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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.


There are 12 comments associated with this post

cookiepuss November 21, 2012, 01:09:38

Mr. Gatta, thank you! It’s nice to see Bill Vitt gettin’ some love on this site. If anyone is a fan of Garcia’s solo work, they know that Vitt’s contribution at those earlier-era gigs was seminal. Vitt’s light touch and cool direction on those recordings is sublime. In a more just and enlightened world the guys in that line-up would be recognized not only as one of the greatest rock and roll bands of all time, but one of the greatest jazz quartets of all time. The music on the Keystone recordings is consistently transcendent and this line-up was certainly one of Garcia’s greatest platforms to showcase his unique and miraculous musical gifts. I got turned on to Garcia’s solo work through the Keystone sessions so they’ve held a special place in my soul since first listening in 1988. Near the end of Garcia’s life, I mercifully stopped going to GD shows, but was blessed to continue to see Garcia at nearly every run at The Warfield from 1991 to 1995. Every few years I go back and listen to the Keystone era of shows and, like Mr. Vitt, and I am always newly and deeply impressed at the exceptional level of artistry and telepathic musicianship. Fantastic band. Fantastic drummer. If I was still living in the Bay Area, I’d go out to see him for sure. The interview is really cool, but a couple anecdotes about Garcia, Kahn or Merl would’ve been the sugar and cherry on top. Bill seems to have realized even at the time that the glorious music they were producing might be timeless and therefore legendary. Hat’s off to Bill Vitt! Glad to hear he’s back in the spiritual home of Marin County. I miss it almost every day. Happy Thanksgiving y’all and a special thanks for these killer “Betty-Board” recordings of what is unarguably the greatest Bay Area bar band of all time.

dk70 November 21, 2012, 17:15:04

I remember when those Keystone CDs were re-issued in 1988, too. I was at a CD shop (remember how fun that was?) thinking “which one should I get?” Then I was like: f#ck it, I’m getting all three. Great stuff that really stands up to the test of time. A great side of Jerry just ripping it up in a loose setting. Anything he covers becomes a “Jerry Tune” and really shows a window into his musical soul.

Worker T. November 25, 2012, 17:17:21

Awesome! Thanks for the insight into experiences and processes that helped Jerry become sucth an amazing creative force. I’ll be wookin out for a chance to hear Vitt do his thing live in the Bay Area no doubt.

Paul Cohen November 26, 2012, 10:18:10

I attended these shows at Keystone in Berkeley, I remember driving by myself from San Leandro… The place was great… I watched from upstairs at the rail.

rocket1air November 26, 2012, 12:19:21

In the first page of the interview, it says:
“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.” The name of the Cuban percussionist is Armando Peraza. Some of you may recall he played with Santana way back when.

Mickey Vitt November 29, 2012, 23:09:27

Good to see my brother get some recognition after all these years and to see him still active in that groove…we all love you!

Mike December 3, 2012, 23:49:47

Just announced!
Keystone Revisited – A Tribute To Jerry Garcia & Merl Saunders
This Fri 12/07

Alan Boltuch December 4, 2012, 18:29:16

Thanks for the great interview. Going to school at UC Berkeley in the early 70’s and living in a big house about 5 blocks away from the Keystone, I walked down to the shows there many times. In 1971 I got in for the first time with an underage hand stamp (so I couldn’t buy beer), but soon after they changed the rule so that men under 21 couldn’t get in. So I got a fake ID and went to every Keystone Garcia/Saunders show, and many others as well. Bill is right, it was a hot club, better, I think, than the Fillmore and Winterland because it was so intimate. Jerry and the guys would walk through the audience to get to the stage because the stage was in front, and backstage at the back. We all got to say hey to Jerry and pat his back as he walked by! After many shows there, you can’t imagine the thrill I got one night when Jerry stopped as he passed me and said “hey man, how’s it goin”...sweet memories. Thanks again.

Jake Feinberg January 27, 2013, 11:06:14

Here is a two-part interview I did with Bill in 2011 that continues to cover his
involvement with the Bay Area Music Scene.

lela voelker July 21, 2013, 22:08:05

I met Bill Vitt today on Hwy 9 as he was looking for Skyline Blvd. What a sweet guy. He introduced me to his girlfriend, Diane and gave me his latest CD made with vocals by Bill Champlin and back up with Merle Saunders. He told me how he played at the Town and Country Inn in Ben Lomond 45 years ago, Chateau Liberte and many local venues long since gone. He didn’t brag about his past I got it out of him. Maybe he was going to see Neil on Skyline blvd? It was a thrill for me. I’m so glad to hear he is playing again after retirements.

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J. Bruhl September 18, 2014, 05:05:38

I spent my freshman year in High School living with my sister Riki, and then brother in law Bill Vitt, and fondly remembering Bill taking me on some of his sessions in San Rafael. He taught some guitar moves, and I was always so impressed with his talents as a drummer. Although it was 1967-68…and I was only 14 years old, the memories are as clear as today.

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