Hammond B-3 player Merl Saunders recorded with numerous renowned artists beginning in the early '70s, and led many of his own dates in a variety of genres from jazz to blues to new age to rock. Born on Valentine's Day, 1934 in San Mateo, California, Saunders began learning to play the piano at the age of ten. (He was a classmate and bandmate of Johnny Mathis through junior high school.) He decided on music as a profession after seeing how much fun was had by audiences and performers alike at concerts by such musicians as Cab Calloway. He apprenticed early on with Jimmy Smith for a time, and attended various music schools. Starting in the early '70s, Saunders collaborated on and off with Jerry Garcia and the Grateful Dead. He also began working as a jazz keyboardist, and performed and recorded with Harry Belafonte, Frank Sinatra, Lionel Hampton, Miles Davis, B.B. King, Bonnie Raitt, and Paul Butterfield.
One of his several albums with Jerry Garcia, Blues from the Rainforest, hit the Top Five of the U.S. Billboard new age chart in the early '90s. Out of that collaboration grew the eco-minded Rainforest Band which Saunders would lead for the next decade, releasing three more albums. He also ran his own label, Sumertone, which included much of his catalog, as did the Fantasy label. In 1998, Saunders released his 20th album as a leader, With His Funky Friends: Live! (Sumertone), which included guests Garcia, John Popper (of Blues Traveler), and Trey Anastasio (of Phish). In addition to his busy touring schedule, the San Franciscan also wrote scores for TV and movies, including Tales from the Crypt, Twilight Zone, Heavy Traffic, and Fritz the Cat. He also served as the production co-ordinator for the Grammy Awards for two years and worked with a number of charitable organizations, including the Rainforest Action Network and the Haight-Ashbury Free Clinic.
Saunders remained active as a musician, bandleader, composer, and collaborator until 2002, when a stoke paralyzed one side of his body. Complications from that stroke would eventually take his life six years later on October 24, 2008. A pair of tribute concerts were held the following year in San Francisco honoring Saunders' musical career. He has also been featured on a number of posthumous releases, most notably the archival Jerry Garcia series Garcialive which, in 2013, began issuing a variety of different Garcia ensembles, several of which included Saunders on keyboards. ~ Joslyn Layne