JGB frontman Melvin Seals discusses his gospel roots, and the memory of Jerry Garcia
Born into a sheltered life of church and gospel in Berkeley, Calif., soulful organist Melvin Seals seemed like a promising candidate to back up the likes of Stanley Cooke or Aretha Franklin. It’s funny how life throws curve balls at you.
Seals would eventually tour and record with Jerry Garcia, frontman of the Grateful Dead, for 15 years until Garcia’s untimely passing in 1995. Since then, Seals has worked diligently to honor the memory and music of his dear friend with the help of the JGB.
Though Seals was surrounded by hippies, living in San Francisco during the 1960s, he maintained his musical roots.
“The life my family lived was the church,” he explains. “My dad was a musical arranger and helped out with the choir. And I sure enough began to play the organ by the age of 8.”
It was all gospel for Seals. That is, until he saw the rocking organist, Billy Preston, on American Bandstand.
“It was early high school, and I saw the man (Preston) on television,” he remembers. “By then, I was really into my craft. Wow, what a sound! He was including blues and rock into his music, and his organ.”
The precedent of funk as well as R&B could be heard in Preston’s music, and Seals was immediately inspired. And so, he skipped the festival circuit and headed straight toward Broadway. After sitting through four productions, Seals decided he was ready for more “variety.” There were more than enough offers for him from artists that had seen and felt his work on Broadway.
The Tulsa blues great Elvin Bishop would be Seals’ first introduction to live blues and rock and roll. He’d play with him for four years until the day came that bassist John Kahn of the Jerry Garcia Band approached him.
After catching a show, Kahn invited Seals to a rehearsal with Jerry. Little did he know what he was getting into.
“The first time I met Jerry, I didn’t even know he was Jerry,” Seals remembers. “I didn’t even know what the Grateful Dead was about. So, I walk into this warehouse rehearsal space, and I see these posters and paintings of skeletons everywhere. There were dancing skeletons, skeletons wearing flowers, dog skeletons. Man, that was a little scary to me coming from the gospel background and Broadway.”
The rehearsal led to a stint with the Jerry Garcia Band that outlasted any other member of the group. Garcia once called Seals the “Master of the Universe” for the soul and rhythm he added to the mix. When the roots of Garcia’s rock and roll blended with the soulful crescendos of Seals’ organ playing, it was a match made in heaven.
By 1980, when Seals and Garcia first met, the Grateful Dead was no longer what Garcia wanted. He grew tired of the rifts between band mates, and the sound that so many adored. In the Jerry Garcia Band, one can hear the endless hours Garcia spent listening to Motown records, to John Coltrane and the young lions of 1950s jazz, and vintage blues and gospel music. Garcia found an anchor of the African-American musical tradition in Seals.
“Jerry treated me like a brother, better than any other musician I’ve ever played with,” says Seals. “And he sure played some amazing guitar. It’s really been the fans that have kept me going. They’re fantastic. They showed me what the sound of Jerry and the Dead was all about before I even understood it. They are the best fans in the world!”
Melvin Seals and the Jerry Garcia Band play at 9 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 18, at Moe’s Alley, 1535 Commercial Way, Santa Cruz. Tickets are $20/25. For more information, call 479-1854.