Melvin Seals Interview

Melvin Seals | Photograph © Bob Minkin

I started messing around with the piano at the age of 7.  My father was the choir director of the church, so there was a piano in the house.  It was just there—y’ain’t got nothing to do, you go over and play, “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” or something—I just started making some sense of it, and then I got interested.  And it went from there.

When I realized I could make a little bit of sense with it, I started listening to people.  First in the church, ‘cause we were raised very strictly church—he didn’t allow us to have a lot of secular music in the house—it was really church oriented. 

So I had a big desire to play piano.  I struggled with it.  I couldn’t get the left hand right.  I had chords, but I couldn’t…I eventually worked it out.  Then I moved to the organ, and a lot of my style was patterned after Billy Preston.  He also came out of the church.  He had this gospel rock style that was quicker for me to follow.  I heard Jimmy Smith and Shirley Scott and Johnny Hammond and all the greats, but they were all over the place and I was not there.   

The first professional thing I did was with a band called Gideon and Power.  Gideon was managed by Wally Amos (“Famous Amos,” the cookie king).  The first time I ever flew was with Gideon and Power to a gig in Albuquerque.  I recorded with them, and there are recordings out.  Another guy in the band was Mickey Thomas.  We did a bunch of gigs, and it went as far as it could go, and eventually Wally dropped the band.  Gideon was sharing a room with Elvin Bishop, but Elvin wasn’t who he became yet.  So I met Elvin.

Melvin Seals and JGB
Melvin Seals and JGB | Photograph © Bob Minkin

From Gideon, I went and did four plays on Broadway (in San Francisco), including Evolution of the Blues with Jon Hendricks of Lambert Hendricks and Ross.  Another play was Don’t Bother Me, I Can’t Cope. Elvin (Bishop) came to one of the shows and heard me play.  He was getting ready to do a double live recording, Raising Hell and he asked me to join him.  I’d been on Broadway a long time and I needed a change, so I went with Elvin for five or six years.  

And I did some side things, including a recording date with Maria Muldaur.  And you know that John Kahn was her boyfriend.  We did some gigs together, and one day he asked me if I was interested in sitting in with another band—he never told me who it was.  As a musician you always stay open—“Sure, love to”—and one day he called and said they had a couple of gigs at the Keystone, and could I come up and do a little rehearsing.  He gave me the address, it was on Front Street in San Rafael.  

Now, I was not a Dead Head.  I knew the name Grateful Dead, and you’d hear about the band at New Year’s Eve, but I didn’t know the names.  I’m still fresh out of the church, and I go up to Front Street, and I got there early, trying to make a good impression, and the security guy let me in.  And I look up and see all these backdrops, and everything had to do with a skeleton, a skeleton with a violin, skeleton with roses, and I’m looking at this, and I’m starting to wonder.  And you have to know that it wasn’t too long before this that Jim Jones (a cult leader who orchestrated the suicide deaths of hundreds of his followers) had that big massacre in Guyana, and I’m looking at this stuff, and I’m wondering what is going on.

All these people walk in together.  Greg Errico, John, Jimmy Warren and his girlfriend, Parish…you know when you meet a group of people and they say their name—it’s short term memory.  If you ask me ten minutes later, I don’t remember anything.  The guitar player says “Let’s go play some music,” I didn’t know who he was.  I think the first thing we played was “How Sweet It Is,” ‘cause everybody knew that.  “The Harder They Come,” something else that was simple.  I know it was three songs.  And the guy on the guitar says, “I sure like the way you play.”  And—dumb me—I say, “I like the way you play guitar.”  And everybody’s laughing, ‘cause they know that I don’t have a clue what just happened…  I think they liked that, that I was so green about everything.  

Jerry had heard me before, in San Diego.  There was something with him and his band and Elvin Bishop was on the bill.  I never saw him, but we opened up.  Jerry told me one day, “I heard you before.”  “Really?”  He told me exactly where, and he said he asked who was on the organ.  It was amazing to me that he heard and paid attention, but he did.

Even at the first show, at the Stone in San Francisco, I still didn’t have a clue what was going on. It was electrifying.  It took a while for me to figure out who he was and the scene that I was now in.  I was so scared of them that—I had a grand piano and a B-3 organ of my own by now, but I didn’t take it out on tour.  Steve asked me if I had one, and I told him it didn’t go out on the road.  I was seeing a cult, you know, and I didn’t understand that it was a good one!  So I let them rent a piano from S.I.R. (Studio Instrument Rentals) for a while, and then when I realized, it was “Oh, yeah, take it.”

Jerry taught me something from the other side of the stage that was different.  Being a gospel player, and R & B, you dot your I’s and you cross your t’s.  By that I mean when you come up to an accent or a turnaround you always make sure you hit it together, tight and big and strong.  With the Garcia band, it wasn’t big and strong.  Sometimes it was really pretty sloppy, and I’d think, “How in the world do these guys get away with this?”  But I had to learn it wasn’t about how tight you were, it was about the vibe, the feel, the heart.  What leaves the heart reaches the heart.  And there was so much heart in that music, even when Jerry made a mistake, the audience roared.  It wasn’t tight or locked, it was improvised and unlocked.  I’d be over there mad, “Come on guys, it’s simple, you know”—but you know, I had to learn another style of music that spoke a different way to different people.  

The way JGB has come about was interesting.  Stu (Allen, the long-time guitarist for JGB) was the first example of me getting it right.  All before then was all wrong.  Stu had the right vibe and the right sound.  When Jerry died, half a year went by, and John Kahn had gotten some dates at Palookaville in Santa Cruz.  It was going to be a John Kahn Band.  And we did songs that would have been right for Jerry to do.  People were crying, and they kept shouting out requests.

And I saw that they still want to hear this music; there’s a place that they don’t want this to die.  The Grateful Dead had a meeting and decided they weren’t going to perform as the G.D. any more.  So there was this void.  And we were getting ready to go on the road with John Kahn and he passed.  (May 30, 1996).  And the agent called me.  I contacted Steve Parish, and he said “Sure, go ahead.”  I wanted to call it Tribute, because it was a tribute.  And the agent said, “How about just JGB?”  So we did, and some folks didn’t like it.  But it was an immediate success because of the rejection—people wanted to check it out and see.  There were people in the front row looking at us not even cracking a smile, letting us know they didn’t approve.  There were people crying, and there were people dancing like nothing ever happened.  It was very strange.  

So when we first went out, I had a band that was studio musicians.  They didn’t know the vibe and they didn’t know the scene.  So I had to learn that I had to have players who lived the life, cared about the life.  Heart stuff.  We performed great, but it wasn’t there.  I kept changing musicians, and it wasn’t there—no connection.  We came in high and worked ourselves down to the bottom, half-empty houses.  And then I met Stu.  That’s when I got it right.  He was green, he’s grown lots since then.  But he worked at it.  I had to tell him to start the song—he’s the guitar player!  But he went from that to where he’s now, which is a monster.  And he did it on his own.  He did his homework.   

By the way, I don’t think they’re a cult any more (laughter).  I can tell you this:  They’re the most loving-est people in the world.  If I had a choice who I’d hang out with to death do us part, I’d rather be with this group of people than anybody else.  I found that out.