The Chronicle had an obit today for Merl Saunders. I got to see Merl play at the old Keystone in Berkeley when he teamed with Jerry Garcia in Reconstruction. That was 1979, I was a college boy at Cal. The Giants had completed an improbable winning season in 1978, the "Little Orange Skateboard," led by Vida Blue and Jack Clark, had a long run in first place before the LAtriners crushed our vain hopes and we finished six out. We had even higher hopes in 1979, that spring we were probably giddy at the thought of another good run. Alas, Joe Altobelli's boys went down in flames, 71-91. Joe was gone before the season was over. Jerry was a big part of the soundtrack of my life then. I've always associated the Dead with the Giants. Living a couple of blocks from the Keystone on Francisco Street, I got to see Jerry and Merl together (with John Kahn, Ed Neumeister, Ron Stallings, Gaylord Birch in "Reconstruction") several times. I worked that summer at JC Penney, just a few blocks down Shattuck Avenue.
Merl was a unique and creative artist, a relaxed and gentle showman. He was as psychedelic as Jerry, and could take you places with his spacy solos, but his grooves were what I remember. Merl was the perfect foil for the mercurial hippie genius, keeping the tunes grounded, laying down the guts so Jerry could take off. They made a memorable pair.
The picture is a scan of an album cover, one of my treasures, a 1973 Fantasy double LP. It features a wonderful "Harder They Come," Merl's rolling, rippling organ spurring Garcia to anguished, bluesy heights, and Merl coming back with a driving lead to finish it out. Sublime stuff.
Merl Saunders was born in San Mateo in 1934. He was a fixture on the San Francisco music scene for forty years. Thanks, Merl, for giving this Giants fan some back beat!
Requiescat in pacem.