Merl Saunders & Jerry Garcia: The Keystone Companions, 1973 – A Conversation With Bill Vitt

1973 was a transitional year for Jerry Garcia. Along with his duties in the Grateful Dead, who were begrudgingly careening into celebrity, he could also be found hanging out (and keeping his chops) in Bay Area music clubs for pick-up jam sessions. Two groups formed out of these communal hangs — the first being the bluegrass supergroup Old And In The Way, and the second was commonly referred to as simply ‘The Group’. There was no need to label what was intended to be spontaneous and without commitment...until Betty Cantor, dame of the golden reels, set up shop and recorded two nights at the famed Keystone Club in Berkeley, California.

The jam sessions originally began in 1970 at the Jefferson Airplane clubhouse, The Matrix. It was there that drummer Bill Vitt, organist Howard Wales and bassist John Kahn backed seminal blues players before Jerry started coming around. With Garcia in the mix, the sound in favor of futuristic jazz explorations resulting in the spacey Hooteroll? album. Howard was later replaced by jazz pianist and organist Merl Saunders who had just returned from the east coast. The repertoire also changed — the jazz foundation was still there but R&B (Smokey Robinson’s “I Second That Emotion” and Holland—Dozier’s “How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You)”) was reintroduced along with reggae (Jimmy Cliff’s “The Harder They Come”), Broadway show tunes, and of course a healthy dose of Bob Dylan. Seemingly random in assortment, the material was all tied together by Kahn and Vitt’s funky backbeat - one that allowed Garcia and Saunders to weave in and out effortlessly.

When Cantor and her partner, Rex Jackson, locked in the reels and pressed record on July 11—12, 1973 they were capturing four immensely creative musicians at their peak. While the Keystone gigs have been previously released via a series of records in the 1970s and 1980s — Keystone Companions: The Complete 1973 Fantasy Recordings collects every single note from those two nights.

Below is our conversation with the sole living member from the group, Bill Vitt, who sheds some light on the group and recordings from those nights.

Aquarium Drunkard: What was your background prior to 1973? Who were you playing with?

Bill Vitt: I played with the Jerry Garcia Band, Bill Champlin, Howard Wales, Michael Bloomfield, and many others. I also led two bands: Rumors and Main Man and The Sides. Also did a lot of studio work, a few of the records I played on: Hooteroll? with Jerry and Howard, 3 records with Brewer and Shipley (One Toke Over The Line), 2 or 3 with Tom Fogerty, Danny Cox, Merl Saunders, Phil Wood, Last Days at the Fillmore (one song) and all the records that were released from Keystone gigs. I moved to Los Angeles in ‘65 and did many demo sessions and master recordings  at Don Costa's studio on Fairfax (Frank Sinatra used the same studio) with Eydie Gormé and Kathy Carlson. I also played with The Coasters.

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