Melvin Seals Interview
Gypsy Sally’s, Washington DC
Feb. 24th, 2016
by Nick Hobbs
California native, Melvin Seals, and his band JGB have been popping up more and more on the east coast lately, playing local venues and major festivals to the delight of long time Dead fans as well as new comers to the scene. Dubbed “Master Of The Universe” by Jerry Garcia, Seals spins his magic on the B-3 organ through a massive catalog of tunes new and old. I was lucky enough to get to talk with Melvin and hear his story first hand and now get to share it with you.
NH- Hi there Melvin, this is Nick from Appalachian Jamwich it’s great to be talking with you today, I’m kinda awestruck so you’ll have to give me a second to collect myself.
MS- Of course… (chuckles)
NH- Ok I’m good. How was your trip out east?
MS- It was a pretty nice flight, a little bumpy but we’re out here now. It’s a little colder here than it is out in California but we will survive.
NH- Right on, well it’s nice to have you out here, welcome to DC.
NH- So I wanted to get into your upbringing for some of our readers that don’t know anything about your history. Could you tell me about living in California in your early years and how you made the transition from the church to the land of psychedelia?
MS- Well of course I started out in the church playing, my father was a musician and a choir director in the church, that was kinda the beginning. We had a piano in the house, I would come home from school and sit down at…and I didn’t really know how to play it, just bang on it you know until it started to make sense. I started off on the piano but one day I noticed the organ and thought, wow all these stocks and buttons, it was much more complex than the piano and I switched over to the organ. I stayed on it til I made a little bit of sense. And of course got myself a music teacher and all. But from the church I started noticing a young man, well he’s passed on now but, Billy Preston, you know back then American Bandstand, Shin Dig and all these different shows were on and I used to see this kid that I knew from the church too. Billy Preston had came from the church, doing all these shows, playing with these rock bands. It was a style I could identify with, other than the jazz players because I couldn’t do that stuff. So that was kind of my introduction out of there (the church). I started doing some Broadway plays and playing with a few bands and that was kinda the beginning.
NH – With your father’s role in the church were your parents supportive of your choice or did it take time for them to come around?
MS – No they didn’t want me to play what I wanted to play, you know, they were totally into the church and that was all they knew. And of course when I was able to start putting chords together it was not those chords. (Big laugh) it was ones you’d here on the radio, Motown and such, he did not like me playing that at all. But we pulled through it, I guess when they saw that I was making young music at a young age it’s like what do you do, say don’t do it? No, you know? You just let it be. So they came to nurture it and before they passed they was as proud as they could be.
NH – So did you start making money with music right off or did you have to work a job to keep playing?
MS- I tried to have a part time job, I tried to work at a department store in the food mart for maybe two weeks, didn’t work out, I got fired. But I started making money in music at a young age, pretty young age, in high school and I was getting pretty decent and a few of the bands I played with did have some gigs. And shortly I got into Broadway plays, right after that, before Jerry and Elvin and all those I had done four hit Broadway plays that took me almost 10 years to finish. One was “Evolution of Blues” with Jon Hendricks. And Jon Hendricks was famous from “Lambert, Hendricks, and Ross”, a jazz vocal group. I did “America More Or Less” I did “Don’t Bother Me, I Can’t Cope”, I did those over the course of ten years and that’s how I met Elvin Bishop. He came down to “Evolution of The Blues” to see the play and I was the keyboard player there and he asked me to go on the road and do an album with him. And so I got with Elvin Bishop, in case you don’t know who he is, he’s the “Fooled Around And Fell In Love” guy. So I did that record with him and went with him for 6 to 7 years. That was an introduction to Maria Muldaur and a bunch of other people and that was the introduction to the Jerry Garcia Band.
NH – OK well I think you are about to answer my next question which was how you fell in with the Jerry Garcia Band?
MS – Ok, well let me go into a little more detail with that. Now Maria Muldaur, her boyfriend was John Kahn at the time and he was Jerry’s best friend and he had been in the Jerry Garcia Band for years so Maria had her own bass player and whenever he couldn’t make it Jon, her boyfriend sat in and of course here I am on the keyboards. And he was checking me out every time we played together and so eventually he asked if I’d be interested in playing in another one of the other bands he played in which happened to be, I didn’t know at that time, the Jerry Garcia Band. And that was the real introduction to the band.
NH – So he asked you to sit in one time and it was instant magic?
