Wednesday, November 10, 2010

When did Jerry Garcia and Merl Saunders first play together?

One of Garcia's most enduring, important and original musical partnerships outside the Grateful Dead was with Merl Saunders. From about Fall of 1970 through mid-1975, Merl and Jerry played steadily in various configurations that began as loose jam sessions with fluid personnel at the Matrix to the more institutionalized (named! east coast touring!) 1975 outfit Legion of Mary. After that band ended abruptly in July 1975 (a story that needs to be discovered and told), they parted ways for a few years and came back together in the soul-jazz-disco-funk trip Reconstruction from January to September, 1979. Things get more sporadic after that, with Jerry contributing to some Twilight Zone soundtracks (Saunders was musical director for the mid-80s revival of the TV show) and then to four tracks on Saunders's new agey Blues From the Rainforest. Saunders also played an important role in helping Jerry recover his musical dexterity after his 1986 coma. All of this is stuff that I plan on covering in more detail.

For now, the basic question: when did they first play together?

In a ca. 1995-6 interview included on the DVD release of  The End of the Road: The Final Tour '95 (Monterey Video DVD 313302), Merl indicates that he went down to Golden Gate Park and played with the Grateful Dead sometime in the late 1960s. I can't offer any precision or evaluation - it's certainly possible, but is presumably utterly unknowable from this vantage point unless someone's diary or some old photographs or some other account turns up.

The Jerry Site's first listing for "Jerry Garcia and Merl Saunders" is for October 12, 1970, though if you go to the band summary for that "artist" entry it lists the first show as 12/1/70. slip_not added some Merl content (a quote about he and Jerry came to play together) on the 9/7/70 Jerry Garcia & Friends entry, but there's no obvious ex ante reason for that information to be attached to that date.

So we are in a bit of a quandary, but I have a few data points to offer.

My MO here is to examine gigs and studio sessions that might have been relevant to understanding when Jerry and Merl started together. For gigs, I am especially interested in looking at the evolution of the Monday Night Jam sessions at the Matrix, since the standard story is that Howard Wales dropped out at some point and Merl joined in. It may not have been a clean/linear break, but the data might help. For sessions, I am interested because of the Merl quote listed under 9/7/70 TJS listing linked above. There seems to have been a Heider's connection where the GD, the whole PERRO crowd (Crosby and the Jeffersons), Brewer & Shipley, and Danny Cox (the latter two of whom were under the same management) were jumping into each others' sessions to an astonishing degree.

Anyway, here are what I consider some relevant data.

