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Monday, April 11, 2011

more on the keyboardist change, ca. 1971

We have been going around on the various blogs about the engagement of Vince Guaraldi and Howard Wales with the GD/Garcia, and especially about Weir's recollection that Howard Wales had a tryout as GD keyboardist.

LIA has wondered aloud whether some of the 1970 "Hartbeats" gigs, e.g., in late July, were, effectively, the Wales tryouts.

I have argued that September 1971 seems more likely. More importantly, LIA cites McNally as giving this timeframe, as well.

The other day I was wondering how Pigpen felt about all of this. He was sick and getting sicker, so maybe it just was what it was. But it must have been depressing and awkward. Then I remembered about the September 9, 1971 gig that Corry uncovered (which had also been listed in the Barb, I had found), the only solo Pigpen gig that I have ever even heard of or seen reference to. I suspect that if the gig happened Pigpen just brought out his guitar and sang some sad blues.

We already know, if tape labels are to be believed (and I think in this case they make too much sense not to be), that Keith Godchaux would be rehearsing with the GD within three weeks of this, if he wasn't already. And I admit that a Pig gig says nothing about the timing of a Wales tryout. But I thought it was an interesting piece of context, and the tickle in the back of my brain has me really believing that the Wales tryout was ca. September, 1971.


  1. Corry lists the show as September 9. Do you have another listing for Sept 17?

    I don't think the Pigpen solo show was necessarily related to the Dead.
    Pigpen had, of course, been performing solo at folk clubs for years before the Dead, so it's not an unlikely appearance.
    Pigpen was also planning a solo album. Billboard had announced it, Bob Matthews had given him a home recorder, and he was said to be working on songs - basically getting a lot of encouragement to work on his own. Further reason for a solo show.

    The Dead also were not on tour at the time - in fact, they played no shows between 8/26 and 10/19/71.
    This is an unusually long break for the time (although, granted, they played a mere four shows between 4/29 and 7/31/71).
    I'm not sure if they had any canceled show plans at the time, or if Pigpen's poor health was the cause of the long break.

    McNally says he entered the hospital on Sept 17. Ironically, Keith's first rehearsal with Garcia must have happened sometime around then...

  2. "Corry lists the show as September 9. Do you have another listing for Sept 17?"

    Fixed it, thanks.

    "I don't think the Pigpen solo show was necessarily related to the Dead. Pigpen had, of course, been performing solo at folk clubs for years before the Dead, so it's not an unlikely appearance."

    Really? There is no other known Pigpen solo performance. Not a recording, mind you, but not even a listing, anywhere, for any such gig in the "GD era". Pigpen barely even jammed on the side of the GD, insofar as is known. I only know of the 9/2/68 jam with Big Mama Mae Thornton, and the 10/16/66 New Peanut Butter Sandwich agglomeration. That's just about it.

    "Pigpen was also planning a solo album. Billboard had announced it, Bob Matthews had given him a home recorder, and he was said to be working on songs - basically getting a lot of encouragement to work on his own. Further reason for a solo show."

    I don't know any of that timeline, but here I really think you're onto something.

    And imagine, poor Pig ... just starting to think about doing the acoustic blues thing while he dies, and then "he enter[s] the hospital on Sept 17." Man, that well and truly sucks. He'd spend himself in Europe the next spring and then, presumably, never again have health/energy that would have been needed to do anything more. RIP, Pig.

  3. I phrased that badly - while Pigpen had been doing the acoustic-blues thing by himself & in duets before the Dead (early 60s), you're right in that those kinds of appearances stopped when the Dead started.
    (And it wasn't just Pigpen, of course - same thing happened with Garcia when his bluegrass activities stopped dead in '65. We write about Garcia's commitment to the Dead in the 80s & 90s, but that commitment was all-consuming from day one.)

    I think I'll be writing a post on this subject, as the solo-Pigpen story doesn't seem to have been told before, and there are more details...

    By the way, does the Barb listing have any extra details on the Pigpen gig? What kinds of shows usually took place at that club - folkies, bluesters, rock bands, random?

    BTW, I'd agree that a Wales "audition" is most likely in Sept '71 as McNally says, with the caveat that we only have his paraphrase & not the full story from Weir or anyone else.

    At that date, I'd have to wonder if an audition was just a formality (some of them already had lots of experience playing with Wales in the previous couple years, so it's not like his style would have been new to them) - or if they suddenly became desperate to get an organist for the next tour. And if that was the case - why not Saunders, who did overdubs for the '71 live album?
    There's a lot we don't know here.

  4. "And if that was the case - why not Saunders, who did overdubs for the '71 live album?"

    Great question. In September 1971 I have JGMS shows on 9/3, 9/10, 9/16 and 9/24-25. And when, exactly, would the Skullfuck overdubs have happened?

    I had never contemplated that Merl might have been a sensible choice in '71. My first instinct would be that they were looking for piano (e.g., maybe Pig would be OK enough to add color on the organ), but then why try out Wales?

    Curioser and curioser.

  5. Skullfuck was assembled sometime between May-August 1971, months in which the band had ample free time...
    It was released 9/24/71, so I'm pretty sure mixing would have been completed around August. It's very likely the dispute over the album title might have delayed the release a bit, or at least delayed finishing the album cover!

    Saunders may not have wanted to join the Dead. I think I read a comment somewhere indicating that, but have to look it up...
    It's a touch of irony that when Donna told Jerry she had a new keyboard player for the Dead, it was at a Garcia/Saunders show!

  6. Though Dead fans mainly know Saunders for his work with Garcia, Saunders kept himself pretty busy outside of the Dead-world, and never considered joining them.

    From a digitalinterviews talk with Saunders:

    DI: "When keyboardist Brent Mydland passed away, it was thought perhaps you would become a member of the Dead, but you decided to continue pursuing your own projects instead."
    MS: "I've always done my own thing. Before the Dead, I was working with Lionel Hampton, Muhammad Ali, Miles Davis. Why would I want to work in the Dead and just be the way they worked? Why would I want to be the "fifth piano player that died," you know?"

    And from an interview with the Music Box:

    "During the late '60s, I was doing a Broadway play in New York at the George Abbott Theatre. I was musical director for...Muhammad Ali. So those are the things that if I was with the Grateful Dead, I couldn't do.
    I played with Miles Davis for about a year. The Lionel Hampton Band. Did a lot of recording with Harry Belafonte and Lena Horne.
    I wanted to be myself and go the direction I wanted. Although I did record with the Dead. But when they asked me to come in and do their thing — to join them — I didn't really want to join the band. When it's Grateful Dead time you have to do a Grateful Dead thing. And that particular chair — the keyboard players died — you think twice..."

    Though those comments were obviously made with hindsight, I think he probably felt the same in '71, if they asked him then.

    Here's part of a longer interview about how Saunders met up with the Dead:

    "Miles Davis and I became pretty close. We were talking one night and I told him that I was caught between playing jazz and rock. He said there's nothing wrong with playing rock: "just take it where you want to take it." We were discussing West Coast music; he said there were lots of great groups on the coast with potential. It's funny because it never dawned on me that I could play with the Dead until Miles mentioned it. He had played with the Grateful Dead at the Fillmore West, so he was familiar with them.
    I left the New York music scene in 1970, to return to San Francisco.... I fell into doing studio work with musicians [like Michael Bloomfield & Nick Gravenites], and I met this guitar player who I liked very much. We worked on several albums and soundtracks together and all I knew about him was, his name was Jerry and he was playing in a club called the Matrix... When I sat in with him at the Matrix I began to fit the pieces together. A few members of the Dead would drop by, and Carlos Santana was hanging out....
    Pretty soon we got a little unit together and members of the Dead would come and go, and I got to be very close friends with Pigpen. We discussed doing some double keyboard work together. He was very fond of my organ playing, because it was similar to the early rock n roll blues style he was familiar with.
    In early 1971 we formed one of the early Saunders-Garcia groups, touring both the East Coast and the local Bay Area clubs... We would often have members of the Dead, like Bill K, go out on tour with us. I started to hang out with the Dead at this time, and they asked me to play on their album. I played on four or five tracks of Europe '72. Bob Weir was a great help to me: he wrote out the changes, and gave me the color they were looking for."

    It's interesting that even in '72when Keith was there, Saunders was joining them in the studio for organ overdubs on another live album!
    Also very interesting that he and Pigpen talked about playing together (I don't know if this was just in the studio context or what). But one of the things about Pigpen, he never met anyone who didn't like him.

  7. Merl was an accomplished and active musician in his own right.

    But the idea that he wouldn't have wanted to be in the Grateful Dead because he was busy with other things doesn't seem credible. Maybe I am being too cynical.

    The wording of Merl having played "with" Miles Davis is tricky. There is zero evidence that they ever played together on a stage in front of a paying audience. Merl opened a few shows on the east coast, while he was living in NYC, is how I understand it. A huge billing for a jazz player, no doubt, but not the meaning of "played with" that most people deploy, I think.

  8. I agree about the "playing with Miles Davis" thing--Merl shared some bills with him, and there may have been some after hours jamming, but that's not like making a record or being in Miles's group.

    I also think that Merl was never seriously considered for the Grateful Dead chair, but I don't know why. I think he rationalized it in a variety of ways, but it was never going to happen. That being said, its rarely mentioned that he overdubbed organ on Europe '72, I think because it disturbed people's treasured ideas of the Dead's process.

  9. "rarely mentioned that he overdubbed organ on Europe '72"

    Actually, I think most people are aware of and OK with it. It's an exception to the general "warts and all" purity.

  10. Actually I didn't know Merl had done overdubs on Europe '72 until recently. It wasn't mentioned in the album credits, right?

    I might point out that for a jazz player, merely opening for Miles Davis could be a career highlight.

    How "busy" Saunders was circa '71 I don't know, but I would guess his main income wasn't Keystone shows with Garcia. He did do various studio sessions, as well as solo albums over the next couple years.

    Also it seems odd that if we agree there was an "audition" for such a strange outside player as Wales, that Saunders was "never seriously considered", even when working on two of their live albums!
    I think it works both ways. Saunders said he didn't want to join them, which seems believable to me. For the most part, it wasn't his kind of music or his kind of band, and it would have been limiting for him. But perhaps Corry has more plausible info?

  11. Sadly, I don't have any more information than anyone else. When I say "I don't think he was seriously considered," that's just by inference. I do think there was some mutuality here, in that insofar as the Dead weren't interested, Merl recognized that there wasn't a great fit between what he wanted to do and being in the Dead. That's not the same, however, as being asked and turning them down.

  12. Just read that Johnny Mathis was Merl's his boyhood friend.

    ...and this from

    DI: What can you tell us about sharing the bill with Miles Davis?

    MS: It was totally outrageous. I played for him for a whole solid year.

    DI: When was this?

    MS: '69, '70. He wanted something that I had. I was the musical director for Muhammad Ali for a year on Broadway, at the George Abbott Theatre. He saw the play each night. He heard the music and said, "This is what I gotta have open up for me. This is my opening act." That was it.

    Later on, Merl became the Musical Director at the famed Meridien Hotel in SF and created the soundscapes for feature films; Fritz The Cat and a bundle of TV shows including; Nash Bridges, Tales From The Crypt and Twilight Zone.
    Merl's saucy organ rendition of "I Pity The Fool" was the theme song behind Wolfman Jack's popular radio show in the sixties. In addition, Merl's music can be heard every week on the renowned chef Jacques Pepein's nationally syndicated cooking program.
    In an earlier life I was a banquet manager in SF and Merl and His Big Band came to play for a convention, each dressed in tuxedo and each bandmember sitting behind a small stand, just like the old days. Soon the room emptied out and he started to take requests from the 5 people left out of several hundred. My wife yelled out Leave Your Hat On and the band went right into it!

  13. This Merl interview shows how memory can be selective, even in the most well meaning of circumstances. Muhammad Ali, unable to earn a living by boxing in 1969, starred on Broadway in a play called Big Time Buck White, for which it appears that Merl was the musical director.

    Miles Davis lived in NYC and was a friend of Ali's, so I'm sure he came to the show more than once, but I find it hard to believe that he came "every night." As to Merl opening for Miles for "a solid year," what does that mean? There's no evidence of recording or being a member of the band, so I think it means that Merl opened for him, with no doubt a little after hours jamming too.

    But what does "a solid year" mean? How many engagements did Miles need an opener for? Was this just shows in NYC? After all, Merl was tied to Broadway and the show. He could go play uptown or in The Village, late night (musicals tend to end early), but I doubt he could go on the road. Also, famous as Miles was, jazz wasn't that popular in the 60s, and he couldn't force promoters to pay for an extra act on the road.

    I'm not doubting Merl's memories, per se, but I think they involve fewer events than his language suggests.

