Bill Vitt Remembers His Keystone Companions: Jerry Garcia and Merl Saunders
As I prepared for this interview, it turned out that there wasn’t much information available on drummer and keyboardist Bill Vitt; an album credit here or there and an audio interview but no website or detailed biography. That ended up not being a problem since the 70 year old musician was an easygoing subject who was willing to tackle the past, present and future.
His lengthy performing and recording career includes work with Michael Bloomfield Band, Sons of Champlin, Tom Fogerty (Creedence Clearwater Revival), Pee Wee Ellis, Ivan Neville, Sonny & Cher, Freddie King, the Coasters, James Cotton, Charlie Musselwhite, Chris Hayes (Huey Lewis & the News), Nick Daniels (Dumpstaphunk, Neville Brothers), Eddie Harris, Tony Saunders, Billy Connors (Chic Corea), Felton Cruise (Miles Davis) and Eydie Gorme.
But, Vitt’s best known for his drumming in the ad hoc grouping of Merl Saunders (keyboards), Jerry Garcia (vocals, guitar) and John Kahn (bass) which played together at Berkeley’s Keystone club. Taking place in a pre-internet age, these jam sessions presented an opportunity to try something new in public without it being immediately judged.
A set of recordings that came out of those dates – Live at Keystone Vol. 1, Live at Keystone Vol. 2 and Keystone Encores – displayed an ensemble that was deeply locked in a shared groove, instinctually understood the art of swing and dialed into the artful dance of improvisation.
Although Saunders, Garcia, Kahn and Vitt played numerous gigs over a four-year span, the Keystone releases were based on two dates — July 10 and 11, 1973 — and then separated to make up the three albums. The recently-released “Keystone Companions” puts those concerts into their original running order and adds seven previously unreleased tracks. The four CDs displays the breadth of this band in its combination of originals and covers — the reggae of Jimmy Cliff, a couple Bob Dylan classics, Motown, Great American Songbook, blues, rockabilly and jazz. The packaging includes vintage photos, poster, a beer coaster and matchbook. A double vinyl LP reissue of “Live at Keystone” has also been released.
The box set was the reason to contact Vitt but my conversation with him flowed from his recollections of his Keystone days, his musical background and what he learned from his jazz musician father to session work in Los Angeles, his brief retirement from music in favor of running a winery and his current endeavors including work on a new solo album with Bill Champlin (Sons of Champlin), Tony Saunders and Nicks Daniels (Dumpstaphunk) and performing in SSV and Keystone Revisited, which tackles the material contained on the Keystone releases.
JPG: How did you get involved with the original jam sessions?
BV: It was ’69. There was a little club called the Matrix in San Francisco and it was just a show place. There was no dancing or anything. And they had a four-track studio built in the club. A lot of the now famous San Francisco bands debuted there. They put their bands together there. Tower of Power is one of them.
A friend of mine named Howard Wales, a keyboard/organ player; he and I were playing a duo there. Backed up Freddie King, James Cotton people like that. Jerry Garcia came in one night and jammed with us. And he started coming in on a regular basis. Then, I got us a bass player named Richard Feebas who was signed with the Oakland Symphony at the time. Shortly after that, another bass player named John Kahn, who I was doing a lot of sessions with and playing in other bands with, he came and replaced Richard. Eventually, within a couple years Merl Saunders replaced Howard Wales. So, that was the core of the band, the four of us at that point.
As we started playing more gigs, Tom Fogerty (Creedence Clearwater Revival) played with us a lot and Armanda Peraza, percussionist, Martin Fierro, horn player (saxophonist). It was still a jam thing. We never rehearsed. We just went out and played. So, that’s pretty much how it started.
We did do one record with Howard Wales called Hooteroll? It was on Columbia.
JPG: When Garcia originally played at the Matrix was it a matter of him showing up and then he was called onstage or did Howard or someone else invite him down?
BV: Howard and Jerry were good friends. I don’t remember exactly how it came down but it was probably Howard said, “Hey, come on down and sit in with us.” At that time a lot of these bands were just building up a reputation and getting record deals so pretty much everybody knew everybody. So, we had a lot of people coming to sit in with us from time to time. Jerry, he’s a hard worker. He made every gig and practiced all the time. He was really serious about his music. So, it was a lot of fun playing with him.
JPG: Then, how did it move to Keystone?
BV: We started playing local gigs and that was a good place to play. It was a big club. The money was good because we packed the place, and Freddie Herrera, the owner of Keystone, brought in name bands and built the place up. He also added another club in the North Beach of San Francisco called the Keystone. So, he had two different clubs going.
The club in San Francisco, he sold that to a guy who turned it into a jazz club. We played at Keystone a lot. That was a happening place. I think they had music seven nights a week. It was a very hot spot. It was kinda like the Fillmore and Winterland, a really good place to play.
JPG: When you were playing at Keystone, did you have any idea that the shows were being recorded by Betty Cantor?
BV: Oh yeah! In fact I just did a thing with Betty with a friend of mine. We just did a CD and she did the engineering and recording. As far as I know I think she recorded all of those dates. Her boyfriend at the time, who passed away, [Rex] Jackson, he was another guy who was recording with her. So, she has the credit of doing all the recording, and she did a great job.
I just listened to the new release, and I can’t believe the quality. I haven’t listened to that stuff for 30 years. I was really amazed at the quality. Whoever remastered it, everything was really nice. I was very impressed. I was doing so much work back then that I never got a chance to really listen to what I did. That’s playing with a lot of different bands and recording with different bands, I just didn’t have time.
So, I got a chance the last couple of days to actually listen to it in my car and was very impressed, actually.
JPG: Are you able to compare this release to the original Keystone releases?
BV: I don’t know. The first one with Howard Wales, Hooteroll? was a really good record. Alan Douglas produced that and he had quite a reputation in New York. We spent a lot of time on that record. There was a lot of really neat stuff going on. And then, the stuff we did with Merl Saunders had a different flavor to it.
I don’t know. We did a lot more gigs than I thought we did (slight laugh) considering all the records that have come out. I didn’t realize that we played that many gigs and were recorded but apparently so.
I was just really impressed. I couldn’t believe it. Usually old music, I don’t even listen to it but I was impressed, I must say.
JPG: You had to go into different areas during those shows, for example, a jazzy flavor on “High-Heal Sneakers” and “My Funny Valentine” to something funky on “Keepers.” What about your background? Was it jazz or…?
BV: Ohhhh, yeah. Oh, yeah. I had quite a bit of experience before I joined them. Actually, I moved to L.A. for three years in the mid-‘60s to be a studio musician. That was my goal and that’s what I ended up doing. And I recorded with people like Eydie Gorme and Cathy Carlson. I did most of my work with Don Costa who was Frank Sinatra’s producer. So, I got a lot of work out of Don Costa.
Then, I decided that I really missed northern California. So, I moved back up here. Within a week or two I got a gig with Michael Bloomfield. Actually, we were called the Electric Flag then. I got the last gig or two with the Electric Flag when Buddy Miles went off to do another thing. So, it turned into the Michael Bloomfield Band, which I stuck with for awhile. Then, I was playing with Bill Champlin. It was the Sons of Champlin. They made changes and added a new drummer and bass player, and I was the new drummer and did that for awhile. Then, I played with a lot of other bands, too, but the Garcia band was one of my priorities. It was a lot of fun.