Merl Saunders

Merl Saunders

American pianist and keyboardist

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.

Quick Facts Background information, Birth name ...


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).[citation needed]

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.[citation needed]

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[citation needed] (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 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.[4] 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.[5] The case was later settled amicably.



Main studio, live and compilation releases

Solo, group leader or co-leader - singles

  • 1964 - "Five More / How's That" (Fantasy 588)
  • 1965 - "High Heel Sneakers / Breakin' " Through (Fantasy 600)
  • 1966 - "I Pity The Fool / Tighten Up" (Galaxy 747)
  • 1967 - "Soul Grooving / Up, Up and Away" (Galaxy 755)
  • 1967 - "Soul Roach, Pt. 1 & 2" (Early Bird 49659)
  • 1969 - "Julia / Five More" (Fantasy 620)
  • 1969 - "Mighty Whitey / Right On" (Suemer-Tone 69)
  • 1970 - "Little Bit of Righteousness / The Iron Horse" (Galaxy 776) - with Heavy Turbulence
  • 1971 - "Save Mother Earth, Pt. 1 & 2" (Fantasy 668)
  • 1972 - "My Problems Got Problems / Welcome To The Basement" (Fantasy 678)
  • 1981 - "San Francisco After Dark / Come To Me" (Summertone 214)

Various artist compilations that include previously unreleased Merl Saunders music

  • 1970 - Belafonte By Request - Harry Belafonte
  • 1972 - Black Girl (Soundtrack) - Various Artists
  • 1972 - Fritz The Cat (Soundtrack) - Various Artists
  • 1973 - Heavy Traffic (Soundtrack) - Various Artists
  • 1997 - Fire On The Mountain: Reggae Celebrates The Grateful Dead Volume 2 - Various Artists
  • 1999 - The Third Annual Gathering on the Mountain - Various Artists
  • 2000 - Gathering On The Mountain: Live Part 2 - Various Artists
  • 2000 - Gathering On The Mountain: Live Part 3 - Various Artists
  • 2000 - Sharin' In The Groove - Various Artists
  • 2001 - Into The Music: Jam Band Vol. 1 - Various Artists

Various artist compilations that include previously released Merl Saunders tracks

  • 1992 - All Night Long They Play The Blues (The Galaxy Masters) - Various Artists
  • 1993 - Bad, Bad Whiskey (The Galaxy Masters) - Various Artists
  • 1995 - Jazz Collective - Various Artists
  • 1995 - Sense Of Direction - Various Artists
  • 1996 - Televisions Greatest Hits, Vol. 6: Remote Control - Various Artists
  • 1996 - Fritz The Cat/Heavy Traffic (Soundtrack) - Various Artists
  • 2004 - Get Your Lie Straight: A Galaxy of Funky Soul - Various Artists

Playing contributions to other major albums with others

Playing contributions to singles with others

  • 1972 - "Lady Of Fatima / Cast The First Stone" - Tom Fogerty (Fantasy 680)
  • 1972 - "Faces Places People / Forty Years" - Tom Fogerty (Fantasy 691)
  • 1972 - "Drive Again (Theme from Steelyard Blues) / Swing With It" - Nick Gravenites, Mike Bloomfield (Warner Bros.)
  • 1989 - "Underground" (EP) - Mike Lawson (Psychotronic Records)

Playing contributions to compilations

  • 1975 - Sampler For Deadheads (#1 of 3) - Jerry Garcia / Robert Hunter
  • 1975 - Sampler For Deadheads (#2 of 3) - Old And In The Way / Keith And Donna
  • 1977 - What A Long Strange Trip It's Been - Grateful Dead
  • 1978 - Grateful Dead Sampler - Various Artists
  • 1978 - Arista AOR Sampler - Various Artists
  • 1985 - The Relix Sampler - Various Artists
  • 1998 - Tom Fogerty/Excalibur - Tom Fogerty
  • 1999 - The Very Best Of Tom Fogerty - Tom Fogerty
  • 2000 - Furthur Most - Various Artists
  • 2000 - The Best Of David Soul - David Soul
  • 2000 - Anti Love: The Best Of Betty Davis - Betty Davis

Non-performing references on albums

  • 1975 - Keith and Donna Godchaux - Keith and Donna Godchaux
  • 1976 - For Dead Heads - Various Artists
  • 1998 - Blue Light Rain - Jazz Is Dead



  • Fritz the Cat (1972)
  • Black Girl (1972)
  • Heavy Traffic (1973)
  • Steelyard Blues (1973)
  • Headcandy: Sidney's Psychedelic Adventure (1997) Headcandy Productions
  • A Tribute to Jerry Garcia: Deadheads Festival Japan 1997 (Japanese Laser Disc, Video Super Rock series VPLR-70650) (1997)
  • Blues from the Rainforest: A Musical Suite (1999) Mobile Fidelity
  • The Grateful Dead: The End of the Road - The Final Tour '95 (2000) Monterey Video
  • Diggers (2006)


  • 34th Annual Grammy Awards (TV Special) - Production Coordinator
  • 35th Annual Grammy Awards (TV Special) - Production Coordinator
  • Grammy's Greatest Moments (TV Special) - Production Coordinator
  • Vietnam: A Television History (TV Series) - Music Performer (11 episodes, 1997)
  • The American Experience - Music Performer (6 episodes, 1997–2005)
  • The Twilight Zone 1985 (TV Series) - Music Performer and Musical Director (composer: new title theme) (72 episodes, 1985–1989)
  • Nash Bridges (TV series)
  • Tales From The Crypt (TV series)
  • Baywatch (TV series)
  • Simon and Simon (TV series)



  1. "Obituary: Merl Saunders". The Guardian. 27 October 2008. Retrieved 9 October 2021.
  2. "Grateful Dead Merl Saunders". Grateful Dead. 3 April 2007.
  3. "Great American Music Hall Website". Archived from the original on December 17, 2010.
  4. "Modern Drummer Magazine Website". Archived from the original on May 16, 2011.

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