The mid-to-late 1960s California rock landscape was littered with Canadian expatriates jostling for a record deal and the allure of fame and fortune. One of the earliest to arrive on the West Coast was singer Denny Doherty, a founding member of the internationally renowned folk-rock aggregation, The Mamas & The Papas, in August 1965.
Not long after Doherty’s arrival in L.A., former Mynah Birds members, Neil Young and Bruce Palmer pitched up on Sunset Strip in a hearse they’d driven all the way from Toronto and the legendary Buffalo Springfield was born. Less than a year later, another ex-Mynah Birds member, Goldy McJohn arrived in L.A with his band, The Sparrow. Struggling for a year to make any headway, the group became overnight sensations after eschewing a change in name and personnel and emerging as heavy rock band, Steppenwolf.
By the end of the decade, Canadian musicians were arriving in droves and could be found plying a trade in such notable bands as Janis Joplin’s Full Tilt Boogie Band, Elektra Records’ Rhinoceros and Canada’s finest export, The Band, who cut their legendary second album in L.A.
One of the lesser known Canadian groups to work on the West Coast was the short-lived Merryweather, a talented bunch of Ontario musicians, fronted by another former Mynah Birds member, bass player Neil Lillie (today better known as Neil Merryweather).
Slightly reminiscent of the early Steve Miller Band, Merryweather also shared the same label, Capitol Records, with whom they had signed with in January 1969 and produced two albums, including the double “super-jam” record, Word of Mouth before imploding later that year.
Unlike many of their Canadian contemporaries based in California at the time, Merryweather never found the success they warranted. Along the way, however, the band produced some great music and, as we’ll see later, could have gone a lot further had events worked out differently.
In early October, Heather Merryweather opened for The Chicago Transit Authority, who were making one of their first L.A. appearances. By all accounts, the band’s performance was well received and in January 1969, producer John Gross signed Heather Merryweather to Capitol Records to a seven-year deal.
Interestingly, it was at this point that Neil Lillie received a phone call from A&M producer Larry Marks, who had somehow got hold of the group’s three-song demo through the aforementioned engineer. “He looked for us for about two months but he couldn’t find out where we were staying,” says Lillie. “He was all bummed because he wanted to sign the band and would have given us what we wanted.”
It didn’t really matter in the short-term because Capitol had promised to support the band and seemed intent on putting the necessary muscle behind the musicians. Dave Burt remembers the label paying to record some demos, which included Lillie’s “Mr Richman” to see how they would come across in the studio.
Cut at Independent Recorders in the Valley with John Gross in the production seat and abetted by legendary engineer Jim Lockert, who “wrote the book” on recording in Nashville and later worked with The Beach Boys, the sessions ran smoothly. Buoyed by the early recordings, Capitol arranged for some studio time to start recording an album, once again working with Gross and Lockert.
The group began recording in earnest and proceeded to lay down 10 tracks, most written by Lillie. “The first sessions for the album were done at Capitol,” remembers Roth. “Wow! It was like a dirigible hangar! I think we did ‘No Passengers Allowed” there. Back then recording was kind of formal – recording staff wore ties. We set up the whole band in the middle of this huge room, and placed mics very high above us on booms. We invited some friends from the coffee house we went to, to come and watch. I think they joined in, in the ‘chant’ at the end of the piece.”
Most of the rest of the album was done back at Independent Recorders where the assistant engineer was Jo Stafford’s son. A former member of The Lettermen, whose brother was a Capitol executive, owned the studio. “The studio was our sandbox,” continues Roth. “We tried everything. In Toronto the most we recorded on was three-track. Here we had eight [and] later sixteen on our next album. We rented strange instruments – a cello, an Ondioline, boom bams, whatever we wanted. Dave and I had never touched a cello, but we played them on the album. It was fun.”
Although Lillie sang the lead vocals on all of the tracks, Burt remembers Jimmy Livingstone turning up in the studio one day unexpectedly and laying down a vocal. “Jimmy rolled in to the studio covered in mud,” recalls Burt. “Apparently, he had been walking down the big viaducts. He came into the studio and I think he sang something. I remember the shock when I saw him because it looked like he’d been on acid for weeks.”
