Only Merl Saunders and his beloved Hammond B-3 organ, Jessica, could get Blues Traveler’s John Popper, Phish guitarist Trey Anastasio, Dr. John and Jerry Garcia on one CD.
The legendary singer-keyboardist’s latest album, “Merl Saunders With His Funky Friends – Live!” (released Sept. 15 on Sumertone Records), gathers live and studio sessions from 1989 to 1996, highlighted by Popper’s stellar harmonica playing on “You Can Leave Your Hat On,” Anastasio tearing into “We All Wanna Boogie,” Dr. John’s collaboration on “Paris Blues” and Garcia’s contribution to “Sunrise Over Haleakala,” cut in 1989.
Saunders may have funky friends in high places and lately some of his songs can be heard on the CBS series “Nash Bridges,” but he’s hardly a household name. That’s just the way he likes it.
“Sometimes I detest notoriety,” Saunders said recently. “I hear I’m a legend or a cult figure because I’ve played with the Grateful Dead and Jerome (Jerry Garcia). I walked away from a lot of things. I walked away from doing certain things with the Grateful Dead, because I didn’t want somebody controlling my life.
“I like being around kids; I’m the kind of guy who likes sliding down the slide and playing on the swing set with my grandkids. I like to go into the school system and play for kindergarten kids. That’s what turns me on. Like Sly (Stone) said, ‘Everybody is a star,’ but I see superduper stars all coked out. I have my superduper friends who’ve had a lot of money, but I’m looking up at the sky where they’re living right now. When you’ve got your health, you’re a super superstar, you’re a millionaire.”
Here’s what Saunders has to say about other funky friends and past collaborators:
Frank Sinatra – “Very shrewd man. Powerful man. Knew what he wanted and could sing his ass off. Yes, I’ve got Frank Sinatra records.”
Harry Belafonte – “I recorded with this man 20 years ago. He’s a genius and a wonderful person.”
Bonnie Raitt – “A very classy lady, very soulful. A great blues singer, and people forget she’s a great guitar player.”
The Grateful Dead – “No one does what they do. They’re a great organization, and it’s like Jerry (Garcia) said, ‘You do not want merely to be considered just the best of the best, you want to be considered the only one that does what you do.’ ”
John Popper – “Immaculate young man, always striving, and it looks like he’s at the top looking down. He’s a wonderful singer. He should just stay off motorcycles; I’ve talked to him about that.”
Dr. John – “My soul brother. A remarkable, talented man. We’re still trying after 20 years to put a whole album together.”
Former classmate Johnny Mathis, who sang in Saunders’ first band in the early ’50s – “We were fortunate in that we knew what we wanted to do. I think I met Johnny in grammar school when we were about 7 or 8, and we went to the same junior high school. We were always practicing and singing in church.
“A buddy asked me, ‘You grew up with Johnny Mathis.’ I said, ‘Yeah.’ He says, ‘How do you feel, he’s a millionaire up there in Howard Hughes’ house in Beverly Hills?’ I said, ‘Well, he ain’t got no grandkids, no kids.’ I’m happy to go see my grandson quarterback his team. You couldn’t pay me a million dollars to give that up.”
BWF (before we forget): Join Merl Saunders and his funky friends on the Web @ www.merlsaunders.com.