Jerry Garcia and Merl Saunders

Choose Your Companions: Bill Vitt on Jerry Garcia and Merl Saunders

"We never rehearsed. That probably helped." Longtime Jerry Garcia drummer Vitt looks back on how it all started and what it meant.
Jerry Garcia
Keystone Companions: The Complete 1973 Fantasy Recordings

Though Jerry Garcia remained the focal point of the Grateful Dead from the ’60s until his death in 1995 (and, some would say, beyond), the bespectacled guitarist was a musical seeker whose career involved numerous projects outside the group he’d helped form. When he wasn’t touring or recording with the Dead, he often sat in with other players in and around the San Francisco area. At some point in 1969 he showed up at a Howard Wales gig and sat in, ushering in, innocently enough, one of the most interesting twists in his own career. As usual with Garcia, the move had ripples in the larger musical world and would shape the fortunes of many other players, including drummer Bill Vitt.

Vitt was playing with Wales at the time, having come back from a stint as a studio musician the previous year. ““L.A. was a little too intense,” he says. He’d gone there a few years earlier, seeking studio work and was soon on hand for sessions under the direction of legendary producer Don Costa (Frank Sinatra). He’d landed a gig with Eydie Gorme there and found himself feeling comfortable enough in Laurel Canyon. Frank Zappa lived nearby and the Flying Burrito Brothers were an act virtually everyone was talking about. But, as would happen many times in his, Vitt would find San Francisco calling him. “I got back just in time to get some really interesting work,” Vitt says today, speaking from his Bay Area home. “My timing,” he adds, “was perfect.”

Vitt logged dates with Michael Bloomfield and eventually settled into a comfortable relationship with Wales. The keyboardist had already backed James Brown and Ronnie Hawkins as well as recording with the group A.B. Skhy on the first of two records the group cut for MGM. (Wales would also appear on the Dead’s 1970 effort American Beauty.) Vitt points out that it was Garcia’s musical curiosity that probably drew him to Wales.

“Howard was in the jazz idiom and Jerry always wanted to learn new things so it was really good for him,” the drummer says. The ensemble with Vitt, bassist John Khan, Wales and Garcia was fairly short-lived, amassing something like 20 gigs between 1970 and 1972. There was a studio album, Hooteroll?, but maybe not enough music to keep Garcia satisfied.

By the end of 1970 he was already looking to form a group similar in spirit to what he’d been doing with Wales and turned to Vitt for help. The drummer initially sought bassist Richard Fevis but his commitments with the Oakland Symphony quickly took him out of the mix. Kahn became the logical choice. He and Vitt knew each other socially and worked on a number of sessions together in and around the time. They only needed a keyboardist. Merl Saunders, a player several years older than the other three musicians, was someone Vitt had gigged with before in an organ trio.

This lineup of the band can be heard on a new boxed set, Keystone Companions, tracked in 1973. The songs are long, the forms are somewhat loose and, Vitt says, the essence of the band comes across quite well from the tapes. “We didn’t rehearse, it was totally open, allowing us to do play anything we wanted,” he adds.

The Garcia/Saunders group initially gigged at The Matrix, the place that had launched Jefferson Airplane and was an early favorite spot for Tower of Power. The renovated pizza joined thrived at 3138 Fillmore Street between 1965 and 1972. “We went down there one night and they were closed,” Vitt remembers. “We never saw the owners again.” The hazy circumstances for the venue’s demise do little to cloud his favorable memories of the place. “It was a musician’s hangout,” he says, “it was a listening room with a built-in four-track studio. Howard and I were kind of the house band and backed up Freddie King and Joseph Cotton, all kinds of acts that the club would bring in. It was laid-back, not a lot of people knew about it.”

A different version of The Matrix, with different management, would open in North Beach later on, though many would say that the vibe was never quite the same. Some acts drifted to Berkley’s The Keystone, a club that would become a second home for Garcia over the next decade. Located at 2119 University Avenue, not terribly far from UC-Berkley, the venue was owned by Freddie Herrera, who would also run the Keystone Korner in North Beach. Though the San Francisco room would provide Vitt, Garcia, Kahn and Saunders another stage to work on, it soon became more closely associated with jazz, hosting Rahsaan Roland Kirk, McCoy Tyner and Freddie Hubbard, among others, for dates that would later become well-received albums.

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Meanwhile, Berkley’s Keystone continued to impress Garcia who eventually appeared there more than 200 times with various ensembles. No matter how popular the Dead was at any given moment, Garcia gigs at the club were often below the 500-person capacity; tickets were often issued only on the day of the show. It was clearly a place that the guitarist felt comfortable in. He and Saunders recorded a September 1974 date there that was ultimately issued as Pure Jerry and two Jerry Garcia Band recordings, including 2009’s Let It Rock (culled from two late 1975 appearances) and Garcia Live: Volume Five (issued in 2014 and documenting a concert given little more than a month after the shows represented on Let It Rock), shed extra light on the musician’s relationship with the venue as well as some of his peak years as a vocalist and soloist.

What’s perhaps remarkable about the 1973 recordings, tracked by longtime Grateful Dead audio archivist Betty Cantor Jackson and her late husband, Rex, is not just how well everyone played but how relaxed Garcia sounds during all of it. It was a busy and sometimes tumultuous year for the San Francisco group. Garcia logged major stretches with the Dead from February to August, though a stretch of 25 days in July allowed time for The Keystone dates on 10 and 11 July, as well as a gig at the Lion’s Share in San Anselmo on 5 July (released earlier in 2016 as part of the Garcia Live series).

The Dead was also recovering from the loss of keyboardist Ron “Pigpen” McKernan and acclimating to new member Keith Godchaux. There was also the matter of launching Grateful Dead Records and, over the course of 11 days in August, In The Wake of the Flood before returning to live commitments in early September, which stretched to just days before Christmas.

