“We Were More Like a Jamband”: Ron Tutt Looks Back on Jerry Garcia and Legion of Mary

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Ron Tutt with the Jerry Garcia Band, circa 1975: Nicky Hopkins, Jerry Garcia, John Kahn, Tutt (l-r). Photo courtesy of Jerry Garcia Family

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Renowned drummer Ron Tutt passed away on Oct. 16 at his home in Franklin, Tenn. He was 83. Tutt is best known for his work with Elvis Presley, Neil Diamond and Jerry Garcia. He was a member of Presley’s TCB Band from the time Elvis returned to the stage in 1969 at Las Vegas’ International Hotel until his death in 1977. The drummer later joined Diamond’s group in 1981 and remained through the icon’s final tour in 2017.

Tutt’s association with Jerry Garcia began with his work on Garcia’s 1974 album Compliments. He would later contribute to Reflections (1976), Cats Under the Stars (1978) and Run for the Roses (1982). In addition, he performed with Garcia in the live setting through the late ‘70s, returning for a final stint in 1981.

The following previously unpublished conversation from 2018 focuses on Legion of Mary, the memorable, albeit short-lived project featuring Merl Saunders, Martin Fierro, John Kahn, Garcia and Tutt that debuted in 1974.

How did you first connect with Jerry Garcia?

It came out of the blue. This was at a point in my life when I split my time between studio work and live playing. I was based in LA, and John Kahn called me to do a recording with Jerry. We played for a couple of days there at the studio in LA. I thought the music was cool and we got along very well.

Then, John asked if I would be interested in doing some live gigs up in the San Francisco area. He told me about the Keystone and wanted to know if I’d come up there for the weekend. I agreed to come up there because I’d had a good experience with them and it was one of my favorite places.

It was a breath of fresh air for me to go out and try something different. I’d recorded a couple albums with Emmylou Harris, and some of the guys who also played with Elvis were going on the road with her in a group called the Hot Band. I had been playing with those guys for so long that I felt like I was ready for a new opportunity.

So that’s what led me to these weekends at the Keystone in Berkeley with Jerry and Merl. Martin would come along a little bit later and add his thing to it. Just the instrumentation itself gave it more of a jazz and R&B sound than the Dead were playing. Plus, it was different with the musical abilities of the players.

What led John Kahn to invite you to that first session?

I believe he had heard some recordings and seen some footage of all that stuff that I had done with Elvis. Even though one might think that the two don’t really connect that well musically, he must have seen or heard something, and he took it from there. It was totally unexpected but appreciated.

While Elvis wasn’t necessarily known for his improvisation, is it true that he worked without setlists at that point in his career?

That’s right. We had to know hundreds of songs and then be prepared for anything. He might look back, ask for an E chord or something, and then just jump in start singing. It really kept us on our toes.

Did Jerry ever talk with you about Elvis?

No, not really. We didn’t talk much about it other than the craziness of it all. I think that, as a fellow musician, he had an appreciation for what we were doing but he never asked me the sort of questions that a fan would ask.

Can you describe the juxtaposition of playing with Elvis in Vegas and playing with Jerry at the Keystone?

 The Keystone was a joint, and I mean that in a positive way. It was a club that held a few hundred people and it was always packed when we played there on the weekends. It was a great experience because, even though we played long hours and long songs, it was great to get away. As I said, San Francisco is one of my favorite places to go. I even thought of moving there at one time because most of the major record labels had built studios or were calling it home.

 I’d be playing with Jerry and the guys one night, where we were wearing T-shirts and jeans. The next night, I’d be in Vegas with Elvis wearing two-piece rhinestone jumpsuits. I also remember doing a short tour overseas where Jerry had on a top coat and a T-shirt, and that’s what he wore the whole time.

 As a freelance player, it was interesting to see what happens when the phone rings, so to speak. Elvis would play in Vegas twice a year for a month or so. Other than that, I was free to do whatever I wanted.

John asked me if I would consider coming up to play with them at a time when I had been doing some gigs as a studio player. You can get burnt out really quickly doing that so this was a chance to open up and play more freely.

Can you share your thoughts on Jerry as a musician and a bandleader?

Jerry would let the situation do the talking for him. His music was very laid-back, very freestyle. He liked to try out different things and see where they led. He was never demanding in any way.

He loved to laugh and have a good time and, whenever we’d be in a dressing room or wherever it was, he had his guitar with him. He was constantly playing it. At some of these meet-and-greet kind of things, where they would allow people to come in, he’d be sitting there playing the guitar rather than focusing on other obvious things in the room. It was like he was on a mission.

Jerry would work with John on a lot of the final plans and details. John was basically a producer, but he was also a friend and a fellow musician. At the same time, we could all make suggestions and Jerry took them from us. He was always willing to listen.

