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Bay Area Organist Merl Saunders Dead at 74

Merl Saunders, a Bay Area keyboardist best known for his associations with the late Grateful Dead guitarist Jerry Garcia (pictured, right of Saunders), died October 24 of complications from a stroke suffered more than six years ago. Despite his physical problems, Saunders, one of the most beloved figures on the jamband scene, had continued to make sporadic appearances at Bay Area musical events in recent yars.

A disciple of classic Hammond B3 organ masters like Jimmy Smith and Jack McDuff, Saunders was born in San Mateo, California in 1934. He served in the Army from 1953 to ’57, after which he worked as the musical director of the Billy Williams Revue and then Oscar Brown Jr. in the latter’s show Big Time Buck White. He also performed with Dinah Washington and at one point or another in his career, made music with Lionel Hampton, Paul Butterfield, B.B. King, Miles Davis, Frank Sinatra, Bonnie Raitt and Harry Belafonte. He was also a welcomed guest at shows by contemporary jam bands like Phish, Widespread Panic and Blues Traveler, and contributed to the soundtracks of films and TV shows, including Fritz the Cat, Steelyard Blues and The New Twilight Zone in 1985, which he cut with help from the Dead

Saunders met Garcia in the late ’60s and the two musicians began playing together informally on a regular basis in 1971, whenever the Grateful Dead was off the road. The group, which included John Kahn on bass and other musicians throughout the years (including, briefly, Tom Fogerty of Creedence Clearwater Revival), was a fixture at San Francisco-area clubs and also toured nationally. They released several albums together for Fantasy Records in the early to mid-’70s before Saunders and Garcia moved on to other projects, but still regrouped on occasion. Saunders also released numerous solo albums and performed live with his own bands until his stroke.

Originally Published