Backstage Pass: An Interview with Melvin Seals

First Appeared in The Music Box, July 1998, Volume 5, #7

Written by John Metzger


It's been a difficult time for many since the passing of Jerry Garcia nearly three years ago. Long-time Jerry Garcia Band keyboardist Melvin Seals has been working harder than ever, and the fruits of his labor are beginning to pay off.

Over the past few months his latest project JGB, a tribute to his former friend and bandmate, has started to fall into place — though it hasn't been easy. The first idea to reunite the Jerry Garcia Band came at nearly the same time to both Seals and bassist John Kahn. Said Seals, "I think it was the beginning of 1996. I was trying to figure out what I could do. There were a lot of fans that liked [Garcia's] music, and I'm sure they didn't want it to die. I kept going to the office and saying, ‘can't we do something? Can't we do a reunion or something?' The office kept saying, ‘Oh, it's all over. Jerry's dead. It's just all over.' So I started putting a tribute album together. I was gonna put a band together and call it Tribute."

"The curiosity was there," said Seals. But questions remained. Seals explained, "How would the fans feel with this band playing without Jerry being here? Would they not accept it? Would they like it?"

Before Seals could get a group together and begin recording an album, John Kahn scheduled several performances in Santa Cruz, which answered many of Seals' questions and led him down the path he travels today. "The first [show] sold out within 30 minutes," said Seals. "It's a place that holds about 400 people so it wasn't a lot, but still it sold out in less than 30 minutes, and they added a second night. So we went down there and got the whole band together, and we played. I think the only mistake that John made, bless his heart, is that he only did two songs that we did with Jerry. And the rest was other material that he wanted to do. Folks were asking me when I came out the first night, ‘Melvin, are you guys gonna do more Jerry tunes tomorrow night?' And I said, ‘It's not my band. This is John Kahn's baby.' So I had a chance to see that there is a hunger still for the music. And they danced. They still enjoyed themselves."

Tragically, John Kahn died three weeks after those performances. Plans for future shows were quickly scrapped, but Seals was determined to keep the spirit alive. He stated, "I was kind of like the next in line. [I was] the next person that had been with [Jerry] the longest in [terms of] seniority. So I started looking at what has been happening — what Bob Weir's doing, what Mickey Hart's been doing."

"I saw an interview [with] Jerry," Seals explained, "and they asked Jerry ‘well what do you think when it's all over?' And Jerry commented, ‘what when I die or something? Well I'd like to believe that the music is bigger than me, and it will live on.' And I kept rewinding the video and looking at it...I kept rewinding it, and I kept looking at what was happening. Bob Weir changed his style. He went out and was doing something totally different. He wanted to get away from it. Mickey had the drum thing. It was totally different. The thing John Kahn wanted to do is totally different. And no one is doing it. I said, ‘I want to go back out and do exactly what we used to do with Jerry. Not change any of it. Go back and make it as close as possible to the real deal. When I got into that band they taught me a lot. Let me put it back.'"

"So," Seals continued, "I started getting some musicians together — the ones that were remaining (Jackie LaBranch, Gloria Jones, and Donny Baldwin). [We] rehearsed and rehearsed and rehearsed and listened to Jerry tapes and just tried to make it just the way it was. Of course we don't have Jerry, and we know that. But if you can get past that and close your eyes and just remember, I think you will feel something."

Getting the band back on track proved more difficult than Seals expected. Consequently, there have been a number of changes in the line-up — the most recent being the departure of singer/saxophonist Armin Winter and drummer Donny Baldwin. Guitarist Peter Harris has since assumed all of the lead vocal duties, and the result has been wonderful. Seals commented, "Sometimes when you have a band, everybody's ideas don't flow the same. Sometimes there's problems there. Sometimes it takes a little tweaking before you find — I'm not going to say the right combination because when they were in the band it was right for then — but it gets kind of complicated. Armin wants to be a band leader of his own. He had his own idea that wasn't working in JGB."

Regarding Baldwin's departure, Seals added, "Don had been on the road for a long time. I think Don was just tired. He had family at home, and he had a hard time being on the road."

Lately, JGB has been auditioning drummers for the band, and this seems to be the final piece to be put into place. Rounding out the improvisational, gospel-based band are Elgin Seals on bass and Judah Gold on guitar.

