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Published: 2015/01/27
by Glenn H Roth

Melvin Seals Keeps The Train in Motion

Melvin Seals is one of the few musicians to play at Jerry Garcia’s wedding and his funeral. Seals played electric organ in the Jerry Garcia Band from 1980-1995 and later formed JGB a year after Jerry’s death.

Seals, who was born in Oakland, got his first introduction to music when he was forced to attend church as a child. His father was a pianist in the church as well as the choir director. Seals, like his father, took up the piano but switched to electric organ after hearing Billy Preston’s church-rock-gospel organ sound on American Bandstand.

Seals, who will turn 62 later this year, had the third-longest tenure in the Jerry Garcia Band next to Garcia and bassist John Kahn, who had been members for the band’s entire history. spoke to Seals by phone from his Bay Area home to talk about Jerry and the difficulty of keeping the legacy of a band alive when its leader is gone.

Can you believe August 9, 2015 will mark the 20th anniversary of Jerry’s death?

I have a hard time believing it. I have to look back over incidents that have happened in my life to remind me that it has been 20 years. That means I’ve been going with JGB for 19 years because I put JGB together a year after Jerry died. To think about 19 years . . . that’s a long time.

How have you evolved as a person and as a musician over this 20 year span?

I think for me the first 5 years was fighting through the sympathy of how folks felt. There were folks that wanted to hear the music. There were people who cried a lot and missed Jerry. There were those that felt that you should not be on stage performing—-“It’s not the band. It’s not the Jerry Garcia Band. Why are you doing this?” I went through a lot.

But as a musician, I had to rise to the occasion. When I was playing with Jerry for 15 years, it was all about Jerry and the Jerry Garcia Band, and I never thought I meant much. It was so much about Jerry that I felt whatever musicians he had and whatever he decided to do, folks loved it, because they loved Jerry. I don’t think I gave my best. There were lots of things I just kind of did – it’s the Jerry Garcia Band – they’re going to love it anyway – it didn’t matter. Words, lyrics – half the time, I didn’t know what was being said, and I even got some chords wrong. I really didn’t take the time.

After Jerry died and trying to go back out, I had to be on my P’s and Q’s. I had to my dot my I’s and cross my T’s. I had to teach whomever was playing with me what was right and what was wrong. I didn’t know myself because it was all about Jerry. When he died, I had to know, so I had to learn what I never really learned. A lot more studying – the feeling, the vibe, the aura of the song. I had to go back and listen and learn what I didn’t really learn and that made me a much better musician and much more dialed into the music, because before I was just playing it because I could play it. Now, I had to really learn it, and understand the story behind “Tangled Up in Blue,” what was he really singing in “Reuben and Cherise,.” Before I was just playing behind Jerry, taking a solo now and then.

And today, it’s still about Jerry because we’re only able to do this because of the legacy he left behind. I’m only able to perform and people come out because they loved Jerry and he was there and I guess a few people noticed me too.

Can you elaborate on what you were playing wrong?

Let me fix that. There were a few songs where the chord can sound similar but it was wrong. Not that I didn’t know the song. It was smaller things, like, ‘Oh, that’s what they were playing and I thought it was this.’ I only got it right from going back to the library and really listening and studying it.

How did you meet Jerry and become a member of the band?

The short version of it because it’s a very long story is that I was playing with a Bay area singer Maria Muldaur and her boyfriend at the time was John Kahn. And from time to time, when she didn’t have a bass player, John would play gigs with us and he was paying attention to our keyboard player which was me. After talking to me, checking me out and listening to me, after one of the gigs, he approached me and asked me, if I was interested in sitting-in with another band. He didn’t even say what the band was and I was like, “Sure, I would love to.” One day, I get a call from John and he’s like, “We got a couple of gigs and we’re going to rehearse. Can you make the rehearsals?” I went up there and it was Jerry Garcia Band, and I didn’t even know who Jerry Garcia Band was.

We went over some songs and that was history. From that point on, I was told I was the keyboard player that Jerry was always looking for.

So you had no idea who Jerry was?

I didn’t even know who Jerry was. I was not a Deadhead. I was straight out of church. I had done a lot of gospel and a few Broadway plays. I had done a few things similar to Jerry. Funny story is that Jerry actually heard me. I did a gig with Elvin Bishop in San Diego and at the time Jerry Garcia Band was the headliner, but I never saw Jerry. He never left the dressing room. When I met Jerry, he said, “I heard you long time ago.” He had asked his band members about me. It was very ironic that he never came out of the dressing room. I never met him, never talked to him, didn’t know who he was, but he heard enough to ask, “Who was that on the organ?”

I was not a Deadhead, all I knew about the Grateful Dead was the name Grateful Dead and they would play a show around Christmas time at the Oakland Auditorium. People would complain about the traffic and people camping out. Sometimes I would hear on Channel 7 news: “Grateful Dead member Mickey Hart celebrates a birthday today.” All I knew was the names, I didn’t know their faces. I could stand right in front of Jerry and not know who he was, which I did. They loved that. They had a good laugh that I had no clue of nothing.

When you got to know Jerry what were your impressions?

First let me go back and say I was a little scared of him. I was a gospel producer. I had a gospel record label and the church was a big part of my life. When I went to the rehearsal I got there kind of early because you want to make a good impression. You don’t want to show up late. The security people that were watching the warehouse that we were rehearsing in, let me in and they all (the rest of the band) kind of came in all together. When I went in there I was looking at all the backdrops and everything had to do with a skeleton. I’m looking at skeletons with roses, skeletons with violins – everything had to do with skeletons. I’m not a Deadhead and I’m not familiar with any of this. I’m out of the church into the warehouse with skeletons all over the place. I was a little scared.

After a a few gigs, I realized what I was involved in. Jerry and the fans were the kindest people in the world – unbelievable love, unconditional love. I could see how Jerry was the man and the fans just loved him.

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