Melvin Seals and Jacklyn LaBranch on Jerry Garcia’s “Magic Band”
Melvin Seals and Jacklyn LaBranch with the Jerry Garcia Band (and Ashley Judd) recording a music video for “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” from the Wayne Wang film Smoke at Tosca Cafe in San Francisco, 4/17/95 (Photo credit: Jay Blakesberg)
As we continue our Days Between celebration of Jerry Garcia at 80, we share a previously unpublished expanded version of a spring 2020 conversation with Melvin Seals, who began performing with the Jerry Garcia Band in 1980. It is followed by an archival interview with Jacklyn LaBranch, another Jerry Garcia Band alum, who joined the group in 1982, at Seals’ suggestion.
Volume 13 of the GarciaLive series travels back to September 1989, when the Jerry Garcia Band played a string of dates with Bruce Springsteen & The E-Street Band saxophonist Clarence Clemons. GarciaLive Volume 13 finds the group and their special guest at Poplar Creek Music Theatre just outside of Chicago on Sept. 16, 1989, during the final night of the two-week tour. In addition to Clemons, the show’s personnel includes the classic incarnation of JGB—Garcia, bassist John Kahn, keyboardist Melvin Seals, drummer David Kemper, and vocalists Gloria Jones and Jacklyn LaBranch—which Seals has dubbed “the magic band.” The performance at Poplar Creek features stand-out takes on the Garcia-Hunter originals “Cats Under the Stars” and “They Love Each Other,” as well as spirited covers of The Band’s “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” and The Rolling Stones’ “Let’s Spend the Night Together.”
Seals didn’t know who Garcia was when they first met at a rehearsal one Friday night in 1980, but soon discovered, “Jerry did things that most of the people I played with never did. It was just melodically beautiful. The sounds and the tone were all new to me but I knew this guy could really play. He mesmerized me with a different type of guitar playing. He was constantly playing scales in the dressing room, in the lunch area. Even when I went to his house he had a guitar in his hands and while he would talk to me he was running scales, which is how he was so fluid.”
“Something else I learned,” Seals adds, “is that it’s not about how perfect something might be, it’s about what leaves your heart—the vibe and feel and tone. That loosened me up so I didn’t have to be so precise and tight. It’s about relaxing and breathing, giving it space and then diving in there. It’s not about dotting the I’s and crossing the T’s, it’s about what leaves the heart and how that reaches the heart.”
Since Garcia’s passing almost 25 years ago, Seals has continued to honor the guitarist’s songbook with Melvin Seals & JGB. Seals’ long-running project was scheduled to spend much of the spring on the road, but they were ultimately forced to cut their tour short due to the COVID-19 pandemic. And, while the Bay Area keyboardist isn’t quite sure when he’ll return to the stage, he acknowledges, “I’m just sitting here at home, burning in my seat and thinking, ‘I’ve got to get on my organ. I got to play in front of some people. I’ve got to share this gift.’”
On March 7, you played the final show Port Chester, N.Y.’s Capitol Theatre before the venue paused its live performances. [Relix publisher and Cap owner] Peter Shapiro has said that it was a special night. What are your memories of that evening?
That was our first week of being out there. When you’re on a tour bus, you don’t get much TV. They have TVs but they flicker, so it’s hard to try and watch the news. My wife had been calling me to ask, “Is this affecting your tour?” I knew before I left that the virus was slowly impacting certain areas, but I wasn’t on top of what was unfolding. I did not foresee it ending my tour, and I didn’t realize that show was going to be [the venue’s] last one. And we still did a couple of other shows elsewhere before the government shut things down.
I thought we put on one hell of a show in Port Chester. I had recently changed a couple of band members and that took us to another level. I now have John K [John Kadlecik] in the band. He’s just brilliant, and he brings that Jerry vibe in the feel of what he does. We had been rehearsing, and we went to another level with it that night. The audience was very supportive and we had a really good time.
You’d already played with John a number of times over the years before he joined the band. How has that relationship developed?
John and I were in a band together about 15 years ago [The Mix] with the bass player for Dark Star Orchestra at that time, Kevin [Rosen]. We did an album [American Spring], and we went out and did some dates.
