Jerry’s ‘great big heart’ still beating with Melvin Seals
Jerry Garcia and the Grateful Dead were famous for creating a new genre of music and for having the most devout fans any band has ever had. But Melvin Seals wasn’t hip to all that when he was invited to a rehearsal.
“I was still fresh out of church,” Seals said. “I just knew church musicians. So I remember that first rehearsal I went to in that warehouse and the Grateful Dead have all these logos of these skeletons. So I see a skeleton with roses in its head, a skeleton with a violin. I wasn’t a Deadhead. I didn’t know much about them. I thought ‘Is this some kind of cult? What’s going on here?’ I was a little bit afraid for the first few times until I got wind of what was going on.”
An accomplished organ player, Seals figured it out and played in the Jerry Garcia band for 15 years, all the time until Garcia died in 1995.
As an homage to Garcia, Seals created his own band, Melvin Seals and JGB, which has it’s own legion of faithful fans.
“There are people that I pretty much see at every show,” Seals said. “We might play 15 shows on the East Coast and you will see the same faces that whole run. It’s really amazing how they do that.”
Friends of Melvin, Jerry and the Dead will gather Friday, April 29, for a show in the Crystal Bay Casino Crown Room.
“It’s going to be a smooth treat to slip into the Crystal Bay Club and savor JGB sounds from the past with a new Melvin twist,” said North Shore resident Amy Edgett, a longtime Jerry Garcia Band fan.
Seals’ interest in music was natural. His father was piano and choir director at his church and there was a piano in the house. Then he discovered organ.
“That organ just started talking to me,” Seals said. “I heard someone play organ and the sounds just electrified me. And it’s been that way ever since.”
Seals first influence was Billy Preston, the industry’s most coveted session player who was nicknamed the “Fifth Beatle” because of his work with the Fab Four.
“He was gospel but he was playing with all these big bands and he didn’t have a jazzy or bluesy side,” Seals said. “He just kind of had a rock-gospel to him.”
Seals studied the organ greats: Jimmy McGriff, Johnny Hammond, Jimmy Smith and Shirley Scott. He loved the organ solo from the 1972 single by the British band Argent, “Hold Your Head Up.” And he discovered Chicago, Dire Straits and Blood Sweat and Tears.
Then he was discovered by the Jerry Garcia Band.
“I was working with Maria Muldaur and her boyfriend was John Kahn, the bass player in the Jerry Garcia band,” Seals said. “He would sit in occasionally. John studied me for a while. He came and heard me in church.
“Then he offered me to play in another band, the Garcia band, I didn’t know it at the time. I got a call for rehearsal and some gigs they had lined up. I went to rehearsal and there was Jerry.”
Seals and Garcia became close friends.
“You hear the term ‘the person will give you the shirt off his back,’ ” Seals said. “Jerry was that person. He has given me the shirt off his back in so many ways. He would bend over backwards to help me and other band members who were having difficulties.”
After Garcia died, Seals wanted to continue his music.
“Now I have to teach other musicians this is why it was like this and it was like this because of that,” he said. “So I had to learn more values of what we did and what people like about it. I’ve done more studying since he’s been gone than all the years I’d played with him.”
Why did Garcia’s music resonate so greatly?
“It came out of the late ’60s and you had a lot bands, Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin, back then – the free love, the flower children,” Seals said. “The Grateful Dead of course came out of that same thing, but Jerry had a floating guitar style unlike others.
“I don’t know anybody else who played like that unless they tried to copy him. He had a different kind of a style that those jams they would get into night to night, they were so different. Whatever you were doing, you’d get caught up and lost in those jams and the songs and the lyrics and the things that went on. And as musicians say, what leaves the heart reaches the heart. Jerry had a great big heart. So the people felt his music.”
Seals is working on a new funk record, “Second to None,” which he expects to release at the end of the year.