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Tarrytown News

Melvin Seals Brings Jerry Garcia’s Spirit to Tarrytown

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March 25, 2022

By W.B. King—

Long before playing alongside the likes of Chuck Berry, Elvin Bishop, Charlie Daniels, and his career-defining role in the Jerry Garcia Band, Melvin Seals was enveloped in Gospel music.

“My dad was many things in our church,” Seals recalled of his upbringing in the San Francisco Bay area. “He was one of the pianists and [musical] directors.”

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An upright piano nestled in his family’s living room would soon draw the interest of Seals who recalled approaching the instrument at age seven.

“You sit and tinker with it and its starts making a little bit of sense and then the interest just comes naturally,” said Seals. “The first songs I was trying to play came from the church.”

His tinkering began around 1960. And as time passed, pop songs of the day caught his ear, which left him feeling conflicted.

“Because of my parents being very religious, they didn’t want me to play what they called ‘secular’ music — any music other than Gospel was not what they wanted me to play in the house, so I had to pick around that while they were gone,” he said with a laugh.

With age, Seals’ musical abilities evolved. He was a member of the Polytechnic High School Choir, which he proudly noted was the first U.S. high school choir to tour Europe. Recalling that the trip was “fun,” he said it wasn’t clear at the time if he would become a professional musician.

Remaining a fixture on the piano stool at the Gospel church his family attended, Seals was soon enticed by the majestic, encompassing sound of the organ. And while he was inspired by many musicians, Billy Preston encouraged Seals to respect his Gospel roots while embracing secular genres such as rhythm and blues, soul, and rock and roll.

Preston, who shined on Hammond B-3 organ, played with notable artists, including Little Richard, Sam Cooke, Ray Charles, Joe Cocker, The Everly Brothers, The Rolling Stones and The Beatles. An acclaimed singer and songwriter, he also wrote chart-toppers like “Nothing From Nothing,” among others.

“He [Billy] came out of church. I could play his licks and follow him, but when you listen to a jazz musician like Jimmy Smith, Shirley Scott, Johnny Hammond [Smith] and all those guys, I didn’t have those chops but I had a deep appreciation,” Seals continued. “Billy had that rock-gospel sound and I understood that. I had the gospel sound; I just needed the rock sound. Rock, gospel and R&B music is about the groove and putting the right stuff in the right place and that’s what I do today.”

Evolution of the Blues  

During the early 1970s, Seals got his first big break when he joined the San Francisco-based band Gideon & Power, which spoke to his interests — gospel fueled rock and roll, soul music. The group was managed by Wally Amos of Famous Amos cookie fame. It was during this time that Seals met Elvin Bishop as the musicians had friends in common.

When Gideon & Power disbanded, Seals became the feature organist and choral director in John Hendrick’s hit play “Evolution of the Blues,” which ran for seven years at On Broadway Theater in San Francisco.

By the late 1970s, Bishop once again appeared on Seals’ radar. An original member of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, he was now fronting his own group and had recently scored a hit with “Fooled Around and Fell in Love.”

After one of the Evolution of the Blues performances, Bishop showed up backstage with an opportune offer for Seals who had become disenchanted with the repetitious note-for-note cycle of Broadway performances. He wanted to stretch out musically.

“Elvin told me he was getting ready to do a live recording for the album that became ‘Raisin’ Hell.’ What they wanted to do was go on tour for two weeks…then at the end of the tour, two or three nights would be live recordings,” Seals said. “He wanted me on organ.”

Through his connection with Bishop, Seals would next play with folk and blues singer Maria Muldaur who rose to fame with her 1973 hit “Midnight at the Oasis.” Muldaur’s boyfriend was John Kahn, a Bay Area bassist who played with a number of groups.

“Whenever her bass player couldn’t make a gig, John would sit in. We played together and he obviously was paying close attention to what I was able to deliver,” Seals recalled. “He and Maria even came to watch me [play] at church. Shortly after that, he popped the question: Would you be interested in doing a few gigs and sitting in with one of my bands?”

The Master of the Universe

Ever the hungry musician looking for the next good gig, Seals took Kahn up on his offer, but he didn’t know the name of the band or who else played in it. The rehearsal was scheduled for a Friday afternoon in late 1980.

In an effort to show his professionalism, he arrived 20 minutes early at the address he was given: 20 Front Street in San Rafael, California. Not seeing Kahn or any other musicians, he knocked on the door and was let in by a property manager. Once inside and alone, Seals was immediately struck by the strange surroundings.

“What was a little disturbing to me at the time…not now, but at the time…when I went into the warehouse, they had these backdrops that all had a skeleton flavor to them…a skeleton with a violin in his hand…a skeleton with roses in his hair. You know, I’m a boy out of church and it wasn’t too long after Jim Jones had that [Jonestown] massacre,” Seals said of the space he later learned was “Club Front,” the Grateful Dead’s rehearsal space. “I’m looking around and really don’t know what is going on. Your mind wanders and runs: Is this some kind of cult? I didn’t know.”

Moments later, five or six jovial men entered the building and introduce themselves, but the names came too quickly. Aside from Kahn, Seals couldn’t immediately recall who was who. The musicians set up and began playing songs, including Marvin Gaye’s “How Sweet It Is (to be loved by you).”

After a few more tunes, the band took a break. Seals liked what the musicians had to offer. He was especially impressed with the guitar player and singer, a man with a graying, dark beard, glasses and a knowing smile. Seals said something along the lines of: “Hey that sounded good. You play well.”