Then over the years, he has sat in with us for major performances. Peter Shapiro was one of the first people to ask if John could play with us when we went to The Capitol Theatre for the first time. He played with us at The Capitol Theatre another time too, and we did the same thing at The Warfield and a few other places. So he’d sit in and it would be fantastic.
Then, last year when my guitar player Zach Nugent was leaving, John quickly offered to fill in. He couldn’t do all the dates, but he tried to pull some strings and do most of them. We could really feel the magic, and he made a proposal that, if I didn’t have anyone else in mind, he wouldn’t mind staying on. And that was all I needed to hear.
You’ve described the version of the Jerry Garcia Band with John Kahn, David Kemper, Gloria Jones and Jacklyn LaBranch as “the magic band.” Can you share your perspective on how it all came together?
When I joined the Garcia Band, I didn’t know much about the music, I didn’t know who he was at all. I was not a Deadhead—all I knew was the name Grateful Dead because I lived in San Francisco. There was always talk when it was one of their birthdays or when they would do a New Year’s show over in Oakland. You’d hear about the neighborhood, the traffic and stuff. But I’d never gone to a show, I didn’t know the names, I didn’t know the members, I didn’t know who Jerry Garcia was.
I was doing some work with Maria Muldaur, and her boyfriend at the time was John Kahn. From time to time, when her bass player couldn’t do a gig, he would do it. He paid attention to what I was doing and offered me a new opportunity. One day he approached me and said he was in another band and would I be interested in listening in and doing some work with them. He never said who it was. Then one day he asked me if I could make it to rehearsal on Friday night and then there would be a couple dates. It was a different experience for me, but Jerry liked what I was coming up with—which was very much in a gospel style—at the first rehearsal I did with them.
I went up there early and then they all came in. Sometimes when I meet a bunch of people you can ask me five minute later who everyone was and I couldn’t tell you because I had met too many people. Then one of them says, “Hey let’s go try some music.” I didn’t know who Jerry Garcia was. I knew the name Grateful Dead but I didn’t know the members.
So we went in the other room and played “How Sweet It Is,” “Second That Emotion” and couple other songs.
When we go take a break, I say to the guitar player, “Man, you really play some nice guitar” and everybody just busts up laughing because they know I have no clue who he is. Then he said, “You play some pretty good organ yourself,” and that was the beginning of my playing with Jerry.
It’s funny because my good friend, Merl Saunders had played with him for years before I did. So at first I asked to hear some of those songs because I didn’t know how to approach them. I didn’t quite have a feel for what they wanted, so I was looking to hear what Merl had been doing. They could have said, “This is the kind of vibe” and I could have dialed into that. But they discouraged it because they didn’t want me to be influenced by what he had done. They wanted me to be raw and figure out what I had to offer. They wanted me to be me. So they said, “What you play is what we want.” So I just did what I thought was right and I guess they felt pretty good about it.
I have a very colorful organ style, but a lot of folks may not stop to think about some things that I did then—and that I still do now. Most times, when a guitarist is playing riffs or soloing, it’s in a higher register. And almost all the other organists play in the same register as the guitar when the guitar is soloing. But I always stay in the lower register, which means coloring things out of the range of the guitar. That allowed everything that Jerry did to be heard, without a screaming organ playing in the same register. That’s something I came in the door with. So while there was a lot of richness and there were a lot of pretty little things beneath him, it did not conflict with his register. And he had all the freedom in the world.
When I joined the band, it was all different people, with the exception of John Kahn. Greg Errico was on drums, the keyboard player’s name was Jimmy [Warren] and there were two background singers that I did not know very well. I cannot even recall their names. It evolved quickly from there. Jerry asked me if I knew any background vocalists and gave me the opportunity to go out and find some gospel singers. We had two sets of them before Jackie and Gloria.
The first few sets were not necessarily church singers, they were singers who did Broadway plays and were in the business of singing. But Jackie and Gloria sang in the choir. I don’t think they had ever been in band in their lives. At first I wanted to bring in someone with band experience and they didn’t have that, singing in the choir. I thought it might be tough for them but Jerry trusted in me and it turned out to be the right combination.