MS – Well he did kind of casually say that he played in another band and asked if I’d be interested in playing with them sometime. I said yes because, you know, I like to keep doors open. So one day I get a phone call from John Kahn and he says “that group I was telling you about, we got a couple gigs, can you make a rehearsal and see if we can come up with something?” So I went up to where he told me to go…and what you need to understand is I didn’t know who Jerry was. I only knew the name Grateful Dead but didn’t relate the name Jerry Garcia with the main man from the Grateful Dead, I had no idea. And it was a little strange because fresh out of the church as I described from my beginning path, then I go to this warehouse which was the Grateful Dead warehouse to rehearse with John Kahn and his band. I wanted to make a good impression so I’m one of the first persons there cause I didn’t want to be late. So the day guy let’s me in early and I walk into this warehouse and see all these skeletons, a skeleton with violin in his hand, skeletons with roses. You have to understand that when you don’t know anything about the Grateful Dead that’s kind of a weird scene. I’m standing there wondering what is this, what’s going on here? Then they all came in shortly after, and they came in in large numbers. Greg Errico, who was with Sly Stone, he played drums with him at the time, and then John Kan, Jerry, Steve Parrish, and I didn’t know any of them. And you know how everyone introduces themselves and with short term memory you just don’t get all of them….so I still didn’t get it and we played for a few minutes and the guitar player, who was Jerry, said “Yep, yep, that’s what I want, that’s what I’m looking for.” and that was it. Only after a couple gigs did I realize what I was involved in but before that I had no clue.
NH -Wow what a great story, I’m stoked to get to hear it straight from you! I never got to see you with Jerry, I believe the first time I saw you was at Bears Picnic up in Pennsylvania a few years back. After Jerry’s tragic demise, you took a break for a while?
MS – Actually I only took a year or two break it’s just that we were not popular enough to make our presence known everywhere. After Jerry passed, I think six months later, John Kahn got a couple gigs at Palookaville in Santa Cruz and the whole band was going to support John Kahn, it was going to be the John Kahn Band. We did two dates in Palookaville at this venue and I had a chance to see that the fans still wanted to hear this music. They were crying and emotional and there were all kinds of things going on but they still wanted to hear this music. One thing I noticed about the John Kahn Band, he was not going to do the same repuitare as the Jerry Garcia Band had done. So in the two gigs I did with him there were fans that would scream out there favorite songs, you know, “Stop That Train”, and other songs they wanted to hear. John Kahn had another repuitare of songs and he wasn’t going to do those. And I’m listening to some of them after he’s walked off that night, there’s a little line of people and they were askin’ “you gonna do any Jerry tunes tomorrow night?” But it wasn’t my band so it wasn’t my place to say. But what happened was we were going to go on tour with John Khan and his band and he passed, two months from that date he passed. So I went in, we used the same agent that was going to work with John Kahn and I said you know, I’m going to go on with exactly what Jerry was doing because the fans want to hear it. That’s how I kind of continued on with the Jerry Garcia Band. Which we really just call JGB because we can’t really say “The Jerry Garcia Band”.
NH – I think it has a nice ring to it and everyone knows what JGB means, what to expect, and that you are so much more than just a band playing Jerry tunes.
MS – Exactly. So even a year or two after his passing we were working, it just wasn’t in big numbers, smaller numbers and smaller gigs. So it was five, six, maybe seven years before we started catching more gigs, doing bigger things and playing some festivals. So now everyone knows that we are are out there and what we are doing and our lives continue.
NH – Things took off again it seems, what about your new projects, there’s more new stuff coming out?
MS – Well yes, I am in three other bands but I am working on a couple of other things that I hope to put out this year. I am working on a Christmas record. Just an organ Christmas record, you know when Christmas time rolls around I hear all the beautiful instruments, saxophone, piano, acoustic guitar, I hear Christmas carols played by almost every instrument, but when it comes to the organ it’s one or two songs by Jimmy Smith and he’s jazzed them up. I want to do the Christmas carols in the anthem style they were written in but not jazz them up. Just put orchastration around the organ. Nothing valuable, just something I want to do. I’m also working on a jam band kind of record, kind of Jerry Garcia style but originals.
NH – I hope both those come out in time for Christmas, gifts for friends and better music to listen to with the family over the holidays.
MS – I’m working on it.
NH – I look forward to it. Well thank you, I really appreciate you taking the time to talk to me today. I feel like I understand so much more about you and JGB.
Be on the look out for Melvin this spring and summer at these venues and festivals.
Mar 4 – Port Chester, NY @ The Capitol Theatre
Mar 5 – Brooklyn Bowl, NY @ Brooklyn Bowl
Mar 6 – Beverly, MA @ The Cabot
Mar 17 – Sebastopol, CA @ Hopmonk
Mar 19 – Santa Cruz, CA @ Moe’s Alley
Apr 14 – Live Oak, FL @ Wanee
May 13 – La Crosse, WI @ Pearl St Brewery
May 14 – Morristown, MN @ Built to Last Festival