Band continues Garcia legacy
March 11, 2011
In 1980, organist Melvin Seals hooked up with the late Grateful Dead founder Jerry Garcia in the Jerry Garcia Band.
After Garcia’s death in 1995, for legal reasons, the band changed its name to JGB.
"There will always be folks who think we’re walking in Jerry’s shoes," Seals said during a phone call from San Francisco, Calif. "Some folks think we’re capitalizing on him, and we’re not. Our finances barely allow us to do what we do."
What the band does is preserve the music Garcia wrote while away from the Grateful Dead, Seals said.
"A lot of fans still love the Garcia repertoire and I think we do a pretty good job of playing it," he said. "There are so many songs and there are still some we haven’t tried, yet."
Even so, the band has an estimated 75 to 85 percent of the songs that Seals performed with Garcia.
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"Then looking further back than that, before I was in the band, there are still a lot of songs that we haven’t even tried," he said. "We’ve been looking at learning those songs, as well, because as long as there are people who will buy a ticket to see us play, we’ll do it."
Seals’ initial draw to JGB was Garcia’s music, but as he worked with Garcia, he learned a lot about life.
"Jerry was a humble person," Seals said. "You’ve heard of that saying about ‘giving someone the shirt off your back.’ With Jerry, it wasn’t a figure of speech. He would give you the shirt off your back."
Seals also liked Garcia’s love for life.
"He was always cracking jokes and had a smile on his face," Seals remembered. "Very seldom did I ever see him mad. I just saw him living and enjoying what he did. He did his music and did his artwork and enjoyed being Jerry. If I’ve learned anything from him, it was to mellow out. There’s nothing to get uptight about."
That philosophy has bled into how the band Seals, guitarist/vocalist Stu Allen, bassist Jimmy Tebeau and drummer Pete Lavezzoli approaches the music.
"Seeing the smiles on the faces and the happiness of the people as we play, brings it full circle," Seals said. "When I see how we make one person smile and forget about their troubles, and you know there are a lot of troubles in the world, and give them a break for an hour or two, I feel I’ve done some good."
The band just wrapped recording tracks for a new two-CD set that will be released in a couple of months, Seals said.
"We recorded at three different concerts from the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco," he explained. "There are some songs I never got a chance to record with Jerry, even though we played them on stage together."
Some of those songs include Louis Armstrong’s "What a Wonderful World" and Jerome Kern/Otto Harbach’s "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes," Seals said.
"The idea is to give fans what might have been if Jerry would have been able to continue," he said.
Seals’ love for music can be traced back to his upbringing in a religious household, which included hearing many spirituals and hymns.
"My father was a musician and the church choir director," he said. "Music struck a note with me as I watched the musicians play on Sunday."
Seals played the acoustic bass in high school.
"I really don’t know how I did that," he said. "I remember being in class and reading the notes, but I don’t remember a lot of playing it."
Seals switched to piano because the family had a piano.
"I was able to sit down and make noise with it," he said. "We didn’t have an organ, but every time I was near an organ, I would mess with that, too."
Then he saw the late Billy Peston on TV shows such as "American Bandstand," "Shindig" and "The Midnight Special."
"I saw he had a gospel style, but could still do this rock stuff," said Seals, who also cited Jimmy McGriff, Jimmy Smith and Johnny Hammond Smith as other influences. "He was definitely my inspiration out of the church and showed me these other things I could do."
Seals said his church roots are the reason he likes the more spiritual songs in the JGB repertoire.
"I like ‘The Maker,’ ‘Sisters and Brothers’ and ‘Waiting for a Miracle,’" he said. "But since there are so many songs that I like, I’m pressed to name a favorite.
"There are songs that I hate, but we won’t go too much into those," he said with a laugh. "I remember when I was with Jerry and he’d start a song that he knew I didn’t like. He’d look over at me and see this exasperated look on my face and he’d smile because he knew."
JGB featuring Melvin Seals will play Harry O’s, 427 Main Street, on Friday, March 18, at 9:30 p.m. Tickets at $20 in advance and $25 at the door. They can be purchased by visiting http://www.24tix.com.