Tony Saunders

Merl Saunders

1934-2008

This website is created by me, Tony Saunders, in love and appreciation for my father, Merl Saunders and my mother, Betty Washington. ​My parents gave me the love and discipline I needed to form a solid foundation for a successful musical career. They had faith in my talent. My father allowed me to hang out in the studio with him and the many great musicians he made music with, so that I could hear them create the magic. From the time I was a little boy to the end of his life, my father and I played and composed music together.
My father was an exceptional Jazz Musician for the first 20 years of his career. Here you will find samples of his early work as well his more widely known music created after 1970. The true scope of his talent can be heard here, and I hope you enjoy listening to the music .

In 1982, after wrapping up production of the album San Francisco After Dark, ​​he wrote this note to me:

My Father, Merl Saunders Washington, was born in San Mateo, California on Valentine’s Day, 1934. His mother, Henrie Lessie Sanders had left Dallas, Texas while pregnant with him to travel to California to be closer to her sisters. Merl’s biological father, L.D. Washington lived in the Dallas area and fathered 5 other children. Merl met his siblings later in life, and enjoyed close relationships with them.

When Merl was around 8, Lessie, (nick-named “Monk” by her sisters), moved to San Francisco. There she married Leonard Talley, a man of great charm and integrity. He was called “Pops” by his family, and later “Popsi” by his grandchildren. He was also affectionately dubbed “The Mayor of Pacific Avenue”, as he worked for 44 years as the doorman at 2090 Pacific Avenue. Lessie worked until retirement as the Superintendent of Seamstresses employed by the City and County of San Francisco, and was distinguished for being the first African American woman to work in that capacity.

Leonard taught Merl how to swim as it was a requirement for graduating from high school. There were no excuses in the family for not doing well in school. When Merl showed an interest in music, his mother and Leonard supported him, as did the family’s church community at the First AME Zion Church, where he played piano and sang in the choir.

While still in high school Merl had a jazz band, and they spent much of their time hanging out in the great jazz clubs of San Francisco, which included The Blackhawk, Bop City, Jack’s of Sutter, The Texas Playhouse, Plantation, and The Blue Mirror. He and his band were so good they got to gig regularly at some of the clubs.

The great bass player Frank Roberts and Merl jammed together, and Johnny Mathis landed his first paying job playing with Merl’s band. It was during this time that Merl won a Battle of the Bands contest in San Francisco, and as the winner he was given the chance to play with Lionel Hampton, the great vibes player. Lionel was very impressed with Merl’s talent: he felt Merl had the ability to be a great piano player in the same vein as Oscar Peterson.​​

When Merl finished high school he enlisted in the air force and served from 1953 to 1957. He was sent overseas to Mainz, Germany and while there he attended the Mainz school of Music. It was in the air force that Merl met Henry Chew, another piano player who would remain a lifelong friend and would later become “Uncle” to Merl’s children. When they were not on duty the two men played gigs together in the air force and civilian clubs around Germany.

When Merl was discharged from the air force he headed to New York, where he stayed for a short time before returning to San Francisco to marry Betty and meet his little son, Anthony. Merl’s given name was Merl Washington but as his music became better known he decided to take his mother’s maiden name, Sanders, as a stage name and he added the “U’ because he liked the sound of “Saunders”.

In 1957 Merl, along with his cousin jazz drummer Eddie Moore, started working for the post office in San Francisco. As well, Merl played at Jack’s of Sutter six nights a week, and played the early morning jam sessions there on Saturdays and Sundays. Merl’s primary trio during this time consisted of himself and his cousin Eddie Moore playing drums. The third person alternated between Junius Simmons or Jimmy Daniels on Guitar, Earl Vann on sax or Larry Bryant on congas. Eventually both Merl and Eddie left their jobs at the post office, and were overheard saying “we don’t want our fans to see us here!”, joking about becoming successful and popular musicians. Merl added the Hammond B-3 organ to his musical vocabulary in the early 60’s, and it became his instrument of choice for the rest of his career.

