As one of the greatest rock ’n’ roll bands of all time, Grateful Dead, who gained popularity in San Francisco during the 1960s and 1970s, quickly became synonymous with the hippie movement and demonstrated how the counterculture of the civil rights era drew inspiration from Black art, and challenged the segregationist norms of the era. Both musically and idealistically, Jerry Garcia was ahead of his time. He attributed much of his knowledge to his partner and lifelong friend, a Black musician named Merl Saunders.
Merl was wildly talented. Born and raised in San Francisco, he developed his skills playing music in church, spending all of his free time at home playing the piano. Merl started his first band in high school, and joined the United States military after graduating, where he met jazz musician Jimmy Smith while on duty in Paris. Jimmy Smith would later go on to teach him how to play the organ.
Merl Saunders credited much of his own musical inspiration to the Black musicians of his adolescence, such as Duke Ellington, Harry James and, most notably, Saunders King. Born Merl Sanders, he changed his last name to Saunders as a tribute to Saunders King.
Jerry and Merl met at a San Francisco nightclub called The Matrix, where they hit it off almost instantly. Once they partnered in 1971, Merl introduced Jerry to the improvisational, free-form style of jazz music, invented by African Americans. In a 1978 interview, Jerry talked about the new musical doors that Saunders opened for him by teaching him the free flow of jazz.
“That required a whole lot of quick education for me, and Merl was responsible for that,” Jerry said. “He really helped me improve myself on a level of harmonic understanding. Playing with him required a whole different style from three-chord rock ‘n’ roll or even 10-chord rock ‘n’ roll; it was a whole different thing.”
Merl and Jerry remained good friends until Jerry’s death in 1995. When Jerry entered a life-threatening diabetic coma in 1986, Merl was by his side, paying him daily visits and playing piano for him throughout his recovery. As a result of the coma, Jerry had to completely relearn to play the guitar, and it was Merl who retaught him everything, right back to the basics.
Not only was Merl Saunders a source of Grateful Dead inspiration, but his undeniably close friendship with Jerry Garcia also represented the core principles of the hippie movement. Hippie ideals of free love transcended racial lines and challenged the stubbornly segregationist zeitgeist during the 1960s. Merl Saunders and Jerry Garcia didn’t just make good music together— they stayed true to themselves.