I am pretty sure Melvin Seals believes that he is still
auditioning for the Jerry Garcia Band (now officially known as JGB). Seals and
his B-3 Hammond organ have helped propel Jerry’s iconic solo endeavor for more
than 30 years. Try telling that to Seals, though. “Oh man, I just went along for the ride when Jerry was around,”
Seals explained to me over the phone as I interviewed him regarding the
upcoming Skull & Roses festival. His band Melvin Seals & JGB will be
appearing. “No-one cared what I was
doing, ya know?“
Jerry Garcia obviously cared about Melvin because he kept him in the band from 1981 until his untimely passing in ’95. Garcia took notice of him long before he auditioned for JGB though. “I know who you are,” Jerry told Seals the first time they met. “I’ve seen you play with Elvin Bishop.”
“Garcia recognized you?” I asked Seals while trying to hold back my excitement, “Oh yeah. But I wasn’t too familiar with him when we first sat down,” Seals said.
Melvin Seals was a recognized musician in the bay area. Both John Kahn and Merl Saunders were friendly with Seals and had played with him before. Seals, however, had never met or heard of Jerry Garcia other than “that guy Merl played with.”
“I was a bit confused when I first met Garcia,” Seals chuckled. “I come from a place where musicians instinctively know when to hit that big crescendo. When you play enough gospel and R & B, you get to a point where the beat goes 1,2,3 & 4! And everyone knows to hit that 4, you know? Like BAM! But with Garcia and the rest of his band, I’d be hitting that 4th note by myself. They didn’t care about being tight or having the correct timing. I was thinking, How are these guys getting away with this? Is it the drugs?
Seals quickly realized that the fans coming out to see the Jerry Garcia Band were not interested in tight performances or perfect craftsmanship. Quite the opposite- fans were seeking something far more profound.
“Before Jerry Garcia Band I would find a comradery with other musicians through a mutually attained skill and a matured sense of understanding. I had to change gears with Jerry however. Garcia’s fans were experiencing the music on a much deeper level than I had ever witnessed. The music Garcia would create had heart and soul. And that’s something that could never be taught.”
“When would you say it all started to click?” I asked Seals, “Was there a defining moment or show when you felt that you finally understood what was happening?”
“I don’t know if everything ever clicked all at once,” Seals replied. “There were definitely times that I thought, “OK, I got this.” But then I’d play a show that I thought was just awful. I just wanted to crawl into a hole and hide away my performance was so bad. But then I’d walk outside the venue and some fan would grab my shoulder and scream, “MELVIN, the third song, second verse, DID YOU FEEL IT?” Here I’m thinking, “Did I feel it? Yeah, I felt like jumping off a bridge.” But then another fan would chime in, “OH MAN I FELT IT.” I realized the fans didn’t care about perfection. They cared about a connection. Suddenly I didn’t want to run away anymore.”
He continued, “You see, Jerry could do no wrong.” I could hear Seals smiling over the receiver as he took a breath to continue his thought. “I mean, he could hit a wrong note, ya know? Something so off and the crowd would still cheer! All I would be thinking is, “I CAN’T BELIEVE THIS! Then I started to realize it was never how clear or fast we played. It was all about the feeling Jerry had with each individual audience. I have never seen anything like it nor since. Once in a lifetime someone like that comes along. Garcia just had it.” Seals described every show like individual pieces to a huge jig-saw-puzzle. “My job was to figure out which pieces fit, until it suddenly hit me, WOW it just so happens I’m a perfect piece to this puzzle too!”
I was starting to grasp Seals’
journey with Jerry Band from technical musician to organic performer. Then the
tone changed noticeably. I had almost forgotten the tragic history that
followed. Just when Seals was beginning to really appreciate his place in the
band, Jerry Garcia passed in 1995.
Seals and JGB bassist John Kahn, Garcia’s longtime friend, continued the legacy briefly with The John Kahn Band but then Kahn too met an early end in ’96. Seals thought, “That’s it, the music is over.”
Seals was unsettled by the idea of JGB being done for good. He wanted to somehow continue Garcia’s legacy. In 1998, after discussing the idea of calling his band A Tribute to Jerry Garcia, Seals went with the simple acronym JGB.
When he first joined the Jerry Garcia Band Seals came to the realization that he could abandon the notion of perfect time and measure. However once Garcia was no longer in the picture Seals had to quickly return to his roots and reapply structure to an almost structure-less art with the newly formed JGB. “It was literally like starting over.”