Gospel music is in Seals' blood. He took great inspiration from the churches in which he grew up. "I always admired the piano and organ in church," said Seals. "I'd watch the church organist and piano player. They're striking notes, and folks are shouting. I used to always think, ‘Oh that's so great.' So I always wanted to play keyboards just from watching them."

Seals continued, "My father played a little bit in the church that we grew up in. We had a piano in the house, and naturally, with one being there I'd sit down and just peck at it until I started making sense out of it. At some point when they saw a little talent in me, they sent me to school to really try to learn it right. It started really around the age of 8."

Other than a brief flirtation with acoustic, upright bass in his junior high school band, Seals has focused his entire life on his keyboard playing. Said Seals, "We used to watch Billy Preston on Shin Dig way back then playin' the organ and rockin'. I just got into that so much and all. So when I saw him way back then doing some of the things he was doing, I wanted to do that. That took me to that level. He kind of had that ‘rock is gospel' style himself. That's where a lot of mine came from."

Seals dove headfirst into the San Francisco gospel scene where he joined and toured with his first professional band Gideon & Power. From there, he shifted gears and began working on Broadway plays. Said Seals, "I did 5 or 6 Broadway plays, [but] I realized after every night on cue — the same thing over and over and over — I didn't really want to do this anymore. I wanted a little more freedom."

It was there that he met Elvin Bishop. "He came in and saw me play," explained Seals. "He was going to do a live record, and he wanted me to play on it. So we did a two week tour and wound up recording this record."

It was several years later that he first met Garcia. "I did some gigs with Maria Muldaur," said Seals. "Her boyfriend at the time was John Kahn. He [came to] the gigs, and he admired what I was doing so he asked me if I'd be interested in jamming with another band sometime. He never really went into the details of what it was. Nobody even told me he played with [Jerry]."

"[Kahn] called me up one day [and said] we're trying to put some rehearsals together to get some gigs," Seals continued. "I went up to the address and there's Jerry Garcia and John Kahn and all these other musicians. I didn't even know what was going on. Really, it still didn't hit me until the end of the rehearsal."

Once they began to tour, it took awhile for people to realize that the person on stage wasn't Merl Saunders. Joked Seals, "I've always heard that people thought I was Merl for a long time. [They'd yell], ‘Hi Merl!' [and I'd respond], ‘Hi! How ya doin'?' I didn't bother to tell them. Jerry didn't really introduce the band very much so they just couldn't tell. So I went on as Merl for awhile."

Playing in the Jerry Garcia Band was a very different experience than those to which Seals was accustomed. He wasn't really familiar with the music of the Grateful Dead nor the scene that surrounded it. Seals explained, "I was just coming out of gospel...out of the church. Like I said I did these Broadway plays and played with Elvin. I knew the name Grateful Dead, but I couldn't point them out. I was not a Deadhead. I didn't know anything about them. I walked in there stone cold, and it was just different. I didn't know what was going on."

As it turned out, it was exactly what Seals needed after the heavily orchestrated and repetitive work he did on Broadway. "It was very different because with Jerry [there was] a certain looseness with the music," said Seals. "He didn't want it too tight. He didn't want it too orchestrated or too arranged. He wanted it to just flow. [He wanted you to] use your heart and your mind instead of trying to be technical. And I came from the element of R&B music [where] things are very technical and very precise."

Seals continued, "So, I'm playing and thinking, ‘you guys are messing up all over the place.' But I had to learn, that's a feel. That's the way they want it because they don't want it tight. And I had to learn to adapt to that — which I love. I absolutely love. I don't think I could go back and do the other thing now. So it was new to me, and it was good to me too. They didn't tell me what to play. They gave me some charts with the guidelines and just let me do my own thing. That was really nice."

Having passed the first hurdle of open-ended, improvisational jamming, Seals next surprise was the sea of counter-cultural people that followed the Grateful Dead and Jerry Garcia. Said Seals, "Coming from a true church background, you start seeing skeletons all over the place. A lot of their logos have to do with skeletons and dead, and I was kind of confused. [I thought], ‘what is this? What is this really all about?' I didn't want to be in some strange cult or something like that, [but then] I learned that it wasn't anything about that at all."

Seals found that the audience's relationship with the band and the music took on more of a spiritual and religious quality than he had at first expected. "I started thinking about the name — The Grateful Dead...the Grateful Dead," said Seals. "It's amazing. I can't interpret it for you but it started making sense to me. It's a very religious thing. We do a couple of gospel songs now and they just go to church on you. But at first, I was a little afraid of what it was. I didn't know."

