Friday, October 24, 2008

Friday Night Spotlight

This edition of FNS comes in a bit heavy. Today we learned of the passing of one of my all time favorite keyboard players Merl Saunders. Born in San Mateo, California on February 14, 1934; he passed away early this morning (October 24, 2008) at Kaiser Hospital in San Francisco.


Saunders grew up in San Francisco and was a proficient piano player by age 10. He attended Polytechnic High School, Served in the Air Force and Attended University of Mainz in Germany. Saunders married Betty Crenshaw and leaves behind three children (Anthony Saunders, Merl Saunders Jr., Susan Saunders) and a number of grand kids.

Saunders became one of the preeminent Hammond B-3 player of his generation; beginning his long strange trip by apprenticing with the great Jimmy Smith. In 1970 Saunders began playing with Jerry Garcia in the Bay Area under bands called Legion of Mary and then Garcia/Saunders. The duo recorded a number of famous albums including Heavy Turbulence, Fire Up, and Live at the Keystone. Their 1990 collaboration, Blues from the Rainforest, was a Billboard Top 10 in the New Age category.

Saunders contributed to the Grateful Dead album Grateful Dead (1971), and in the mid-1980s worked with the band as musical director for the "Twilight Zone" television show.

He became known as the senior member of the jam band scene having played with Phish, Blues Traveler and Widespread Panic. He was instrumental in allowing young talent to play and record with him, giving first opportunity to the likes of Sheila E, Chris Hayes (Huey Lewis & the News), Bonnie Hayes (Billy Idol) and Bob Steeler (Hot Tuna).

In parallel to his rock career, Saunders worked as a jazz trio player, performing and recording with Harry Belafonte, Frank Sinatra, Lionel Hampton, Miles Davis, B.B. King, Bonnie Raitt, and Paul Butterfield. He also contributed to the scores of the films "Heavy Traffic" and "Fritz the Cat."


I got to see him play a few times, but the most memorable was Easter weekend in 1998. He came to Cincinnati and played two nights at the infamous and now defunct Ripley's Alive in Clifton. The room was packed to the rafters and the show was beyond stellar. But what really stood out was Merl. After the show ended he wrapped things up and headed to the back of the bar to just chill. A few of us approached him to thank him for the wonderful two nights and he was as thankful if not more to us for coming. We chatted for a while and then grabbed us a few photos, signed them and bade us good night.
I still have that and will always treasure it.
Thanks a lot, Merl. You will be greatly missed.

I'll also throw in one of my favorite recordings:

Reconstruction from the Keystone in Berkely, CA.
July 8th, 1979


Make It Better
Someday Baby
Soul Roach
What You Won't Do For Love
It's No Use
Tellin' My Friends
The Jealous Kind
That's What Love Will Make You Do
Fast Tone
Dear Prudence

No comments: