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Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Merl Saunders and Friends: May 31 – June 1, 1974, Inn of the Beginning, Cotati

Here is one of the tantalizing little performances that you come across and really, really want to know more about, while understanding how miraculous it is that you are able to know anything about it at all.

The Inn of theBeginning in Cotati hosted Merl Saunders and Friends, including Jerry Garcia, with Paul Pena opening, on Friday, May 31, 1974 and Saturday, June 1, 1974.

The May 1974 IOTB calendar had listed Friday, May 31 and Saturday, June 1 as TBA, supported by local folk artist Cris Williamson. The May ledger leaves the top of the bill a bit unclear, but the June calendar and ledger fill in the blanks. First, the calendar. It lists “Merl Saunders and Friends” for the weekend, with Paul Pena opening the evenings’ proceedings.

Inn of the Beginning calendar, June 1974. Courtesy of Mark Braunstein.

Paul Pena

Pena’s story seems an interesting one, just entering the GOTS narrative enough to warrant attention, but obscure enough to motivate some digging. I have talked about him a little in my 2/16/74 post.

A Boston native, blind from birth, the first trace of Paul Pena I can find in the Garcia nexus is as opener for the Grateful Dead at the Electric Factory in Philly on February 14-15, 1969. I’d guess he settles into the Bay Area around July 1973, since that’s when he starts showing up as the opener for Garcia/Saunders. He may even have been the single most frequent opener for these guys from 1973-1975, most often at the Keystone. On this evidence, we’d conclude that Keystone proprietor Freddie Herrera, Jerry and/or Merl liked him and/or his music enough to make him the “regular” opener where the three of them interfaced. Merl and Jerry also laid down some tracks for Pena’s New Train ca. October 4, 1973, though the album was not released, on CD, until 2000. It is most relevant here for Garcia’s pedal steel credits on “Venutian Lady” and “New Train”, tracks on which Merl is also credited. More broadly it’s just a pretty nice album (I like “Gotta Move”) and is noteworthy for Pena’s version of his “Jet Airliner”, later famously covered by Steve Miller.

The IOTB materials, as rich as they have proven, again have interest, though I am not sure if this answers the question of how Pena came to be connected to these guys. On the back of the April 1974 ledger there’s a note to reach Pena through Annette [presumably Annette Flowers] at the GD offices. So, somehow, Paul Pena seems to have been in the GD orbit. Yet he was either also, or eventually became, close to Merl, for whom he’d continue to open shows at least into January 1976 (i.e., during the Merl-Jerry live performance interregnum beginning in ca. July 1975).

Anyway, the June 1974 calendar gives us a listing of Merl Saunders and Friends with Paul Pena opening for this weekend. The Inn of the Beginning Flyer gives its usual nice, informative, locally-contextualized blurb, which I reproduce with its surrounding nice, informative, locally-contextualized materials from the Flyer.

June 1974 Inn of the Beginning Flyer, first page. Courtesy of Mark Braunstein.

Jerry Garcia in the IOTB Ledger

As has been the case so often with these Inn of the Beginning materials, the ledger sheds new light, in this case about a heretofore unknown GOTS performance:

Excerpt of Inn of the Beginning June 1974 ledger. Courtesy of Mark Braunstein.
As I have elaborated over and over, I find these ledgers to be incredibly robust forms of evidence. The man who kept them kept (and retains) extremely accurate records, on my impression. So, to my satisfaction, this establishes that Jerry played on these nights.

So, eventually, The Jerry Site and anyone’s respective Garcia lists should be updated to reflect these dates:
  • Merl Saunders and Friends (with Jerry Garcia), Friday, May 31, 1974, Inn of the Beginning, Cotati, CA
  • Merl Saunders and Friends (with Jerry Garcia), Saturday, June 1, 1974, Inn of the Beginning, Cotati, CA
Some speculative and overdone reconstruction of these newly-discovered dates

How do I imagine this coming about? Clearly going too deeply into something that’s probably really simple, let me say a few things.

In my mind’s eye, this is Merl calling for a gig (or Mark Braunstein checking in with him), “I’ve got a bunch of guys together and am free that weekend”, kind of thing. The May-June gigs were booked late, since they didn’t make the May calendar, but the “TBA” listing suggests to me that the Inn was holding that weekend for something special. They usually had things fully calendared in time to go to print. My hunch is that Merl was trying to get Jerry to come up to Cotati on this free weekend and that this accounts both for the delay and for the slightly more tantalizing “and Friends’ formulation. Merl: “Hey Jerry, wanna come up to Cotati and jam this particular weekend?” Garcia: “Yeah, man. I gotta check.” Merl, next phone call: “Hey Mark, can you hold that weekend for me? I might be able to get Jerry.” Mark: “Hell yeah.”

It probably takes a while to get Garcia to (be able to) commit, what with Jerry being Jerry (overcommitted somewhere, on something). Indeed, the record shows that Garcia was at Heider’s on May 31st. Shenk and Silberman (1) report that the “The Vault” (as of the mid-1990s, so presumably containing GD and JG material) holds some Garcia studio work such as “Some Enchanted Evening” (yes, the Rodgers and Hammerstein showtune from South Pacific) and “Cardiac Arrest”. This latter, a little jam really, was released as an outtake to Compliments on the All Good Things box set, and I presume that the released version is from this date. It may also shed some light. According to deaddisc, the players are Garcia, Michael Omartian on the piano, Merl Saunders on organ, John Kahn on bass, and Ronnie Tutt on drums. (I thought I heard some rhythm guitar, but what do I know?). So maybe Merl and Jer drove up to Cotati together, after playing around at Heider’s?

Win-win-win. The Inn is guaranteed a sellout at its standard mid-1974, strong-act-on-a-weekend-night rate of $2. Stuffing 250 people in, they gross $500 in tickets and pay out $400 to the talent (70% of the door for the band, blowing through the $150 guarantee, and $50 for Paul Pena), clear a C-note and then have a nice haul on beer and soda. Merl gets to keep playing with Jerry, which he obviously loves and which, crassly, is always in his pocketbook interest to keep doing. (Man was a cash cow, I tell ya.) Jerry, Being the May-June 1974 Vintage Jerry, The Youngish, Healthy-ish, I-Gotta-Jam-Somewhere-With-Someone Jerry, gets to play. Oh, and he leaves with $80 bucks in his pocket, which oughta keep him in smokes for a few days. Multiply all of this by two for the whole weekend, and we get these gigs.

What “Band” Played?

What should we call this collectivity that performed in Cotati? The listing itself –Merl Saunders and Friends—is interesting, insofar as I care about the formalities of band names, billings, and so on. And I care deeply about those things. When Merl played the Inn on Friday-Saturday April 5-6, 1974, he as just billed as Merl Saunders (note that Paul Pena opened). The “and Friends” formulation in May-June is just an elaborated version, on my read, of the same thing. Both tend to suggest something looser and more ad hoc than a “band”. Merl Saunders and Friends is probably the best we can do. I would not call it a “band” at this point, just a picked-up group (though possibly with ideas about institutionalization, moving forward, at least on Merl’s part).

To get a sense of how fluid the billings were around Merl’s non-Garcia-related “bands”, I have just poked through some of my notes and listings for Merl’s bands without Jerry in the 1971-1975 period. Here are just some of the “bands” that I have seen mentioned or listed:
  • Heavy Turbulence. A six-piece band which  released the single “Little Bit of Righteousness”, with “Iron Horse” on the B-side in ca. late November 1970 (2). I don’t know who the players were. Not Garcia. But maybe Kahn, Vitt, Fogerty. Matt Scofield’s Merl Saunders discography lists the band as Merl Saunders and Heavy Turbulence, with a catalog number Galaxy 776 (1970), but no players are listed. (As an aside, Heavy Turbulence was also the name of a Saunders record, probably released around mid-March 1972 (3). That album, of course, featured Garcia, Tom Fogerty, John Kahn and Bill Vitt.
  • Merl Saunders Quartet. This was the listing at the Inn on December 14-15, 1973 at the Inn, with John Kahn apparently on bass.
  • Merl Saunders Band. The Oakland Tribune published a piece on Martin in July 1974 using this name (4; see also my posts on July ’74 shows at Keystone and the Sand Dunes). In late August 1974 (5), the Trib reported that “The Merl Saunders Band, which featured Jerry Garcia on guitar and Martin Fierro on sax on alternating weeks at the Sand Dunes in San Francisco, has changed its name to” …
  • Aunt Monk. So we should date this from around late August 1974. The next usage of this name, which is seems to refer to a bona fide “band” (a name, a relatively fixed membership, a perceived “going concern”, an album) enters my data in September 1974 and continues sporadically for several years.
  • Merl Saunders and Martin Fierro. What interests me about the previous little hints of institutionalization (for a “band” to change its “name” it had to be a band with a name in the first place, if you follow me) is that on the same date as the Fierro article (5) the Trib referred to the folks playing at the Sand Dunes as Merl Saunders and Martin Fierro, not Merl Saunders Band (6). No biggie, but just weird. Maybe they needed the extra letters for the type to set properly right-justified, who knows.
  • plus lots of ad hoc listings of names, lots of interchange of nouns (band, group, aggregation), and every possible permutation of Merl/Merle [sic]/Mel [sic] Saunders/Sanders [sic]’s name.
It doesn’t really matter, of course. But I like that, in parallel with the Garcia/Saunders group itself, which didn’t have a name –about which I’ll have too much to say, at some point—things were just really, really fluid around all of this. Jerry and Merl would settle in with Legion of Mary for the first-half of 1975, and then, for Garcia, comes the crucial, fateful fall 1975 choice to put his name (and himself) out front in the Jerry Garcia Band, which would be the name of his “main” side band until his death twenty years later (except January-September 1979, with Reconstruction). It’s a terribly important inflection point. Putting his name on it, commodifying his name, professionalizing the band, institutionalizing it, all hearken to the end of a kind of dream of being able to jam anonymously, to play music without all the bullshit that attached to being Jerry Garcia Of The Grateful Dead. I suspect that Jerry would lament, in later years, his increasing inability (or unwillingness, or whatever) to just sit in anonymously in some small club with a band with no name, play some funk.

Who was in the What?

Who played? Well, we know Merl and Jerry played. Let’s assume there’s also bass, drums, and another instrument. We just really, really don’t know.

Regarding bass, the December 1973 IOTB Flyer tells us that the Merl Saunders Quartet of December 14-15, 1973 featured John Kahn. By 1974 Merl’s son Tony Saunders, who would turn 18 in that year and who is a monster funky bassist, appeared more and more frequently and effectively supplanted John (insofar as John was ever implanted at all). But since John would appear to have been at Heider’s with these guys earlier in the day on May 31st, Occam’s Razor probably points to him, at least for that date. The truth is we just can’t know.

I would also suppose that Martin Fierro was there. He had been playing with Merl and Jerry pretty steadily for something like ten months by this time. We know from the band discussion above that he was playing in the Merl Saunders Band at the Sand Dunes in ca. the first half of 1974, apparently alternating Monday nights with Garcia. Of course, that’s right in this time period.  We don’t know he was there, but there are all kinds of reasons to think that he probably was.

There was also presumably a drummer. Bill Vitt thinks he was out of the Saunders/Garcia scene by mid-1974, so we should probably rule him out. Bill Kreutzmann is possible, but we just can’t know. It seems unlikely to me, since Merl’s “friends” could easily have included some other drummer. My bet, based on a thin scrap of evidence (his credited presence on the 5/31/74 “Cardiac Arrest” jam) would be Ronnie Tutt. This is presently the earliest direct Garcia-Tutt connection known to me, and given that he’d be around from 1975-1977, a live gig this early would be of particular historical note. But, as with all of this, I am speculating. It could just as well have been that guy from Cotati. You know—that guy. Whatshisname.

What did the Who/What Play?

In terms of the repertoire (i.e., the what that the What and Whom played), again, no specific idea. I imagine that these kinds of gigs, where it’s really Jerry sitting in with Merl, are the ones that turned out to be all-instrumental, such as the “7/21/74 Keystone” stuff, or the 2/14/75 and 5/9/75 (May 9th) gigs from The Generosity in San Francisco. (As an aside, Merl Jr.’s first reaction to the 2/14/75 Generosity gig is that it would have been Aunt Monk, with Tony Saunders on bass.) I thus imagine “When I Die”, “Ain’t No Woman (Like The One I’ve Got)”, “Little Bit Of Righteousness”, “Valdez In The Country”, etc. Maybe a Stevie Wonder number. I doubt they even had a vocal mic set up. Anyway, that’s all speculation. We just don’t know.


So, my initial goal was just to establish the evidentiary basis for adding these two gigs to our Garcia lists (i.e., The Garcia List). But the post turned into a little discussion of Paul Pena and some broader historical context, including Merl’s (Jerryless) bands around this time and some possible players and songs. Lots of wild speculation, once I left the fact of the gigs themselves, but fun stuff to think about. May-June in Sonoma, jamming with friends (or strangers). Not too bad.

(1)  Shenk, David, and Steve Silberman. 1994. Skeleton Key: A Dictionary for Deadheads, s.v. “The Vault”, p. 301. New York: Doubleday.
(2)  Gene Robertson, “On the Beam,” Sun Reporter (San Francisco), November 28, 1970, p. 29.
(3)  Dennis Hunt, “Playing Small Rock Clubs is a ‘Release From the Dead’.” San Francisco Chronicle Datebook, April 9, 1972, p. 8, notes that HT was “released a few weeks ago”.
(4)  R.B. Ragg, “Life Out on the Side,” Oakland Tribune, July 21, 1974, p. 3-RAP.
(5)  "Rap-Up's Wrap Up," Oakland Tribune, August 25, 1974, p. 2-RAP. 
(6)  "Rap-Up's Wrap Up," Oakland Tribune, July 21, 1974, p. 2-RAP.


  1. This is fantastic research, but I have been contemplating another line of thought--what was Jerry Garcia doing recording in Wally Heider's on June 1, 1974? Consider the following facts:

    >The "Compliments" album was complete and would be released in a few weeks

    >Recording at Wally Heider's was hardly free. It wasn't like recording in Mickey's Barn. Round Records had to pay real money for the session

    >Ron Tutt and Michael O'Martian (piano) were LA session men, who would have been not only session fees, but travel and hotel expenses

    >"Some Enchanted Evening" is a jazz standard that everyone knows. Why fly guys up from LA and pay cash money at Wally Heider's to record a standard?

    >Even if Tutt and O'Martian were doing it for fun, union rules would prevent them from working unpaid in a recording studio, and for session men that was a serious issue

    So the question becomes, "why did Garcia (through Round) finance a session at Wally Heider's for no apparent recording purpose?"

    A close look at the Jerry Site seems to show that there was no functioning Garcia/Saunders Band after March 1974. Merl booked some gigs at IOTB, but he couldn't be certain that Jerry would play partially because they may not have had a band. Sure, Kreutzmann could fill in as needed, but if Garcia had wanted Billy as a permanent member, he would never have sought out Tutt.

    The sessions for Compliments were held around February 1974, possibly earlier (without Jerry), and O'Martian and Tutt had both played on those sessions, along with many other musicians. Kahn was the producer who hired the musicians, not Jerry. Jerry may never have met most of the players on the album.

    My working hypothesis is that Garcia and Kahn were looking to reconfigure the Garcia/Saunders band. I think Kahn picked the two players who seemed the most likely fit and invited them up to jam with Jerry. Paying them to play at Wally Heider's was a way of making it worth there while to miss a session in LA.

    Remember, Jerry had probably never met Ron Tutt prior to this, as he wasn't present at the sessions for Compliments. I think they had a jam, and invited the musicians to play some club gigs afterwards, or at least sit in. My guess is that Ron Tutt took Jerry up on the offer, and Michael O'Martian didn't. That doesn't mean O'Martian didn't sit in one night at IOTB anyway.

    Keep in mind also that Garcia was a big fan of The Band and possibly of Procol Harum (another topic entirely), and a two keyboard setup would have been very much on his mind. Several years later, Garcia indeed went that route with Melvin Seals and Jimmy Warren (much less Bruce Hornsby and Vince Welnick, too), so Merl wasn't being cut out.

    Just a hypothesis, I admit, but does anyone have a better explanation as to why there was a paid session at Heider's for no discernible project? I think they played standards and jammed so O'Martian and Tutt could get a feel for the sound and see if they wanted to continue, which Tutt at least must have done.

  2. Michael O'Martian is an interesting guy. As his own website says
    "Michael Omartian has contributed his talents to over 350,000,000 albums and CD’s sold worldwide as a producer, composer, arranger, artist or musician."
    O'Martian has not only been a successful rock player and producer, but also has been an important producer of Christian music since the 1960s, so he's no hippie buddy of Jerry's. Obviously he would be a tolerant guy or he wouldn't work in the studios, but the purpose of his Heider session would have been musical, not social.

    It's interesting to note that in O'Martian's huge discography at
    the first item listed is Compliments by Jerry Garica, when he has been on dozens of better selling albums. I guess Jerry lends a sort of cred to a Hollywood guy that Loggins and Messina or Billy Joel do not, however many more records they have sold.

  3. Awesome, Corry, thanks.

    I had thought about the oddness of the studio session. I have the album release party for Compliments as May 1. While it might have been delivered a little later than that, it struck me odd that they'd still be doing studio work a month later.

    This is indeed, fascinating. So the Heider session was a "tryout"/"get to know ya", which may have been driven up north for the evening's sets in Cotati. Absolutely fascinating.

    I wish there were good Elvis calendars online so I could find Tutt's whereabouts on different dates, but alas I have searched to no avail.

  4. I just checked the Elvis Presley concert database for 1974, and the May 31-June 1 window was one of the few where both Ron Tutt and Garcia were available at the same time. Elvis would have just finished an extensive engagement at the Sahara Tahoe on Sunday May 26 (the last show was actually the 3am show on Monday May 27), and an extensive tour began in Fort Worth, TX on June 15.

    Given that the Grateful Dead were playing Oakland on June 8, and given the extensive touring schedules of both Elvis and the Dead after that, this weekend would have been one of the few where Garcia and Tutt could have met and played together during the Summer.

  5. Other than speculation about May 31/June 1, do we have any idea of when the first confirmed sighting of Ron Tutt with Jerry would be? Disregard TheJerrySite in this case, as I can definitively state that the source material (Deadbase IX) was based only on educated guessing. For that matter, when is the first confirmed sighting of Paul Humphrey?

    Those of you who want to compare Elvis's touring schedule at

  6. Thanks for the Elvis data. I'll try to poke around them this weekend.

    The earliest known (to me!) Tutt-Garcia sighting is ca. 12/15/74 at the EMU Ballroom, University of Oregon, Eugene, OR. An attendee who had seen JGMS in the Bay Area, with Paul Humphrey and confirms that not only was the guy white (clue #1), but had "Ron Tutt" stenciled on his drum set. Clue #2. :)

    This is all tied up with the name Legion of Mary, of course, which remains shrouded in mystery.

    I may have some resources that might help me identify Humphrey's drumming style, which I think is rather distinctive and which might help me say when he's playing, though I am not too confident about my musical ears serving as a basis for any solid inference.

  7. So, after recording at Heider's, did Ron Tutt perform at Inn Of The Beginning on 6/1/74? If not, who did play drums?

    "I have the album release party for Compliments as May 1."
    Do you have any info on where this party took place?


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