Former Grateful Dead keyboardist Saunders dies at 74

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Keyboardist Merl Saunders, who had a long-term collaboration with Jerry Garcia and the Grateful Dead, has died at the age of 74 from complications after suffering a stroke six years ago, his family said.

His family paid tribute to the jazz and rock musician, whose favored instrument was the Hammond B3 organ, saying they were sad to lose him and comforted by the affection from his fans.

“Merl Saunders stood for music and love - his smile alone told you that,” the family said in a statement on his web site.

“He was a special man, a beautiful companion, father, grandfather, and family patriarch, and the proof of that spirit is in the way you’ve reached out to us at his passing.”

The family said a memorial service would be held on October 29 in San Francisco for Saunders who was a bandmate of Johnny Mathis through junior high school and recorded with a list of top musicians including Miles Davis and B.B King.

His MySpace entry noted that in 2000 Saunders became the first recipient of the lifetime activist award from a Florida environmentalist group for his environmental activism.

Writing by Belinda Goldsmith; Editing by David Fox