Organist Melvin Seals had to unlearn a few things to jam with Jerry Garcia. Coming from a background in gospel and soul, he was accustomed to bands locking in tightly. But when he joined the Jerry Garcia Band, Seals learned how to loosen up.
"Getting with Jerry was a whole 'nother school day for me," says Seals. "I grew up in the church, learning soul music and R&B. If you know anything about that music, they dot their 'i's' and cross their 't's' very well. Accents, turnarounds — everybody's hitting them together, making it tight. I came from that world. With Jerry, everything was soup."
Seals, a San Francisco native who took up the piano at age 8, joined JGB in 1980 at the age of 27. He played with the group until Garcia's death in 1995. The Grateful Dead leader started the band as an outlet to play music that the Dead's democratic structure might have vetoed, giving him an opportunity to pursue more of his influences and soulful stylings.
When Seals first signed on, his inclination was to tighten up the band and avoid sloppy song structure.
"I was like, 'Come on, you guys are better than that.' On turnarounds, everybody would be doing it differently," recalls Seals. "I had to learn jam band music. That's the way you do improv. You don't want the same structure every night. The fun of it is that you don't know what you're going to do. I had to learn that it's okay if you make a mistake. It wouldn't be okay where I came from."
After the passing of Garcia and JGB bassist John Kahn the following year, Seals pursued solo work, but opted to keep JGB alive as well, with the oft-used acronym as the new official title. After years of fluctuating lineups during Garcia's tenure, Seals remains the sole veteran member of JGB.
"When I was with Jerry, I just played organ and piano. I didn't have to worry about lyrics," says Seals. "Now that I'm teaching the other guys, I have to go back and study. It made me have to now learn more about what we really were doing. I really had to dial in to bring out the best of it."
Playing the role of Jerry in today's JGB is Stu Allen, who Seals ranks with John Kadlecik (now of Furthur) as one of the two modern guitarists most accurately mimicking Garcia's guitar and vocals. For Seals, sounding as close to the original group as possible is the goal. Although he's put out a solo album and has plenty of originals, his version of JGB adheres strictly to the original material played with their namesake.
"When I first put the Garcia band back together, I wanted to play other things. I figured we could go further in the expansion of material," says Seals. "Of course, I'm not Garcia. I could never stand in his shoes. With this band, the fans don't want a twist. They want to get these songs as close as possible to when Jerry was alive."
Although Seals still pursues his own music as well, he sees those efforts the same way Garcia saw JGB: a way to explore the other music in him that doesn't fit his main project. He's currently at work on a solo album with a funk, jam-band approach.
With the Grateful Dead's living members launching plenty of new projects, it seems odd that Seals never got a call to participate in groups like Phil Lesh & Friends and Furthur. The keyboardist attributes that to the other Dead members' lingering grudge against the Jerry Garcia Band, which some fans preferred to the Grateful Dead at points in their careers.
"They didn't like JGB," says Seals. "Playing with them would be phenomenal, though."
Fortunately for fans who did love JGB more, or as much, as the Grateful Dead, Seals keeps that music alive. His favorite songs to play these days are "Tough Mama," "Love in the Afternoon," and "Dear Prudence."
For fans with a soft spot for the memory of Jerry Garcia singing those favorites, Seals is happy to keep that torch burning.