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Merl Saunders & His Funky Friends

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“For many years, but especially since Jerry’s death, it seems that young people are looking to me for guidance, for some kind of answer,” says keyboard virtuoso Merl Saunders, referring to the growing contingent of youthful Deadheads that constitute a large part of his fan base. “All I can tell them is to stay focused and get high--but on music , not on drugs.”

Indeed, for more that three decades, Merl’s fans have been getting high on his music. His repertoire runs the gamut from funk to blues to rock to jazz, but as his 1990 New Age chart-topper Blues From the Rainforest (one of four collaborations with Jerry Garcia) attests, his audience is not concerned with musical genres. “It’s the vibe that counts,” he says. “As long as it makes them feel good and dance, what’s the difference what category it falls into?”

With his signature leather cap, boots and requisite tie-dye and with his ever-loyal “Jessica” (his 1962 Hammond B3 organ) sharing the spotlight--Merl regularly mesmerizes his audiences like a psychedelic Pied Piper. It’s hard to believe that this is the same guy who once played in a band with crooner Johnny Mathis.

But then again, Merl’s list of former collaborators is diverse. He has shared the stage and studio with the likes of Harry Belafonte, Lionel Hampton, B.B. King, Miles Davis, the Staltler Brothers, Paul Butterfield, and, of course, his beloved, buddy, Jerry Garcia, whom he still lovingly refers to as “Jerome.” Even bands like Phish and Blues Traveler, with whom Merl frequently jams or sits in, have fallen under his spell.

A native San Franciscan and a noteworthy fixture on the Frisco music scene, Merl has become as synonymous with the city as the Golden Gate Bridge. A gentle soul and an ardent environmentalist, Merl has friends and fans of every age and from every walk of life. But it’s the young people who touch his heart at each show, and through hundreds of hugs, high-fives, letters and e-mail messages. I don’t know what it is, but I think it’s all about energy, I just think it’s pretty amazing,” he says of the youthfulness and enthusiasm of his fans.

Ever the musical chameleon, Merl can jam with the best of them, score for movies and TV (including TV’s Twilight Zone, Tales From The Crypt, and the theme for the movie version of Fritz The Cat). Or “get serious” and play straight jazz (a result of his grueling early work with the masters, including jazz great Jimmy Smith, with whom he once apprenticed) with a laundry list of legends who respect and admire his musical prowess.

With his forthcoming album, Fiesta Amazonica, Merl’s fans will have yet another chance to be thrown for a loop. “I guess you can say it picks up where Blues From the Rainforest left off,” he says. But there are a couple of distinctions. “Well, for one, this time I’ve actually been to a Rainforest!” he laughs. “But I also think it has more of a funky, World Beat feel.” The 9 song collection, due this fall, will contain some surprise guest appearances and requiems for two lost comrades.

In the meantime, Merl Saunders will continue his relentless touring schedule and, as he so aptly puts it, to “just keep on keepin’ on.”

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