Paying tribute to a musical legend

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— On what would have been Jerry Garcia's 59th birthday, old friend Merl Saunders played a tributary concert in Idaho Aug. 1.

And just four days prior to the anniversary of Garcia's death, Saunders will close his week-long tour to play for the fans of Steamboat Springs as part of the Slopeside Series Sunday afternoon.

Although Saunders thought back to his most memorable days of writing a movie score or playing with legends Miles Davis and Harry Belafonte, Saunders continually brings up his friendship with Garcia and the music they produced together.

"He wasn't just an acquaintance, he was a very close friend," Saunders said in a Wednesday afternoon telephone interview.

Saunders said he would do a lot of talking at Wednesday night's performance in Idaho to pay tribute to a man that had great impact on his life.

"We know the dark side of Jerry, but few people know his good side," Saunders said.

When Garcia went into a coma in the 1980s, Saunders said other Grateful Dead members didn't come around to help Garcia on his feet again and restart his music career.

Saunders recalled the part in his new book where he writes about how he retaught a legendary guitar player the chords of some of his most famous songs after a close call with death.

"He was a dear friend of mine and no one was doing nothing," Saunders said, still holding a slight grudge.

Saunders' book, with co-writer Jim Rosenthaul, is an autobiography of his life before producing music with the Grateful Dead.

Saunders said they've been working on the book for about eight years and are taking their time finishing it.

With hippie jam bands surfacing in today's music business, Saunders said he's amazed the certain music culture has taken a full revolution.

"They're doing the same thing we did and now they're calling it jam bands," Saunders said, referring to the Dave Matthews Band and The String Cheese Incident.

"It's what was just called 'Merl and Jerry.'"

Bands such as String Cheese ask Saunders to play with them, and although it may be an honor, it makes him feel lucky to be alive.

"I shake my head at every show and can't believe I'm still here," Saunders said. "It's all about getting high on music. I'm smelling the roses now."

Saunders said it feels "grandfatherish" to be hearing the same style of music he once produced for the first time more than 40 years ago.

Now, Saunders' concerts are filled with children and their parents for an educational experience and just "a good ol' funky time," which he also referred to as "the Walt Disney of music."

Although he would never discourage students from going to school, traveling and reading are two of Saunders' tips to a successful and fulfilling life.

"My friend Jerry Garcia never graduated from high school. We used to quiz him on words in the dictionary. He may have missed one word out of 200," Saunders recalled.

Another project on its way to completion is a new blues album with Saunders and the Funky Friends Michael Warren on bass and vocals, Tom Edwards on guitar and backup vocals, Dean Johnson on drums and last, but certainly not least, Saunders on the Hammond B-3 and vocals.

The CD is due out sometime at the end of the year.

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