Merl Saunders


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Merl Saunders


Merl Saunders is a big giant of a man whose talent and spirit match his physical size. He has supported himself for the last 25 years as a professional organist and pianist—ever since he was 16! All this may come as something of a shock to those who know Saunders’s name only through his recent association with Jerry Garcia.

Truth be known, Merl is just as concerned with his family (three sons and one daughter) as he is about anything else. His oldest son, Tony, plays bass on this new album, You Can Leave Your Hat On. Tony has been an integral part of the group since its formation a year or so ago. The band plays around on the West Coast under the name of Aunt Monk (and yes, there really is an Aunt Monk; she lives in San Francisco in the Haight-Ashbury where Merl grew up).

Saunders’s interest in what he calls “youngsters” extends beyond his family. Two of the other members of the group, Chris Hayes and Larry Vann, went to high school with Tony and spent a lot of time hanging out at the friendly Saunders household before ever actually going to work. “It’s easier to work with youngsters. Lots easier. Kids want to know how everything works, they ask lots of questions, and they listen to the answers. They seem to really care mostly about the music, and they’re kind of shy in matters of deportment. It’s stimulating and fresh, and the human rewards are tremendous.”

Merl Saunders fronted his first trio at the age of 15 in San Francisco. Immediately after high school, Merl joined the Air Force—“That was the only thing to do in those days!” He played organ and piano while in the Air Force, and studied at the University of Mainz in Germany. After the service, Merl got a trio together and worked extensively on the West Coast and also toured abroad. Returning home at the end of the Fifties, Merl became Musical Director for the Billy Williams Band from 1960 to 1964. Saunders provided organ accompaniment for the movie Wuthering Heights and for several TV commercials, in addition to several hit songs.

Recording on the Galaxy label, a subsidiary of Fantasy Records, Saunders’s album Soul Grooving was released in 1967. The summer of that same year he embarked on a tour of the Far East, returning to the Coast for personal appearances which varied from Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas to the Trident in Sausalito to the Jazz Workshop, Jack’s of Sutter Street, and the El Matador in San Francisco.

In 1969 Merl Saunders became Musical Director for Oscar Brown, Jr.’s Big Time Buck White; Merl provided all the arrangements. The musical enjoyed a successful six-month run off Broadway in San Francisco before it moved to Broadway in New York starring Muhammad Ali. During Buck White’s run on Broadway, Saunders was again Musical Director, doubling on organ and piano. Although the musical’s run was brief, the musical arrangements were highly acclaimed by the critics.

Following the close of Buck White Saunders remained in New York working with Sonny Stitt, James Moody, and Miles Davis. In addition, he recorded an album with Harry Belafonte in 1970 and worked with him on two TV specials.

In August 1970, Merl returned to the West Coast, appearing at the El Matador, the Jazz Workshop, Jack’s of Sutter Street, and at the Matrix, with Jerry Garcia and friends.

That was the beginning of a long friendship. Saunders and Garcia played together for the next three years. It began as a very loose mixture of guys who liked to jam together, and it ended with a formal tour of the East Coast. “The reason it fell apart, as far as I can see, is that it didn’t feel right anymore for any of us. And I’ll tell you one thing, I can’t play well if it doesn’t feel good. That feeling has to be there first or forget it! Jerry and I are still good friends and we still see each other. But we’re both into something new musically. It’s just the natural flow of life.”

While actively working together, Saunders and Garcia recorded a live album, called Live at Keystone. It accurately and effectively covers the wide gamut of music the group played—blues, jazz, rock.

In addition to his work with Garcia and with Aunt Monk over the past couple of years, Saunders has been busy on many other recording projects. He worked on the soundtracks to Fritz the Cat and Black Girl, and worked with Michael Bloomfield and Nick Gravenites on the soundtrack for Steelyard Blues. Saunders has produced and co-produced several other artists, including an r&b artist named Walter Hawkins, and Tom Fogerty’s first two solo LPs; and he did the recent Keith & Donna album (the Godchauxs of the Grateful Dead). He has written scores for award-winning educational TV specials, and has done lots of commercial work too.

Merl’s next album was titled simply Merl Saunders and featured Tony Saunders on bass, as well as bassist John Kahn and reedman Martin Fierro, both of whom worked with the Saunders-Garcia group.

You Can Leave Your Hat On is Merl’s fifth album for the Fantasy label, although he’s been associated with the company for ten years. Martin Fierro is again featured on saxophone and flute. “Martin is a wonder,” says Saunders affectionately. “I’ve known him for a long time—he’s played with Jerry and me for years. He’s a good focal point for Aunt Monk, both musically and visually. [Martin comes from Texas and wears his long, straight dark hair in Indian-style braids.] I love the sounds he gets out of those instruments, and he’s a fine person.” Others in the group are Tony Saunders on bass, Chris Hayes on guitar, and Larry Vann on drums.

Saunders continues: “This album represents where we’re at right now, musically. I’ve been singing more—it was hard to get used to the sound of my own voice! I love the title tune by Randy Newman. He’s a great writer.”

Merl Saunders’s career will continue to grow and change, because he’s got a solid musical background, years of experience, and he’s open to change and experimentation. The spirit of Aunt Monk in a club is infectious. John Wendeborn, reviewing a performance for the Portland Oregonian, said: “It was dance music and the floor was packed throughout the set.... Saunders plays the organ with a flowing style, improvising or playing riffs, and obviously had the crowd in his palm after the first four notes.”

Anybody who can do that will be successful!