An Interview with rock 'n' roll publicist Bob Merlis: Blues is the human cadence. Everybody instantly identifies with it.

"I just try to find the inner worth of any musical piece or performance.  If it's something that I can't access, I move on."

Bob Merlis:Walking with the Stars

Bob Merlis is a music industry veteran whose name had been synonymous with Warner Bros. Records where, for almost thirty years, he served in various publicity-related positions culminating with Senior Vice President, Worldwide Corporate Communications. Upon departing Warner Bros. in April of 2001, he started his own consulting business, M.f.h. Merlis for Hire has worked with many high profile clients like John Mellencamp, ZZ Top Etta James, ABKCO Music and Records (The Rolling Stones, Sam Cooke), John Fogerty, Neil Young, Experience Hendrix LLC, Dion, Walter Becker, JD Souther, Percy Sledge, Dweezil Zappa, and others.

He also served as Exhibits Development Director for The Petersen Automotive Museum where he served as curator for The Cars and Guitars of Rock 'n Roll exhibition.

Merlis is a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nominating committee and is a past board member of the Blues Foundation, co-founder with David Less of the independent blues/roots record label, Memphis International and is the co-author of Heart & Soul: A Celebration of Black Music Style, 1930 to 1975, a nominee for the Ralph J. Gleason Award as Best Music Book of 1998. As an automotive journalist, he is frequent contributor to Automobile Magazine and Details.

Rock 'N' Roll publicist Bob Merlis honored at 2008 with the 315th Golden Palm Star on the Palm Springs Walk of Stars.

Interview by Michael Limnios

Mr. Merlis, when was your first desire to become involved in the music & who were your first idols?

When I was very young, I heard early rock and roll; my two older brothers played records and I became immediately aware of Elvis and Bill Haley.  My father bought me LaVerne Baker's "Tweedle Dee" and that made a very big impression on me."

When did your love for collecting records come about?

As mentioned, my brothers bought records but I got into it in a big way and would save my allowance and usually buy one single every week (if I had enough money).  Of course, I thought Elvis was amazing but I really went crazy for Ray Charles and then R&B in general

What does music offered you & what do you learn about yourself from the music?

It opened a whole world for me.  The labels told stories... the names of the songwriters, music publishing companies, the addresses of the labels.  Motown Records had a map of Detroit on the label.. So much to see as well as hear.  Albums with liner notes were a true revelation -- you could write about music as well as listen to it!

Difficult question, but which artists have you worked with & which do you consider the best friend?

Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top was and is a great friend of mine.  I had been very friendly with Etta James for years but along the way we became estranged.  Lonesome Dave Peverett of Foghat was the first music star to come to my house.  In recent years, I've become friendly with Eric Burden who is such an amazing talent and I've been friendly with Dion Dimucci for almost 40 years now.

Which was the best moment of your career and which was the worst?

There have been lots of "best moments" but I think ZZ Top's Eliminator become a worldwide massive hit was one of the bigger thrills I've ever had.  The first Dion and The Belmonts reunion show as amazing and meeting Little Richard was truly an unforgettable experience.

What are some of the most memorable project you’ve had like agency and promoter?

I mentioned ZZ Top earlier.  They had been signed to Warner Bros. where I worked and I liked them but then I really dug down deep and determined how clever and totally musical they were.  I did whatever I could to champion their cause within the company and things worked out very well, indeed.  As the representative of Warner Bros., I presented them with gold and platinum albums more than a few times over the years.  

Of all the people you’ve meeting with, who do you admire the most?

Little Richard.   There has never been anybody quite like that and he is the embodiment, in just about every way, of how rock and roll serves to liberate people.

If you go back to the past what things you would do better and what things you would a void to do again?

I would try to have been more open minded about some kinds of music that I didn't, perhaps, understand then as I do now.  There are some artists who, no matter what is done for them, are unhappy and in pain which they seem to be eager to share.  In some cases, I'd just do my best to avoid them or, at the very least, to not let their negative attitudes adversely affect me.  

Which of historical music personalities would you like to meet and work with?

Jimi Hendrix.  I've been working on his catalog for many years now but I never got to see him in person.  I know so much about him and his life that it would have been great to have spent time with him.  I also am somewhat obsessed with the music of Kurt Weil... not really rock and roll but influenced by American jazz and The Threepenny Opera is, by some measure, a punk rock performance piece.

From whom have you have learned the most secrets about the music?

Jerry Wexler told me how to produce records (not that I've really done this).  He said "Find a band leader."  Simple as that.

Some music styles can be fads but the blues is always with us.  Why do think that is? Give one wish for the BLUES

It's the human cadence.  Everybody instantly identifies with it.  The blues, even broadly defined, has stagnated a bit so my wish would be for an infusion of fresh approaches.  

What characterize your philosophy about the music business?

I'm not sure I have a philosophy or if there really is a much of a "business" left in the music business.  I just try to find the inner worth of any musical piece or performance.  If it's something that I can't access, I move on.

Did you help many artist in the meantime did you found any gratitude from them?

I don't know about helping... I did my job that was and is to expose talent to those who might appreciate it.  This goes back to my college days when I was involved with presenting such bands as The Byrds, Mitch Ryder, Martha & The Vandellas and others.  I publicized those events by highlighting the talent that I believed was there.  I'm pretty much still doing the same thing.

Are there any memories of all GREAT MUSICIANS you meet which you’d like to share with us?

