Tony Saunders (bassist)

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Tony Saunders

Tony Saunders is an American bass player and synthesizer player in the genres of jazz, gospel, R&B, Pop and world music. He is a composer, arranger, music producer, and head of his own studio, Studio 1281.


Saunders comes from a musical family. His world famous keyboardist father, Merl Saunders, got him started at an early age. He began singing at the age of five, and played piano from age eight. Herbie Hancock and Sly Stone were among Saunders’ early teachers, and Sly gave Saunders an organ at the age of ten. At age fourteen he began playing the bass.

In 1969, Tony's Dad, Merl Saunders, was the Musical Director for the Joseph Dolan Tuotti musical Big Time Buck White (which featured Muhammad Ali and Donald Sutherland among others), with music and lyrics by Oscar Brown Jr..[1] During that time, Tony was the lead singer for The Man Child Singers.[2] The Man Child Singers performed and recorded the songs Right On and Mighty Whitey from that play on a 45 produced by his father's label Summertone Records. This single was included in the compilation CD Home Schooled: The ABCs Of Kid Soul in 2007.[2] The Manchild Singers also recorded a San Francisco Giants jingle.

Tony received one of his first piano lessons from Herbie Hancock, and was awarded a fellowship at the prestigious San Francisco Conservatory of Music for piano.[3] His first Fender bass guitar was a gift from Tom Fogerty, brother of John Fogerty and rhythm guitarist for Creedence Clearwater Revival. He graduated from the Conservatory of Music in San Francisco. He received an Emmy at 14 years old with his father for the children's special Soul Is, a PBS documentary featuring Black poetry accompanied by Tony on the bass.

At age 17 he began playing with his father and Jerry Garcia, and was a featured musician in Merl Saunders & Aunt Monk. Later Tony played in the original Rainforest Band, and recorded on all other projects of his father's. Legendary bassists Chuck Rainey, Jack Casady and John Kahn all took interest in Saunders’s ability. John Kahn turned Saunders on to James Jamerson, and Saunders modeled his playing around all of his teachers. Other influences include Stanley Clarke, Alphonso Johnson, Rufus Reid, Ralphe Armstrong, and current favorite Marcus Miller. This has led to a very flexible and diverse style.

Saunders has scored movies, corporate videos, TV shows and commercials, and produced many CDs, primarily out of his own studio, Studio 1281. He wrote the music to the stage play Zetta, performed in San Francisco by the American Conservatory Theatre, and also assumed the role of musical director for the show. He was the musical director of Rock Justice, written by Bob Heyman and Marty Balin of Jefferson Starship.[3] Artists collaborating with him on recent projects have included Mavis Staples, John Lee Hooker and Austin "Auggie" Brown, the nephew of Michael Jackson. (Auggie's project was sold to Midas Records.) Tony has also been a staff producer for San Francisco Records, bringing Ashling Cole to the label and producing her project. Tony has produced over 400 tracks with his core musicians Dante Taz Roberson on Drums, Bill Hampton on Guitar, and Sylvester Burks on Keyboards. Tony's first solo CD "Bigger than Outside" was released in October 2011. It remained on the charts for 70 weeks. His new CD "Appaloosa" was released January 22, 2014. It features Tony on Bass, Grammy winners Howard Hewett, Bill Champlin and Tony Lindsay on vocals. The CD has 7 instrumentals and 6 vocal songs. Tom Politzer from Tower of Power, Rock Hendricks from Paul Hardcastle's Jazz master series also grace the CD with their Sax playing. Longtime friends of Tony's, Fred Ross and Sakai, background singer with Train, also sing their hearts out on the duet "The Question Is".

Saunders has been influenced by Gospel music since he was a young child. He studied under choir director Leon Patillo. Saunders met the Hawkins family when he was 14, and credits them with not only inspiring him to play bass, but also with giving spiritual guidance to his life. He played with Walter Hawkins, Edwin Hawkins and the Love Center Choir in the 80's, and released He Lifted Me Up, his first gospel project, in 2005. Among the other Gospel artists Saunders has played with are Andrae Crouch, the Clark Sisters, the late Reverend James Moore, Daryl Coley, James Cleveland and the Williams Brothers, The Might Clouds Of Joy and Shirley Ceaser. His most recent Gospel project features Derrick Hughes, Alfreda Lyons-Campbell, and Saunders' longtime friend, gospel bassist/drummer Joel Smith (Walter and Ed's nephew).

