It’s safe to say that, when you played in a band with Jerry Garcia for close to two decades, you probably learned a thing or two. Hammond B3 organ wizard Melvin Seals was one of the select few who had the distinct privilege of sharing the stage with Garcia during the much celebrated tenure of the Jerry Garcia Band. Seals’ background in gospel music and R&B fit in perfectly, pushing the musical boundaries every night with a repertoire that included everything from rock and gospel to jazz and reggae. Since Garcia’s death in 1995, Seals’ has remained one of the true “keepers of the flame,” faithfully preaching the good book of Jerry wherever he goes, most recently with Terrapin Flyer and JGB.
Recently, Shane McFarland of Live For Live Music got to talk to Seals’ about his illustrious career with the Jerry Garcia Band, what it’s been like going from a player in a band to the leader of his own project, some memories from an historic San Francisco venue, and future collaborations with a couple of old pals.
L4LM: Let’s start out with an easy one, where’d the nickname “Master of the Universe” come from?
MS: Jerry named me that. He used to introduce me as that.
L4LM: Was that early on he gave you that nickname?
MS: I’m not sure. Somewhere in the middle, cause for a couple of years he didn’t introduce the band, but whenever he did, that’s what he called me.
L4LM: You’ve gone from a player in the Jerry Garcia Band to now the band leader of JGB. Can you tell me how the music has changed for you in the thirty some odd years since you’ve been associated with them?
MS: Well, how it changed for me and how I look at it is a lot different now than when I played with Jerry. I was just the keyboard player. I didn’t know lyrics to songs. I just had to play the organ and didn’t have to worry about any of the band things, which was playing the parts right, chords right, words right, the right feel, anything like that.
Now, emulating the band, I put more into it than I’ve ever put into it because I wanna make sure it’s right; that we’re doing exactly what we used to do. Now I’m all over the parts, tempos, keys and words. I’ve done more studying of the music without Jerry than when I was with him.
L4LM: Do you find yourself going through more exhaustive rehearsals now that you’re going over the music with a finer tooth comb?
MS: Well, we’re on the upper end of things now. We don’t have to have a lot of rehearsal, because the band knows all the songs. It’s only when we’re playing a new song or have a new member of the band for some reason. But, we haven’t been having a lot of rehearsal because we know the whole repertoire, so it’s actually not a lot.
L4LM: I’ve read that there wasn’t much rehearsing for Jerry Garcia Band shows, that Jerry liked a raw sound. What was it like going from playing gospel music and playing in Broadway plays were everything was very timely and measured, to something that was more free form?
MS: That was very difficult for me. Absolutely difficult, because in the world that I kinda surrounded myself in, which was a lot of gospel and R&B at that time, we have a tendency to wanna make everything tight. Very tight and organized, and y’know, you dot your i’s and you cross your t’s. What I mean by that…when accents and things would come up that we would hit together, we would hit it on time together and make sure it was real strong…and with the Jerry Garcia Band it was the opposite.
Everybody would hit it at all different times. It was like they all couldn’t do it, like it was all off, and that used to frustrate me. I thought the band was such a great band, but the guys can’t hit on the “one” at the same time (laughs). I didn’t understand that and I had to learn and had to be reprogrammed…that there’s something else that goes on with that music.
It’s not about how tight it is and how every night you play the same things. Actually, you don’t even do that. It’s impossible and it’s not expected. They like from night to night for you to improvise. It’s different every night, and they like that. You know, we can take a “How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You)” and open it up one night with sass and then we can do it the second night and it’s just dragging slow….(laughs)
I had to learn to loosen it up. It’s not about how tight it was, it was about the heart. What leaves the heart reaches the heart. What goes on on that stage, they can feel it.
They would applaud whenever we would make mistakes, and they knew there was a mistake. Jerry would miss a word or hit a bad note…oh, they would clap….like, “what in the world is this?” So I’ve learned now that it’s not about how tight it was, it’s about the vibe and feel. And he kinda programmed me to understand that.
L4LM: What was the initial reception from Deadheads and Jerry Garcia fans when you started the JGB project? The other members of the Dead kinda went different routes after Jerry’s death, but you seemed to stay the course with the music.
MS: Well it definitely grew from when we first started. Jerry Garcia Band fans were the few in between, you know, but there were a few faithful people who just loved his music and who just loved him. Of course, the band was not the first Garcia band he had. He had other musicians way before me, but the version I was lucky to be a part of started small, doing The Keystone and smaller clubs, and things like that, and grew to the point where we were selling out the same venues as the Grateful Dead, Madison Square Garden and Nassau, all the places we were playing. Now, mind you, we would only sell out one night. The Dead would sell em’ out seven nights in a row. But, we got to a level where we selling out these same venues at least one night.