How would you characterize John as a musician?

He was a great listener. He was always right there with me. He never pushed and he never dragged. We’d both listen to each other closely and we never talked about what we were doing because we never had to.

He was an experienced bass player who had a really keen ear for the sound of the band as a whole. He recognized the ability that this particular rhythm section had, as opposed to some of the things that the Dead did so well. It was almost like, “Well, that’s already been done, so let’s do other things.”

How about Merl and Martin?

Merl was a really gifted organist. All he ever played on our gigs was a B3, and he was a master of all the different effects that the B3 can give you. It gives you a beautiful sound, particularly in a small group, that you can’t get anywhere else. The B3 is really a substitute for an orchestra. So you can play with three or four pieces and have it sound like a full meal. Merl was really good at that.

Then, Martin added his saxophone and percussion. It’s easy for some percussionists to get in the way of the drummers. It’s a learning process for the two of them to stay out of each other’s way and even in each other’s way at the appropriate times. But Martin had an innate ability to sense where things were going. It always just added another layer to the cake.

What was your approach to the music?

We never really verbalized it but the way that the songs were picked and the way that we did them was basically like a jazz format. The songs had a head like the beginning of a jazz song and everybody played as many solos as they felt like playing, and then we’d get to the ending. Some of those songs were 15 minutes or more. I wasn’t there to solo, though. My role was to keep it together because it was basically a showcase for whoever was up there.

I tried to be as musical a player as I could. I wasn’t concerned with having lightning-fast chops. That might have interested me when I was younger but, eventually, you learn that’s not fulfilling. In fact, what you come to appreciate in the jazz world is that the slower songs are the harder ones to play. But, even there, you have to do what the music calls for. That’s the gig.

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, where the Dead had their sound and those players, while we had our approach to it. It was an interesting combination, and that’s why I enjoyed being involved in the band.

Thinking back on Legion of Mary, is there a performance or musical moment that was particularly striking for one reason or another?

I always think of one night down in Atlanta. We played at the Fox Theatre. It was a club/ theater kind of thing and it was a good-sounding place.

Jerry preferred to play those sorts of places because of the acoustics. He thought the whole atmosphere of the show was important, including the lighting. But, the sound was the most important thing to him— not only in the audience but also onstage where we could hear each other. After playing arenas with the Dead, it was something of a relief for him to play venues that were built for sound. I think he responded to that.

We were really happening that night in Atlanta, everything was gelling well, and I remember the people facing the stage kept saying, “Where are you guys from?”

They kept saying that back to us because Jerry doesn’t grab the mic and go, “Hey, how are you guys doing?” He kept his comments to a minimum because he told me: “Look at what Hitler did with the microphone.”

Every once in a while, we’d be able to hear what people were saying. I started asking myself: “Wow, where are we from? What is the musical background of each individual up there that made the wholeness of it.”

You see, the band went through several transitions with different individuals. When I was involved, it was always John and Jerry, no matter who was playing keyboard. And we never had any other horn players other than Martin.

At one point, they got Nicky Hopkins to play keyboards. He took certain songs and certain materials, whether it came from him or John or Jerry or whomever, and brought them to a pretty cool place at times.

We also had a piano player come up from New Orleans [James Booker]. He played with that great New Orleans keyboard sound, where it almost seems like two players at once. He was all over the keyboard but, unfortunately, he had some personal problems he had to deal with, so he couldn’t really hang out in society very well.

You stopped playing with Jerry in 1977, then you returned briefly in 1981, just before you joined Neil Diamond’s band. How did all that come about?

Elvis died in the summer of 1977. I was recording with Jerry, although I was at home in LA when I heard about it. At that point, it felt like the music and the personnel working with Jerry had gone about as far as it could go. That’s when I started focusing on my studio work.

I was approached to do the thing with Neil in ‘81, after I had already agreed to do a few weeks with Jerry. I hadn’t worked with him in a few years, but I did a couple weeks in the fall. We were traveling in a motor home, which was the only time we ever did that.

That’s when I was contacted about auditioning for Neil, which happened without notice. So I was hanging out in the motor home with Jerry, listening to a tape of live Neil performances through a set of headphones during the day. Then we played at night.

Looking back on your time with Elvis, Neil and Jerry, how did the rehearsals vary?

Elvis’ rehearsals could be really long. They’d go on for hours sometimes, as long as he wanted. He could get distracted though, so things might be lax.

Neil’s rehearsals could also be long, but he’d be more focused. He was like a great magician who practices his tricks a hundred times before he attempts one in front of an audience.

With Jerry, there wasn’t much rehearsal. It was totally casual. We worked out certain little things, but most of what happened musically was off the cuff. Then, we’d go out there and play whatever was right for the song. It was impromptu. We were more like a jamband. That was an interesting time.

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