An Interview with Neil Merryweather -- a most interesting career, spanning to all history of Blues & Rock

The best advice ever given to me was "never give up what you can't live without"!

Neil Merryweather: New Music to Life

Neil Merryweather has had a most colorful and interesting career, spanning more than 45 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, Barry Goldberg, 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.

Merryweather's second album, Word of Mouth, was a double-album of extemporaneous songs recorded in Los Angeles featuring the band jamming with numerous guests, such as Barry Goldberg, Charlie Musselwhite and ex-Traffic guitarist Dave Mason. Merryweather, Lynn Carey, and Hall then formed the band Mama Lion in 1972. After Mama Lion disbanded in 1973, Neil Merryweather released a couple of heavy glam rock solo LPs. 

Interview by Michael Limnios

How do you describe Neil Merryweather sound and progress, what characterize your music philosophy?

I can only say that I've always had a head full of ideas for songs and jamming with my friends and fellow musicians would draw them out.  I don't think I ever really rehearsed a new song. They all take shape on the spot when I was involved in a jam session.  I have an idea for a chord change and we improvise and the melody comes out of my head and becomes a song by the time we stop playing. I record the whole thing and later come up with the lyrics and finish the song.  I have little pieces of paper with words I've written down laying all over the place.  Sometimes I'll have an idea for a song verse when I'm in bed and I'll reach for a pen and a scrap of paper and write it in the dark. The top drawer of the dresser next to my bed is filled with bits of paper with words I've jotted down in the middle of the night.  Sometimes they make it to an actual song and sometimes I wonder what the hell I was thinking at the time...haha!  My philosophy has always been to not beat an idea to death.  I like the energy of a live jam recording as it has all the raw creative ideas that bring a new song to life. 

"What I miss from the 60's was the excitement that was in the air when it came to the bands and the music and the newness of it all." (Photo: Neil with his bass designs "The Bow Bass")   

What experiences in your life have triggered your ideas most frequently for your song and music?

Some of the things that I've experienced in my life are not so wonderful.  Dealing with people through the years has been a roller-coaster ride through the peaks and valleys of what human nature can expose you to, the Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde that's in everyone and the pain that can come out of some relationships. Some personal relationships and some with musicians. An idea for a song can come from a memory of a specific relationship in ones past, happy or sad, pleasure or pain.  It's all there in your heart or your head ready to be sampled for a song. Whether we want to or not we carry a lot of these memories inside us from things that have happened to us or quite frankly things in the world today that can make us angry. All the feelings I have no matter if they come from my past, or my present, or my dreams of the future can find their way into a song.

Which is the most interesting period in your life? Which was the best and worst moment of your career?

I think the most interesting period in my life was when me and my band drove down to Los Angeles from Toronto in '68.  Arriving in LA and playing the gigs in those days were filled with so much excitement and youthful energy.  It was all peace and love in those days.  I made a lot of foolish mistakes that I chalk up to being young and a little out of control. Haha! The lack of experience in my personal life and in the music business caused me to makes some choices I regret but I was having too much fun to realize it. When I finally had a band that was to me the best band I had in my career I picked a terrible manager.  I'm talking about my Space Rangers and Kryptonite albums and the live band I'd hand picked to go out and conquer the world with. A god-awful manager can ruin your career. It did! I guess the early days in LA were some of the best times in my life and the breakup and loss of my Space Rangers band was the worst.  I plan on re-releasing the "Space Rangers" and "Kryptonite" albums on double cd this fall.  I did some tracks with a few of the original guys a year ago and they will find their way on the cd as bonus tracks.

Why did you think that the Blues and Rock music continues to generate such a devoted following?

