Neil Merryweather

Neil Merryweather (Dec. 27, 1945 — March 29, 2021) was a Canadian bassist, vocalist, and songwriter who emerged on the mid-’60s Toronto scene in a sequence of bands. After moving to Los Angeles, he fronted Merryweather for two 1969 albums on Capitol.

Merryweather partnered with singer Lynn Carey for the 1970/71 projects Ivar Avenue Reunion and Merryweather & Carey. They formed the soul-rock band Mama Lion and issued two albums in 1972/73. Concurrently, the musicians cut two albums as Heavy Cruiser.

He formed his own backing band, the Space Rangers, for two popular albums on Mercury: Space Rangers (1974) and Kryptonite (1975).


Early Career, The Just Us

He was born Robert Neilson Lillie in Winnipeg, Manitoba, and launched his career at age 18 in Toronto under the name Bobby Neilson.

His first band, The Ookpiks, named themselves after a Canadian stuffed toy owl. They changed their name to The Sikusis (after another stuffed toy) and finally The Just Us. Their one single, “I Don’t Love You” (b/w “I Can Tell”), appeared on local-press Quality Records in 1965. Soon after, two members jumped ship to The Bossmen, fronted by (future Blood Sweat & Tears singer) David Clayton-Thomas.

Neilson changed his name to Neil Lillie and formed a second iteration of The Just Us. They recorded an album at Toronto’s Arc Sound, but their manager stole the tapes. When their bassist quit, Lillie learned the bass within two weeks. The chart success of a US duo named The Just Us forced Lillie to rename his band The Tripp. Despite their prominence on Toronto’s live circuit during late 1966 and early 1967, they didn’t record.


The Mynah Birds, The Flying Circus

In mid-1967, Lillie joined Toronto soul-rockers The Mynah Birds, fronted by Ricky James Matthews. They traveled to Hitsville U.S.A. (aka Motown studios, Detriot) and cut “It’s My Time,” written by Matthews and Neil Young, a one-time Mynah Bird. The project stalled when members quit the band.

Back in Toronto, Matthews and Lillie drafted replacements, including a young Bruce Cockburn. Not long after, Toronto authorities arrested Matthews on a breaking and entering charge and discovered that he was a draft dodger from the US Navy. With Matthews unable to rejoin the Mynah Birds, Lillie renamed them The Flying Circus. (Mathews later emerged as funk star Rick James.)

The Flying Circus cut numerous Cockburn originals and played several high-profile concerts, including the opening slot for Wilson Pickett at Ottawa’s Capitol Theatre. Weary of Cockburn’s folk leanings, Lillie left the band and re-teamed with Tripp alumni in New King Boiler.

At the suggestion of one-time Mynah Bird bassist Bruce Palmer (now in Buffalo Springfield with Young), Lillie moved his band to Los Angeles, where they renamed themselves Heather Merryweather. The lineup consisted of Lillie (bass/vocals), David Colin Burt (guitar, cello), Ed Roth (keyboards, flute), and Coffi Hall (drums).


1969: Merryweather and Word of Mouth 

In late 1968, Heather Merryweather opened for Chicago Transit Authority at the Whisky a Go Go. That performance impressed A&R John Gross, who signed them to Capitol Records under the shortened name Merryweather. After sessions wrapped on their first album, Lillie had a conversation outside the studio with another new Capitol signee, Linda Ronstadt of the Stone Poneys. In parting, she mistakenly called him “Neil Merryweather,” a name he adopted professionally and legally.

Merryweather’s self-titled debut album appeared in early 1969 on Capitol. It features 10 Neil Merryweather originals with a co-write apiece by Burt (“Feeling of Freedom”) and Roth (“We Try Softer”). The below-the-knee front cover folds out on top to reveal a poster-size vertical group photo.

In September 1969, Merryweather issued Word of Mouth, a double-album comprised of jams with assorted west coast musicians, including Steve Miller, Dave Mason (Traffic), keyboardist Barry Goldberg (Electric Flag), and harpist Charlie Musselwhite. Neil Merryweather disbanded the group soon after, but linked the other members with old pal Rick James, who hired them for his new band Salt ‘n’ Pepper. Meanwhile, Merryweather passed on an invite by Stephen Stills to join Crobsy, Stills, Nash & Young.


1970: Ivar Avenue Reunion, Merryweather & Carey

Merryweather returned to Toronto, where he drafted ex-Ugly Ducklings drummer Robin Boers, ex-Nucleus guitarist John Richardson, and ex-49th Parallel keyboardist J.J. Velker. He brought them to LA, where they recorded the album Neil Merryweather, John Richardson and Boers, released in early 1970 on the blues label Kent.

The album features one Merryweather original (“Aren’t You Glad That You Know”), a Stills co-write (“City Boy“), two group-composed numbers (“Flat Black,” “Local 149“), and songs by Isaac Hayes (“Your Real Good Thing Is About to End“) and Elmore James (“Dust My Blues“). Merryweather composed one further track, “You Must Live It,” with his new girlfriend, singer Lynn Carey. She hailed from soul-rockers C.K. Strong, which cut a 1969 album on Epic.

With Carey on board, Merryweather retained Richardson and Boers and added Goldberg and Musselwhite. This lineup cut a self-titled album as Ivar Avenue Reunion, released in late 1970 on RCA Victor. Velker plays organ on two cuts (“Run, Run Children,” “Magic Fool”) and electric piano on “Ride Mama Ride.” They took their name from the location of RCA Studios on Ivar Avenue; “reunion” accounted for Merryweather’s use of Word of Mouth personnel.

