Interview with Melvin Seals

BISS List Interview with Melvin Seals
By Contributing Editor, Josh Danson

For many years in the 80’s and 90’s as a member of the Jerry Garcia Band, Melvin Seals was a friendly and familiar figure on the right side of the stage from Jerry, only slightly obscured by his trademark Hammond organ. As leader of the band that he re-formed after Jerry’s untimely passing, Melvin continues to preside over the gospel, soul, blues, funk, rock, and jam-based revue that is JGB. In this role, he connects us to Jerry’s legacy and helps transport his audiences, some of whom never saw Jerry while he was alive, back to an old familiar place where everyone is welcome, the music is timeless and the grooves are non-stop.

This coming Saturday night, Melvin and JGB return to the famed Warfield Theater in the heart of San Francisco, site of many of his and Jerry’s greatest performances. The Warfield was built in the 20’s and boasts all the trademark, they-don’t-make-‘em-like-they-used-to architectural flourishes of the day. Through the late 80’s and early 90’s, the Jerry Garcia Band was the de facto “house band” at The Warfield, so this Saturday night’s show will be a homecoming in more than one way for the San Francisco-born Seals.

I was fortunate enough to speak with Melvin in advance of the show and he caught me up on his current touring schedule, how his recently announced Wanee Festival set with Karl Denson came about, and then very generously opened up to share some recollections from his days with Jerry, and before.

You can see Melvin Seals and JGB with John Kadlicek on Saturday, Feb. 20th at 8:00 PM at The Warfield in San Francisco. Tickets available here.

BISSList: You’ve got a big gig coming up – JGB with ‘Special Guest’ John Kadlicek, and with David Nelson Band opening – Saturday, Feb. 20th at the Warfield, which for many fans was synonymous with JGB. Does that venue have any special meaning or associations for you?

Melvin Seals: Yeah, I am so excited about that gig. As you probably know, it was home for us with the Jerry Garcia Band and a lot of folks used to call it “church,” like it was their church. It was a home base for us where we could play that we moved up to, because it used to be smaller venues, like The Keystones [in Berkeley and Palo Alto] and other little places. But eventually we got to The Warfield and that’s where we’d play every time we played in the Bay Area. And what’s also exciting about it to me is that The Warfield has not really been doing a whole lot of jam bands. They’ve kind of moved to a different format – a lot of rock and a lot of other stuff – so to allow us back in there, to the place where we called home, I’m ecstatic.

BL: Then you’ve got an East Coast tour coming up after that and I saw it was just announced that you’re playing the Wanee festival with special guest Karl Denson on Sax…

MS: Yeah, that’s another one that I’m extremely excited about, with our “special guest” Karl. Because he has never played with us – I know him personally, and you know we have played together…

BL: Yeah, I was going to ask if you guys had ever played together before and how that gig came about.

MS: So I’ve sat in with the Tiny Universe and in other configurations where I’ve just come up onstage and jammed, but just strictly like that. We’ve never been in a band together or anything. But that was Wanee’s suggestion. They wanted us with a special guest and I guess that’s kind of a going thing – like John is our special guest a lot of the time – it just seems to take it over the top with a special guest. So they wanted us with a special guest and I think they suggested Karl. So we went after him and he was available.

BL: Well that’s going to be a great show.

MS: Yes, absolutely.

BL: I’m trying to think if I’ve ever seen you guys with a sax player before. Is that a configuration that you’ve done before? Obviously back in the day some of the older Jerry Band shows featured Martin Fierro on sax, but is that something that you guys have done before?

MS: Yeah, actually, we’ve been using Dave Ellis regularly in the Bay Area. He’s been with us and he’s on a recording with us and this is actually one of the first few gigs we haven’t had him on, this Warfield gig. But outside of that he’s been doing pretty much all of our local shows. So we’re definitely familiar with the sax sound.

BL: So if you don’t mind me throwing out a few questions to take you back in time a little bit… Who were some of your early musical influences and were you classically trained on piano, or how did you come to play the keys?