Blues and Rock music are different animals but we all know that the Blues came first and Rock was born out of the Blues.  The new bands coming out today are far away from any Blues origins.  A few exceptions are the Black Keys and John Mayer.  The new groups are  more pop and dance oriented as far as I'm concerned.  Hey my feelings on this matter are just mine and are up for debate and I don't presume to be an expert.  I just come from the days when all the new young bands at one time or another played Blues or R&B.  Those influences are in all of the bands from the sixties and the seventies, Zep, The Stones, Allman Bros., and even the Beatles!  Todays new bands just don't have that in them and for that matter most are formed and get lucky with a song that a label manages to get on the popular radio stations.  They in most occasions have hardly ever paid any dues, and it sounds like it!  If you've had a hit in the past and are from the old school early days you can live off that hit for your whole career.  Musicians like me that have been around and have done a lot of recording usually have a cult following of sorts. The Blues and Blues Rock is the way to go if you want to get out there and play live.  All the baby boomers love the blues because it was always in the music we all grew up with.  It was hidden in there somewhere. If you're an older player and you make new music there is an age discrimination wall in the music business or what's left of it.  I do my new music but I also make room for the Blues and Blues Rock side of my abilities.

What’s the best jam you ever played in? What are some of the most memorable gigs you've had?

I've jammed with a lot of people over the years.  As you may know my second album called "Word of Mouth" with my band Merryweather on Capitol Records was double jam filled album.  It featured jams with Steve Miller, Dave Mason, Charlie Musselwhite, Barry Goldberg and the late great jazz and Wrecking Crew session guitarist Howard Roberts. Recording that album was a lot of fun to do!  I later did a reunion jam album for RCA with Charlie Musslewhite and Barry Goldberg.  I've jammed with a lot of musicians at club gigs and one of those musicians was Jimi Hendrix. It was only for about ten minutes but it was a major thrill.  He was such a nice mild mannered guy.  On occasion Jimi used to sneak in the back door of a club in Hollywood called the Experience and sit at a back table and watch the bands that played there.  He liked us and came on stage one night and I got my shot to play a little bass behind him.  In one of my early band called The Flying Circus with Bruce Cockburn we opened for Wilson Pickett and that was a cool thing because my first band played a lot of his tunes.  Then we had the pleasure to open for Roy Orbison and his Candymen.  That was great!  As far as the most memorable gigs go, I really enjoyed playing the Newport festival at Devonshire Downs with Merryweather and opening for Billy Preston in Central Park NY with Momma Lion but my most favorite gig was at Keel Auditorium in St. Louis with my Space Rangers band.  We played with Kiss and Marc Bolan and T-Rex.  We absolutely killed that night!  Marc Bolan came to our dressing room raving about what he had seen.  He said it was the best band he'd ever heard and he couldn't believe it was our first concert.  Alas it was our only concert!  As I said before having a bad manager can bury a band no matter how great it is.

"The new bands coming out today are far away from any Blues origins. A few exceptions are the Black Keys and John Mayer." (Photo: Ivar Avenue Reunion -- Neil, Boers, J.J. Velker, John Richardson, Charlie Musselwhite, Barry Goldberg and Lynn Carey)

Which memory from Steve Miller, Musselwhite, Goldberg, Rick James and Wilson Pickett makes you smile?

Ah the memories! The "Word of Mouth" Capitol album was a fun thing to do as I previously said.  Working with Steve Miller was great as those sessions marked the first time Barry Goldberg and Steve had worked together since the breakup of the Miller Goldberg Blues Band back in Chicago a few years before. There was a little tension but it was soon overcome when the playing started. We did a song called "Just A Little Bit" and when the song came to an end both Steve and Barry tried to get the last lick in. It was funny and I had the producer keep the one ups man ship play on the album.  I worked with Barry again on another jam album called "Ivar Avenue Reunion" for RCA. Barry was always really into the music and was always serious about the final outcome....a natural great blues and rock keyboardist! A pleasure to work with! Charlie Musselwhite was on that one too!  When Charlie arrived at the first jam session for the Capitol album he carried a briefcase with his harmonicas and two bottle of Vermouth.  He would swig on a bottle before we played and I remember Dave Mason got into it too. Charlie played great and was a real sweet guy.  Dave on the other had got quite blasted and when we did a vocal together on a track I had wrote for him called "Dr. Mason", I had to hold him up!  Haha! We had a ball and Dave was fabulous on that guitar!  Those sessions were like I said "fun to do"!  Rick James was on the Toronto circuit with a band called The Mynah Birds back when we all started out.  He was like a black Mick Jagger back then.  The Mynah Birds had Neil Young on guitar and Bruce Palmer on bass.  Neil and Bruce left for LA and wound up in the Buffalo Springfield.  Rick asked me to join on bass and I was not happy with my band the Tripp and the lure of signing to Motown records was too great.  Rick and I went to Motown with the new Mynah Birds lineup and recorded at Hitsville.  What a thrill!  Speaking of thrills, Rick turned me on to my first LSD trip while we were at Motown. Haha!  It was great fun and Rick was a great guy!  Later in my career I wound up leaving my band Merryweather and Rick came to see me in LA and I gave him the band.  That's another story!!  As far as Wilson Pickett goes, aside from growing up playing his music to open for him was a thrill.  The man had a full sized living room stereo in the back of his limo...haha!  I can say I did have a great time jamming, recording and playing gigs with a whole bunch of great musicians in my career!