There have been so many; not sure how to differentiate these experiences.  Meeting Little Richard backstage when he was still out of breath after having given a brilliant over-the-top performance was amazing.  He had body make-up on and seemed like a person from another planet.  I got to know him later and treasured that fact and still do.  I drove Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits around LA after they broke big with "Sultans of Swing" and helped him rent a huge red Ford convertible.  I love cars so it was great when Brian Ferry told me he had owned a Studebaker in college and Dion sang in the back my own 1955 Studebaker.

Any comments about your experiences from the Hall of Fame, Blues Foundation & Memphis International?

I enjoy suggesting artist for induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame though not all that many of my suggestions have gone as far as that.  ZZ Top's induction by Keith Richards was brilliant and, of course, John Mellencamp is a client so when he was inducted I was pretty delighted.  I also worked with Percy Sledge when he was inducted and that was terrific.  Lots more, now that I think of it.  The Blues Foundation tried very hard to raise the profile of the genre over the years and it was through the Foundation that I met David Less who became my partner in Memphis International Records.  He's a real record man and the label gives me reason to go to Memphis on a regular basis.  There's so much music history there that it's mind-boggling.

How has the music business changed over the years since you first started in music?

It's not a clear-cut as it had been.  In my early days it was mostly a case of releasing music to radio and trying to get it played and spread and helping with publicity so people would be able to know more about the artists and identify with them on some level.  Today, it's much less focused so much harder to define.  

How does the blues & jazz music come out of the “A Celebration of Black Music Style: 1930-1975” pages?

The book is a visual document .. it's the way the artists looked and how they were represented in all kinds of media.  To get people to listen to music you need to attract them first and that's what the visuals were all about.  

As Little Richard told me, "You have to wear a shirt on stage that the audience can't get in their town."  Something special to set performers apart.

Which is the most interesting period in your life and why?

My college days, I suppose.  It was the time of student uprisings all over the world and I was at Columbia University in New York that was the first American campus to revolt.  I worked it out so the Grateful Dead came to campus, across police barricades to do a free concert.  Isn't that what revolution is all about?

Why did you think that Bob Merlis continues to generate such a devoted following?

I don't know that I have "a devoted following" but I do have lots of good friends and many of them are knowledgeable about music so we have lots in common.

Who is a quick review of your work ?

I have a star in the sidewalk in Palm Springs that has my name and reads "Rock 'n' roll publicist."  That's what I've done.. both for the music and based on it, too.

Do you have any amusing tales to tell from your experience with Merlis for Hire ‘s artists?

We handled ZZ Top so that's a carry-over from my Warner Bros. days.  We went to Dusty Hill's wedding about 8 or 9 years ago which was my reconnecting with the band.  I was so happy for Dusty and it reminded me of how terrific they are to work worth.  I was hired as the band's publicist almost immediately thereafter.  Very early in the history of MFH, I got a call from Allen Klein whom I had known but not all that well.  He said, "We're putting out a new Sam Cooke collection and we think you're the guy to do the publicity for it."  That was breathtaking on several levels.  First Allen is a legend and the man who managed Sam and the Rolling Stones and, for a time, The Beatles.  He was always kind to me but this was over the top: I loved Sam Cooke's music as much or more than anyone' else and here I got to be directly involved.  Fantastic!  On the very day I left Warner Bros after a total of 29 years there I was very depressed but I got a call from Phil Spector to invited me to go to a Lakers basketball game with him.  We went there in his Rolls (the same car you seen in the film "Easy Rider") and we sat in the very best seats in the house.  At the half we went to a room which was populated by some big Hollywood names and it was great to be able to use that moment to lift myself out of my sadness and realize I did, indeed, have a future in the business.  Phil Spector saved my life!

What are the secrets to a good PR / publicity? What is the word "seal" of your work?

As far as PR/publicity is concerned, you need to know what it is you're working on very specifically.  Familiarize yourself with whatever it is, see if you have a passion for it and then do your best to convey that passion.  We regularly pass on projects where the artist or manager is willing to pay the going rate, etc. if we don't gave a feeling for the music.  And we do our best to know the tastes and proclivities of the writers and editors we pitch so we don't waste their time (and ours).  

Which of the artists were the most difficult and which was the most gifted?

There is an artist who is highly regarded whose personality is so defective and hateful that he or she (not saying which) has poisoned my ability to appreciate his or her music.  It's too bad because there's great talent there but the baggage that comes with it is self-defeating so I just had to move on.   As far as most gifted is concerned, there is a world of possibilities to point to.  It's just too overwhelming to single one out.  OK, Little Richard!

What is the strangest desire that someone have requested to work with you?

Can't really come up with a crazy story that you seem to want.  Most artists don't think the way others do; it's what makes them artists, for better or worse.

What do you think is the main characteristic of you personality that made you a promoter & manager?

I think I'm enthusiastic and I do what I can to convey that enthusiasm.

What is your “secret” MUSIC DREAM? Are your dreams full field?

I'd like to have a million selling album on Memphis International and we've been releasing records for 10 years now so it's about time for this.  That would be a dream fulfilled.  Having Phil Spector come home would be another.

What mistake of the music business, would you wish to correct?

The digital revolution was a two-edged sword.  It seemed like a great idea but then it opened the door to copyright violation and diminished the value of music... both in monetary terms and the way people feel about the role it plays in their lives.

What advice would you give to aspiring manager, promoter, PR agency thinking of pursuing a career in the craft?

My advice is outdated so I'd advise them to find someone who is more contemporary than I am.  I like to think I should have been a lawyer and might have had more impact on the business in that role but, of course, I would have had to go to law school and that seemed like a painful proposition.

MERLIS for hire

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