“What we didn’t know about Jimmy back then [in Toronto] was that he was probably borderline schizophrenic,” explains Roth. “Later, in California, after too much acid and such, I’m afraid Jim left our part of the universe for one of his own making.” Roth confirms that Livingstone did come into the studio to record a vocal but says that it wasn’t for the record. It was to help record a dada-esque radio advert for the album that the group’s organist feels turned out better.
Shortly after completing the recordings in February 1969, Neil Lillie legally changed his surname to Merryweather after shortening the group’s name. “Heather Merryweather was dropped because there was no person called Heather Merryweather,” explains Merryweather. “When I said I was in a band called Heather Merryweather, people asked me if Heather was the lead singer! We dropped it because after all, there was already a band called Alice Cooper.”
Around this time, Merryweather also made a prestigious appearance at Newport ’69, a huge rock festival held at Devonshire Downs in Northridge on the weekend of 20-22 June. The three-day festivities also featured The Jimi Hendrix Experience, Credence Clearwater Revival, The Byrds and Poco among others.
“We opened up on the Sunday morning and it was great,” remembers Neil Merryweather. “I had this guy in the audience that had an American flag with the peace symbol in the middle climb the hundred foot sound speaker towers and put it up at the top and everybody went ballistic. That was a great thing for us.”
Back in Los Angeles, Merryweather returned to the Whisky A Go Go for a show opening for Leslie West’s group, Mountain on 29 July. Earlier that month, work had begun on the band’s second album, which was produced once again by John Gross. On this occasion, Merryweather were joined by various musicians, including Steve Miller, Howard Roberts, Barry Goldberg, Charlie Musselwhite and former Traffic guitarist Dave Mason to record a “super jam” album. As Ed Roth explains, aside from Mason who the band met on the street, the others were introduced to Merryweather on the day of the session in the studio.
Billboard magazine, reviewing the record before its release, gave it thumbs up in its 30 August issue. “Merryweather should break through with this two LP ‘super jam’,” noted the reviewer. “Not only does Neil Musselwhite [sic] have his regular group in this bluesy set but he is joined by us.
by Nick Warburton
1. I Found Love (Neil Merryweather) - 3:09
2. Teach You How To Fly (Coffi Hall, Doug Roberts, Dave Burt, Ed Roth, Neil Merryweather) - 3:24
3. Just A Little Bit (Barry Goldberg, Steve Miller) - 3:47
4. Where I Am (Neil Merryweather) - 3:47
5. Hello Little Girl (Charlie Musselwhite, Coffi Hall, Dave Mason, Dave Burt, Ed Roth, Neil Merryweather) - 3:01
6. Mrs. Roberts' Son (Dave Burt) - 8:57
7. Licked The Spoon (Neil Merryweather) - 3:07
8. Sun Down Lady (Coffi Hall, Dave Mason, Dave Burt, Ed Roth, Neil Merryweather) - 6:00
9. Hard Times (Ed Roth, Neil Merryweather) - 4:53
10.News (Neil Merryweather) - 3:11
11.We Can Make It (Barry Goldberg, Steve Miller) - 4:32
12.Rough Dried Woman (Charlie Musselwhite, Coffi Hall, Dave Mason, Dave Burt, Ed Roth, Neil Merryweather) - 3:41
13.Dr. Mason (Dave Mason, Neil Merryweather) - 4:42
14.Hooker Blues (Neil Merryweather) - 3:32
*Neil Merryweather - Lead Vocals, Bass
*Steve Miller - Vocals, Guitar (Tracks 3, 11)
*Dave Mason - Rhythm Guitar, 2nd Fuzz Guitar, Bass, Lead Guitar, Vocals (Tracks 8, 13)
*Howard Roberts - Lead Guitar (Tracks 2, 6)
*Charlie Musselwhite - Harp, Blues Harp, Vocals (Tracks 5, 12)
*Barry Goldberg - Organ (Tracks 3, 11)
*Bobby Notkoff - Violin (Tracks 4, 9)
*Dave Burt - Guitar, 2nd Lead Guitar, Lead Guitar, Vocals (Tracks 1, 2, 7, 11)
*Ed Roth - Fiddle, Piano, Organ, Rocksichord, Strings Arrangements, Vocals (1, 2, 7, 11)
*Coffi Hall - Drums
1970 Neil Merryweather, John Richardson And Robin Boers
1971 Neil Merryweather And Lynn Carey - Vaccum Cleaner