Merl Saunders
Merl Saunders & Jerry Garcia. Photo by Annie Leibovitz, for Live at Keystone album
Merl Saunders & Jerry Garcia. Photo by Annie Leibovitz, for Live at Keystone album
Background information
Birth nameMerl Washington[1]
Born(1934-02-14)February 14, 1934
San Mateo, California, U.S.
DiedOctober 24, 2008(2008-10-24) (aged 74)
San Francisco, California, U.S.
Instrument(s)Hammond organ, piano
Years active1960s–2006

Merl Saunders (February 14, 1934 – October 24, 2008)[1] was an American multi-genre musician who played piano and keyboards, favoring the Hammond B-3 console organ.


Born in San Mateo, California, United States,[1] Saunders attended Polytechnic High School in San Francisco. In his first band in high school was singer Johnny Mathis.[2] He served in the U.S. Air Force from 1953 to 1957. He worked as musical director of the Billy Williams Revue and served in a similar capacity in Oscar Brown Jr.'s off-Broadway show, Big Time Buck White.

He gained notice in the 1970s when he began collaborating with Jerry Garcia, with whom he had begun playing in 1971 at a small Fillmore Street nightclub called The Matrix.[2] He sat in with the Grateful Dead, and co-founded the Saunders/Garcia Band which produced three albums, and which became the Legion of Mary, with the addition of Martin Fierro (sax) in 1974. It disbanded the following year, but he and Garcia continued to collaborate in the band Reconstruction during 1979, collaborating with Ed Neumeister (trombone), Gaylord Birch (drums) and John Kahn (bass).

He led his own band as Merl Saunders and Friends, playing live dates with Garcia, as well as Mike Bloomfield, David Grisman, Michael Hinton, Tom Fogerty, Vassar Clements, Kenneth Nash, John Kahn and Sheila E.[3] He also collaborated with Grateful Dead percussionist Mickey Hart in the band High Noon.

Saunders took the lead in reintroducing Jerry Garcia to his guitar, after Garcia suffered a diabetic coma in the summer of 1986.

In 1990, he released the world music and New Age classic album Blues From the Rainforest, a collaboration with Garcia and Muruga Booker. This led to the release of a video which chronicled Saunders' journey to the Amazon, and the subsequent albums Fiesta Amazonica, It's in the Air, and Save the Planet so We'll Have Someplace to Boogie. One of the songs from Blues From the Rainforest was used as part of the soundtrack for the TV series Baywatch. Saunders continued to perform with the Rainforest Band for the next ten years.

Saunders worked with musicians Paul Pena, Bonnie Raitt, Phish, Widespread Panic, Miles Davis, and B. B. King. He also recorded with the Dinosaurs, a "supergroup" of first-generation Bay Area rock musicians.[3]

He had his own record label, Sumertone Records[4] (named for his children Susan, Merl Jr., and Tony), and had also recorded on Fantasy Records, Galaxy Records and Relix Records as well as the Grateful Dead and Jerry Garcia labels. He worked with the Grateful Dead on the theme music for the 1985 TV show The New Twilight Zone. As musical director he completed 2 1/2 season of the show . He also worked on the TV series Nash Bridges, and worked on several soundtracks for movies, including Fritz the Cat and Steelyard Blues. He was production co-ordinator for the Grammy Awards for two years, and for the Grammy's Greatest Moments TV special. He also supplied the music for the computer animation video Headcandy: Sidney's Psychedelic Adventure.

He worked with several charitable organizations such as the Seva Foundation, the Rex Foundation, the Rainforest Action Network, and the Haight-Ashbury Free Clinic, and headlined the Haight Street Music Fair for 24 consecutive years. He has been granted a Doctorate of Music by Unity College, in Unity, Maine.

In 2002, Saunders suffered from a stroke that paralyzed one side of his body and curtailed his musical career, and he died in San Francisco, California, on the morning of October 24, 2008, after fighting infections as a result of complications related to the stroke.[5] He was survived by his two sons, Tony Saunders (bassist) and Merl Saunders Jr. (a former senior executive director of National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences), and his daughter Susan Mora.

In December 2008, TMZ reported the estate of Merl Saunders had filed a lawsuit against the estate of Jerry Garcia, disputing royalties for a 2004 live album. Saunders' estate claimed they were not aware of the album's release and that they had equal rights to the royalties.[6] The case was later settled amicably.



Main studio, live and compilation releases

Solo, group leader or co-leader - singles

Various artist compilations that include previously unreleased Merl Saunders music

Various artist compilations that include previously released Merl Saunders tracks

Playing contributions to other major albums with others

Playing contributions to singles with others

Playing contributions to compilations

Non-performing references on albums






  1. ^ a b c "Obituary: Merl Saunders". The Guardian. 27 October 2008. Retrieved 9 October 2021.
  2. ^ a b "Grateful Dead Merl Saunders". Grateful Dead.
  3. ^ a b Colin Larkin, ed. (1992). The Guinness Encyclopedia of Popular Music (First ed.). Guinness Publishing. p. 2194. ISBN 0-85112-939-0.
  4. ^ "Merl Saunders Productions Summertone Records, Inc. in San Francisco, CA". Bizapedia. August 29, 2015. Retrieved April 12, 2016.
  5. ^ "Simon, Richard B. "Organist Merl Saunders Passes Away at 74"". October 24, 2008.
  6. ^ "Ungrateful Dead -- Garcia Sued by Dead Pal". TMZ.
  7. ^ "Great American Music Hall Website". Archived from the original on December 17, 2010.
  8. ^ "Modern Drummer Magazine Website". Archived from the original on May 16, 2011.

Other sources