54th St, New York, NY
"Big Time Buck White"
First Preview: November 15, 1969 (16 preview performances)
Performances: December 2-6, 1969 (5 performances)
"Big Time Buck White" was a musical about a black labor organizer. Based on a play by Joseph Dolan Tuotti, it had been adapted as a musical by Oscar Brown, Jr. Although I don't know the exact origins of the show, Brown had starred in a San Francisco production for quite some time, at The Commitee Theater on 836 Montgomery, starting about February, 1969. At some point, Merl Saunders had become the musical director of the San Francisco production[update: JGMF sent over some remarkably detailed information, and Saunders seems to have been the musical director of the SF production from its beginning in February '69].

When the production moved to "Off-Broadway" in New York, however, it had a new star: none other than Muhammad Ali. Ali was banned from boxing at the time, so he tried his hands at, of all things, musical theater. Per the New York Times review, Ali had a real stage presence, and wasn't a bad singer.

The musicians roster from the 1969 Playbill for "Big Time Buck White." Merl Saunders played organ and piano and led the 10-piece band. Billy Cobham was the drummer.
I don't know whether Merl Saunders had played New York before, but what a way to debut. Saunders led a 10-piece band. The most memorable name was none other than Billy Cobham on drums.

Nonetheless, the show closed quickly, after just a week. Sometime shortly after that, Merl Saunders opened for Miles Davis for a week or two at a Manhattan jazz club--I think the Village Vanguard. Most likely, it was the same band from the show. Since "Buck White" closed quickly, and the band was in New York anyway, it made sense for them to play a club. When they were rehearsing one afternoon, Miles came by and listened, and apparently briefly sat in, a benediction for any musician

There isn't a Miles Davis concert history online, surprisingly, but I know Miles was touring in Europe in November and recording in Manhattan in December, so the timeline fits.

The debut album by Danny Cox, released in 1971 on ABC/Dunhill Records, produced by Nick Gravenites. Musicians on the album include Merl Saunders, John Kahn, Bill Vitt, Chepito Areas and the Tower Of Power horns.

By 1970, Merl Saunders was back in San Francisco. He was writing and recording "jingles for cigarette commercials" (his description) and playing some organ gigs around town. Thanks to the Fillmore rock explosion, however, San Francisco had a thriving recording studio team. Record companies were not only signing the local bands, they were sending in players from out of town to catch some of the vibe. One of the new producers was Nick Gravenites, songwriter, former lead singer of the Electric Flag and general all-around character. ABC/Dunhill Records hired Gravenites to produce the debut album for Kansas City-based folksinger Danny Cox, and booked Wally Heider Studios.

In those days, producers often recorded a "demo" version of the album first, with just basic tracks, so the record company could see what they were getting. Gravenites had hired John Kahn to play bass, whom he knew well from working with Mike Bloomfield. Merl Saunders was hired to play organ. I think Kahn knew Merl from seeing him at places like Jack's. In any case, Gravenites probably knew Merl as well. Bill Vitt, another Gravenites regular, was on drums, and future Stonegrounder Tim Barnes was on lead guitar.

Kahn had a casual weeknight gig at The Matrix, playing bass with Vitt, organist Howard Wales and Jerry Garcia. Garcia was around Wally Heider Studios a lot in those days, working on albums with Paul Kantner and others. So that was how Garcia and Merl Saunders met, in the hallway at Wally Heider, while Merl and John were working on the Danny Cox album. When Howard Wales decided he didn't always want to show up to Matrix gigs, Kahn suggested calling Merl, and Jerry assented. And so it began.


  1. Cool! Two things for now. First, everyone should know Peter Losin's Miles Ahead site. If you browse by session you will find all Miles live gigs and studio dates that are known. Second, I will send you some stuff offline.

    1. Thanks for what you sent--they are worthy of a post in themselves, but I updated a few things in the post.

  2. Fellow scholar Bill sent in his interview with Merl Saunders from KZFR-fm in Chico in 1999. Merl told some of his back story, and it's quite fascinating. Merl's high school band in the late 40s was called Educated Men Of Music. I updated the post. --thanks Bill!

  3. Thanks for the great post and history on Merl and the organ jazz scene! Wow, lots of heavy names in that New York stage band, including Britt Woodman, influential and long-serving fixture in the Ellington band (played w Duke fanatic Mingus a bit too). There are lingering remnants of the organ jazz scene in the Bay Area to this day (at least when clubs are not shuttered for plague reasons). As I'm sure you know, Boom Boom Room still has a B-3 that is featured in a lot of their shows. The Royal Cuckoo in the Mission has one as well and is working kind of a low key version of the organ lounge concept. Club Deluxe on Haight has had a B-3 and live jazz for ages (the late great organist Ed Kelly used to play there a lot back in the day). Thanks again!

    1. Nathan, thanks for the kind words and up-to-the-minute updates. Nice to see the B3 sound is still alive, in some form.

  4. I found the listing for the Miles run in the Daily News 9 Jan 1970.

    January 1-10, 1970 The Village Gate NYC NY Miles Davis/“Buck White” 1st Act
    And a later listing for three nights in Jersey just Merl
    January 23-25, 1970 Orchard Lounge Asbury Park NJ Merl Saunders