Saunders has worked with and performed on behalf of several charitable and social issue-oriented organizations including Bread And Roses, the Seva Foundation, the Rex Foundation, Rock for Hope, the Haight-Ashbury Free Clinic, and the Rainforest Action Network.

Bands featuring Tony Saunders include Keystone Revisited, Tony Saunders Romancing The Bass, Merl Saunders & the Rainforest Band, Band of Gypsies with Buddy Miles, Mitch Mitchell, Randy Hansen, Zero,[4] Robert Winters & Fall, David Crosby, Tony Saunders & Paradize, and M.R.L.S. A re-launch of the Rainforest Band as a tribute to Merl Saunders took place at the 29th Starwood Festival on July 25, 2009, the site of their last performance, featuring Tony Saunders, guitarist Michael Hinton, and other members of the Rainforest Band and other Saunders’ projects.[5] Also appearing were Sikiru Adepoju on talking drum and Douglas "Val" Serrant on steel drum and djembe.

Awards and honors[edit]

Saunders has received two Emmy awards. He also won the New York Film Festival's Grand and Silver Award for educational compositions.[3]


  • Right On / Mighty Whitey - The Man Child Singers (1969) Summertone (45 RPM)
  • Merl Saunders - Merl Saunders (1974) Fantasy
  • You Can Keep Your Hat On - Merl Saunders (1976) Bass
  • Light'n Up, Please! - David Liebman (1976) Bass
  • Come to Me - Juice Newton (1977) Bass
  • Rock Justice - Marty Balin (1979) EMI (Cast Recording - Music Director)
  • Imagine Heaven - Edwin Hawkins Singers (1982) Clavinet, Bass
  • Death or Glory - Combat 84 (1984) (Liner notes only)
  • Do the Right Thing [Soundtrack] (1988) (Mixing / engineer)
  • Chain - Family Stand (1990) (Mixing only)
  • Funk Drumming - Jim Payne (1993)
  • Brothers & Sisters I Will Be Praying for You - Rev. James Moore (1994) Bass
  • Beyond The Thunder - Neal Schon (1995)
  • Best Kept Secret - Lady Bianca (1995) Bass
  • Red Blooded Blues - Various Artists (1995) Percussion
  • Blues of the Month Club - Joe Louis Walker (1995) Bass
  • Blue Gold - Various Artists (1996) Bass
  • Keepers - Merl Saunders (1997) Bass
  • Takoma Eclectic Sampler - Various Artists (1997) Bass
  • Every Woman's Blues: The Best of New Generation - Various Artists (1998) Bass
  • Fiesta Amazonica - Merl Saunders and the Rainforest Band (1998) Bass
  • Summertime in the Big City - Larry Vann (1998) Bass, Arranger, Producer, Engineer, Keyboard Programming
  • Illegally Insane - Fifty One Fifty (1999)
  • Blues Routes: Heroes & Tricksters - Various Artists (1999) Bass
  • Yes I'm Ready - Ricardo Scales (1999) Bass
  • Blues for a Rotten Afternoon - Various Artists (2000) Bass
  • Rollin' - Lady Bianca (2001) Bass
  • Whispering Waters - Tony Saunders/Paradize (2002) Bass, Arranger, Producer, Bass (Upright), 6-String Bass, 5-string Bass
  • Final Recordings 1 - John Lee Hooker (2003) Organ & Bass
  • Reason Why - Loni Williams (2003) Engineer, Mixing
  • Rhythm & Roots of Larry Vann - Larry Vann (2003) Arranger, Guitar (Bass), Keyboards, Drum Programming, Keyboard Programming
  • Sweet Jimmie Sings the Blues - Sweet Jimmie (2003) Bass
  • Face to Face - John Lee Hooker (2004) Organ, Bass
  • I Am Sorry - Rene (2004) Bass, Producer, Vocal Arrangement, Drum Programming, Mixing
  • The Unsung Soldier - Tony Saunders (2004)
  • Still Groovin' - Merl Saunders (2004) Bass|Keyboards|Fender Rhodes, Arranger|Producer|Mixing|Musician
  • Jazz Ala Soul - M.R.L.S. (2004) Arranger|Engineer|Mixing, Bass
  • Live! From San Francisco - R&B All-Stars (2004) Bass, Arranger, Producer, Engineer, Synthesizer Programming, Repair
  • Songs for My Three Mothers - Juel Nero (2004) Vocals (background), Producer
  • Songs for the Being Human - Steven B.'s Heart Language (2005) Bass, Arranger, Vocals, Vocals (background), Producer
  • Back From the Dead - Automatic Pilot (2005) Guitar (Bass), Guest Appearance (Brown and McQueen Music)
  • Sunlight of My People - Ayana (2005) Bass (Electric), Engineer, Mixing
  • Sweet Love - Patricia Wilder (2005) Synthesizer, Bass, Arranger, Keyboards, Producer, Engineer, Executive Producer, Mixing
  • He Lifted Me Up - Tony Saunders (2005)
  • In a Mendocino Town [Bonus Tracks] - II Big (2006) Guitar (Bass), Producer, Engineer, Mixing, Guest Appearance
  • Face in the Glass - II Big (2007) Bass, Producer, Engineer, Mixing, Guest Appearance
  • Knee Deep - James Levi (2007) Bass, Keyboards, Producer, Engineer
  • Home Schooled: The ABCs Of Kid Soul - Various (compilation) (2007) Numero Group
  • Just Kita - Nikita Germaine (2008)
  • Sweet Feelings - Ashling Cole (2008)
  • Cyril Magnin Street Fair - Various Artists (2008) Group Member
  • Live at John's Grill - We 3 (2008) Bass, Producer, Executive Producer, Bass (Upright), 6-String Bass, 5-string Bass, Group Member
  • Magic Touch - Ron Thompson and the Resistors (2008) Bass, Engineer, Mastering
  • Paradise in the Valley - Hartfield Family (2008) Synthesizer, Bass, Piano, Arranger, Producer, Engineer, Vocal Arrangement, Editing, Drum Programming, Mixing, Instrumentation
  • St. Mark Baptist Church: 60th Anniversary - Pastor Rodney G. McNab SR./The Spiritual (2008) Guitar (Bass), Producer, Engineer, Executive Producer, Horn Arrangements, String Arrangements
  • Romancing The Bass - Tony Saunders solo CD (2011)
  • Appaloosa - Tony Saunders solo CD (2014)
  • Uptown Jazz - Tony Saunders solo CD (2016)