  • 4/20/70: Jerry Garcia and Howard Wales [double-check]; Matrix; "Scenedrome" (calendar listing), Berkeley Barb, April 17-23, 1970, p.6.
  • 4/27/70: Jerry Garcia, Howard Wales, & Friends; Matrix; display ad; listed as jam session in Scenedrome; Berkeley Barb, April 24-May 1, 1970, p. 8.
  • 5/18/70: Jerry Garcia and Howard Wales [double-check]; Matrix; calendar listing, Good Times v.3 n.20, 5/15/70, p. 24. I believe this is the show that was released as Side Trips, vol 1. (Aside: "Thank you, sir. May I have another?")
  • 5/25/70: Howard Wales, Jerry Garcia & Friends; Matrix; Scenedrome listing in Berkeley Barb, May 22-28, 1970, p. 18. Doubtful JG was there, given GD show in the UK the night before.
  • 6/1/70: Jerry Garcia and Howard Wales [double-check]; Matrix; calendar item in Good Times v.3 n.22 (5/29/70), p. 24.
  • 6/7/70: this appears not to have happened.
  • 6/8/70: Jerry Garcia and Howard Wales; Matrix; [source suppressed]
  • 6/15/70: Jerry Garcia and Howard Wales [double-check]; Matrix; calendar item in Good Times v.3 n.24 (6/12/70), p. 24.
  • 6/22/70: Jerry Garcia and Howard Wales [double-check]; Matrix; calendar item in Good Times v.3 n.25 (6/19/70), p. 23.
  • 7/6/70: Jerry Garcia and Howard Wales [double-check]; Matrix; calendar item in Good Times v.3 n.27 (7/3/70), p. 17.
  • 7/15/70: the first "PERRO" session at Heider's that I can document; Kantner session working on "Starship" and "Old Man" for what would become Blows Against The Empire; this and all related listings provided below show Jerry present [source suppressed]
  • 7/17/70: as above, but working on "Mau Mau";
  • 7/20/70: Howard Wales and Friends listed at Matrix for this Monday and the next night (Tues., 7/21/70); calendar item in Good Times v.3 n.28 (7/17/70), p. 18; no mention of Garcia.
  • 7/21/70: as above.
  • 7/22/70: Kantner session at Heider's ("Mau Mau"; "Together"); see 7/15/70.
  • 8/6/70-9/16/70: I have the GD's American Beauty sessions at Heider's from these dates; source: McNally, LST, p. 378.
  • 8/10/70: Kantner session at Heider's ("Starship"; "Old Man"); see 7/15/70.
  • 8/11/70: as above ("Starship"); see 7/15/70.
  • 8/21/70: Brewer & Shipley session at Heider's, for what would become Tarkio; Garcia listed ("50 States of Freedom"; "Oh Mommy"); [source suppressed]
  • 8/24/70: Garcia & Wales [double-check] Monday night Matrix session; calendar item in Good Times v.3 n.33 (8/21/70), p. 21.
  • 9/7/70: Jerry Garcia & Friends; Matrix; calendar item in Good Times v.3 n.35 (9/4/70), p. 16.
  • 9/8/70: PERRO jams at Heider's: JG, Jorma, Jack, Kreutzmann ("Jam"); source: PERRO tapes.
  • 9/14/70: Jerry Garcia & Friends; Matrix; calendar item in Good Times v.3 n.36 (9/11/70), p. 16.
  • 10/12/70: "Jerry Garcia, Merl Saunders and Friends"; Matrix; based on newspaper advertisement as listed at TJS; first TJS listing for Garcia & Saunders; spurious JG listing since GD were playing in Paterson, NJ.
  • 10/13/70: as above, though GD had no gig until 10/16 in Philly, and JG could well have flown home.
  • 10/14/70: as above.
  • 10/19/70: Jerry Garcia and Merl Saunders; Matrix; calendar item in Good Times v.3 n.41 (10/16/70), p. 20; in the past we would have discounted this, since GD was in Minneapolis on 10/18 and Washington, DC, on 10/23, but I have increasingly come around to the view that he flew home more often than I might have thought, and likely as not played a gig whenever a night was open around this time. So I buy that this could have happened.
  • 10/26/70: Jerry Garcia and Merl Saunders; Matrix; calendar item in Good Times, v.3 n. 42 (10/23/70), p. 14. GD were between St. Louis (10/24) and Stony Brook (10/30), but on the logic just above I believe this could have happened.
  • 11/1/70 or 11/2/70: Janis's wake. Not relevant, just wanted to keep the record straight.
  • 11/2/70: I have a Jerry Garcia & Friends listing for the Harding Theater, but no source info. We have discussed this a little bit, but I am not sure where things stand.
  • 11/3/70: PERRO/If I Could Only Remember My Name (IICORMN) session at Heider's ("Cowboy Movie"); based on Steve Silberman "Crosby Connection" show played on KPFA, ca. 2001.
  • 11/3/70: Jerry Garcia and Merl Saunders; Matrix; note that this is a Tuesday; calendar item in Good Times v.3 n.43 (10/30/70), p. 16.
  • 11/4//70: PERRO session at Heider's; no source information listed.
  • 12/1/70: Jerry Garcia and Merl Saunders; Matrix; note: Tuesday; calendar item in Good Times v.3 n.47 (11/26/70), p. 20).
  • 12/2/70: Jerry Garcia and Merl Saunders; Matrix; listed at TJS based on Joey Newlander newspaper research (Berkeley Barb).