From the musical point of view what are the differences between: Canadian and American scene at the 60s?

In the sixties some of the best bands came out of Canada. The Toronto music scene was amazing. We had a thriving circuit of places to play.  Toronto had a lot of clubs dedicated to young audiences and had Yorkville Village. All the smaller towns that surrounded Toronto had places we all used to play. The music that almost every band played back then was Blues and R&B. All of us young musicians cut our teeth on the blues. Hey even Bob Dylan got his first band from Toronto!  They were the Hawks (Ronnie Hawkins back up band for years) and then they were The Canadian Squires for a short time before Dylan hired them to back him up and they became The Band. When Blood Sweat and Tears needed a new singer they recruited David Clayton Thomas from the Toronto music scene.  When Joe Walsh quit the James gang they grabbed a Toronto Guitarist named Donnie Troiano to take his place. I played the Toronto circuit stages with all these guys at one time or another. Even Janis Joplin and Alice Cooper turned to Toronto for their new bands back then. Rick Bell, Janis's Full Tilt Boogie Band piano player was my piano man in one of my early bands The Tripp. It seemed everyone knew that Toronto was the place to go if you wanted to get guys for a hot band. Canada also gave us The Guess Who back then. They recorded some really progressive rock singles at the time.

 I could go on about Canada and the players and bands we had back then.  England had a similar scene as the Blues and R&B had a lot to do with the sound that came to be the British Invasion. To compare the Canadian Scene with any American scene I believe New York was the closest to Toronto in those days. Both cities had Villages with thriving clubs.  I loved The Young Rascals (The Rascals) and The Loving Spoonful.  Zal Yanovsky the Spoonful's lead guitarist a fellow Canadian also!  LA was a melting pot where a lot of us went to further our careers.  Neil Young and Bruce Palmer left Toronto and drove down and formed the Buffalo Springfield with Stephen Stills and Dewey Martin (also a Canadian).  The Toronto band The Sparrow went to LA where they became Steppenwolf.  Denny the main singer for the Mama's and Pappa's was Canadian.  You got a lot of Canadian American combinations that went on to make great music.  I'm happy I got my start in Toronto in that amazing time!

What are your hopes and fears for the future of music?

You ask me what my hopes and fears are for the future of music?  I fear their is no future...it's going to stay the same as it is or even get worse. When Rap music started to grow the music business started to die and with if the Rap-Dance-Pop crap is all we keep getting - it's pretty much dead already! Aren't you sick of the over the top dance show big smoke and light productions that they stick in your face?  They all look the same and sound the same!  Barf !!!

Are there any memories from recording and show time which you’d like to share with us?

There are way too many memories of recording sessions and shows to pick a single one from. I'm trying to focus on what I'm doing now musically and as much as I appreciate the good old days or daze I should say. It's hard to turn around and wander down the path to my past.  The mind boggles!  haha!

Which meetings have been the most important experiences for you? Do you remember anything funny?