L4LM: What was it about your relationship with Jerry and the time you spent in the band that made you want to continue his legacy? Another musician might have moved onto another project. What was it about him that made you want to carry on with the music?
MS: Well, I’m not sure to be honest. I didn’t understand it, and you know how there’s that something you don’t understand and you kinda wanna figure it out? It’s like you go to the library, you get a book, read the book, wanna go get another book, and it’s like “okay, I got it now.” It took me a while to get it. And I don’t know if I ever got it and I don’t know if I got it now. But, you know the fans are peculiar, but they are some of the most loving fans and people in the world. You’re talking about a group of people who just love you to death unconditionally and would do anything for you. It’s the only group of people that I know who would probably do things like that.
And as the music began it just changed from night to night. It wasn’t tight…in a lot of ways kinda sloppy, and I couldn’t figure it out. I’d just be sitting there and people would be glowing and feeling things. A lot of times after a show coming outside there would be a line of people who just wanted to see you come out, and a few times I had a chance to talk with some people, and they would say things I totally didn’t know what they were talking about, and it would be like, “man, the third verse, and right at the end of the chorus…Did you feel it?” (laughs) And it’s like, did I feel it? Feel what? (laughs) I didn’t have a clue!
But there’s something that went across the audience that they all felt. At the same time, and I don’t have a clue how, on some of my worst nights, when I felt like I just wasn’t on top of it, they went nuts over it! It was backward, it was different. I would tell myself “you were sloppy on this,” and they loved it. They say you killed, so there was a big mystery: “are they hearing what I’m hearing?” I didn’t understand it (laughs).
L4LM: Do you have any flashbacks when you’re on stage now that remind you of playing with Jerry?
MS: Oh yeah, there are good moments and sometimes whole sets. And I forget just for a quick moment that it’s not Jerry Garcia. That happens a lot, and that’s when I know that it’s right. Now, it’s fighting so hard for that vibe and that feel. I know the man is not over there, but I knew what he did and I knew how it felt. And that’s what I’m after in every configuration of a band that I have, when we reach that, “man, okay guys this is good,” so I’m constantly looking for that endorsement from Jerry.
L4LM: Backtracking a little, your known for your renowned work on the B3 Hammond Organ. Who turned you onto that?
MS: Well, it was in the church. When I first started trying to play it was the piano I picked up and somewhere after hearing the musicians in the church, there was guy, I think his name was Kenneth Hughes, and I would hear him play the organ, and something just went to my soul when I heard him play that said “wow, I wanna be like that.” And then you pick up and you start to try to play what you hear. And when I started to try and play the organ I started hearing more organ music on the radio that you never paid any attention to.
Now you’re playing an instrument, and think of it like buying a new car and you’re driving it: “oh, he’s got one, he’s got one, etc.” Well, organ music was always there but now I’m actually listening to songs that have a great organ solo in the center of it or an organ driven band, but coming out of the gate, there was this one guy, Billy Preston of course. I was closer to his sound because he had this gospel sound, but he also had this rock sound, this rock-gospel sound, and it kinda helped me develop how to be able to play these songs and not make them sound “churchy” all the way. I mean, I didn’t want to lose the church value that I had, but I also wanted to play the song and have it feel like it should feel.
So he was a hero for me to hear, playing with the bands he’s played with and how he approached it. Because at that time when I was first playing organ, most organ players were playing jazz – Huey Smith and Shirley Scott, Jon Hammond, and the list goes on. Most of the B3 was jazz, and I said Billy was one of the few who said we can do it this way, too. So that helped me come out the gate and helped me especially when I got to Jerry and Elvin Bishop and some of those people…what you can do with it.
L4LM: Do you still play any jazz piano?
MS: Yes, I’ve kinda held on to everything I’ve learned. I can play piano, jazz, I’ve done Broadway plays that have been set in jazz groups, so I have a little background of a lot of things. I can play a lot of different styles of music. I can actually sit in the seat of a jazz musician or a Bach player, you know, classical. I have the ability to play all of it, it’s just not needed in this music, and I think in some ways what I do makes me a little different. Because I try to throw it in there. And that makes my style like “what in the world is this guy doing?” It’s interesting. I did that at a place last night up here in Seattle. I just played a lot of classical in the music and the people just went nuts. But they liked it because it’s different. I don’t think too many people approach it like that.
L4LM: You had the distinct honors of playing both Jerry’s final wedding as well as his funeral. Two different sets of circumstances, can you tell me a little about those experiences?
