Relix 44: Jerry Garcia’s Legion of Mary

Dean Budnick on October 19, 2018
Relix 44: Jerry Garcia’s Legion of Mary

Merl Saunders, Paul Humphrey, Jerry Garcia, John Kahn and Martin Fierro (photo courtesy of the Saunders Family Archives)


Welcome to the Relix 44. To commemorate the past 44 years of our existence, we’ve created a list of people, places and things that inspire us today, appearing in our September 2018 issue and rolling out on throughout this fall. See all the articles posted so far here.


A Good Time with Garcia: Legion of Mary

In 1975, with the Grateful Dead on hiatus, Jerry Garcia offered some thoughts on his current touring project. He explained, “Legion of Mary is a different sort of group for me. I don’t write material for it. We play other people’s songs that we like and just have a good time. It’s like a low profile is more desirable for me. The Dead and this group are two different trips. And this one has a lot less pressure associated with it because we haven’t made an effort to get famous at it. That’s one of the things that makes it possible. I couldn’t take the pressure of being a double celebrity. It’s a drag just being it once.”

Although Legion of Mary performed less than 60 dates, their live recordings still provide an opportunity to hear Jerry in one of his most comfortable environments, kicking back and reveling in the music. This was literally true at the group’s home venue, the Keystone Berkeley, where in contrast with the intense trappings of the Grateful Dead, the dressing room was in
the back of the venue, requiring the musicians to walk through the audience to the stage, which they did with minimal fanfare.

The group featured two other soloists—Merl Saunders on Hammond B-3 and Martin Fierro on saxophone, flute and percussion—as well as a rhythm section featuring longtime Garcia accompanist John Kahn on bass and Ron Tutt on drums. Tutt’s involvement was notable on a few levels, as the drummer, who would go on to perform in Neil Diamond’s band for over 35 years, was then also a member of Elvis Presley’s group. Looking back, he recalls, “I would be playing one night with Jerry and the guys where we would be wearing t-shirts and jeans and the next night I’d be in Vegas with Elvis in two-piece rhinestone jumpsuits.” Tutt remembers that his introduction to Garcia came through Kahn: “He called me to do a recording with Jerry and we played a couple of days at a studio in L.A. (these sessions appeared on 1974’s Compliments). We got along very well and the music was cool and they asked if I would be interested in doing some live gigs up in the Frisco area. It was one of my favorite areas, so I said sure.”

Merl Saunders Jr., who attended most of these shows while still a teenager, recalls, “As a kid it was fascinating for me. The dressing room would be a massive smoke-a-thon and they would be laughing their heads off. That’s also how they came up with a name for the band. They were just joking around over the course of a few weeks, throwing out suggestions before they went on stage and during the break. John Kahn came up with Legion of Mary and everyone just agreed on it. It was that simple. Garcia and my father were happy because they didn’t have to use their names anymore.”

In many respects, Legion of Mary is the culmination of Garcia’s work with Merl Saunders, which began in late 1970 and included former Credence Clearwater Revival guitarist Tom Fogerty for a stretch. By the time Legion of Mary wrapped up in July 1975, the guitar player and organist had honed an unspoken language. Their friendship would endure even if Saunders did not appear in what would become known as the Jerry Garcia Band, as Merl Jr. recalls that Garcia would continue to visit his father at home over the years, leaving a guitar behind so that the pair could jam at a moment’s notice. Tutt lauds Saunders as “a master at the sounds and effects of the B-3. He was a really gifted organist, like Jack McDuff and Jimmy Smith.”

Legion of Mary also marked Garcia’s last extended work with Martin Fierro; they first met in Golden Gate Park around 1969 when Garcia invited Fierro to join him on a live date at the Matrix with Howard Wales. (As Fierro later said, “It was love at first bite, man.”) Fierro would go on to gig in the Jerry Garcia and Merl Saunders Band and would appear on the Grateful Dead’s Wake of the Flood, before joining that group on their brief 1973 horn tour. Tutt singles out Fierro’s facility as a percussionist beyond his gift with woodwinds, noting, “It’s easy for some percussionists to get in the way of the drummer but Martin had an innate ability to sense where things were going. It always added another layer to the cake.”

As for the music as a whole, the drummer observes, “I feel like the format of Legion of Mary
was more like a jazz group than anything else because it touched on so many types of music, so many far-reaching styles.” Indeed, akin to a jazz collective, Legion of Mary offered instrumental arrangements of songs by artists such as Stevie Wonder (“Creepin’”) and Smokey Robinson (“Since I Lost My Baby”), along with instrumental compositions by Eddie Harris (“Freedom Jazz Dance”), Freddie Hubbard (“Little Sunflower”) and Donny Hathaway (“Valdez In The Country”). The repertoire also incorporated a wide palette of originals with lyrics from artists such as: Chuck Berry (“Let It Rock”), Allen Toussaint (“I’ll Take A Melody”), Norman Blake (“Last Train From Poor Valley”), Gene Clark and Roger McGuinn (“It’s No Use”), Randy Newman (“You Can Leave Your Hat On”), Jesse Winchester (“Every Word You Say”) and Holland/Dozier/ Holland (“Roadrunner,” “I Second That Emotion).

In looking back on this time with Garcia, Tutt reminiscences, “Whether it was a dressing room or whatever, he constantly had his guitar with him and he was playing it. He was on a mission. But on stage, Jerry’s music was very laidback, very freestyle. He liked trying various things out and see where things led. He was never demanding. He loved to laugh and have a great time.”


This article originally appears in the September 2018 issue of Relix. For more features, interviews, album reviews and more, subscribe here