Monday, October 27, 2008

Merl Saunders Dead at 74

Hammond B3 Organ with Leslie Speaker

Merl Saunders, A King of the B3

Dead at 74. No real surprise. He's been battling the effects of a severe stroke for the last 6 1/2 years. But man, in his prime. Dude could soar. He was no slouch on any of the keyboards. He could riff piano on anything from cool jazz to flat out whooping stomp.

But it was on the B3, the big Hammond church organ that he was the sweetest. His touch was sure and focused, capable of bringing choppy, percussive blasts of tone and switching effortlessly into soaring lines that would weave and shimmer with brilliance. Up in the treble range he'd kick in the spinner horns on the top of those Leslies and my heart would jump.

Merl Saunders - My Train

Listen to that sweet sound. Listen to the nuance and taste.

A lot of people speak of his long collaboration with Jerry Garcia. Merl was famous in San Francisco for a lot more. Merl was famous for the love and attention he showered on children. He was always turning up everywhere, ready and eager to play. He'd play schools, church picnics, free concerts in the park, and if there wasn't something scheduled he'd start it. He loved life, he loved music, he loved all of it.

He was a player's player. He could solo with the best of them, but he was happiest in the middle of a group, grooving and tossing in bits and pieces of exquisite taste. His presence on a stage was tonic to all of us who were lucky enough to spend some time with him. Like many of the greatest athletes and other kinds of star, Merl made everybody around him better. He would nudge, prod and cajole brilliance out you. When you stretched a bit too far, Merl was right there to pick up that phrase you just mangled, then he'd pop it right back with his "Go for it again Baby!" look.

When you hit something dead solid perfect, he'd lean back a little and smile a full 10,000 watter of purenty happiness.

Merl laid his chops all over the studios, but it was live where he really handled it. Feeding off the crowd, the other players, and the absolute sweetness of an instant in time. Merl would be right there. Right. There. In that moment. Grooving.

Goodnight baby. Sweet goodnight. Wait for me after the bridge, you know I'll be there.