In 1961 Merl joined the Billy Williams R​evue, a touring act playing in Las Vegas. When he finished up the tour with Williams he returned to San Francisco and picked up playing with his trio again, playing at Jack’s as well as The Playpen and The Upper Room.

In 1968 Merl recorded his first album, Soul Groovin’, with Moore, Daniels and Ray Shanklin on Fantasy/Galaxy Records. That same year he served as Musical Director both in San Francisco and later in New York for the musical Big Time Buck White, which starred Mohammed Ali on Broadway, with Merl once again Musical Director.

In 1970 Bill Vitt, who was running weekly jam sessions at the Matrix on Fillmore, asked Merl to come play at the club. There, on December 11, 1970,
Merl and Jerry Garcia met for the first time, and on that day The Merl Saunders/ Jerry Garcia Band was born, lasting until June 15, 1975. When he was not on tour with the Grateful Dead, Jerry spent as much time as possible playing with Merl. Merl’s classic jazz background and knowledge of standards was something Jerry didn’t have in his repertoire, and he was eager to learn.

On monday nights Merl’s band Aunt Monk played at The Sand Dunes in the city, and Jerry would often show up un-announced, carrying his own amp, to sit in with the band. The Aunt Monk Band was put together by Merl to give himself and Tony a regular venue in which they could play together.

In early 2000 Merl became the first recipient of the Lifetime Activist Award from a Florida environmentalist group for his environmental activism. He also 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 Ashbury Music Fair for 24 consecutive years.

The CD Still Groovin’, released on Valentine’s Day, 2016, is the final project Merl worked on. Included on the CD is the classic Tenderly, the last song he played organ and organ bass on. Another tune is a song he wrote with his prior girlfriend Pam Carrier, called The Grass Is Greener, sung by Mavis Staples.

It was during the making of the CD that Merl had his stroke, and Tony carried on as the solo producer. As each track was laid down on the CD, Tony took it to Merl so he could hear and approve of the progress.

The band played live dates with Garcia, as well as Mike Bloomfield, David Grisman, Michael Hinton, Tom Fogarty, Vassar Clements, Kenneth Nash and John Kahn. Merl also played with John Hart, percussionist for the Grateful Dead, in the band High Noon.

In 2002 Merl suffered a stroke which paralyzed the right side of his body. With his daughter Susan working with him on his recovery, he was able to live actively for another 6 years. Although he couldn’t play the organ any longer, his passion for music never waivered: he was able to “talk” to his son Tony about music using expressions and hand gestures, and he tapped Tony on the chest to indicate the right tempo for a song. He died in San Francisco on the morning of October 24, 2008.

The Music Man was one of the tunes on the CD completed after Merl’s stroke. It was a tune written by Tony, with lyrics by Larry Batiste, Tony and Larry Vann. Huey Lewis and Jenny Tracy sang, and Merl’s nephew Raymond Chew played the piano, catching the spirit of Merl. Tears came to Merl’s eyes when he heard the song: He knew it was about him.

Merl’s memorial service was held at his family church in San Francisco. He was remembered by Mayor Willie Brown and Johnny Mathis, among others. It was a moving and emotional gathering with his nephew Ray Chew playing organ and keyboards, Narada Michael Walden playing drums, Michael Hinton, guitar, Carl Lockett on guitar, Ron Stallings on sax and his grandson Tony Saunders Jr, singing. It was a beautiful tribute to all the different genres of music that Merl had played during his lifetime. The gathering overflowed out of the church and into the street, and speakers were placed outside so that all could hear the music.

On February 14, 2009, the year after his father’s death, Tony put together a tribute to Merl’s life. It was held at The Great American Music Hall and featured Wavy Gravy and Max Gail as MC’s and many past musical collaborators, including Bob Weir, Tony, David Grisman, Michael Hinton, Melvin Seals, Michael Warren, Larry Vann, Misa Malone, and Bill Vitt to name just some of the participants.

On June 25, 2009, A re-launch of The Rainforest Band as a tribute to Merl took place at the 29th Starwood Festival in Pennsylvania, at the site of their last performance.