Merl Saunders was born Merl Saunders Washington (he dropped the “Washington” for show biz purposes) in San Mateo, California on February 14, 1934; he passed away early this morning (October 24, 2008) at Kaiser Hospital in San Francisco.
Saunders grew up in San Francisco and was a proficient piano player by age 10. He attended Polytechnic High School, Served in the Air Force and Attended University of Mainz in Germany. Saunders married Betty Crenshaw and leaves behind three children (Anthony Saunders, Merl Saunders Jr., Susan Saunders) and a number of grand kids.
Saunders became one of the preeminent Hammond B-3 player of his generation; beginning his long strange trip by apprenticing with the great Jimmy Smith. In 1970 Saunders began playing with Jerry Garcia in the Bay Area under bands called Legion of Mary and then Garcia/Saunders. The duo recorded a number of famous albums including Heavy Turbulence, Fire Up, and Live at the Keystone. Their 1990 collaboration, Blues from the Rainforest, was a Billboard Top 10 in the New Age category.
Saunders contributed to the Grateful Dead album Grateful Dead (1971), and in the mid-1980s worked with the band as musical director for the “Twilight Zone” television show.
He became known as the senior member of the jam band scene having played with Phish, Blues Traveler and Widespread Panic. He was instrumental in allowing young talent to play and record with him, giving first opportunity to the likes of Sheila E, Chris Hayes (Huey Lewis & the News), Bonnie Hayes (Billy Idol) and Bob Steeler (Hot Tuna).
In parallel to his rock career, Saunders worked as a jazz trio player, performing and recording with Harry Belafonte, Frank Sinatra, Lionel Hampton, Miles Davis, B.B. King, Bonnie Raitt, and Paul Butterfield. He also contributed to the scores of the films “Heavy Traffic” and “Fritz the Cat.”