Keyboardist Merl Saunders, a longtime collaborator with the Grateful Dead and Jerry Garcia Band, died this morning at Kaiser Hospital in San Francisco after complications from a stroke. Saunders was 74.
Saunders suffered a stroke six years ago and lost the use of one of his hands and his ability to speak, but remained active in Bay Area music circles. “Boy, did he get the most out of what he had left,” Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart told the Marin Independent Journal.
Saunders grew up in San Francisco, playing the piano by ten and later graduated to the Hammond B-3 under the careful tutelage of the legendary Jimmy Smith. In 1970 began playing with Garcia in “Legion of Mary” and then “Garcia/Saunders,” producing a number of popular albums including the Deadhead favorite Live at the Keystone. Their 1990 collaboration, Blues from the Rainforest, hit the Billboard Top 10. Saunders also contributed to the Dead’s album Grateful Dead in 1971. Later, he became known as a senior member of the jam band scene having played with Phish, Blues Traveler and Widespread Panic, earning him the title “Godfather of Jam Bands.” Saunders also 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.
“Despite having lost one side of his body to the stroke and being unable to speak, Merl lit up rooms with his smile and spirit” said longtime Grateful Dead publicist and band historian Dennis McNally. “And despite physical damage he put out more sweetness than anyone could imagine. He was a giant soul, and I will remember his smile, at the Greek Theatre tribute to Jerry Garcia a few years back as he played one handed with Melvin Seals. I’ll remember that smile forever.”