Hammond B-3 virtuoso Merl Saunders' studio efforts display an astonishing
range of styles, highlighted by such gems as
1990's Blues from the Rainforest and the
Live at Keystone discs of the early 1970s.
His live shows are rollicking affairs, packed with numbers like "High Heeled Sneakers,"
"Boogie On Reggae Woman," "So What" and "Strugglin' Man."
Saunders has been composing, producing, recording and touring
for well over thirty years. His talent
and exuberance propel him to constantly seek new musical challenges.
Digital Interviews: Who were some of your early musical influences?
Merl Saunders: My heavy influence was Albert Ammons, a boogie-woogie piano player -- Oscar Peterson,
George Shearing, Ray Charles, Freddie Slack, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Tommy Dorsey,
Jimmy Dorsey, Woody Herman, Stan Kenton...
DI: A lot of the big bands.
MS: Yeah, that era. I think the first big band I ever saw was Cab Calloway.
That was cool.
DI: Tell us about your first band.
MS: It was Merl Saunders and His Educated Men of Music -- around San Francisco.
We were 14. My parents were the chaperones, 'cause we were playing in bars
and things where grown-ups were.
DI: The vocalist was a young Johnny Mathis?
MS: We went to church together every morning, when we were seven, eight, nine years old,
went to grammar school together. We went to junior high school together and high school
together. Actually his name was Gatemouth. [laughs] The girl singer was Jean Turner,
who turned out to be the first black vocalist for Stan Kenton. The flute player was 13
and turned out to be the flute player with Smokey Robinson -- so the band was pretty
cool. It was very talented. Years later, everybody was playing, doing their thing.
DI: When did you get your first break?
MS: The minute I wanted to play, in seventh grade, as a kid. [laughs] The first break, I guess,
was the Billy Williams Quartet, took me out of San Francisco to play Las Vegas.
DI: How did you get to play with Lionel Hampton?
MS: The guitar player had played with Lionel Hampton for about 25, 30 years.
We were in the Billy Williams Quartet, who used to play with Sid Casear on television.
There was an opening -- and I was in.
DI: Tell us about playing with Jerry Garcia.
MS: I hooked up with John Kahn and Jerry in Legion of Mary, and we did Reconstruction -- and
it goes on. We were always playing at different times. Jerry was always popping up at
the house. We found out he was going to be playin' in the park. He'd pop up and
play, you know.
DI: Bands like Reconstruction didn't feature Garcia as the main attraction.
MS: It didn't feature him; it featured the five other musicians. That's what it was --
Jerry playing some entirely different music.
DI: You were really ahead of your time, composing pieces in the '70s about the
environment. How were they received?
MS: Very cold. The day I told the record company I turned in the album, they said, "What
is this number called? 'Save Mother Earth?'" I said, "Well, that's what's happening."
We were playing it in '69 and never put words to it until '70. So that's how it was
received -- very cold. This generation accepts it. Fiesta Amazonica, when I
was in the Amazon; also the "Funky System," which I wrote in the '70s; "My Problems Got
Problems" -- all these songs go over big with this generation.
DI: What is your process when creating a song? Do you find the words or compose the music first?
MS: Sometimes it comes at the same time. I don't usually write words; I get words and turn
them around. People will come and say, "Hey man, I got this song." Or I say, "My problems
got problems," and they submitted me some words. I say, "Hey, this could go here, that
could go there. It'd be cool." That's the way.
DI: What projects were you involved in between the well-known adventures of the early '70s
and 1987's Meridian Dreams?
MS: At the time, in the '70s, actually the early '80s, I was doing some acting. Whiz Kids
was a sitcom for CBS; I did that for two years. Did some Simon & Simon and did
the Twilight Zone for CBS for two years -- the one in color.
DI: Is acting, and writing music for television and film, something you'd like to keep doing?
MS: Sure. Fritz The Cat, remember that? I did the music for that...and Heavy Traffic.
DI: Meridian Dreams had a different sound than some fans might have expected.
MS: Well, I was actually working at the Meridian Hotel, and that's where the idea came up.
My son, actually, said, "Dad you need to do this music that you do at night." I
said, "Yeah, right." [laughs] So, I went into the studio one afternoon and just
recorded it, and he put it together.
DI: How did the Blues from the Rainforest project come together?
MS: If I could put out some music about the environment, not using words, and give some
of the proceeds to the Rainforest Action Network in San Francisco -- that was the whole
thing. In each CD there would be a little letter, a little pamphlet about how to get
in touch with the Rainforest Action Network. I didn't know it was going to be the biggest
thing I ever did. It was huge. It was a huge record and it hit the Billboard charts
at number 4. Scared the "beep" out of me. [laughs] It changed things -- Baywatch, a
couple of other shows -- this is where the music went. It went all over MTV and VH1.
DI: What was it like to actually see a rainforest?
MS: It was amazing. It was incredible. I think everybody should go down there. Here I am,
a senior citizen, never saw pink dolphins. I tell the kids about the pink dolphins
that I saw down there.
DI: When keyboardist Brent Mydland passed away, it was thought perhaps you would become a member of
the Dead, but you decided to continue pursuing your own projects instead.
MS: I've always done my own thing. Before the Dead, I was working with Lionel Hampton,
Muhammad Ali, Miles Davis. Why would I want to work in the Dead and just be the way
they worked? Why would I want to be the "fifth piano player that died," you know? [laughs]
DI: What can you tell us about sharing the bill with Miles Davis?
MS: It was totally outrageous. I played for him for a whole solid year.
DI: When was this?
MS: '69, '70. He wanted something that I had. I was the musical director for Muhammad Ali
for a year on Broadway, at the George Abbott Theatre. He saw the play each night.
He heard the music and said, "This is what I gotta have open up for me. This is my
opening act." That was it.
DI: You also run your own record label, Sumertone.
MS: It's a challenge. It's a good thing. It's rewarding. My daughter Susan helps me run it.
That's what it's for -- Sumertone, three kids -- Tony, Merl and Susan.
DI: Can you tell us about the band you have now?
MS: It's my "Funky Friends," and it's created over some of the things that I recorded
way back from the funky '70s. I did have a band called the Rainforest Band. So I
changed it up; thought I'd do something different -- play some funky music, some of the
old things that I've never actually played out that I recorded back in the '70s.
DI: If you could talk to a young musician, just starting out, what would you tell them?
MS: Stay focused is all I can say. If you really stay focused, you can do it.
Be prepared and know your trade inside and out. Know music. If you're going to rehearse
with somebody, act like you're interested. So many kids don't stay focused. Get high on music.