Garcia wasn’t the only one busy during that time: Saunders, Vitt and Kahn all had a regular rotation of studio and live dates that kept their dance cards full, in part accounting for the limited amount of road work the collective did. It was, as Vitt mentions several times, a way for everyone to relax. Jam.

The lack of rigor within the Saunders/Garcia world was a welcome relief from the sometimes over-rehearsed and over-thought gigs everyone had taken elsewhere. “Everything was pretty spontaneous,” Vitt says, “that made us really listen to each other because there wasn’t really an arrangement. There’d be a head of a song and then someone would take a solo and it was wide open. That’s different than being in a band where you rehearse everything, go to a gig and play it all exactly how you rehearsed it. That can get very boring after a while, unless you keep changing your material.”

Vitt describes the general vibe as “show up and play,” something evident in the range of material heard on the quartet’s recordings, from Motown classics (“I Second That Emotion”) to reggae (“The Harder They Come”), jazz (“My Funny Valentine”) and Dylan (“Positively 4th Street”). “Jerry brought in a lot of stuff that I wasn’t even hip to at the time,” Vitt recalls, “because I was strictly jazz, Motown and blues. I’d just got done playing with Michael Bloomfield, I had that blues thing and so did John. It was wide open. You never knew what was going to happen.”

The initial quartet did largely remain a live concern, though there was some studio evidence of their skills via Heavy Turbulence (1972) and Fire Up (the following year) and those releases have been represented by the 1992 CD Fire Up Plus and a compilation effort that provides a thumbnail sketch of the Garcia/Saunders partnership, Well-Matched (2006). This was not the only lineup of the group that existed, though. Creedence Clearwater Revival’s Tom Fogerty came and went, drummers Ron Tutt and Paul Humphrey would take the throne as would the Dead’s Bill Kruetzmann; conga man Armando Peraza was in the fold, as was vocalist Sarah Fulcher, who Vitt would eventually produce. George Tickner, who would co-found Journey with his former Frumious Bandersnatch mate Ross Valory, also offered his services.

The Keystone and Lion’s Share recordings show the deep musical connections the players shared. Vitt notes that he and Kahn were especially close during that time, riding to gigs together and living fairly close to each other in Forest Knolls. Vitt would eventually leave the band to work with Bill Champlin (later of Chicago). The Saunders/Garcia unit soldiered on until around 1975, though Garcia and Kahn would remain frequent collaborators over the coming decade.

Kahn served as bassist for the much-lauded Old and In The Way with Garcia, David Grisman, Peter Rowan and others in the ranks. Kahn also contributed to the Dead’s Shakedown Street album and served as a recording engineer alongside Cantor-Jackson and Bob Matthews when the band taped their 1978 Egyptian gigs. There were several other extra-Dead projects, including Legion of Mary, which brought Saunders into the fold, along with drummer Ron Tutt and saxophonist Martin Fierro. In 1979, Kahn brought the guitarist into the short-lived, jazz-heavy unit Reconstruction. The John Kahn and Jerry Garcia duo formed in 1982 and ran until the end of the decade with Kahn also spending time in Garcia’s Acoustic Band, which lasted for just over a year during the height of the Dead’s late ’80s renaissance. Kahn passed away in 1996, less than a year after Garcia.

Their bandmate Merl Saunders died in 2008, though his relationship with Garcia remained strong even after their regular gigs came to an end. They created music for the 1985 revival of The Twilight Zone and, a year later, after the guitarist emerged from a six-day diabetic coma, it was Saunders who sat by his side, patiently helping his friend work through the basics of re-learning music. Saunders suffered a stroke several years before his death, which left him unable to perform, though he remained a much-revered and welcome presence in the San Francisco community. Friends held a tribute show at the Great American Music Hall in 2009, which featured appearances from Bob Weir, Grisman and Vitt himself.

“Merl was a sweetheart,” Vitt says. “I miss playing with him, John and Jerry. Everybody got along very well; Jerry was a very, very high-quality human being. He was so much fun to be around. He had a great sense of humor, he was a great artist. He’d show up to gigs four-five hours early, just sit in the back room and practice. I rarely saw him without a guitar in his hand, he was very, very serious.”

Vitt moved to New Orleans for a short spell in the early ’80s, gigging with a few members from the Neville Brothers. In the early ’80s, he opened a winery in Northern California and enjoyed some success with the business and eventually formed a seven-piece band called Mirage in which he played keyboards and sang. He moved to New Mexico circa 2006 but returned to Marin County in 2010. He’s recorded under his own named and performed with a variety of acts, including Keystone Revisited with Merl Saunders’ son Tony on bass.

His time away from music, he notes, came largely down to feeling burned out. “I got tired of being on the road. You have to remember, when I was really young, I was out playing in club bands,” he says. “The idea of big concerts like today didn’t exist. We’d do these clubs and pack them out.” Stricter regulation of liquor laws would curb the life of working musicians from coast to coast with many venues ceasing to carry or severely curtailing live entertainment by the early ’80s. “I made a good living in the early days,” Vitt says. “I went to college full-time but I could play seven nights a week. That changed with the DUI laws.”

Vitt has gone through a few retirements from the music industry but, he says, he currently has a renewed interest in playing. “I’m gung-ho now,” he says, “I’m back in Marin and close to all the musicians I grew up around and want to play all the time.”

The special place that the Saunders/Garcia band holds for many listeners is held for Vitt as well. The solidarity in the group, he adds, probably came down to a lack of over-familiarity. “We didn’t go out and play six nights a week for five months at a time,” he offers. “And we never rehearsed. That probably helped.”