MS: Well, I started off on piano and somewhere I got introduced to the organ. I mean it’s not like I had never heard it before, but I heard it one time in church and I was just like, “Wow! Listen to that sound!” And then I knew I wanted to play organ. So I moved from the piano to the organ, and when I did that one of the first people that I knew, that I listened to, who wasn’t too far off to emulate their style was Billy Preston. Because he had that church-y, rock/gospel style, which for me coming straight out of the church, I could identify with. Most all of the other organ players way back then they were like – Jimmy Smith, Jimmy McGriff, Shirley Scott, Jon Hammond – they were jazz players. They were just too fast for me. I couldn’t pick up that shit [laughs]. That was a hard thing to acquire… But Billy Preston, there were a few others – Booker T. was another one – they had something a little but more soulful and catchable. And so those were some of my influences coming out of the church and learning to play other styles of music other than gospel and not make it sound like a church song. I know I’ve got the flair of gospel in my playing, but I can go on and play classical, some Bach, and opera… and a little jazz now too!

BL: So how did you get ahold of a Hammond organ? Is that something you would’ve played in church? I mean that’s not something that everyone just has lying around their living room.

MS: Well, it’s a very funny story, but a true story. The churches had them, so when I first started noticing the organ, I noticed what kind of organ they had. Not all the churches had ‘em, but a lot of the nicer churches. And I wanted a Hammond organ sooooo bad, I drew a picture and put it up in the living room. I actually drew a pretty good picture. And it sat on the wall… I put it up on the wall of the living room. And I would just come home from school every day and look at and just drool over it, thinking, “One day…” And when my father saw that, when he saw that level of interest, he went down and co-signed to get me one.

BL: That is wonderful. So about how old were you then?

MS: I was about nine or ten.

BL: That’s great. I’ve got an eight year-old daughter who’s taking piano lessons now, so I’ll have to tell her to stick with it, because that’s about when Melvin started too!

MS: Well I can tell you though, one thing that may happen is… She may not be there, but for a lot of musicians what happens at that age, you know they get turned on somewhere to something they heard and want to play it. But they want to play what they hear on the radio. And so they may sit down and pick it out and pick it out and pick it out, and so we as parents – I know my parents did the same thing – they said, “Oh, he’s got some real interest in the piano!” And my father played for the choir in church, so there was a piano in the house. So when he saw me trying to sit down and pick out things, struggling – but that’s what you do when you’re learning something new, you struggle and then you figure it out – he immediately thought, “Oh, piano lessons!” But piano lessons went to the opposite end of the field. They started teaching me Beethoven and Bach, early stuff that you can, you know, play with your fingers. But that then took the desire out of me because that’s not what I heard. That’s not what I was trying to play! So I had about six months of music lessons and then he saw that I didn’t want to do it. The desire was not there. But it’s actually not that the desire wasn’t there, that’s just not what fired me up. So we dropped that and I went back to trying to figure it out on my own and hanging around musicians and started being able to pick it up by ear, what I was hearing, and figure it out. But that’s how a lot of kids are. I lot of people give their kids piano lessons, or some sort of lessons, but what they teach them is not what they want to learn right away. And sometime you see that the interest is not there. “Why aren’t you practicing?” “Why aren’t you this?” But they don’t want to play that. They want to play the good stuff.

BL: Yup. Totally. I’m actually trying to teach my daughter that way right now, “I know you don’t really want to play this, so let’s try and figure out some Taylor Swift,” or whatever.

MS: Yeah, yeah see? That’s what I’m talking about.

BL: Very cool. So, how did you come about getting the call to join JGB after Ozzie Ahler’s departure?

MS: Well, I was doing some work with Maria Muldaur – you know, the “Midnight at the Oasis” lady [Muldaur was a product of the Greenwich Village folk scene, who then moved out West to embark on her own recording career, and eventually ending up singing alongside Donna Godchaux in JGB from ’77-’78], and John Kahn was her boyfriend at the time. And of course John Kahn was Jerry’s best friend and the bass player for Jerry Garcia Band. So whenever she was short a bass player, he would sit in with her. So there we were on the bandstand together, and he was definitely paying attention to who I was and what I was doing. Up unto the point where one day he just casually said, “You know I play in another band sometimes, would you be interested in doing a few gigs?” And of course, you know – “Yes, of course!” – you just say yes, because it’s a paying gig. So one day I got that phone call and I didn’t have the foggiest idea of what it was, or who it was, or anything. I just got the phone call and I went and did it. And it took a good while for me to really figure out what was going on, because no one told me anything.

