POP GOES THE 1970’s- Part 2- MAX MERRITT & THE METEORS

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Slipping Away (M Merritt) – Max Merritt and the Meteors 1975  

Beloved soul/R&B masters, Max Merritt (1941) and the Meteors had made the move from Christchurch, New Zealand to Australia in 1964, after providing stellar backing on Dinah Lee’s first two major hits Don’t You Know Yockomo, and Reet Petite. Below L-R MM, Max and the Meteors performing at the Christchurch Teenagers Club 1958, MM.

Covers of Sam Cooke’s Shakeand Buster Brown’s Fannie Mae had been moderate hits for the band in 1966 but they were building a substantial loyal following with the Mods for their brand of Atlantic/Stax/Volt-inspired soul, blues and R&B as confirmed by their lively cover of Jerry Butler’s Western Union Man which had charted #15 in 1969.Their eponymous debut album released in 1970 featured all their singles released to that date as well as several original compositions by Merritt and Bertles, which charted #7 to become their first top ten hit.

Tight, funky, full on blusey soul, the additional trumpets were terrific, Yuk HJarrison’s bass lines were exemplary, and Max was as impressive as usual.

They were part of the pop scene of the day, even competing in the all-important Hoadley’s National Battle of the Sounds, but they were soul merchants without pop star looks. Merritt wore close-cropped hair in a world of hirsute rockers, he was flanked by a portly, white-bearded elderly jazz drummer in Stewie Speer, bassist Yuk Harrison who resembled a scruffy long-haired version of Rolf Harris, and a beatnik brass man in Bob Bertles. The fans loved them for their sound at venues like the Whisky Au Go Go in Sydney, and Thumpin’ Tum, Catcher, Sebastians, and Berties in Melbourne, and fellow musicians were some of their greatest admirers.Below L-R Max, Bob Bertles, Yuk Harrison, Stewie Spear.

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Max and the Meteors were the original rock and roll survivors, their lineup was a shifting, peripatetic ensemble of players and the group always seemed to be in a state of flux. In 1967 the band barely survived a serious road trauma in Victoria’s Latrobe Valley where three of the band, Merritt, drummer Stewie Speer, and sax player Bob Bertles were very seriously injured. Max lost his right eye in the accident, Speer sustained fractured legs and pelvis, and lost several fingers, and Bertles legs were badly broken, the injuries were extensive and the group would be unable to perform for most of that year. The only positive outcome for Merritt was that he developed a close relationship with Tamara (1946), a young Latvian migrant girl whose family had relocated to Melbourne from Germany in 1949, Tamara was working as a secretary at the time, and during Max’s recuperation they bonded and were ultimately married, Max and Tamara would have two children – Kelli (1968) and Josh (1971) – but separated later in life. Below – Tamara Merritt.

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The band relocated to the UK in 1970 and based themselves in Reigate, Surry; at the time they were Max Merritt, Stewie Spear, Bob Bertles and Dave Russell had replaced Yuk Harrison on bass. They slogged it out for years in the early 1970’s on the London pub and university circuit, as well as performing at such iconic venues there as the Rainbow Theatre, the Speakeasy, the Bag of Nails, and the Marquee Club, gaining another loyal following but with no chart success. In 1974 the band fell apart after their manager Peter Raphael left them high and dry in London with outstanding debts, they were forced to sell their instruments to clear the creditors, Max went back to bricklaying, to support his wife and family, but his indomitable spirit to play music was not crushed.

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In late 1974, old bandmates, Merritt, and Speer, got the group back together, and recruited Brits John Gourd (guitar/piano), Howard Deniz (bass), Barry Duggan (sax/flute) and Lance Dixon (keyboards/ saxophone), pictured above. They went into the Arista Records studio in London with renowned producer Del Newman (real name Derrick Martin Newman) who had been very active throughout the 1960’s and 70’s producing and arranging for such artists as Cat Stevens, Elton John, Rod Stewart, and Peter Frampton, to put down the album A Little Easier. The title track was a stomping gumbo of slide guitar, soul-blues and impeccable Merritt lead vocals, that mysteriously failed to chart, but the second single would become their biggest hit, and signature song, when the sublime ballad Slipping Away was lifted from the album, which charted #10 locally and occupied the charts for 41 weeks.

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The song was a shift in style for the band, the brassy, bluesy soul grooves of previous hits were replaced by the poignant and sensitive reading of a tender love song with the artful merging of flute, piano, acoustic guitar and strings in support of Merritt’s soulful but restrained vocals “Baby I’ve been watching you/ Watching everything you do /And I just can’t help but feeling/Someone else stealing, you away from me/ /I see it written in your eyes/ And you confirm it with your lies/You’re slipping away from me.” The lyrics were intimate, melancholic, heartfelt, and made the listener feel as though you were eavesdropping on a personal conversation.

Donny Sutherland Show appearance, their bigget hit.

Slipping Away had taken Max back to several songs that had inspired him earlier in his career, Otis Redding’s, Try A Little Tenderness, which Max had recorded in1967, and Redding’s anguished plea to save a doomed relationship in I’ve Been Loving You A Little Too Long (To Stop Now).

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Slipping Away was also a melancholic lover’s lament, with Max’s echoed vocals resonating throughout, in an interpretation that was nuanced, sincere, and moving, it became their biggest hit at #2 in Australia, #5 in the NZ and the album was a top ten hit locally as well. It deserved to be an international hit, but musical tastes were changing, punk rock was emerging, the band would take the album Out of the Blue to #17 locally in 1976, but the Meteors would once again split up and move on. Throughout 1977-99 Max was resident in the USA where he performed and did session work, occasionally returning to Australia to perform and record. In 2008 Max Merritt was inducted into the ARIA Hall of Fame by Glenn A. Baker, and he was joined on stage by Kasey and Bill Chambers in a moving performance of Slipping Away. Max sadly slipped away from us in Sept 2020 after succumbing to the auto-immune disease Goodpasture Syndrome. Below- Max and the Meteors being inducted into the ARIA Hall of Fame.

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