Melvin Seals: "Jerry Was The Seed and The Water"
Photo by Norman Sands
Melvin Seals is keeper of the JGB flame. Joining the Jerry Garcia Band in 1980, Seals had the pleasure of accompanying Garcia on 15 year journey. After the guitarist’s passing in 1995, Seals made the decision to keep the torch ablaze and he has been doing so ever since. In the following conversation, Melvin Seals ponders Stu Allen’s upcoming stint with Dark Star Orchestra, separating church and the Dead, tagging up with Steve Kimock and, of course, Garcia legacy’s.
In April, JGB Guitarist Stu Allen will be accompanying Dark Star Orchestra on tour to replace recently departed DSO founder/guitarist John Kadlecik. How will this affect JGB and have you started to audition players to replace him?
At first I hadn’t thought about it much, but then a bunch of people starting coming to the table, approaching me about the slot. I hadn’t sent out anything saying that I was looking for a guitar player. I guess, because of [Dark Star Orchestra’s] announcement, people caught word and immediately began to email me and solicit themselves. We were not sure at first if Stu was going to be gone for most of the summer, but then we were told he’s only scheduled for April and a couple days in May. After that, they‘ll switch it up and go back to Jeff Mattson. They mentioned that they may perhaps use Allen again at the end of the summer, but the break in between gave us enough time to have Stu for all our summer gigs. We have a lot of summer gigs and it was nice that I didn’t have to grab someone real quick to replace Stu. It gave me time to look for the right person because I’m very particular when it comes to certain sounds and playing.
You have played alongside both Jerry Garcia and Stu Allen; how would you compare Stu’s playing to Jerry’s and what, if anything is different than Jerry’s playing that makes Stu’s style unique?
When I first hired Stu, he was not the guy that he has now become. He has definitely risen to the occasion. At first, he was a little timid and we ran into some problems back then. Now, he’s been with us five or six years and certainly has come full force into playing a lot like Jerry. The only other person that plays more like Jerry than Stu that I’ve heard, is John Kadlecik. Kadlecik has him down almost note for note. Even the mistakes Jerry made, Kadlecik will do the same type of mistakes. Kadlecik has him down note for note, but Stu has young Jerry’s voice and sounds more like Jerry than Kadlecik does. You know John right?
Of course, he’s touring with Furthur at the moment.
Correct. He’s the only one that I’ve heard that made me think, “My God that’s Jerry on Stage.” Stu is next. He is definitely the next guy in line as the closest Jerry.
You spent a total of 18 years making music with Jerry Garcia. How did a churchgoing, gospel pianist/organist like yourself become musically involved with the leader of the Grateful Dead?
I did some work with Maria Muldaur, whose boyfriend at the time was John Kahn [longtime Garcia bassist]. After meeting Kahn and playing with Muldaur, I was asked by Kahn if I was interested in playing with another band. He didn’t bother to tell me who exactly it was, but it didn’t matter anyhow ‘cause I never heard of [the Grateful Dead] anyway. I was not a Deadhead. I was not into that flower music at all. Frankly, I didn’t know much about it. The only thing I knew about them came from living in the San Francisco Bay Area, when one of the band members would have a birthday, Channel 7 would announce it.
Living in the San Francisco area you never saw them performing live or even heard any of their music on the radio?
Nope. The only other thing was when they used to perform at the Oakland Auditorium, I would see people camping out and sleeping all over the place. Besides that, the news was the only thing I knew about the Grateful Dead. I didn’t know their names or faces, anything about them. That goes to say I didn’t know Jerry Garcia either. So when Kahn casually mentioned playing in another band I said I was interested, as most musicians would because they always want to be working. So I get this phone call one day from Kahn saying that they had a few gigs and if I wanted to come down and rehearse for them I could. He told me where to go, and I went up there.
I wanted to make a good impression so I arrived early. Then all these guys came in the door together. I introduce myself to them; Jerry was there but, like I said, I had no idea who he was. He asked me to play a couple tunes, so I went in there and played “How Sweet It Is.” He was pleased. After I went back to the lobby and go up to Jerry Garcia to tell him he plays some nice guitar. Every guy in the rooms just busts up laughing because they realized I didn’t have a clue who he was and what I was involved with. They loved that because it was innocent, I really didn’t know who he was. So he turned around and told me I played some pretty nice keyboards and we just laughed it out.
Once you realized that this was the lead guitarist and founder of the Grateful Dead, how did it impact you?
Well, I went to church, played at the church, all at a young age. That’s where I started my music career. Church is in my heart. That day I got there early, as I said, and the janitor let me in. I walk in the door and what’s the first thing I see—everything made out of skeletons [laughs]. That was really weird to me; skeletons with violins in their hands, skeletons with hats on. I was like what…in…the…world! I thought it was some weird cult, I had no clue! That was really freaky, but of course after a couple rehearsals and gigs I quickly learned what was going on. And I stayed with Jerry ever since.