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

JPG: Back to music, are you recording all of your next solo album down in L.A.?

BV: Most of it I’m doing down there and some of it I’m doing via Pro Tools, exporting and importing files. So, I’m doing it in both places.

JPG: State of Grace came out in 2008. That was your last one?

BV: Then, I did another one that was a jazz CD. It’s not on the internet, put it that way.

JPG: When this new one’s completed how do you plan on releasing it? By yourself on the internet or do you have a label?

BV: I’ll release it myself. They don’t give record deals to old guys like me. (slight laugh) I’m kidding but I’ll do what I did with the last one. I’ll put it on all the sites and when I’m playing gigs I’ll sell the CD at the gigs.

JPG: Any timetable on its release?

BV: No, I’ve been working on it a year now. I was hoping to be done. I’m about 90 per cent there. It will be soon. It’s a blend of R&B, jazz and funk. Hopefully, I’ll have it done in the next few months.

JPG: I read that you played some recent gigs.

BV: Great American Music Hall?

JPG: That might have been it.

BV: That was Merl Saunders’ birthday party. That was three, four years ago. That was with a bunch of people, Tony Saunders on bass… I actually played keyboards on that gig. A lot of famous local musicians showed up at that gig.

But I did trio gigs, jazz gigs, with Judy Hall & the Bill Vitt Band. I sit in with Sy Perkoff, who’s a great jazz player. I do different things on the side. So, I’m really busy.

JPG: There was a more recent gig I found. You performed at the Sweetwater last August.

BV: That was with Mitt Stein and Tony Saunders. A hot trio. Killer trio. We played there a couple of times. It’s a jazz funk kind of thing. A really cool band.

The new band Keystone Revisited will be at Sweetwater [on Dec. 7]. That’s Tony Saunders, guitar player named Michael Hinton who played with Merl Saunders in the past, and a keyboard player named Steve Abramson, who is originally from Pennsylvania.

JPG: Now, based on the name, are you playing the numbers that are on Keystone Companions ?

BV: Exactly. That’s pretty much what we’re doing. All the tunes off of that. We did a tour in the Pacific Northwest. Now, we’re doing some local stuff. It’s a fairly new band. We put it together two months ago, something like that.

JPG: Back to Keystone, you, Merl, Jerry and John had played together for a few years…

BV: I played with the band for four years. I was playing with Bill Champlin at the same time, and I had to make a choice. I put a lot of energy into rehearsing with what was called the Sons of Champlin but at that time we had a different name. There was a lot of time signature changes in Bill’s songs, really cool stuff. So, we rehearsed like eight hours a day. So, I put that time in and I thought, “You know what? I better stick with this band because I paid my dues…” Jerry was starting to work a lot with the Dead, also. At the end, before I left, we weren’t playing that many gigs ‘cause the Dead were really hittin’ then.

JPG: Listening to the two shows on the Keystone Companions box set it sounds like the four of you were hitting on all cylinders. Were there rehearsals that made it so tight?

BV: I don’t remember any rehearsals. It was a jam band. We just got up and played. Sometimes, before we got onstage somebody’d say, “Here’s that Stevie Wonder tune. Why don’t we try that tonight?” Verbally, run down the chords and go out and play it.

JPG: Did you have a vague clue as far as how the rhythm was going to go or whether it was going to be played in a more jazz style or…?

BV: It depends on the song. Some songs we played were just straight ahead funk. Some of them like “My Funny Valentine,” that’s totally open to play more of a jazz style, depending on the song. Some of the songs on the new release you’ll see that I’m playing really straight ahead on some of the funk songs.

One of the reasons, and I was just thinking about that the other day, the fact that Betty said, “I’m gonna record you tonight” kinda tightened my range a little bit. I didn’t play so far out and stayed more in the pocket rather than stretching out. And that may have had something to do with it. I don’t remember but I was thinking about that and I thought, “Ahhhh…maybe that’s why a lot of these are real straight ahead.” Anyway, for recording, you’re making a record so you don’t do stuff like that [stretch out].

JPG: Listening to it now, are you glad you stayed “in the pocket”?

BV: Yeah. There’s one song I listened to the other day. I think it’s “Keepers.” It was played straight ahead but it sounded really good.

JPG: Was there anything in particular that stood out about those Keystone shows?

BV: I don’t know. A lot of that time we were in the studio mixing. You consider that you played one set and record it. Then we spend two or three weeks mixing it and hearing it over and over and over again. (slight laugh) The gig was just a little piece of that. But all the gigs were fun. I really enjoyed playing with that band. And John Kahn and I were like a team. When they needed a bass/drums they’d hire us. A lot of people, they wanted myself and John to play on the rhythm tracks. So, we were really tight. That really helped that band, the fact that we played together so much. We had a good thing going on between us.

JPG: When Jerry Garcia came in – I read that Merl Saunders wasn’t too familiar with him when he joined because of his background – but you lived in the San Francisco area so you probably knew who he was.

BV: Oh, yeah. And I actually played with Merl before in an organ trio. But you do have a point. One of the unique things about that band was the different backgrounds because Merl Saunders was a jazz player. That’s how he was known in the Bay area. He was signed with Fantasy [Records]. He had a big band album that was released. He was like Jimmy Smith…he was one of the only real organ players. Merl was all new to Jerry. That’s how they learned from each other because they both had something different to offer, and I think that had a lot to do with the fact that a lot of that stuff sounded really good. It was just a different blend.

They got along really well. “What are you doing? That’s really cool.”

JPG: It doesn’t sound like egos were involved where one person wanted to add more…

BV: No, the ego thing was nonexistent in that band. That’s one of the reasons I liked playing in that band. We just played. That’s all we did.

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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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