You can hear the gospel side of Jerry on a song like “My Sisters and Brothers.” He had a great love of that music in the same form where you’d hear some of those traditional songs in the church. Later on, something like “Waiting for A Miracle,” was done by commercial artist, yet it still had a religious tone and a sound that Jerry loved. It was great when he would start that one out on guitar.
We also went through a few drummers before David Kemper joined. One of the guys that I really loved was Ron Tutt, and I had a good year with him. [Tutt had previously played with Garcia off and on during the mid ‘70s in between Elvis Presley gigs.] He started playing with Garcia again after Elvis passed. He was in a limbo state and he joined the band. That was magical too, but it just didn’t last because Ron was in a very religious state of mind and the Garcia Band was hard on him at that time, so he decided to leave. [Tutt became Neil Diamond’s drummer for over 30 years.]
As I said, I loved Ron Tutt but then David Kemper came in and he was as good as Ron in a different kind of way. He was known in L.A. as a studio session drummer and he did film work along with lots of other things. I don’t think he was playing out live much at that time. He had been working in the studio which is how John had met him. By the time he joined, we had been in the band for a little while and a lot of the repertoire was in place. So Dave just kind of came in, nailed the drum parts and made it feel right. He was a well-rounded drummer and he knew what to do, whether it was reggae or rock or gospel-feeling ballads. He did his thing.
We all grew from there and that was the band for a good twelve years.
As I look at it now, everything that everyone has tried to do, and what I’m still trying to do is get back to that sound, that aura of the sound and how we did things. That was a magical band and it felt so good.
The GarciaLive Volume 13 release from Poplar Creek features Clarence Clemons. What are your memories of performing with him?
We were somewhere in the Bay Area and Clarence came out and sat in with us [on March 3, 1989, at the Orpheum Theater in San Francisco]. I remember that very well because it was magical having that horn. I’ve played with a bunch of other horn players who have a smooth, jazzy or beautiful melodic sound. But Clarence had a growl that just fit that style of music. It just sounded so good. I’ve never heard anyone play like Clarence.
He came out to a show, and he did his thing. I don’t think he necessarily knew the material, but he fit in really well. I didn’t solo a lot with Jerry because, on a lot of songs, I thought, “That’s a guitar thing— I don’t hear an organ solo.” Then, when Clarence came along, Jerry didn’t have to do it all because Clarence took a fair amount of solos.
A few months later when we were about to do a tour, he was invited to join us. A lot of guys can play a lot of licks and offer a lot of choice, beautiful melodic notes, but Clarence was more like one of those old singers. There’s a big difference between older singers and young singers. The younger singers will often do a lot of runs and a lot of riffs, while the older singers grab a couple of notes and hold them, so there are less notes. Clarence played less notes but, when he held a note, man, you could feel that thing. So it worked pretty well for us. At one point, I said to myself, “I would love to do more music with him.” So, thank God, I was able to be in a band with him for a hot minute.
Before you went out on that tour, did you practice with Clarence in advance or did he just come in and let it fly?
I don’t think I ever rehearsed with Clarence. Whenever we learned new material with Jerry, we learned it in soundcheck. Jerry would have an idea or John would have an idea, and we’d try that. Or, other times, we’d just play something crazy in soundcheck that they liked and go for it.
When I first joined, we had rehearsals and I learned his repertoire—stuff like “Sugaree,” “Tangled Up in Blue” and “Deal.” But a lot of the stuff that came in later didn’t become part of the repertoire because Jerry said, “Hey, let’s rehearse—we got a song.” It just popped up in a soundcheck. Maybe we’d be playing a groove and it sounded close to a song, and Jerry or John would say, “Hey, let’s do this song.”
Jackie and Gloria were instrumental for us—Gloria especially. She brought us “The Maker.” Gloria said, “Jerry, I’ve got a song I want you to hear,” and she played “The Maker.” So we just started doing it right then and there.
Bob Weir and Rob Wasserman opened a lot of these dates in September 1989. Do you have any recollections of interacting with them?