BL: Hah, that’s funny! And that’s actually what I was about to ask next, was… Coming up in San Francisco in the 60’s, were you aware of Jerry and the Grateful Dead from a pretty young age, or was his music something that you discovered later on – it sounds like, when you were in the same room with him, basically?

MS: I knew the likeness of Jerry. I knew the name The Grateful Dead. I knew them because I grew up in San Francisco and you know, they always played New Years at the Oakland Auditorium, or one of them would have a birthday and Channel 7 would say, “Mickey Hart from the Grateful Dead celebrated his birthday today,” or something.  I just knew the name. I didn’t know the players or who they were. I didn’t know who Jerry was at all. I didn’t really know what he looked like or anything, I just knew the name Grateful Dead. But ironically, Merl Saunders was a very good friend of mine – I was with Elvin Bishop at the height of his career after he did that song, “Fooled Around and Fell in Love,” and Merl was playing with Jerry – and we would talk on the phone. He would talk about experiences with the band he was playing with and I had heard the name but I still didn’t know this was the same guy that Merl played with. And I would tell him my experiences about travelling and being on the road… We would just talk because were good friends. But never once did I think that I would one day be sitting in the same chair that he was sitting in. So yeah, I didn’t really know Jerry at all before I joined the band.

BL: That is wild. So, little did you know when you went to that first rehearsal that it would wind up being the first day of the rest of your life, as they say.

MS: Yes, that was the first day in the beginning of my life [laughs]. I mean the music has changed my world around. And it’s basically all I play now. I mean, I have the ability to play and sit in the seat with a lot of other styles of music, and can do quite well. But this is all I’ve been doing since I met Jerry. So I’m contented because I’m going to go out this way, this is what I’m going to be doing.

BL: Well, it’s a great legacy.

MS: Absolutely.

BL: What did you see as your primary musical role in the Jerry Garcia Band? And did Jerry give you direction on how he wanted you to sound – when to lay back and when to take the lead – or was it more intuitive, or achieved through trial and error?

MS: Well, at first they always wanted more of me. But I didn’t know how to give more. What I mean is, if I had heard… They wouldn’t let me hear any of the previous keyboard players, or how they approached the songs, because they wanted me to do what I felt was right. And whatever I thought was right, according to what I did, Jerry seemed to like that a lot. So again, I knew Merl had played with this guy – I figured out that this was the guy he had been playing with – but they would not let me hear any tracks. And I guess it made sense because if I had heard Ozzie, if I had heard Merl, I would have immediately started playing how they played, because I would’ve figured this is what they’re used to and let me give them what they’re used to. But they just gave me some chord charts and told me to play [laughs]! So I just played and there was nothing ever really so wrong that Jerry ever said anything about it. He never really told me to play anything different from the time I’ve been with him. He’s never really given me any direction in the time I’ve been with him. And I’m not saying that in a bad way. I think he just liked the approach I brought.

BL: Your Hammond organ sound is super distinctive, with that Wurlitzer-like, kaleidoscopic swirling sound. How do you achieve that effect, or is that just the magic of the Hammond and the Lesley and with your special touch?

MS: Well, a lot of it is knowing the drawbars and learning how program the Hammond. It’s a lot more of an organ than you think it is.

BL: Did you say the “drawboards”?

MS: Drawbars. Those are the modules that pull out and there’s eight banks of them and you pull them out and it helps to make the sound. You can really build in the sound. A lot of folks, a lot of organ players, don’t have the theory that I have behind those. Cats don’t know how to make a whole lot of the sounds that I can make. And with that theory it allows you to do some things that only works with that sound [with those settings]. But it really was me heavily studying the orchestra and the wind instruments, flute and clarinets, and when they come in and how they approach those soft parts of the songs. The little things they would do. That’s how I play organ, I think of it as an orchestra, that whole big piece as an orchestra. And even if it doesn’t sound like a violin, in my mind, when we could come down and we would break it down to a soft spot, I’m bringing it down to violins. So it’s a sound that lot of folks just don’t do, but it seems to work for what I’m trying to do. So when you say it’s a “Wurlitzer sound,” the Wurlitzer does a lot of that kind of stuff. You know those “windy” sounds? Well I like to play with that stuff. I just think of an orchestra and build in like – “the strings are going to come in now” and “the horns are going to come in now” – and that’s how I feel.

