Smokestack Lightnin' Home Page -- The Blues Profile Page
Neil Merryweather has had a most colorful and interesting career, spanning more than 40 years. The Canadian rock singer, bass player, songwriter and producer has recorded and played with a who’s who of the rock world including Dave Mason, Steve Miller, Rick James, Howard Roberts, Kal David, Randy California, Billy Joel, James Newton Howard, Charlie Musselwhite, Bruce Cockburn, Kim Fowley, Lita Ford and many more.
Neil was born Robert Neilson Lillie in Winnipeg, Manitoba to Canadian mother Kathleen and American father Robert Lillie, a sailor in the Merchant Marines. After his mother remarried, Neil was raised by his grandmother in Toronto. Neil never knew his father who was killed while serving his American country.
Neil began his career in Toronto as Bobby Neilson then Neil Lillie,
playing with a handful of bands throughout the 60s including “Just Us”,
“The Tripp”, “The Mynah Birds” (with Rick James), and “The Flying
Circus” (with Bruce Cockburn), eventually becoming Neil Merryweather
after moving to Los Angeles in 1968. That’s when Neil’s career as “Neil
Merryweather” was launched, spawning a number of bands and albums.
Don’t miss some great stories that are part of rock history in Neil’s interview with Ruth McCartney …
Neil formed his first band in high school and played with a handful of bands throughout the 60s. He was awarded an art scholarship and attended the acclaimed Centra Tech Art School in Toronto. But the lure of music was too strong. Gigs quickly took precedence over art, and Neil left art school to make music his sole endeavor.
Neil’s first band was called “The NightTricks”. Their agent, who referred to his other band, “Gary Mear and the Reflections”, as his “A” band, got the better gigs. Neil turned up at one of The Reflection’s rehearsals, but Gary wasn’t around. Neil sat in on vocals and wound up as the lead singer, joining forces with Edward Roth (keyboards), Robert Ablack (drums), Bill Ross (guitar), and Brian Hughes (bass). Neil used his first two names, Bobby Neilson, and the band became “The Ookpics”, named after a native Canadian stuffed toy owl that was a souvenir sold to tourists.
The band got a deal with Quality Records and recorded a lone single. The Canadian government owned the rights to the “Ookpic” name, so the band changed their name to “Just Us”, as suggested by Ed Roth’s mother. “Just Us” appeared on a local “American Bandstand” type show promoting the single “I Can Tell”, with the flip side “I Don’t Love You”, and went on for a year or so playing the Ontario circuit. Brian Hughes left the band to go to college, and Neil and Ed let the always angry Bill Ross go.
Neilson, who now went by the name Neil Lillie, befriended ex-“Mynah Birds” singer and keyboardist Jimmy Livingston in Long and McWade’s music store where he worked in the backroom as an amp and guitar repairman, and asked him to join a new lineup of “Just Us”, (the Mynah Byrds frontman was Ricky James Mathews, later known as Rick James). To complete the new lineup, Neil recruited former “C.J. Feeney and the Spellbinders” member Stan Endersby on guitar and Wayne Davis on bass.
“Just Us” became a popular draw on the Toronto scene. Wayne Davis dropped out to join “Bobby Kris and the Imperials”. “Just Us” was booked to open for “The Byrds” at Varsity Stadium. Neil got a bass and learned to play the band’s set in two weeks. They opened for “The Byrds” as “Group Therapy”, but for a short while, went on as “Just Us” to fulfill already-booked dates.
At one of the gigs, the band played on a bill with a group called “Richie Knight and the Mid-Knights”. Neil befriended the piano player Rick Bell (who went on to play with Ronnie Hawkins, Janis Joplin’s band “Full Tilt Boogie”, and “The Band”), and persuaded him to join. Neil had a concept for a new band with two keyboards. He designed red Edwardian suits and came up with the name “The Tripp”. The band signed with manager Tom Wilson, who headed up the Big Land Agency. “The Tripp” had a successful run, playing the top clubs and concert venues on the circuit. One night, they opened for Toronto’s top band at the time, “The Mandela”, and blew them away! The Mandela’s manager, Raphael Markowitz, signed them to his management company (“Riff” Markowitz went on to produce shows including “The Hitchhiker”, and is currently the producer of the Fabulous Palm Springs Follies, one of the only surviving and profit-making vaudeville shows worldwide).
