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Bill Vitt Remembers His Keystone Companions: Jerry Garcia and Merl Saunders

Keystone Revisited with Vitt on far right

JPG: You mentioned Frank Sinatra’s producer. Did you ever work with Sinatra?

BV: No. I played in…it was Don Costa’s studio on Fairfax in Los Angeles. They actually built a big room where they recorded the orchestra live and he recorded in that room but I never did run into him when I was there, and I did a lot of sessions there. I ran into other people that were well-known back then, people like Cher, more the rock ‘n’ roll kind of people.

JPG: You said you missed northern California. Are you originally from the San Francisco area…?

BV: I grew up in Sacramento, moved to Marin in ’68 and then I’ve been in and out of Marin ever since. I’m back in Marin now. I retired a couple of times. Then, decided to get back into it. I’ve done a couple of CDs and I’m working on a third CD now. So, I spend some of my time in L.A. working on that. My old friend Bill Champlin is doing some of the singing on it. Tony Saunders is doing most of the bass work. So, it’s like old friends helping me out with this.

I had a gig in New Orleans for three-and-a-half months in ’81 and I played with a couple of the guys who played with the Neville Brothers. The bass player Nick Daniels is in a band now called Dumpstaphunk. He’s going to be on my new CD. He’s gonna sing on it. He’s coming in December to L.A. and do one or two songs with me. He and I have been together a long time. We’ve done a lot of stuff together. Great bass player. Great singer.

JPG: You mentioned that you retired, why did you do that and what brought you back to music?

BV: The first time I did I bought a house in Alexander Valley in Sonoma County, wine country. A classical musician friend of mine and I bought a winery, opened up a winery. So, I was in the wine business for a few years starting in 1982. The first year I made a cabernet and won a gold medal at a competition. Beginners luck kind of thing. I really got into it. My friend owns the winery now. Still active with that.

I started a seven-piece band called Mirage, which was part of the Sons of Champlin and other good players. I played keyboards and sang. We did that for awhile, but I was pretty much dormant as far as playing drums.

Then, I moved to New Mexico around 2006. Bought a house down there. Hung out and played keyboards in a couple of local bands. Then, I decided, “You know what? I want to go back to the Bay Area and play drums and do my thing.” And that’s what I did. I came back to my old stomping grounds, Marin County in 2010, and decided to get back and on work on things.

JPG: Did you go to music school?

BV: My dad as a jazz musician so I started really early. I took piano lessons, probably, when I was four years old. Did my first recital when I was five. Then, I got into Carl Perkins, Gene Vincent kind of stuff, and switched over to drums about then. Then, I got really turned on to jazz. So, I did a lot of jazz gigs. Played with Sonny & Cher. Backed ‘em up a few times when I was really young. So, I’d been playing a long time. I did major in music in college, and I also went to music school when I was 12, 13 years old. So, I’m a musician from day one.

JPG: Growing up were there particular drummers that influenced you? You usually hear a drummer mentioning someone from early rock ‘n’ roll days, such as Elvis Presley’s drummer D.J. Fontana or on the jazz side someone like Gene Krupa or Buddy Rich for Carl Palmer.

BV: I wasn’t a big Krupa fan but Tony Williams was my idol back then. He played with Miles Davis. Bernard Purdie, on some of the old Aretha Franklin records, I liked the way he played drums. Roger Hawkins with Muscle Shoals played on a lot of good R&B stuff that came out of that area.

But Tony Williams was my main idol back then, and he was straight ahead jazz. So, that’s where I got a lot of my jazz licks.

*JPG: That makes sense when listening to you on Keystone Companions. There’s a certain feel to it and a light touch.

BV: Yeah, I think that as well.

JPG: As far as schooling, did you ever graduate or just learn theory and some of the basics?

BV: No, actually, I studied piano when I was really young, and I still play keyboards. I use it to write with. I had a lot of good training. My father was my first piano teacher. Then, I had another guy named Jerry Murphy out in Sacramento who was a killer jazz player. So, I learned quite a bit when I was very young.
Then, in school most of my classes were music classes. I was a junior when I got a call to go on the road with Jack Bedient and the Chessmen. They were like a Las Vegas type band. They made really good money. In fact one of my professors I asked him, “I don’t know what to do, whether to stay in school…” and he said, “How much does it pay?” I told him and he said, “Hey man, that’s more than I make.” (laughs) So, that got me going. And then I just stuck with it the whole time.

JPG: What did your dad play and what did you learn from him?

BV: He was a sax player and a piano player. He also played vibes. When I was young he had a big band. So, my mother and I would pick him up after the gig at 2:30 in the morning. This was back when big band were actually really happening in the late ‘40s. I vaguely remember a lot of that stuff. When he had three kids, he finally went to school, got his degree and started teaching music. He kept playing. In fact he played right up until he died except he was starting to get to the point where he would go to the gig but he couldn’t remember where it was. And he’d come back and say, “I couldn’t find the gig.” He was getting a little senile…but he played right up in his 80s, 84 years old.

JPG: Was there anything he did or say that stayed with you as far as being a proper musician?

BV: Yeah, a lot of stuff. I’ve been a leader in a lot of bands. Him being a bandleader for a long time with a different band I kinda picked up on what that entailed, running a band. Also, learned basic musicianship from him; just certain things that longtime hardcore musicians, they usually have that. I don’t know how to explain it. Musicianship is the best word I can come up with. I learned how to read. I learned a lot of things a lot of musicians these days just can’t do. And, of course, these days there’s really not much of a call for sight reading musicians unless you’re playing symphony music or that sort of thing.

When I was in L.A. doing sessions we had the full charted music in front of us the whole time; the big time, when you filled out W4s or whatever [tax form] they were at every session. An arranger handed you the charts. It was very organized. You’d do two tunes every three hours. Then, when I moved back up here, sometimes, we’d spend a whole year on one record. So, big difference. A little more laidback up here. (laughs)

JPG: Going from that one musical world to a much more laidback approach, was it hard to adjust?

BV: You know what? I just didn’t like the vibe in L.A. Actually, there’s a lot of things about L.A. that I really liked and still enjoy myself when I go down there. At that time there was a lot of political stuff going on. It was the ‘60s. And I was very left wing and very involved with a lot of that kind of stuff. Up here, there was a consciousness about that stuff. In L.A. I don’t even think they knew what was going on in the real world. It was dog eat dog, let’s make money and hurry up. Up here it’s more comfortable for me anyway. I have friends that grew up in Marin County that live in L.A. now and they love it. So, it’s just a personal thing. West L.A., that’s where I hang out. That’s where I stay when I go down to record.

JPG: You liked political climate in Bay Area better than L.A. Were you active in any organizations or movements?

BV: Back then, there was a lot of things going on. A lot of stuff. I was really busy doing sessions and playing gigs. So, I wasn’t really physically active but I was active in a lot of ways. I can’t go into that too much. Back then, we stopped the [Vietnam] war is what we did.

JPG: Care to compare that time to the current political climate, state of activism?

BV: In my opinion there’s nothing going on today. We’re kinda of out there in space. Luckily, we have a president who is…okay, but the good ol’ boys still run the show. Anybody from the Bay area will admit to that.

*JPG: The Occupy Movement didn’t inspire you at all? *

BV: After the ’60s and early ‘70s everybody kind of stopped. Unfortunately, it didn’t evolve when it should have evolved. Anyway, part of growing up. I don’t like what’s going on now but at least we have a decent president is all I can say.

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