He had ‘a great feel, a great style.’ Popular Merced jazz drummer, bar owner dies

From behind his drum kit, Rudy Merino listens to a speech in his honor during a celebration dinner for him at Fernando's in Merced on June 17.
SUN-STAR PHOTO BY BEA AHBECK From behind his drum kit, Rudy Merino listens to a speech in his honor during a celebration dinner for him at Fernando's in Merced on June 17.

Merced native and well-liked drummer Rudy Merino has died following “a terrible head injury” from more than a year ago, his family confirmed in a statement on Thursday. He was 80.

A drummer known for playing all over the city and with many different musicians, Merino also owned Rudy’s Jazz and Blues in the early 2000s in the building that now houses The Partisan and then later owned Rudy’s Encore Musical Consignment shop in Bob Hart Square.

Merino’s introduction to music began “in his backyard on a can with two sticks,” according to the family statement. More formal learning came when he attended Galen Clark Elementary School in 1951 and was a member of the Drum and Bugle Corps., according to Sun-Star archives.

He was in the Merced Marching 100 before serving in the Marine Corps, his family said.

Singer Cheryl Lockett said she knew Merino for several decades and lost count of the number of times they performed together. “It was always great to play with him because his band was so tight,” she said. “Everyone was drawn to him because he just had a great feel, a great style.”

Merino was passionate about the arts, and particularly jazz, she said, calling him “very vivacious” and “outgoing.”

Merino bought his first drum kit for $200 to get ready for his first paid live performance at the Merced Golf and Country Club, according to Sun-Star archives. He’d go on to become a gas engineer to pay the bills when jazz couldn’t.

Friend and fellow musician John Albano, who is the dean of fine and performing arts at Merced College, said he first met Merino in 2001 as he moved to town to work at the school.

“My welcoming to Merced was from Rudy Merino. He was the first person I met,” the guitarist said with a laugh. “I thought, ‘Wow, this is a great place. This guy Rudy Merino is super cool.’ “

Albano and other musicians described Merino as not only talented but giving in his music. “He was somebody you’d always have a lot of fun playing with, because he was such a great listener and he was such a team player,” he said. “He always played the drums in a way that made the whole group sound better or made the other musicians sound better.”

Rudy’s Jazz and Blues club helped draw in “accomplished” musicians and was a showcase for live music, Albano said. He noted Merino played several times with singer Carol Channing when she played in Modesto. The drummer “loved” the Monterey Jazz Festival, Albano said.

Merino threw annual jazz and blues festivals in Applegate Park; performed regularly at Bob Hart Square; hosted drum circles in front of his store and he played monthly at the Merced Mall.

“If you wanted to play music, all you had to do was hang around Rudy and he’d teach you,” longtime Merced resident Necola Adams said.

In 2005, Merino was recognized by the Merced County Arts Center for his contributions to the Merced music scene and was granted a lifetime achievement award. At the same time, then-mayor Ellie Wooten declared June 17 Rudy Merino Day, according to his family.

Mikel Soria, a Merced native and jazz guitarist, said he was a teenager in the 1990s at Golden Valley High School when Merino first came to the school for a jazz clinic.

“Rudy is really a very passionate person about his music, and jazz in particular,” he said. “And very passionate about introducing people to that side of music.”

Soria also described him as a giving performer with “impeccable brush technique,” referring to the brushes jazz drummers often choose over drumsticks.

“He was definitely an in the pocket player. Many drummers are very busy. They’re just doing things all over the kit,” he said. “Rudy was really focused on making sure that the beat was in place, and was very sensitive to sound.”

Merino summed up his own feelings about jazz music in a 2010 interview with the Sun-Star.

“Jazz is my main love,” he said. “I love to play. I love to listen to it.”

“Rudy wanted an old fashion New Orleans, Mardi Gras-style memorial service and musical celebration,” according to his family. The date has not been confirmed.