From 1965 to 1967 Max Merritt & the Meteors were absolutely the live band on the eastern seaboard, the ultimate discotheque kings. Entranced fans would follow them from gig to gig, hooked on Merritt’s peerless funk. He had refined his passion for soul music after being turned on to Otis Redding’s Dictionary of Soul album, particularly the track Try A Little Tenderness. It was the sound and style he’d been looking for – his niche. It was such a sensation that there seemed to be only one place for it – out of here.
They were part of the pop scene of the day, even competing in the all-important Hoadley’s National Battle of the Sounds. Though pitching themselves there to screaming hordes Merritt and his men offered themselves as nothing more than the soul merchants they were – with Merritt close-cropped in a world of hirsute rockers, surrounded by portly, white-bearded elderly jazz drummer Stewie Speer, along with a bassist described as having the appearance of a rough long-haired version of Rolf Harris and a beatnik brass man. You could only love them for their sound – and at venues like the Whisky Au Go Go in Sydney, frequented by Vietnam soldiers on R&R, that’s all that mattered. Young players sat at their feet to learn how it was done.
After clawing their way back from an appalling road accident, which left Merritt with only one eye, the outfit recorded what is rightfully hailed as the first truly great Australian rock album. The bristling excellence of 1969’s Max Merritt & the Meteors album on RCA and the national hit Hey, Western Union Man, delivered on all the promise that had been there throughout the decade. It is still to be marvelled at. He even had a hit with his radio ad Live Levis.
Just as we marvel at the tenacity that saw the Meteors move base to England, almost five years after their original intention, and essentially start all over again, playing to homesick antipodeans in a Willesden pub, opening for Slade and the Moody Blues, and eventually generating such a groundswell that they became the first signing to the British arm of Arista Records, personally recruited by Clive Davis, the man who’d signed Joplin, Santana, Springsteen and Aerosmith.
Though we’d welcomed Merritt home warmly when he came back to co-headline Sunbury with Billy Thorpe, he did slip from sight for a few years. Most here were unaware of how the Meteors who had made the trek over had fallen away, how Merritt had gone back to his old trade of bricklaying for a time to make ends meet, and how he’d painstakingly put together a new, more polished outfit.
But they did know that, over Christmas 1975, the Australian airwaves belonged to an impeccable, heartfelt rock ballad that implanted itself in listeners’ hearts and memories for life – Slippin’ Away from the album A Little Easier. And they knew about the string of hits that followed – Let It Slide, Coming Back, Whisper In My Ear and Dirty Work. He came home in triumph for a sell-out tour in 1976. He relocated to Nashville the following year and recorded albums for the Polydor imprint, of lesser success. Then he moved to Los Angeles where he continued recording and also worked in carpentry, his other trade. He built a studio for Men At Work’s Colin Hay. Always in demand for tours in Australia, he undertook jaunts with Doug Parkinson and Brian Cadd and by himself. In 1979 he was one of the stars of the vast Concert of The Decade on the steps of Sydney Opera House.
His name was always synonymous with passionately performed roots music. We saw him with Ray Charles, Wilson Pickett and James Brown, we saw him at Bluesfest in Byron Bay and at Crown Casino. There didn’t have to be current hits, there just had to be Merritt. In 2002 he dramatically closed the first half of each Long Way To The Top concert across the nation with a fiery, intense soul-gospel revue performance based around Try A Little Tenderness that had the panting hordes truly screaming for more.
Unfortunately there wasn’t a lot more for him to give, professionally. He was diagnosed with Goodpasture Syndrome, a rare auto-immune disease which attacks the kidneys and he was faced with thrice weekly dialysis treatment, which continued until his death. These sessions had to be carefully accommodated when he was inducted into the ARIA Hall of Fame in 2008 and had to leave his California home for the ceremony. That night Kasey Chambers and father Bill Chambers joined Merritt on stage for a heartfelt version of Slippin’ Away. He later recorded it as a duet with Catherine Britt.
The extraordinary level of respect, affection and indeed concern that existed for Max Merritt over generations of music performers had been vividly evident in October 2007 when more than 25 recording artists, 50 musicians and 70 crew gathered at the St Kilda Palais (where Merritt had opened for the Rolling Stones all those years before) for The Concert for Max benefit. His songs were rendered and his soulfulness celebrated and evoked, by artists such as Kevin Borich, Daryl Braithwaite, James Reyne, Vanessa Amorosi, Ross Wilson, John Swan, the Black Sorrows, Normie Rowe, Jon English and John Paul Young. He wasn’t there that night but his spirit and his spectre was. The friends and devotees who gathered to whip up some righteous fervour, to send out their admiration in waves that must surely have reached him in the Northern Hemisphere, had all been, to some degree, touched or shaped by his extraordinary, half-century musical legacy. They would have to have been, if only because Australasian rock was.
Merritt survived until the age of 79, communicating actively online. He is survived by daughter Kelli and son Josh and three grandchildren.
Glenn A. Baker