MS: Well, the wedding was fun to me. I’ve played for many weddings and I knew all of that stuff. The only trick was, the organ they put me on at their wedding when they got married was a pipe organ and I didn’t know how to set it up. I didn’t know how to program it. It was totally different from a Hammond B3. And Jerry was up there trying to help me out, but we ended up getting a couple of sounds, so that was fun.
And believe it or not, the funeral wasn’t…sad. It wasn’t that sad. I mean the loss was sad, but it was a cheerful funeral. It was not a lot of tears, it was a joyful loss. We did one song the girls [Jaclyn LaBranch and Gloria Jones] and I. We put a song together that was appropriate for the funeral, and ironically we were the only ones to play. I played soft music and [David] Grisman was there, he played. There were a lot of guys there and we were the only ones who played.
L4LM: Looking forward now, I see you have a show in a little less than 10 days at the Warfield in San Francisco with an old buddy of yours from The Mix, John Kadlecik. I’m sure you have more than a few memories from that place.
MS: Oh yeah, that’s where a lot of our best memories are. That was home for us in the Bay Area. And a lot of folk used to call the Warfield “church” for them. I’ve heard that term so many times and I’d like to believe that we can go back and remember those days.
I still hold John out of all the musicians that I’ve played in a Jerry-like guitar player [role] to be #1. He’s just done his homework. He even makes the same mistakes that Jerry made. He just came out of the box wherever he came from and he is more Jerry like than all of em’. So, I know sometimes folks want you to do your own thing…but he has exactly that vibe, that feel, that everything, because people like to go back in time. And they wanna put on their tie-dye and go back and hear their favorite songs. Whatever was going on at that time, they love it, so I want to bring that back.
L4LM: Speaking of notable venues, you have another stop on tour at the Capitol Theatre in Port Chester, NY. What is it like playing a venue like that steeped in that much history?
MS: Well, it’s very powerful. And it’s kinda scary because the Capitol Theatre is large venue and a very prestigious venue… And for them to take chances and say that we want this band [JGB] here… I’ve played there about four times now. I’ve played Garcia’s one time and Capitol about four times, so I think their expectations we’ve always met even though the place holds about 1800-1900. There was an expectation we would do 800-1000 and we’ve done 1200-1300, so we met more than what they were expecting out of us anyhow. So we were happy to do that, and we keep going back. And then [Peter] Shapiro seemed to be in support of all of us, giving us a little push. We were fortunate enough to do his festival last year at Lockn’. And that was a big success.
L4LM: Lastly, I’ll get you out of here on another festival note. You have a date with Karl Denson this summer. That looks really fun, what can we expect from that collaboration?
MS: That’s going to be interesting because we’ve never done that, and thank you for reminding me, I gotta study some music (laughs). I saw him on Jam Cruise and we talked, and I said I wanna send you some things to put an ear to. But I know him and I’ve played with him and sat in with his band Tiny Universe. He’s all around the music, he just doesn’t know in detail what we do, but I guess horn players just have that ear. They listen and then you say “solo” and they can certainly solo over anything. We’re setting a foundation to let him be free and solo and do a lot of extended jams. So again, it’s gonna be one of those nothing pre-programmed shows because we’re not gonna be able to rehearse. It’s gonna be improvising all the way.
L4LM: Just gonna go for it.
MS: Yeah. I don’t even know what’s gonna happen. It’s gonna be good, but I have no idea how good (laughs).
L4LM: I’ll take your word for it. Thanks again for the time and best of luck with the upcoming tour.
MS: Thank you so much. I appreciate it.
Melvin Seals & JGB Tour Dates
2/20 San Francisco, CA @ The Warfield (with John Kadlecik & David Nelson Band)
2/24 Washington D.C. @ Gypsy Sally’s (with Special Guest Ron Holloway)
2/25 Baltimore, MD @ Baltimore Sound Stage
2/26 Ardmore, PA @ Ardmore Music Hall (with Mason Porter)
2/27 Jim Thorpe, PA @ Penn’s Peak
2/28 Woodstock, NY @ Bearsville Theater
3/2 Fall River, MA @ Narrows Center for the Arts
3/3 Hartford, CT @ Infinity Music Hall
3/4 Port Chester, NY @ The Capitol Theatre
3/5 Brooklyn, NY @ Brooklyn Bowl
3/6 Beverly, MA @ The Cabot
3/17 Seb, CA @ Hopmonk Tavern
3/19 Santa Cruz, CA @ Moe’s Alley
4/14-4/16 Live Oak, FL @ Wanee Festival