  14. Miles' NYC shows in this period:

    Club Baron Jan 25-Feb 16
    Village Gate, April 25-26, May 23-24, July 29-Aug 10
    Blue Coronet Club June 21-29, October 6-8
    Village Gate Dec 12-13, 19-20

    Village Gate Jan 2-3, 6-10
    Fillmore East Mar 6-7
    (I think by then, Merl had gone to SF)

    It would take a more dedicated researcher than I, though, to check which of these shows had Merl opening.

  15. This is pretty good information. Merl definitely had opportunities to share a bill with Miles on some late night bills over a period of several months.

  16. It may also be helpful to know some other dates -

    When was Merl the musical director for the play, what months? Not as long as you might think.
    In an online search, I can only find one brief run for Oscar Brown Jr's play Big Time Buck White at the George Abbott theater, Dec 2-6 1969. Magazines confirm that it was previewed in November with Ali in the lead, but didn't open til December, and it seems to have only run for the one week.
    So unless someone knows something different, I conclude this play was only a very brief episode in Merl's career in Nov/Dec '69, and wouldn't have tied him down very long.

    If, as he suggests, he met Miles through his work on the play, that association would only have started in Dec '69.
    But the interesting thing is, Miles was playing in Toronto on Dec 2-9, when the play was running! Miles is likely to have seen previews, though, as he was recording in NYC in late November.

    And when did Merl move to San Francisco? Do we have any date for his first known SF appearance?

    One thing that strikes me is his account of talking with Miles about west-coast bands; Miles brought up the Dead, whom he'd opened for (or as Merl likes to put it, "played with") in April '70. If this account is true, it seems he was still close with Miles in mid-'70.

    BTW, Corry - you mentioned in your last John Kahn post that Merl had been musical director for Jon Hendrick's play Evolution of the Blues at the On Broadway theater in SF.
    But it was not Merl, it was Melvin Seals.

    From a Seals interview:
    "Q: You performed in Broadway shows in San Francisco?
    Melvin: I did a show called Evolution of the Blues for six years. Jon Hendricks on Broadway Theatre for six years. That's where Elvin Bishop saw me. And from Elvin I went on to Jerry."

    A program of the time also confirms that it was Melvin:

    While Merl Saunders did work on Oscar Brown's play in NY, I can't find any evidence that he ever worked with Jon Hendricks, or did theater work in SF.

  17. LIA, great research. I fixed my John Kahn post. No wonder I couldn't confirm the Merl/Hendricks connection.

    Very interesting to see the dates of Big Time Buck White as well. I don't think Merl's memory was any more selective than anyone else's (ask someone about High School sometime), but it does mean his memories were fairly impressionistic rather than photograhic.

  18. Sorry I haven't been able to be party to this really great discussion! I think this one is going to call for a consolidation post at some point.

    I have been doing some very close listening of the Matrix 1970 NRPS recordings, going quite deeply into them. I will be posting, hopefully this weekend, on what I find. Interesting, interesting stuff. But that's what has kept me from joining this discussion.

    Let me start now with just a few things.

    First, the Music Box interview cited by LIA has an elision that I think is obscuring things. Merl jumps from talking about ca. the late 1960s to 1990. When he is talking about being asked to join, he is worried about the guys who already died in that seat. That cannot be ca. 1971 that he is referring to. If we read carefully, I the the only time he [says he] was asked to be a member of the GD was 1990.

    In terms of his earlier work, I had poked around some of the Merl chronology at some point. I have some materials, but nothing systematic. The findings emerging here are consistent with my priors. The Merl history is very poorly documented, almost entirely supplied by interview evidence (most especially with Merl himself), and needs a lot of unpacking.

    Here's a "reading note" that just throws more data re: Merl, and especially Merl-GD, onto the pile:

    Reading notes: “Odds & Ends,” Dupree’s Diamond News no. 17 (December 1990), p. 53.
    “Merle Saunders was interviewed by Jonathan Takiff in the Philadelphia Daily News on October 2, 1990. In it, Merle said the following. He's working on an album for 1991 release titled 'Old But Not in the Way." Included in the lineup are Vassar Clements, Bill Kreutzmann, Geoff Muldaur.”