Thatsalotta data, I know, but I wanted to put it out there for you all to see.

What do I infer from all of this about the titular question? The pivot looks to be right around the time of the 8/21/70 Brewer & Shipley session. (Full disclosure: in personal email, Corry played up the Brewer & Shipley connection to Danny Cox, and thence to Merl; so credit should go to Corry for helping me see the break in the series.) There's only one Wales listing a few days later, and then come the "Jerry Garcia & Friends" listings. I would guess that Merl became a "Friend" at the 9/7/70 Matrix show (otherwise why not list Wales, as they had all year?), but there is no smoking gun in these data. Merl's name doesn't appear in listings until 10/12/70, which has the drawback of being a listing known to conflict with GD performance 3000 miles away. But it certainly suggests that Merl was definitely around by this time.

I believe I spoke with Danny Cox, and he doesn't have any old paperwork regarding his sessions at Heider's. I have not tried to contact the Brewer & Shipley people, but that might be a better lead.

In sum, in answer to the question of when Jerry and Merl first played together (qua Jerry & Merl), I'll say September 7, 1970. And maybe walk back and say that slip_not may know a thing or two. ;-)


  1. and of course, this begs another question--why did Howard Wales leave? Not that he had to stay, since at that point there wasn't much money in the Monday night jam, but what else was he doing?

    Put another way, had Wales planned to leave, so Jerry and John went looking for an organ player, or did they meet Merl and look at Wales differently?

  2. Danny Cox and Brewer and Shipley were both managed by Good Karma Productions, out of Kansas City. In those days, record deals tended to be signed with production companies, not bands (who in turn had signed with the production companies). In August 1970, Nick Gravenites was producing the Tarkio Road album for Brewer And Shipley, and he later produced a Danny Cox album on ABC Dunhill, recorded July-August 1971.

    My theory is that Gravenites was at Wally Heider's in August 1970, he produced the B&S album while preparing demos for the Danny Cox album. The bills would have been run through the production company and divvied up somehow between contracts (B&S were on Buddah Records).

    On the Tarkio Road album (everyone remembers "One Toke Over The Line"), Garcia plays pedal steel on a few tracks, John Kahn and Bill Vitt play drums and Danny Cox does some backing vocals. So if we assume that Merl was brought in for some demo sessions to play along with Kahn and Vitt, we know that all the participants were there.

  3. I recall seeing a list of Garcia sessions on one of the Deadheads newsletters circa 1972 that showed Garcia listed as playing on the eponymous Danny Cox album. He is not credited on the album jacket (which I unfortunately do not have anymore) but it is arguable that both he and Saunders participated in these sessions. JGMF, did this come up in your conversation with Cox?

  4. I have to check the tapes. In fact, I have dozens of hours of stuff that I need transcribed. I need a budget!

  5. Merl was playing in the SF production of Big Time Buck White during the February-April 1969 timeframe, but the show had nights off according to The Times of San Mateo. By October, the show was being prepped for Broadway in NYC with Muhammed Ali. It ran on Broadway starting on December 2, 1969 for less than a week. Merl played The Orchid Lounge in Asbury Park, NJ on January 23-25, 1970. I find no other mentions of him until 1971. So it possible there were 1969 jams with the Grateful Dead, and he was likely back in SF early in 1970.

  6. Good stuff, thanks! I didn't have those Jersey dates. I keep track of whatever non-Jerry Merl dates I can find through the 1970s.

  7. David, to your point, the Examiner has a big gap in mentions of Merl from 2/15/69 through 8/28/70.

    He is still playing his little organ trio gigs at Jack's of Sutter, etc. through January '71, but since there are plenty of JGMS listings in that period, it just seems that there was overlap for a few months.


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