They opened up quite a few of those dates. I don’t remember speaking with Rob very much but Bob traveled with us on the tour and when we started doing little lyric jests and playing games, he would join in.
By this point when we had a nice crowd and when we would do an East Coast tour, we would be based out of New York. We would fly to New York and then when we had dates in Chicago, Cincinnati, and wherever we went, we would go to the airport, fly there, do the show, and fly back to New York. We would stay at the Ritz Carlton in New York, so instead of going date to date, city to city, checking in and out of hotels, we were based out of one hotel for the whole tour, which was unique for us.
I remember Bob being on the plane with us a lot while we were making these jokes and playing these word games. We all enjoyed it.
I remember when you came through the Northeast, I had expected that Bob would sit in most of the nights but that didn’t happen.
Jerry really wanted to maintain a separation between the Grateful Dead and the Jerry Garcia Band. He had a love for this band with its Motown-R&B-soul-gospel kind of feel. That music was from an era that he liked so much, which was different from the Grateful Dead or the Acoustic Band or Old & In The Way and everything else that he did. This band had something else that he really liked.
There was a time when John Kahn was not available and Phil Lesh went on the road with us to do some dates. I remember Phil really liked it but Jerry really wanted to keep the bands separate. I think that was the same with Bob.
Even though we shared some songs like “Sugaree,” “Deal,” “They Love Each Other,” we would play those songs different from the Grateful Dead. On a song like “They Love Each Other” the tempos were different when we did it. Jerry slowed it down and gave it a Motown R&B shuffle as much as possible and laid in the pocket different from how they did it. Jerry really liked the opportunity to approach these songs in another way. There would be a little more air in them.
Earlier this year, you announced a show in which you were going to interpret the sound of Legion of Mary, Jerry’s band from late 1974 and 1975 with Merl Saunders, Martin Fierro, John Kahn and Ron Tutt. Karl Denson was going to join JGB for what was being billed as Legion of Melvin.
It was the promoter’s decision to call it Legion of Melvin, although I’m fine with it. Merl Saunders and I were friends. We had a production company that we named MS Productions because of Merl Saunders and Melvin Seals. That was back when I was playing with Elvin Bishop, around the time of the hit “Fooled Around and Fell in Love” [in 1976]. I was with Elvin for six years and, looking back, I can remember talking to Merl on the phone about Jerry, without knowing who Jerry was. I even played a gig with Elvin Bishop in San Diego where Jerry was the headliner, but I didn’t see him play that night.
I hope we get a chance to do it. We have the Jerry Garcia repertoire down but Legion of Mary goes into another level. We don’t do much of that Merl and Martin era. It would be challenging, but fun, to dive into that different type of material, in which they laid the groundwork for so much. I’m looking forward it. I know I’ll need to put time into it because the way they played things in that era was a little different from what we do today.
When the Jerry Garcia Symphonic Celebration returned in the summer of 2016, a familiar face accompanied the group. Jacklyn LaBranch, who joined the Jerry Garcia Band in 1982 and remained a member through Garcia’s death in 1995, contributed vocals on both legs of the tour. LaBranch’s positive presence provided a direct link to the life and work of Garcia, as well as to their shared Bay Area origins.
You were living around the corner from the Grateful Dead in San Francisco when they moved into their house on 710 Ashbury St. in 1966.
The Grateful Dead moved into my neighborhood—that’s what I always told Jerry. I loved Haight Street. You didn’t have to go downtown; everything you needed was there: the movies, bowling, candy. It was just a great environment— Golden Gate Park, Kezar [Stadium]. Then, when the hippies came in, it got to the point in ‘67 where I was outside playing in my front yard and tour buses were driving around. The streets were crawling with all the people coming in, but it wasn’t bad. We accepted it and went about our business. It was great. There were free concerts in the park in the Panhandle. And later, when I found out from Jerry that they had moved around the corner on Ashbury, it was like, “Wow, interesting.” I can’t stress enough how wonderful it was to grow up during that time— other than maybe the parking. Parking was always bad in that neighborhood. People complain about it now but parking was bad back then, too.
