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Published: 2001/05/21
by Saul Korin

"Save The Planet So We Have A Place to Boogie": An interview with Merl Saunders

Merl Saunders credo is Save the planet so we have a place to boogie. This phrase touches on both Merls musical ethos and social commitment, two elements that are essential to his generous spirit. Whats equally impressive is that at sixty-five years old he continues to pursue these dual aims. Over the years, Saunders has played with Miles Davis, Jerry Garcia, Trey Anastasio and many others. His collaborations are legendary, and before Phil (Lesh) had Friends, Merl toured with his Funky Friends. His current band includes Michael Warren on bass, Tom Edwards on guitar and Dean Jenkins on drums. If you need a smile or a reason to boogie, seeing Saunders in concert is a blessing. Over the past few years I have enjoyed Merl and his Funky Friends in concert a number of times. A recent show demonstrated the vitality and versatility of his music. He opened with an exceptional My Problems Got Problems, during which the organ reverberated through the club and into my bones. What followed was a funky Dark Star jam, flowing into Miles Davis So What. Next, Michael Warren took lead vocals for Manchild. Lady Marianna (a fantastic blues siren from Bulgaria who should be tracked) joined Merl for I Put a Spell on You. The music never stopped as the jam then flowed into Merls reggae-flavored take on Fire on the Mountain. Phishs Julius closed out the set, grabbed anyone not grooving and brought them to their feet. Later, Merl returned with Leftover Salmon and played a note perfect High Lonesome Sound. It was an evening of quality entertainment, inspiring me to seek him out for this interview.
Merls most recent disc is Struggling Man on Relix Records- Be sure to check out for more information on when you can see Merl in your town.
Saul Korin: Happy belated birthday Merl. How was this years birthday show?
Merl Saunders: The birthday bash was just a wonderful thing. People were quite surprised. I had a horn section with me consisting of part of the Tower of Power band — Mick Gillette on trumpet and trombone and Skip Mesquite on sax. I had part of Legion of Mary with me, Martin Fiero (saxophone). Bill Witt, the drummer from the Saunders/Garcia band was with me and people were just blown away. Norton Buffalo {harp} from the Steve Miller Band dropped in. Lady Marianna, a young lady from Bulgaria who sings the blues was there. So we had a great time. It was jam-packed. Sold out. They presented me with a cake. I saw all my friends that traveled far from beyond to get there, from New York, from everywhere. It was quite a bash. I loved it.
SK: How many concerts do you play a year, and where do you get your energy?
MS: We used to do about 200 a year, so we dropped it to about 198 (laughs). No, about 175. I dont know where I get my energy. It is something that I love to do. I was very turned on to play music at the age of seven and Im still enjoying it. Im just so thankful I am able to make a living doing it.
SK: That definitely is a blessing. Your choice of cover tunes is so diverse. How do you choose the songs you cover, who are your influences, what do you enjoy listening to?
MS: I was introduced to Duke Ellington at a young age and he told me Merl, you want to learn how to play Merls music just like I play Dukes music. There are only two types of music Merl, good and bad (we both laugh). So that means listen to all types of music. The Phish guys started hanging out with me. In fact they were hanging out with me before I was hanging out with them. I remember I heard the name of their band and said Fish, something you eat, fry? They told me No, were in a group called Phish, we came to hang out with you. I said Oh great, come up and play. And after that I said, Oh wow, these guys can really play, and I went to hang out with them. That is how that relationship began, me being the older musician. I was playing everywhere when they werent even born. They are incredible musicians though; they did their homework, every one of them. Michael (Gordon) the bass player just sat in with us about four months ago.
SK: I remember reading about that on
MS: So it is a great thing playing with these young musicians who arent just Johnny-One-Note.
SK: Merl, you are called the Mayor of Haight Street. How has the Haight changed during your lifetime?
MS: Well, it changed big time since I was going to school. Then it was middle-class little old ladies pushing their carts of food, and now it is kind of the sixties. But there was more love in the sixties. Now its Lets do what our parents did. Lets lay out and get high, sleep on the streets. They have no reason to sleep on the streets. It was a love thing. So now it has kind of turned a little different. My family house is still in Haight Ashbury. My Dad just passed away five months ago, and we decided to keep the family house in the Haight. I live in San Francisco in the Sunset District out by the ocean. Im about two or three minutes from the Haight, Im there every day.
SK: Which reminds me of Jerry Garcia. Of course, youve played with so many people, but Im interested in the musical connection between you and Jerry.
MS: It was a chemistry both of us couldnt understand. It came out in our music. I guess I can sum it up best this way: We met in a session. It takes two people to make a mistake. One has to go one way, and the other goes the other way. When two people make a mistake and go the same way, it aint no mistake.
SK: How long did you live in the rain forest before creating Fiesta Amazonica?
MS: I spent about twenty-one days and it was like twenty-one years. In those twenty-one days I learned more than I did in the twelve years in school, because everything is for real. I learned what leprosy means. I found out they are not people who are supposed to be put away. These people are very talented and make different things with their hands with no fingers. I visited the Bora tribe. I didnt know until I left them that they were cannibals two or three generations ago. It turned my whole life around. I was looking for savages that were going to throw darts and pins. They werent savages. The only savages, as I thought about it, were here in the United States.
SK: The people who are taking down the rain forests
MS: Right.
SK: Nowadays you take the experience you had in the rain forest and you bring that to schools, right?
MS: I take it into schools. Many of our clientele, some of our fans are school teachers. They take my music and play it for their pupils. The pupils want to find out who I am. They write me, I write them back. They range in age from seven to seventy-seven. I just finished talking with the kids in Fort Collins, Colorado. At the beginning of the year 2001 I was honored for being the environmentalist of the year 2000. I went in to speak to college kids, mainly about the black history of music. Some of them did not know who wrote what song. Its like some people still believe Columbus discovered America. Some people think Benny Goodman and the Dorseys wrote all those charts. No, there was a black guy writing all those charts for them. Come on, lets tell the truth now. Columbus didnt discover America, lets take that shit off the books.
SK: Jumping back to music, who is playing with you right now?
MS: Michael Warren, originally from Seattle, one of my oldest friends and closest friends, is our outrageous bass player. I call on him when I am not around. I have Tom Edwards on guitar and Dean Johnson on drums. Dean used to play with Starship. He is a great drummer.
SK: Your latest release, Struggling Man, is out on Relix Records. What else do you have planned for the months to come?
MS: We did an outrageous version of Julius for the Phish benefit album. Everyone is all hot about it. I also want to bring back Legion of Mary and all of that music, some of the things that Jerry and I did. Thats some great music, some great jazz music. Also, there has been a call for me to go over to Europe and I want to do that this year. I am also working with a guy out of Canada on a childrens film. As I said, music is something I love to do. Im still enjoying it
Saul Korin is the host of The Solemite Show Thursday morning 6:30 AM PST at Coming soon, an interview with Keller Williams.

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