Steal Your Face is a scary image if you don’t know the back story.
The logo of the skull and lightning bolt became the iconic symbol for the Grateful Dead when the band released the “Steal Your Face” album in 1976. But Melvin Seals was unaware until bandleader Jerry Garcia invited the keyboard player to a rehearsal in a spacious warehouse adorned with posters.
“The early days were a little spooky for me,” Seals said. “I see a skeleton with roses in its head and a skeleton with a violin. I wasn’t a Deadhead. I didn’t know much about them. I thought, ‘Is this some kind of cult? What’s going on here?’ I was a little bit afraid for the first few times until I got wind of what was going on.”
At the time, Seals had played exclusively at church – his father was piano and choir director – and he only knew church musicians. But his skill and versatility caught the attention of not only Garcia, but many others, too. He played country with Charlie Daniels, blues with Elvin Bishop and rock with Chuck Berry, who is notorious for his lack of preparation for a show.
“Chuck Berry, he doesn’t tell you any key,” Seals said. “In fact, I don’t recall talking to him. He just played with you and when he wanted you to solo he just pointed to you. Totally strange, but that’s how he does it.”
Seals honors his former bandleader by continuing the spirit of his music with his band, JGB, an acronym for the Jerry Garcia Band.
“It came out of the late ’60s, and you had a lot bands, Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin, back then, the free love, the flower children,” Seals said. “The Grateful Dead of course (rose from) that same thing, but Jerry had a floating guitar style unlike others. I don’t know anybody else who played like that unless they tried to copy him. He had a different kind of a style that the jams they would get into night-to-night, they were so different.
“Whatever you were doing, you’d get caught up and lost in those jams and the songs and the lyrics and the things that went on. And as musicians say, what leaves the heart reaches the heart. Jerry had a great big heart. So the people felt his music.”
Editor’s note: This story includes quotes from author Tim Parsons’ 2013 interview with Melvin Seals.
Photos from Melvin Seals and the JBG on Sept. 18 in the Crystal Bay Casino’s Crown Room. For the full photo set, CLICK HERE