BL: Right on. It’s a beautiful sound. So obviously it was Jerry’s band and presumably he made most of the decisions as far as the songs that were in rotation, but did he ever open it up to other members of the band to bring in or suggest songs, and if so, did you have any that you were able to add to the mix?

MS: Oh yeah. As a matter of fact, it was Gloria [Jones] that brought “The Maker” to Jerry. Or at least played it for him, and he liked it and so he started doing “The Maker”. And Jackie [LaBranch] brought in something one time. I don’t think I actually ever brought in a song, but I helped arrange the endings – or maybe a song needed a modulation, it needed to go somewhere, I did a lot of that. But I don’t think I actually brought in any songs. I was more-so an arranger.

BL: That’s interesting. So you were kind of like a musical director.

MS: Yeah, but it was never an official title or anything. I produced a lot of records, so I would throw it out there when I had ideas. And if they like they like it, if they don’t they don’t. Especially with the background vocals. When we would do a song and it had no background, I helped create the background so they could stay more involved with a lot of the songs. Otherwise, a lot of the songs didn’t have background vocals.

BL: Jerry clearly loved gospel music, spiritual music, although he wasn’t known for being religious in any way. I reviewed a show you played at the Great American back in 2011 where you played, “Throw Out the Lifeline,” a song that Jerry played only a handful of times in the late 80’s and early 90’s. It’s a song about salvation and about someone who is struggling and needs to be thrown a line. Is there a story behind that song and do you think Jerry was trying to say anything about his own personal situation and struggles when he chose to perform it, or did he just like that song?

MS: I don’t know what his theory was with that particular song, but I do know that there was a deep religious vein within Jerry that I think he fought. He fought it because I think he figured… it was the same thing with anything political. He didn’t live the kind of life to own it or to feel the calling, whatever you might want to call it. And speaking of the political, Jerry was very powerful in that way. If he said something politically-leaning, or said, “I’m going to vote this way,” all his fans would have gone with him. So he stayed out of that kind of limelight.
I remember having a conversation with Jerry when Dr. Scott was on TV, almost around the clock it seemed like – he had his own channel, his own network – and he would break down his theory. Dr. Scott was a minister but he didn’t preach holiness and stuff, he taught from science. And he would break it down through science and politics and history and how this came to be and how that came to be. And Jerry knew all that stuff and Jerry also knew the bible quite well. I don’t know when he learned it or where it came from, but he knew it, he understood it and those songs meant something to him. “Sisters and Brothers,” is a gospel song. “Throw Out the Lifeline,” “I Hope it Won’t be This Way Always”… “The Maker” is a gospel song. And there are others that have gospel elements in the song, or the bible, the feel or just something about it. I just think that it was something that he loved but didn’t want to embrace fully. He left a lot of things alone and just didn’t go there.

BL: Right. Well it clearly resonated with him on some level.

MS: Yes, well it came through his music.

BL: Speaking of gospel and the church; I heard somewhere that Jackie and Gloria were originally members of your church choir, is that true?

MS: Yes, they were in a church group. Not my church choir, but there was a community choir called the San Francisco Inspirational Choir, which was a group that anybody could join and they would go around singing gospel programs and spiritual musical and make appearances. And Jackie and Gloria were in that choir. There were a lot of singers, but a lot of singers didn’t grasp the concept. You know, Jerry allowed me to go out after he had other singers that he wasn’t totally happy with and he wanted me to go find some singers from the church. And it wasn’t first Jackie and Gloria, as you probably know, but there were two sets of singers before them and they both failed. We worked them out in rehearsal and then went on the road and they couldn’t sing the parts, they just lost everything. So I went back to the drawing board and snapped the whip another time and again it didn’t work out, until I got Jackie and Gloria, and then it worked out.

BL: Yes, indeed. I remember at one of the early Jerry Day celebration seeing you share the organ with Merl Saunders who was pretty sick at the time…

MS: Yeah, actually that was at The Greek Theater. That was at “Comes a Time” [a celebration of Jerry’s legacy on the 10th anniversary of his passing, featuring the likes of Trey Anastasio, Warren Haynes, String Cheese Incident, Melvin and JGB, and many more].

