Merl Saunders, a keyboardist best known for his collaborations with Grateful Dead front man Jerry Garcia, died Friday at Kaiser Permanente Medical Center in San Francisco of complications from a stroke he had several years ago. Saunders was 74.
A musician who worked in a variety of genres in a long and varied career, Saunders played piano and keyboard but favored the Hammond B3 organ. He led his own bands and worked with an array of musicians, including the blues-oriented Bonnie Raitt and B.B. King, jazz legend Miles Davis and the jam band Phish.
He played on the Grateful Dead’s 1971 album “Grateful Dead,” but it was his collaborations with Garcia away from the group that earned him lasting notice. Starting in the 1970s, they worked on a variety of projects and recorded several albums together, including “Heavy Turbulence,” “Fire Up” and “Live at the Keystone.” Years later they released the popular New Age album “Blues From the Rainforest.” Saunders later released a video chronicling his journey to the Amazon.
Garcia credited Saunders with teaching him the Great American Songbook and expanding his knowledge of harmony.
“He taught me music,” Garcia said.
Saunders said their association had a “charisma and chemistry you couldn’t question.”
“We wouldn’t play together for a couple of years, then we’d walk onstage and sound like we’d been playing together every day,” Saunders told the Los Angeles Times shortly after Garcia’s death in 1995. “That’s called knowing. Sometimes I still play off him; I hear what he’s doing, the notes he’d be playing, even though he’s gone.”
Born in San Mateo, Calif., on Feb. 14, 1934, Saunders went to high school in San Francisco. Singer Johnny Mathis, a friend from those days, played with Saunders in a high school band. Saunders served in the Army for four years in the 1950s before working as musical director for Oscar Brown Jr.
He is survived by his sons Anthony and Merl Jr. and a daughter, Susan.
A memorial service is scheduled to be held Wednesday at 11 a.m. at First AME Zion Church, 2159 Golden Gate Ave., San Francisco.