After a free-flowing conversation “scratched off,” Seals learned the singer and guitarist’s name: Jerry Garcia.

Growing up in the Bay Area, Seals knew of the Grateful Dead and the faithful “dead heads” that would set up gypsy-like camps wherever the band played from local news reports, but he knew nothing of their music or could pick the band members out of a line up.

“This was my introduction to the Jerry Garcia Band. I had no idea what it was or who it was and John [Kahn] didn’t tell me anything about it,” Seals said of that initial meeting.

“Jerry liked the gospel flair — the churchy, R&B-ish sound,” Seals recalled. “He told me many times he liked how I played.”

Garcia was so impressed with Seals and his unique abilities on the Hammond B-3 organ that he gave him the moniker: the master of the universe.

“It was a lot of fun. Everyone was appreciative of that gig, especially me —Johnny come lately— when I understood what I was involved with,” said Seals, who is also known for his beaming smile. “I loved the band.”

From that first rehearsal forward, Seals became the longest standing keyboardist in the Jerry Garcia Band, performing with Garcia until his death in 1995. He would continue the band with Kahn until the bassist passed away in 1996. Since then, and in different incarnations, Seals has kept the spirit of the Jerry Garcia Band (JGB) alive.

“I played at Jerry’s wedding when he got married the last time and I played at his funeral,” Seals said, reflecting on his dear, departed friend. “I was there through it all.”

While Seals was initially skeptical of the mystique surrounding Jerry Garcia and the Grateful Dead, he said the collaborative community that supports this music is comprised of some of the kindest people walking the earth.

“The rest of my life tells the story,” he noted. “I’ve done nothing else since I met Jerry than playing this music and being with these fans, this group of people.”

And while Garcia is known for his incomparable musical and artistic contributions, Seals explained that people would be surprised by his bigheartedness — he epitomized a guy who would gladly give you the shirt off his back.

“I loved the man. Jerry would help people if he could. I’ve seen him do it over and over. He was easy to love and easy to be around,” Seals said. “And he was always cracking jokes.”

During one holiday party at Garcia’s home, which included members of the Grateful Dead and the Jerry Garcia Band, and their families, Seals was sitting in Garcia’s large leather recliner. Later in the night, Garcia approached him with an acoustic guitar and sheet music. As Garcia noodled on the guitar, they talked about possible new songs to add to the repertoire. At one point, Garcia looked at Seals and said: “That chair suits you.”

Within a week, Seals received a knock at his door. Awaiting him on the other side was a delivery: Garcia’s recliner.

“I still have that chair today,” Seals said. “There are many levels of his generosity like that, which folks just don’t know…the forms of his kindness.”

Simple Twist of Fate

Joining Seals on stage for the April 16, 2022 performance at the Tarrytown Music Hall is drummer Jeremy Hoenig, bassist John-Paul McLean, and guitarist and singer John Kadlecik who has long been celebrated as a premier interpreter of Garcia’s singing and guitar playing.

“The band has come into full force with John [Kadlecik]. I’ve always been searching and seeking and I have had many guitar players that were very good in their own way, but I have always thought John is one of the best,” Seals said. “For him to come and be a part of us…bringing that monstrous sound. I’m just stoked.”

A multi-instrumentalist who first studied classical violin and music theory, Kadlecik later gravitated toward guitar when his interests turned to jazz and folk music. He soon began mixing genres, improvising and recording the results.

“I wanted to do something that had the spirit of New-age [music], had the edginess of Pink Floyd or Led Zeppelin but was musically progressive like jazz and then a friend said, ‘You have to go see the Grateful Dead,’ Kadlecik, 52, recalled. “I realized they had already been doing it for 25-plus years.”

He first saw the Grateful Dead in the late 1980s and would go on to see them perform roughly 50 times and would see the Jerry Garcia Band 15 times. During this time period, he was also playing in popular regional bands in the Chicago area that sprinkled Grateful Dead tunes and other covers into sets of original music. He next co-founded Dark Star Orchestra (DSO) in 1997, which was conceived as a one-off gig recreating one of the Grateful Dead’s 2,300-plus live performances. The premise caught fire and soon DSO was touring the country selling out venues.

Kadlecik left DSO in 2009 and joined Furthur, which featured former Grateful Dead members Bob Weir and Phil Lesh who breathed new life into the song catalog that earned the Grateful Dead entry into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Furthur also debuted new original music during its nearly five-year run, which was well-received by countless dead heads, many of whom saw the band perform repeatedly.

And while Kadlecik spent years studying the Grateful Dead’s and Jerry Garcia’s vast song catalog with DSO and other groups, playing with Seals, Weir and Lesh, he said, provides additional insight into the tunes.

“It has expanded my viewpoint quite a bit. I try not to take for granted anyone’s experiences, but it is certainly exciting to be able to work with people that worked so closely with Jerry,” said Kadlecik, who also performs with The John Kadlecik Band and The Golden Gate Wingman.

Seals and Kadlecik first played together in 2003 forming the band, The Mix, which resulted in an original album, “American Spring,” featuring lyrics from longtime Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter. Over the years, the two musicians have performed together countless times forming a unique bond that will be complimented on this tour by fellow bandmates Hoenig and McLean.

“Where we are now, with John, it’s kind of spooky because I can play the same licks that I played with Jerry and it works with this band,” said Seals, adding that saxophonist Ron Holloway, who has played with Warren Haynes and Susan Tedeschi, will join the group on this tour.

“The elements are there. The stage is set,” said Seals. “If people want to come and just go with the music, they are going to have a hell of a show.”

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