In order to make the management legal, they pretended to disband to get a release from their management and contract with Tom Wilson. The breakup made the Toronto Star newspaper’s entertainment page, complete with a pencil portrait of “The Tripp” that Neil had sketched.
JUST US, l to r Stan Endersby, Bob Alback, Neil
As all good things come to an end, so did “The Tripp”. Rick Bell was
nabbed by the legendary Ronnie Hawkins, and Neil was approached by Rick
James to take Bruce Palmer’s place in a new lineup of the “Mynah Birds”.
Neil Young and Bruce Palmer left the Mynah Birds, sold the group’s
equipment and drove to Los Angeles to form the “Buffalo Springfield”
with Stephen Stills and company.
That version of the “Myna Byrds” band lasted one month. Neil and Rick went back to Toronto to reform a new group. The second day back, Rick was arrested on a breaking and entering charge. Apparently, Rick and a couple of other guys broke into a clothing store a few months earlier. Neil talked to Rick every day while Rick was being held pending charges and deportation back to Buffalo, New York. During the time Rick was being held, Neil recruited Marty Fisher (keyboards) and Gordon MacBain (drums) from “Bobby Kris and the Imperials”, and was looking for a guitarist to make up the new “Myna Byrds”. Neil ran into a couple of members from an Ottawa band called “The Staccatos” (later to become “The Five Man Electrical Band”). They told Neil the guitarist for ”The Esquires” in Ottawa had just quit. Neil called and arranged a jam. The guitarist was Bruce Cockburn.
The new “Myna Byrds” was set and waiting for Rick James to be released. The original “Mynah Birds” had acquired John Craig Eaton (of Eaton’s Department Store fame) as a backer. Neil arranged a meeting wit Eaton and got him to attend a rehearsal. He agreed to support the band during the time Rick was being held.
One month went by and the band had been playing some of Cockburn’s songs. A sound developed. Neil came up with the name “The Flying Circus”. He painted the drums like circus props and designed posters, creating an image around the new sound. The band picked up Harvey Glatt as manager. Harvey owned a music store in Ottawa and promoted major venue concerts. “The Flying Circus” opened for Wilson Pickett at Massey Hall in Toronto and for Pickett and Roy Orbison at the Capitol Theatre in Ottawa, as well as headlining The Riverboat in Toronto and Le Hibou in Ottawa. The group recorded a number of unreleased tracks in Toronto, including Cockburn’s “She Wants To Know”, “I’m Leaving You Out”, and “Mother” as well as Neil’s “Last Hoorah” and Fisher and MacBain’s “Where Is All The Love”. At the same sessions, the band also recorded songs by Cockburn’s former Children cohort, Bill Hawkins, such as “Merry Go Round”, It’s A Dirty Shame”, and “Little Bit Stoned”.
Neil’s creative artwork on the
Flying Circus – clockwise from top – Neil, Bruce Cockburn, Marty Fisher, Gordon MacBain
The band continued on for awhile, but Neil was not happy with
Cockburn’s folk/rock style and wanted to play heavier music. In the end,
personalities clashed. Neil felt it was becoming less of a band and more
Cockburn, and that he had a different direction in mind – south.
One day, I ran into Jimmy Livingston. Jimmy got a call from Bruce Palmer who was back in Toronto and staying at his brother’s flat. Bruce had just been deported from California after having an accident in Topanga Canyon. He was high on marijuana and took a turn to fast, running the Corvette he was driving off the road. A shoe box full of grass on the dashboard scattered all over him and the car seats. When the police arrived, they busted him and upon learning that he had no Green Card, they sent him back to Toronto. Jim Messina took his place in the “Buffalo Springfield”.
Jimmy and I went to see Bruce and heard great stories about the Los Angeles music scene. I recruited Ed Roth, former keyboardist from “The Tripp”. Jimmy Livingston found drummer Gary Hall. The band set up at Neil’s house in the basement. Gary brought guitarist Dave Kindred into the mix. He wasn’t the right fit and wound up going with the “Ugly Ducklings”. The band then tried out Danny Marks, but Danny wanted to go in a different direction, so the band was still looking for a guitarist. Dave Bingham the singer for the “Ugly Ducklings” recommended someone who was playing in Hamilton, Ontario in a group called “The Fraser Loveman Band”, and drove there to see the group. After the show, we asked guitarist David Colin Burt to join our band and he accepted. The band started to take shape. We were rehearsing at my house in the basement, and the furnace was called “New King Boiler”, so for awhile, that’s what we called ourselves! During rehearsals, Gary Hall was upstairs making and drinking coffee on every break, so my Grandmother started calling him Coffi (as he preferred to spell it) Hall, and the name stuck.
