Merl Saunders 1934 – 2008
Earlier today, Merl Saunders passed away in a San Francisco hospital due to complications from a stroke he suffered in 2002. Saunders (born Merl Saunders Washington) began his career as a jazz and pop piano player, who performed with classmate Johnny Mathis at a young age and went on to back such artists as Dinah Washington and Lionel Hampton. Saunders later apprenticed with Jimmy Smith and others while finding his voice on the Hammond B3 organ.
In 1970 John Kahn introduced Saunders to Jerry Garcia and the two performed together regularly for the first half of the ensuing decade. The Live at the Keystone release ensued, as did the short-lived, much-loved Legion of Mary project. During the years that followed, Saunders continued to work in multiple genres, appearing in a variety of jazz combos and also in rock realms. He became musical director for the relaunched Twilight Zone TV show in the mid-80s and worked with the Grateful Dead in that capacity.
In 1990, Saunders and Garcia collaborated once more, this time on the successful Blues From The Rainforest disc. Saunders then began to tour nationally with his Rainforest Band, which later released Fiesta Amazonica. 1998 saw the release of Merl Saunders Live With His Funky Friends, which featured guest appearances by Trey Anastasio, John Popper, Dr. John and Steve Kimock. Then in 2001, Relix Records issued Struggling Man, where Saunders was backed by Toronto-based One Step Beyond (the former band of The New Deal keyboardist Jamie Shields).
Saunders will always be remembered not only for his performances but the gracious manner in which he interacted with fans and fellow musicians alike. A guest book has been set up at the Merl Saunders site to collect reminiscences.