If you mean meetings with musicians there have been a lot of them.  One of the funniest was when I was driving down a street in Hollywood with my band Merryweather going to a rehearsal.  I saw a guy walking down that street and realized it was Dave Mason.  I was a major fan of the band Traffic! I rolled down my window and yelled "hey are you Dave Mason?" and he yelled back "I think so!". I called him over to the car and asked him if he would jam with us on our "Word of Mouth" album and he said yes.  Al along there was a police car right behind me.  The cop actually waited while the whole encounter took place and never did a thing.  I believe he was in shock that we would ignore him and block traffic like that or maybe he recognized it was Dave Mason also.  It was funny!

What do you miss most nowadays from the 60s? 

What I miss from the 60's was the excitement that was in the air when it came to the bands and the music and the newness of it all.  When you think of the bands that came out then you can't help but smile and remember the sounds. The age of peace and love. Todays music scene is all a product of the digital computer era. It not only allows for the stealing of artists royalties it has killed the record business and reduced the industry to four major labels. They control the market or whats left of it.  It seems that the same so called super stars grab all the awards at the Grammies every year over and over again.  The labels capitalize on what they already have versus putting money into promoting new acts.  It's the same Rap-Dance-Pop crap over and over again. The Simon Cowell's and their so called talent shows pumping out all the crap that they can and have control over is another creative killing enterprise. Basically none of those acts that came out of those show had any experience honing their act on the road.  I blame it mostly on the people that eat up all this shit and buy it in the first place. I guess it's the world we live in!  They don't have the knowledge of what it was like before. It's all digital downloading now! They just don't know any better!  It's said that 80% of what people have as far as music loaded in their i-phones and computer based toys is all downloaded illegally. The recording artist gets ripped off at every turn in this world. The way things are and are headed the creative artists have no chance and no say and we get stuck with little plastic crotch garbing clones line Justin Bieber. He's one of many lip-sinking piece of crap that the public eats up because it's shoved down their throats every day by the machine that grinds stuff like this out to make a buck. That's one Canadian that I'm not proud of at all!  He makes me throw up in my mouth every time I see him in the news acting like a fucking asshole.

"It all stared in American with the black blues players in the south. American folk and blues on acoustic guitars were replaced with the early electric guitars and amps. The Blues was born and gave birth to Rock 'N' Roll. "

Make an account of the case of the Canadian scene in 60s and what characterized the local sound?

The answer to this question is somewhat contained to a previous. Blues and R&B is what we cut out teeth on back then and it's what we as musicians made of it in the long run. The British bands that started showing what you could do as far as writing original songs changed everything. We all started experimenting and we all grew into what we became over the years. The musicians that never gave up either made it in some way, or are like me are still making their music.  Some did give up along the way and some have passed away.  When it come to my philosophy the pop culture term "ROCK ON" seems to apply!  Haha!

What is the best advice ever given you and what advice would you give to new generation?

The best advice ever given to me was "never give up what you can't live without"!  In my case it's music and art because if I can't express creativity in some way all the time I'd go absolutely bonkers.  I did give up music for a spell after producing Lita Ford's first album she stabbed me in the back and burned me for $75,000.  I not only produced her album but I played on it and wrote half of the songs with her including the title track "Out For Blood". As her manager I got her a great international deal with Polygram records...So here's some more crucial advice "don't trust anyone in the music business even if they are your friends - get everything on paper and signed before you proceed with any collaborations"!  I had a hard time staying out of music and my wife's discovery while she was cruising the internet brought me back to my senses. She found pages and pages on me and my many albums and discovered I had a worldwide cult following. From that point I began recording again and I still am. I plan on rockin' till I drop! Haha! I also must impress upon anyone in music that getting a real good manager is absolutely a must!  You can have the best band in the world playing great music but unless you have a manager that can get you to the right people and into the right gigs, your shit out a luck!  It's bad to try and manage yourself - stick to being the artist!!

So here's my top three pieces of advice: 1. Never give up what you love! 2. Don't trust anyone, get it all on paper before you do anything even if it is with friends! 3. Try and get the best manager possible and never try managing yourself - stick to being the artist!

"I fear their is no future...it's going to stay the same as it is or even get worse.  When Rap music started to grow the music business started to die and with if the Rap-Dance-Pop crap is all we keep getting - it's pretty much dead already!"