BL: Oh man, you’re right! I thought that was at Jerry Day, thanks for correcting me.

MS: Yeah, Merl had had a few strokes and he had recently had another one so he was not really able to play. He was going to be there, but they had him just sitting on the side, just to be honored because he was a big part of the scene. But I said, “No, he’s going to play today!” So I got him up and – he couldn’t really play – but I just kind of guided him a little bit and then let him sit. But just to see him up there was all it took. Because he hadn’t been playing for a while, so just to see him hold a couple notes – that’s all it took! And that’s what I wanted to get out of it, rather than for him just to sit back there and be honored.

BL: Yeah, that was wonderful. I remember everybody just feeling inspired by that and thinking what a wonderful gesture that was. And I was going to ask if you guys were close, or if you were just acquaintances, but I think you touched on that earlier.

MS: Yeah, we were very good friends and we even had a production company together and did some albums together. We had a production company called “MS Productions” – Merl Saunders and Melvin Seals. And we’ve done some production and… we were good friends. We even did a couple tours together, when he was able to – it was called the M&M Tour. We actually have an album out from that tour.

BL: Oh nice, I’ll have to check that out. So it was like, dueling organs??

MS: Yes, double live organs, dual organs. We would have them standing side by side.

BL: Very cool!

MS: Yep, it’s on a record label called Blues Planet Records.

BL: Nice, I’m going to look it up after this call.

MS: Yeah, it’s on Blues Planet Records and if you can’t find it, I’ve got a copy for you.

BL: Hah, excellent! [laughs] I’ll have to hit you up for a signed copy.

MS: Oh yeah, no problem at all.

BL: You’ve always played a big part of Jerry Day and in keeping Jerry’s spirit alive in general. So first, I just wanted to say thank you for that and then ask why you think it’s important to keep his memory alive and keep that flame burning?

MS: Well, it doesn’t want to die! I thought after four or five years the syndrome would just kind of slowly go away. But it’s growing. And it’s getting stronger and stronger and bigger and bigger. And it’s not just the Jerry Garcia Band, it’s the whole movement of the Grateful Dead and the songs that they wrote, who they are and what they did in history. You know, every city, every town, there’s a Grateful Dead cover band, playing Grateful Dead music. And people buy tickets and go and hear them play. And some of them are not even that good. But the fans want to hear those songs played live. Doesn’t matter if ain’t the original boys, they just still want to dance. Until their kids and their kids’ kids will turn it on, so they hear it in their house sometimes. And now they go out and I’m looking in the eyes of teenagers that didn’t see Jerry and they’re mouthing every word to every song – they know the lyrics! It gets passed down through the generations. You have people – 16, 17, 21 years-old – they’re acting like they were there and they’re just having a great time, you know? It’s just not going to die. It’s never going to die. It’s getting stronger and stronger and that keeps me working today. And it’s not the older Deadheads that supported me more-so with JGB, I have the kids. And they still buy tickets and they still come out. It’s not the older ones, it’s the younger ones and newer people who were not turned on to the music and they bring someone else and they go, “Wow!” and then they become a loyal fan. And that’s what keeps me working.

BL: Well that’s a great thing. I love that you’re still out there and still connecting us to that legacy and that feeling. It’s a wonderful thing. So thank you and I’m looking forward to the Warfield!

MS: Well alright. And if you don’t find that record, you get in contact and I’ll bring you a signed copy down. Heck, I might bring you a whole box of them down [Laughs]!

BL: Alright! You know I’ve actually… We’ve actually met before one time. We were both sitting there at the carwash on Van Ness and I…

MS: Oh, I remember that!

BL: Yeah, I was sitting next to you and I was like, “Is your name Melvin?” [laughs]

MS: I remember that! I DO remember that [laughs].

BL: Well it was a pleasure chatting with you Melvin. I really appreciate your time and I wish you good luck on the tour and I look forward to seeing you at the Warfield.

MS: Thank you, I appreciate it very much.

Melvin Seals and JGB with John Kadlicek, with special guest David Nelson Band, will be playing the Warfield on Market St. in San Francisco on Saturday, February 20th. Show starts at 8:00 PM, doors at 7:00. You can purchase tickets here.