Seals went on to create a soulful band that continues to adapt with a changing set of players who have come in and out over the years. Seals has helped spearhead the careers of well known guitarists like Stu Allen and Zach Nugent, both of whom now have their own Grateful Dead tribute bands. Both bands are connecting with wider audiences (Stu Allen and Mars Hotel/Zach Nugent’s Disco Dead) and both will be featured at the upcoming Skull and Roses Festival alongside Seals.
I reminded Seals that he had played with Phil Lesh back in the 80’s when John Kahn was unavailable for JGB. “Oh yeah, Phil played with us for a few months, while John was in Europe or something, but he was playing our music, you know? This time around, I was the special guest of Phil! And it’s a bit more intimidating when you have to play someone else’s music and be good.”
Was I supposed to remind Seals that he played with Jerry Garcia for 15 years? Seals was just happy to be a part of Garcia’s life. That is why Garcia had him in the band. Melvin Seals is impossible not to love.
It is impossible to ignore the gigantic heart that keeps Melvin Seals ticking. Seals humility is apparent when he compares himself to other musicians. For some reason, Seals still feels like he is just a side attraction to the main stage. “This summer I get to join Bob Weir on stage at Lock’n festival,” Seals said, sounding almost giddy, “That’s the first time I will have played with Bob!” And then it dawned on me. Melvin Seals has yet to realize that he is the leader of the Jerry Garcia Band.
Upon joining The Jerry Garcia Band Seals had to relearn his style and abandon his natural urges as a musician. Just when he found his groove the rug was pulled from under Seals and he found himself the sole member of JGB.
How would the rest of the world handle this? Was he really meant to be keeper of the flame?
Seals heard these questions being posed and the only answer, in my opinion is the simplest. Yes. Seals was chosen by Jerry Garcia to be a part of his band. Garcia was known for his attention to detail. A great example of his chasing perfection can be seen when Garcia corrects Bob and Donna who are learning Stella Blue during the 1976 Orpheum sound check. (https://youtu.be/_1BV7cfllEU?t=1874) It is no mistake that Garcia chose Seals to replace his great friend Merl Saunders as keyboard and organist for the Jerry Garcia Band.
Although Seals claims the tightness was not as much of a consideration when playing with the Jerry Garcia Band, most fans will tell you, all Garcia Band performances in the 80’s and 90’s were the tightest and most comfortable Jerry had sounded in years. That includes most Dead performances from the same time frame. I’m sorry, but you can’t deny much of that had to do with Melvin Seals’ gospel background and his B-3 Hammond Organ.
I asked Seals if he still had any connection to the Gospel scene. “Unfortunately, no. I used to run a Gospel label but with JGB and my schedule, I am barely home in time to make my next show,” Seals laughed with a hint of regret in his voice. I asked him, “Do you still listen to Gospel Music?” That brightened his response, “All the time!“
It might not be structured as gospel, but one can have a spiritual awakening during a JGB performance. Seal’s incorporation of powerful female vocals resonates strongly in the newest members of the group Lady Chi and Sunshine (Garcia) Becker. Drummer Pete Lavezzoli, who also sings occasionally, creates a powerful groove alongside John-Paul Mclean’s rhythmic bass lines. With that classic B-3 sound coming from Seals, guitarist and vocalist Zach Nugent can improvise perfectly creating a familiar yet unique sound of his own.
As we stretched into the 45-minute mark of our conversation, I realized that I really had just become a gawking fan while talking to Seals. He made me feel like I was the first person he had ever told some of these stories to. I couldn’t have been more excited to start writing up this interview. But before we got off the phone with one another, Seals mentioned something that just blew me away.
Seals sometimes sits in with Oteil Burbridge’s Oteil & Friends. He will be joining him onstage at Skull & Roses this April. Seals told me how Oteil had invited him to see Dead & Co. perform a short while back.
Seals suddenly sounded like your typical Deadhead. “Oh man, I had VIP passes and was sitting backstage and found myself bumping into…” Seals then asked me, “What’s that young guitarist who is really famous that sings for Dead & Co.?” I responded a bit shocked, “John Mayer?” Seals said, “Yeah, that cat. Man, I like his solo stuff, but he is really good in those shoes, ya know? Well there I am face to face with John Mayer, ” Seals continued, “And I start saying oh my name is so-and-so, and before I can utter the first syllable of my name, John Mayer looked at me and said, “I know who you are!” How could I not think of the beginning of our conversation when Seals had first met Garcia and Jerry turned to say, “I know who you are!”
Of course John Mayer knows who you are. You’re Melvin Seals. You’re the fucking man.
Thank you Bob Minkin, Geoff Tischman, and Alan Sheckter for your wonderful photos. It is an honor!
For more information about the Skull and Roses Festival in Ventura (April 5-7), go to:
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Thanks that’s the best interview ever
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