While on a visit to see Bruce Palmer, Jimmy and I met June Nelson who had been Mo Austin’s secretary for years (Mo was President of Reprise Records at Warner Bros). We heard more about the LA music scene from June. She had some poems she had written – I liked one called “Heather Merrywhether” (as it was originally spelled). I took the poem to rehearsal where the band put it to music, and took “Heather Merrywhether” as the name for the new band. The band rehearsed for about one month and shaped three songs. “The Tripp” had worked with an engineer at Arc Sound Studios in the past, and he let the band come in for about an hour. We recorded a three song demo and he gave us the mixes. With tape in hand, the band piled into Coffi’s brother’s 1960 Chevy and headed to LA. 2 1/2 days later, the band checked into the Hollywood Center on Sunset Boulevard. The band soon ran out of the little money they had. I called Bruce Palmer and he sent us to Linda Stevens in Topanga Canyon. Linda, a folk singer/songwriter, provided a room in her home to rehearse in, and we crashed on the floor.
Ed Roth called his father in Toronto and he shipped the equipment to
the band. The first gig was a club called “Big Pink” on the valley end
of Topanga. The group played there for about one week. It was during the
time when Jimmy Livingston became more involved in the party-minded
lifestyle off stage and less involved with the band onstage. He became
increasingly unpredictable and undependable. Jimmy was let go, and I
took over as vocalist. Morey Alexander was brought in as manager. He had
come to see the band at “Big Pink” and liked what he saw. He had managed
the Miller Goldberg Blues Band in Chicago and was a part of Shued and
Marinstein Management that was handling Van Morrison and Marian MaKeb' Mo'a.
Morey booked the band at the “Whisky” where they shared the bill with
Chicago Transit Authority (Chicago). John Gross from Capitol Records saw
the band and brought it to the attention of A&R head David Axelrod who
agreed to let Gross take the band into the studio to cut some tracks.
They liked what they heard and the band was signed.
Heather Merrywhether – l to r, Neil, Edward Roth,
We recorded our first album “Merryweather”. Morey and I set up “Merryweather Music”, and with BMI. The songs I wrote generated some cash advances and I used the money to help support the band. The band lived in a series of motels and finally found a rehearsal space in Hollywood where we could also sleep. Some months before, Dave Burt met a girl at “Big Pink” and was staying miles away in Reseda most of the time. I was becoming frustrated with his choices and attitude; there were some tense moments at rehearsals and a petty jealousy was growing. Sadly their history was short-lived, but nevertheless, “Merryweather” made an imprint on the LA scene. They headlined at Thee Experience Club many times, played the Whisky where they shared the bill with “Chicago Transit Authority (Chicago)” and again with “Mountain”. They also played Newport ’69, a 3-day festival at Devonshire Downs with Credence Clearwater Revival, The Byrds, The Jimi Hendrix Experience, Marvin Gaye, Joe Cocker, Ike and Tina Turner, and many others. Club owner Marshall Brevitz told me that Jimi liked us a lot and on several occasions, he snuck into the back of the club to watch us play. One night, Jimi and Johnny Winter came on stage to jam at the end of our set. Merryweather also played Balboa Stadium in San Diego with “Country Joe and the Fish”, “Chicago”, and “Poco”, and there was even a “Merryweather Day” at Universal City where the band played in the square.
I was working with Robert Lockert, the Art Director at Capitol Records, and photographer Ivan Nagy on the album cover and we were putting together the liner notes – that’s when I decided to become Neil Merryweather. I had previously talked to Morey Alexander about changing my name and mentioned it to our producer John Gross, and they thought it was a good idea. Also, one day as I was sitting on the curb in front of Capitol Records and I met Linda Ronstadt. We talked about music for awhile and our new deals with Capitol. She was waiting for her producer. When she was leaving, she turned around and said “Nice meeting you, Neil Merryweather”, and I really liked the sound of it!
I put the band together to come to Los Angeles and make a career out of music, so calling myself Neil Merryweather was a logical choice. Through musical history, it wasn’t unusual for bands to be named after the lead singer – some were even named after a member of the band. Nevertheless, as far as I was concerned, "Merryweather" was The Whole band and not just me.