But Seals fit in perfectly, and as the band evolved, he brought in Jackie LaBranch and Gloria Jones to handle the backing vocals. Seals explains, "I got two separate singers, and they didn't quite work out. So I went back to the drawing board. Jackie sang with a gospel choir. Gloria I just recently met. She came into my studio with another group so I said well let's see if this will work. We rehearsed and I brought them into Jerry and he kinda liked them."

The band toured whenever the Grateful Dead were on a break, but it was less and less frequent as Garcia's health declined. The group only cut one studio album with Seals — 1982's Run for the Roses — though they did return to the studio to record two songs for the movie Smoke.

"We had extra material that was never used for the Run for the Roses record," explained Seals. "There were songs that didn't go on there, [but] I think they probably pulled out the best."

Seals added, "I heard that they do have some film from Shoreline. I heard at some point when Deborah [Koons Garcia] gets through all this feudin' and fightin' they might put out a Jerry Garcia Band video."

The year that Garcia died, the band was supposed to return to the studio to begin working on a new album. Said Seals, "[Jerry] was so happy with the band he wanted to cut another record, but there's something about him going into the studio and recording. He takes a lot of time to do it, [but] Jerry realized that this band was different [from the Grateful Dead] and can actually cut a record."

Seals continued, "I was gonna get [more] involved. At that point, Jerry had heard a lot of stuff that I was doing in my studio, and I think he liked the songs. We just didn't get to do it. He just stayed too busy."

"I personally think that Jerry was chosen or had a bigger mission than he thought," reflected Seals. "He had so many people that loved him, that would do anything for him. And I just think that if Jerry had went deeper into religion...he's a very religious man. Jerry would read the bible at night — which some people don't know — but he wouldn't show it so much on stage. He could feel it in his heart, but his life was not in order and he didn't want that mission. He didn't want that burden. He was afraid of leading multiple people down the wrong path. Everyone knew about his life and knew about some of his problems, and he didn't want to spread that message. Yet he had a problem."

The day that the band was filming the video for Smoke Gets in Your Eyes, Garcia was in a car accident on the Golden Gate Bridge. Said Seals, "He was in a bad accident. I heard it on the news and I said, ‘oh there ain't gonna be no session today.' And they called and said, ‘Jerry's alright, he'll be there.'"

"I used to tell Jerry," Seals continued, "there is a reason for you. He said, ‘Melvin I sure wish I knew what it was.'"

"I told Jerry three times that there [was] a reason for [him] being here. [I said], ‘it's not what you're doing. It's something else,'" explained Seals. "But I just don't think he could get it together. He was trying to get it together. He really was. Towards the end he was trying to clean up his act and just get clean. I think he wanted to take it in another direction. We were gonna learn more gospel songs and just kind of move into a more positive spiritual direction, but that struggle between good and bad was just there."

"There was a lot of positive," Seals continued. "He had a lot of love for the people. I guess it came through in the music. They felt it. But I'm saying from backstage and me knowing Jerry, he had a lot of love."

Seals remained with the Jerry Garcia Band longer than any other keyboardist. He was with the band from 1980 until the untimely death of its leader. Seals commented, "It was said that when Jerry found me, he found his keyboard player."

Earlier this year, the band released their first post-Garcia album, Welcome to Our World, which was recorded live at the House of Blues in Los Angeles last October. The disc (which includes Winter and Baldwin) displays how remarkably well the band has gelled since its reunion, and it hints at some of the new directions the band will take in the future.

Said Seals, "I know Jerry was [going to do] a lot more gospel stuff. When I watch the [audience as] we do Sisters and Brothers, which is a gospel song, they just seem to go to church. They just seem to really get happy and filled with joy, and I want to extend that. I have a thing of liking to put little medleys together so I came up with Will the Circle Be Unbroken with the same style as Sisters and Brothers. I was looking for a song, I always look for something that I know [that the audience] knows the words to. You get more response when they know the words, [and] everybody knows Will the Circle Be Unbroken."

"There's a message in that too," Seals continued. "The circle of people that come together. Will the circle be broken, or will it remain the same? Will they hold hands, and keep it together? I [also] put this other one in there — (I Got a Feeling) Everything's Gonna Be Alright. If the circle is not broken, I have a feeling that everything's gonna be alright. And they seem to just go to church. They're just shouting and really get off on that. I've seen people with tears in their eyes; they're so happy with joy. That makes me feel real good."

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