Voices at Large

The Keys Go Silent


Groove. You either have it or you don't. If you happen to play the Hammond B-3, it's non-negotiable. Merl Saunders who passed away last week at the age of 74 had it in abundance. Infinitely tasteful in his playing, his was a sound that surrounded but never overpowered.

A fixture in the Northern California music scene from the mid-'60s up 'til the early 2000s, Saunders' stylings could be heard from on recordings with Harry Belafonte, Frank Sinatra, Miles Davis, Bonnie Raitt and B.B. King among others. But it was his musical relationship with Grateful Dead guitarist Jerry Garica that forged his legacy.

Saunders' partnership with Garcia provided a local outlet for the guitarist to gig when not on the road and had a deep and lasting effect on his approach to the electric guitar. Jerry summed it up when he pointed out that Merl "taught me music." Their collaboration was symbiotic, as deep and expansive anything the Dead were offering up during those fleeting fertile years of the early-1970s. The duo's legendary run at the Keystone Berkeley laid the foundation for some of the most beloved jam-band albums of the era -- Live at Keystone Vols.1 & 2 -- which carry an influence that continues to be felt in the still flourishing present-day jam scene.

A devout environmentalist, Saunders worked tirelessly to leave this world a slightly better place than when he entered it. His contributions to music and beyond more than suggest he succeeded.

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