Merl Saunders Publicity Photo

Still Having Fun:
An Interview with Merl Saunders

(Part Two)

First Appeared at The Music Box, September 2001, Volume 8, #9

Written by John Metzger

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Merl Saunders is well-known within the Deadhead community for his many collaborations with the Grateful Dead and Jerry Garcia. Additionally, he achieved mainstream attention surrounding the 1990 release of his sterling, new age effort Blues from the Rainforest. Yet, these projects show only two of the wildly diverse roads that Saunders has traveled in a career that defies categorization.

His latest project — the live album Struggling Man — finds Saunders returning to a style he helped pioneer in the late ’60s and early ’70s. Recorded with the Toronto-based jazz-rock ensemble One Step Beyond, the disc delivers a hybrid of jazz, funk, and improvisational rock that fuses James Brown, Jimmy Smith, and the Grateful Dead into an adventurous musical collage.

In early June, I chatted with Saunders by phone from his office in San Francisco. This is the second part of a two part interview. To read part one, Click Here.

You have long been a spokesperson for protecting the environment, and you recently received an Environmental Achievement Award from the Save the Earth Foundation. When did you first realize all of the problems facing the environment and how did you first get involved in protecting it?

Long before...some of my early songs, like ’69 and ’70 — Save Mother Earth. The record companies didn’t really like that. They said, "The music is fine but the words you’re saying..."

I became aware of that from a kid...traveling with my parents quite a bit up and down the coast. Looking now at where I used to play when I was a kid, it’s all the golden arches and things. It's gone. So I became very aware.

Also, when I was a kid, I used to get boxes from Mr. Jones on Sunday and go over to Mrs. Smith and collect her bottles and move to another place and get tin cans and get them all together. And that's how I made my money. It was called my allowance!

Do you think things have gotten better or worse over the past 30 years?

I think it's gotten better. The organizations like the Rainforest Action Network — the kids are aware. I walk on the beach frequently and I see recycle bins the past two or three years. That's awareness.

I walk the streets over in Japan, and they have it on every corner. The streets are totally clean. It's unbelievable.

What do you think is the biggest issue facing our planet?

Everybody is not being real. It's like we have a President. It's not real. The whole thing is a hoax.

This marijuana issue is terrible. People have glaucoma, high blood pressure, cancer, and they can't take marijuana? They put alcohol and cigarettes on the market that will kill you. That's the game. That's sad.

What is the best way for your fans to get involved in environmental issues?

That's why I talk to kids. Young kids. Let them be aware of what is happening. Why should I be in my '50s before I find out about pink dolphins? How come I didn't read about that in my history books? How come I didn't read about this little leaf that this native gave me when I was in the jungle that took my headache away in about ten seconds. Why do we have to pay $10 for this medicine. How come I have to pay over $100,000 for a cancer cure when they're walking into the jungles and curing themselves?

So basically, just more awareness about what is out there?

Yes, yes.

Are you planning to go back to the rainforest?

Oh yes, yes. The 21 days I spent there — I learned more about that than the 12 years I spent in school.

There's nothing like experiencing something.

Well you know and I know that your old time millionaires never went to school. Never.

Will there be a Blues from the Rainforest, Part 3?

Yes, yes, there will. What was so unique about Fiesta Amazonica — I went all the way to Bulgaria to lay some tracks because I wanted to get the Bulgarian singers on my album. They told me — you come to Bulgaria and we'll do it for you.

It gives the album a more exotic feel.

Yeah, I want to go back to Peru but right now there is that weird war. I got out three hours before that hit. Had I not, I still would have been there.

Have you started thinking about your next studio album?

I'm in the studio now. I'm doing a blues album.

Straight blues?

Pretty straight blues. One of the tracks has been laid. Maria Muldaur and I sang a song together, and it's pretty intense. I brought back a couple of songs — Man Child, which we started doing again. It's kind of a gospel blues. We're just finishing up the tracks at Expressions Media over in Emeryville — at the school. They invited me to come over there because they had high tech engineers and everything. I'm working with a couple of kids...students... that are just great.

Are there other guests you are planning on working with?

There are some tracks I'm trying to work Dr. John into.

I'm looking forward to going back to the jungle. Costa Rica. I want to go back to Peru. It's very spiritual there. But not until the war is over. I will go someplace else. The rainforest is everywhere, all over the world.

Have you thought about going to Africa?

Yes, yes I have. But there are so many projects I'm working on. I'm working on a new book — a biography. I'm trying to finish this...and I want my music to be in a Broadway play form — starting in church, going through my little jazz thing, going through my rock and roll, going through the Grateful Dead, going through the Blues from the Rainforest music, and also going through my organ trio thing that I used to do like Jimmy Smith. This for a Broadway play. Put all these elements together and have guests each night, and don't tell [the audience] who is going to play to me. I'm going to present this in New York.

Do you have a time frame?

I haven't actually started working on it. It's just an idea right now. They say that once you've been on Broadway, you always want to go back.

I've also worked with John Hendricks on The Evolution of the Blues. It's a great, great musical thing about where music came from. They start with gospel. They walk in through the audience in gowns and things, and they walk to the stage, and he talks about where it all started from. And he talks about New York. Each night he would say, "In New York, they have the conservatories downtown where the professors taught. But at night, people would go uptown and see the geniuses like Charlie Parker." (Laughs)

So this is obviously going to be a big influence on your own play.

As a kid, I was very fortunate to have hip parents, that played good music. But also there was no MTV. Nothing like that. So my outlet was my parents saying, "Hey, guess who is in town." So they took me to see all these people that I had heard on record. Jimmy Dorsey, Tommy Dorsey, Milo Hampton, Duke Ellington. I saw all this from sitting about twenty-five feet from it. So that was my inspiration.

That's the way I was taught. That's the way I saw Tommy Dorsey, Jimmy, Lionel...just take the whole band and the audience...going up and down the aisle, jumping on the seats. That's fun! That's where I got that turning around and rubbing my butt on the organ from. Lionel Hampton did that.

People say, how come you look like you're having so much fun up there? Because that's what I went to see. They had fun.

One of my albums Still Having Fun, the picture is from my high school and underneath it says "Some things never change. I'm still having fun."

Another thing I wanted to bring up — we're talking about [Legion of Mary] and doing a release, bringing up the surviving members and doing a tour.

A new recording as well?

Actually, we're going to release the old Legion of Mary tapes. We're going to put that out there, and we're going to back it up and play those songs.

And I still want to do more [Rainforest Band] music. I want to do more playing in Europe. Last time I really played in Europe was when I was a youngster in the service, and I got to travel because of the military. They let me play music at the officer's club. I was more or less a spokesman for the United States by playing music. But I would like to go over there to play. It's such a great place to play.

Is there a tour planned?

No...I'm playing about 175 days a year, and my family wants me to slow down. When you get in your '60s....I drive my band crazy.

I take off, and after about three days, I'm like "When are we going out again? I'm ready!"

I can't believe I have such a young audience out there too. When you catch the audience out there singing your songs — and they weren't even born — it makes you feel good. That's what keeps me going.

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To read Part One, Click Here

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Struggling Man is available from Barnes & Noble.
To order, Click Here!

Blues from the Rainforest is available on DVD from Barnes & Noble.
To order, Click Here!

Fiesta Amazonica is available from Barnes & Noble.
To order, Click Here!

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Copyright © 2001 The Music Box