Did you ever see the Dead perform in the Panhandle?
Maybe. I was young and we didn’t know the names of the bands. We would go down after church to the Panhandle, and there would be some musicians playing, but we didn’t pay attention to who they were.
Your introduction to the Jerry Garcia Band came through Melvin Seals. How familiar were you with Jerry Garcia and his music at that time?
I wasn’t familiar at all. Melvin asked me in ‘82. I was in a community choir and our director moved out of town. We never disbanded, but we kind of stopped singing, and I did some recording work with Melvin in his studio. He asked me if I was interested in singing with the band and I said, “Sure, why not?” That’s how I got into it.
Then, Melvin and Dee Dee [Dickerson] and I started rehearsing the songs together. Music was music to me, so I didn’t really question the music or the lyrics. I played in the orchestra and I always played the piano. I remember “Dear Prudence” and “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” were the ones I started with. I really liked singing them. Then, after we learned all the songs with Melvin, we rehearsed with the band. That’s when I met Jerry and put it all together.
The first time it became real was at the first gig we did. I think it was at The Stone. We had to walk from the dressing room to the stage, and as I looked out, I said to myself: “Where did all these hippies come from? Where have they been?” [Laughs.]
I’ll tell you, though, I really understood the love the Deadheads had for Jerry when he went into a diabetic coma [in 1986]. He was down for a while and his first gig back was not with the Grateful Dead, it was with us at The Stone. And when Jerry came out, you would have thought God himself had stepped out on that stage. It wasn’t the yelling and shouting, it was the love in that room. It was palpable—you could feel it. They were so happy to have Jerry Garcia back. It was an experience I’ve never felt before or since.
How would you describe Jerry as a bandleader?
He was easy. He was a Leo— he was cool, he was chill. We’d rehearse, but he didn’t rehearse things to death. We’d practice to get the general idea and then we’d finish it off at the gig. I thought he was underrated as far as the general music scene. I think because of the hippies and the Deadheads, people were put off by the music. But it’s cohesive, it’s rhythmic—it’s good music. Even though a song might last two hours, it’s good. [Laughs.] To this day, when I’m somewhere and music is playing, I can hear his guitar and say, “That sounds like Jerry.”
This past summer, you toured with the Jerry Garcia Symphonic Celebration. How did that come about and what were some of the highlights?
The girl who normally did it [Alecia Chakour] was on tour [with Tedeschi Trucks Band] and Jerry’s girls recommended me. I love the symphony behind us; it’s so beautiful. It’s different and the same. Warren Haynes is another great musician. He reminds me a lot of Jerry. I know he’s not Jerry, but he flows right into it.
My favorite songs have been “Terrapin Station,” “Scarlet Begonias” and “Bird Song,” but it’s still new to me, so I love them all. I went to Red Rocks for the first time and having Melvin there was fun. [Seals guested with the group for their Red Rocks gig on Garcia’s birthday, August 1.]
You’ve kept a lower profile as of late, at least in terms of public performances. Do you still sing in your local choir?
Even when I was with Jerry, I always had a day job. When I got into the band, I was working for Wells Fargo, and I took a leave for six months, came back, and then I got fully vested for retirement so I stopped working for them. Someone told me I’d never find a permanent job that would let me go on tour, so I started working as a contractor because then I was in control, and when I would go on tour I could leave. But I was able to find jobs that would let me go on tour. What eventually happened after Jerry Garcia passed is I went back to school and got my AA [Associate of Arts degree], and then I went to California State University, East Bay and got my Bachelor of Science in computer science. In January 2000, I started working for Dreyer’s Ice Cream, and then it got bought by Nestlé. I’ve been working with them ever since as an IT worker.
This past February, Melvin asked me and Gloria [Jones, fellow longtime JGB vocalist] to sing with him at The Warfield. She did, but I couldn’t because I was going to Africa, an awesome trip I had been planning for a long while. He just asked me if I could do it next February, so I will.
I sing in the church choir and I fill in for another musician at another church when he’s on vacation. I still play piano; I still sing. I have a little piano student. I’ll always be involved in music, in one form or another, no matter what. Always.