  • Rock Justice - Marty Balin (1979) EMI (Music Director) (DVD released 2007)
  • Peggy Sue Got Married - (1986) [6] Actor (in "The Four-Mations"), musical performer, wrote one song
  • CBS Schoolbreak Special: God, the Universe & Hot Fudge Sundaes (1986) actor: Balliff
  • Farmer & Chase - (1995) Soundtrack [7]
  • Faith & Fear: The Children of Krishna (2001) Composer & Musician (TV)
  • Beginning Bass - Tony Saunders DVD (2005)
  • Writer's Day (2005) Composer & Foley Artist
  • Learning Bass Guitar - Tony Saunders & Rudy Sarzo - DVD (2007)


  • Learning Bass Guitar - Tony Saunders & Rudy Sarzo - Book & DVD (2007)
  • Beginning Bass - Tony Saunders - Book & DVD (2005)
  • Funk Drumming - Jim Payne (played on enclosed CD) Mel Bay Publications (April 1993) ISBN 0-87166-511-5, ISBN 978-0-87166-511-9


  • The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll by Rolling Stone Editors Holly George-Warren, Patricia Romanowski, Patricia Romanowski Bashe, and Jon Pareles (2001) p. 429
  • Screen World 1998 by John Willis, Barry Monush (1999) p. 155
  • Crosby, Stills & Nash: The Biography by Dave Zimmer, Henry Diltz, David Crosby (2008) p. 246
  • Release Print: The Newsletter of the Film Arts Foundation (San Francisco, Calif.) (1993) p. 21


  1. ^ "Buck White – Broadway Musical – Original". Retrieved 8 December 2018.
  2. ^ a b "Numero Group". Retrieved 8 December 2018.
  3. ^ a b c "Tony Saunders". Retrieved 8 December 2018.
  4. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2018-12-09. Retrieved 2018-12-08.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  5. ^ "Reprinted from Modern Drummer Magazine, June 2009". Retrieved 8 December 2018.
  6. ^ "Movies". Retrieved 8 December 2018.
  7. ^ "Fandango Website". Retrieved 8 December 2018.

External links[edit]