What are the lines that connect the legacy of Blues with Folk and continue to Rock, Psychedelic and beyond?

It all stared in American with the black blues players in the south. American folk and blues on acoustic guitars were replaced with the early electric guitars and amps. The Blues was born and gave birth to Rock 'N' Roll. I recently watch a movie called "Cadillac Records" that is the story of Chess records and the acts Marshal Chess signed and made popular, like Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf, and the great Godfather of Rock and Roll, Chuck Berry. It's a Hollywood movie but it gets the point of origin across. I recommend it ! The amplifier really is what changed the guitar sound and started the Metal era.  I give whole hearted credit to the late Jim Marshall and his outstanding Marshall amps! I remember liking Robin Trower's sound in the Procol Harum days. He used an old radio as a pre-amp to get the thick sound he had. The Kinks sound came from an over driven torn speaker when they cut there first record. Then came Marshall amps and Jimi Hendrix and Zep which begat heavy metal!  To me Jimi Hendrix started the Psychedelic sound. Everything is pretty formula now compared to the sixties and seventies. Even some of the hair bands of the eighties gave us a few thrills. It's a digital world now and it's not the same!

When we talk about Rock and Blues usually refer to memories and moments of the past. Do you believe in the existence of real Blues Rock nowadays?

Sure there are some new artists doing real blues rock here and there these days and we do still have some of the older greats around. You just need to look to see who's out there playing the blues - it's alive!  Greg Allman, Gary Clark Jr., and Jimmy Vaughn to name a few, can make a case for the blues still being played!  When John Mayer does the blues it's pretty damn good!  Hey my old friend Kal David is still out there playing the blues. There are a lot of players still carrying on the blues and blues rock tradition. One of the first things I plan on doing when my new studio is up and running is to record another La La Land Blues Band album. There are lots of great players here in Las Vegas ready to jam with me and I'm gonna keep on rockin'!!

"Art is music in a way and I'm sure if some of my songs could be represented in a painting they would look like some of the art pieces I've done...haha!" (Photo: Neil winning the Vegas Arts Commission contest)

You are also known for your artwork. What experiences in your life have triggered your ideas most frequently? What has been the relationship between music and art?

I'm only recently getting some notice for my artwork. I just won an art contest here in Las Vegas held by the Las Vegas Arts Commission.  My piece entitled "Triangle Factory" will be on exhibit at the New City Hall gallery her from Aug. through Sept.  I'm looking to finish about twenty five pieces in total so I can finally have a gallery show and get an agent.  I've always dabbled in art and got a scholarship to attend Central Tech's Art course after high school. The music thing with my bands back in those days took over my life and art took a back seat for years. A while ago my wife told me to enter the Campbell's Soup art contest celebrating Andy Warhol's Campbell's Soup Can painting. Winning the best sculpture with a metal battle-bot made from soup cans and soup spoons got me back into painting.  I've always had an active role in my album covers over the years.  Just as I visualize a song coming together in my mind I see all kinds of ideas for art pieces. Art is music in a way and I'm sure if some of my songs could be represented in a painting they would look like some of the art pieces I've done...haha! The recent pieces I've done have come from doodles I did while waiting in the waiting room when my wife was going through radiation treatments for cancer. I would sit there a draw doodles in scraps of paper while I was waiting for her. I took the doodles and blew them up in size and painted them on canvas. I see things in my head all the time. Twisted shapes and colors that I can turn into my art as I see little word plays and melodies develop into a song. My mind is always creating something. 

The flood gates are always open!!  If you go to Neil Merryweather on YouTube and click on one of my Sammi's Song video you can see a bunch of my art. If you watch the video of my song "Shadow Man" you'll see some bizarre instruments I created for the video. I also create some real instruments like two of my bass designs that are currently being built by Neil Smith of Vegas Guitars. I guess my art and music cross paths all the time.  I'm almost done with the building of my studio wing of the house and I have a lot of songs to complete and mix. Where my art and where my music will take me I never know. As a long as I can create art and music I just keep on keeping on!!

Neil Merryweather - official website

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