    “Although Merle was contacted by the Dead after Brent's passing, he says he never answered the calls and ran away to Hawaii to avoid the whole situation. Specifically, he was afraid of stagnating in a band that plays ‘the same songs over and over,’ and that he would fall back into a drug habit. ‘Brent was a fabulous and very dear friend of mine. Pigpen and Keith, we were very close. I used to have a problem, too, when I was deep into that scene. But now I’m clean. And, I have so many other things on my plate.’ His current album is called ‘Blues From a Rainforest’ and features Jerry Garcia.”


    I find that little piece fascinating. Here's what we have.

    Merl says he was asked to discussing joining GD in 1990.
    He disses the GD pretty severely in discussing why he wasn't interested in them.
    He says that he had a drug problem when he was most deeply connected to the GD scene. We can't rule out that he is talking about 1985 when they were doing the Twilight Zone collaborations, but I think he's probably talking about the years up to and including 1975. I'd welcome alternative interpretations of this.
    Note that in the same breath that he disses the GD as a musically dead drug scene, he pimps his record, "featuring Jerry Garcia".

    Basially Unrelated Quick Request: LIA, can you look into an RSS feed for your Grateful Dead Guide Blog? It would be great not to have to worry that I am missing a word of it. Thank you for considering!

  19. Hmm...I thought I did have an RSS feed available, at the bottom of the right-hand column?

    That Music Box interview is frustrating, since he's jumping around timewise & not dating anything (as usual). He mentioned the Dead asked him to join right after saying he recorded with them & mentioning other '60s stuff, so that threw me off. But the other interview you found does point to 1990. It's funny, though, that he didn't return their calls and fled to Hawaii!

    What also caught my eye is that later in the interview, he says:
    "I've also worked with Jon Hendricks on The Evolution of the Blues. It's a great, great musical thing about where music came from. They start with gospel. They walk in through the audience in gowns and things, and they walk to the stage, and he talks about where it all started from."

    Again, of course, no date or city mentioned, so I can't confirm a year for that - or find that connection anywhere else! But now we have the strange trivia that two Garcia organists had worked on this Hendricks play...

  20. It's also important to remember that in 1990 the Grateful Dead called quite a few keyboard players. Not all of them auditioned, and certainly not all of them could have made it. We know they called Hornsby, and they got as far as auditioning T Lavitz (of Dixie Dregs) and Pete Sears.

    In the autobiography of Faces organist Ian McLagan (a great book by the way), he describes getting an offer to audition for the Dead (via Chesley Millikin), and he turns it down. We don't know how many other players got a call.

    Now, Merl should still be proud the Dead even called him to consider it. However, he turned down the opportunity to discuss it, not a straight up offer.

    An unstated factor here may not only have been Merl's concern for his own well being, but some concern about Jerry's health as well. If Merl was taking on a lot of risk (in his mind) to work with the Dead, it was worth less if he thought Jerry might not even survive it in any case.

  21. Dodd/Weiner's GD bibliography cites an interview with Merl in Unbroken Chain 6.1 (March/April 1991) which is summarized: "On avoiding joining the GD." Might have more details...

    A couple other possible good sources of Merl info:
    Spiral Light 31 (May 1994) has a long interview with Saunders and "fairly complete biographical information."
    Relix 12.3 (summer 1985) has Merl's "Reflections on my years with the GD."

  22. Yeah, it looks like there really are only a handful of pieces to read to get a sense of "the literature" on this question. Have to add that to the To Do list.

  23. Since above I mentioned some Pigpen outside the GD stuff, I thought I'd add the 4/24/70 Mammoth Gardens set, apparently backing John Hammand:

  24. Howard Wales has just done an interview prompted by the rerelease of Side Trips. When asked what year it was he auditioned for the Dead he came up with.

    Howard Wales: I’ll tell you this. This is the heart of what you’re talking about. You know they invited me to go on the Europe 1972 Tour?

    AD: No. I actually didn’t know that.

    Howard Wales: Ok. So yeah in 1972 they did. But I thought about it and I said well, “I can’t sing.” [Laughs]

    AD: Wow crazy. Sorry, daydreaming here a second about a three keys players in Europe, 1972. That would of been insane. Wait, were you going to replace Pigpen on the tour?

    Howard Wales: I don’t remember. I don’t think so.

    It's a shame he doesn't say when the audition was but it's fascinating that the Dead wanted a full time organist to go with Keith's piano in 1972.


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