RCA liked the Merryweather/Lynn combo and optioned them as a duo. They recorded the album Vacuum Cleaner, released in 1971 with 12 songs split between two backing bands. Half the tracks were recorded with the Ivar Avenue crew, the other half feature Merryweather alumni Roth and Hall, plus guitarist Kal David, formerly of the Illinois Speed Press and a one-time member of The Exceptions with (future Chicago) bassist Peter Cetera. One track, a funked-up cover of the Miracles oldie “Shop Around,” also appeared on a Kent 7″ under the name Momma and Pappa Rock’n Family.

Displeased with RCA’s staff changes, Merryweather broke from the label and formed a new band with Carey up front. He retained Hall and hired two young musicians: guitarist Rick Gaxiola and keyboardist James Newton Howard. They signed as Mama Lion to Artie Ripp’s Family Productions label.


1972–73: Mama Lion, Heavy Cruiser

Mama Lion released their first album, Preserve Wildlife, in 1972. It caused a stir with the cover, where a windowed view of Carey opens to a medium photo of the singer nursing a lion cub. Musically, the album features 10 gritty soul-rock numbers in the vein of Birtha. Merryweather co-wrote five of the album’s six originals.

Also in 1972, the musicians (sans Carey) cut a hard rock album as Heavy Cruiser, released on Family Productions. It features 10 cuts, closing with the epic “Miracles of Pure Device.” Of the eight originals, Merryweather wrote two songs (“My Little Firefly,” “‘Lectric Lady”) and co-wrote the other six.

For the next round of albums, Merryweather swapped Gaxiola for another young guitarist, Alan Hurtz. In 1973, Mama Lion released Give It Everything I’ve Got, a 10-track set with one Merryweather original (“From Bad to Worse”) and six co-writes. It was initially conceived as a double album. That same year, Heavy Cruiser released Lucky Dog, comprised of nine short songs and the lengthy “Free-Fall Glider.”

A planned tour with Alice Cooper was scuttled by Ripp, who sent Mama Lion to Europe with the intention of making Carey the breakout star. After a string of troubled shows, Merryweather split from Carey and returned to Los Angeles. He cut demos with another aggrieved signee of Family Productions, Billy Joel, who was moonlighting as LA bar pianist “Bill Martin” in an effort to hide from Ripp. One song they demoed was “Piano Man,” which Joel used to land his deal with Columbia.


1974–75: Space Rangers, Kryptonite

In 1974, Merryweather formed the Space Rangers with drummer Tim McGovern, who’d played with Randy California and the Velvert Turner Group. Two young musicians, guitarist Michael Willis and keyboardist Edgemont, rounded the lineup. Merryweather produced Space Rangers, released that year on Mercury. Sessions took place in two nights at Capitol Records studios. Engineer Rick Heenan (Help, Ahmad Jamal, Keith Jarrett, Les McCann) did the final mixdown.

Space Rangers features eight Merryweather originals (incl. “Hollywood Blvd.,” “Step in the Right Direction,” “Sole Surivivor,” and “Neon Man”) and covers of The Byrds (“Eight Miles High”) and Donovan (“Sunshine Superman”). The cover shows a green alien with a captive female Earthling amid interplanetary strife, credited to artist John Wolf and Earth Baby Productions.

With McGovern and Willis on board, Merryweather hired slide guitarist and keyboardist Jamie Herndon, who purchased a Chamberlin electro-mechanical keyboard from Sonny & Cher. It features on the second Space Rangers album, Kryptonite, released in 1975 on Mercury.

Merryweather wrote, recorded, and produced Kryptonite in a period of five days at LA’s Village Recorders. The album features eight tracks, including the five-minute epics “The Groove,” “Give It Everything We Got,” “Star Rider,” and “Let Us Be the Dawn.” The cover, which depicts the band as DC-style caped superheroes, is credited to artist Don Rico.

The Space Rangers disbanded over money problems. McGovern cut two albums apiece between 1979 and 1983 with The Pop, The Motels, and Burning Sensations.


Post 1975: Productions, Differences

Merryweather produced two 1975 singles for the all-girl singing trio Band of Angels: “He’s Not There” (a gender-appropriated Zombies cover) and the Goffin/King classic “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow,” backed with the Merryweather-penned “Every Minute.”

In 1976, Merryweather produced the second-recorded album by LA glam rockers The Hollywood Stars. It went unreleased until 2019 when archivists Burger Records issued the album on CD under the title Sound City, named after the recording studio.

His only post-Space Rangers solo album, Differences, appeared in 1978 on Dutch label GIP. It features 10 songs, including “Captains of Our Dreams,” “Devil’s Daughter,” “Night of Nights,” and “Just Like Jesse James.” The album was only released in the Netherlands, where Merryweather produced 1978–80 singles for fellow GIP acts Carlsberg, Sesam, Shoreline, and Ariola recording artists Phoney & The Hardcore.

In 1980, he called in Space Rangers alumni Michael Willis for the rock four-piece Eyes, which issued Radical Genes on Dutch RCA Victor.

Back in Los Angeles, Merryweather managed ex-Runaway Lita Ford. A sequence of business conflicts preceded her 1983 debut solo album Out For Blood, which he co-produced without compensation.

Fed up with the music business, Merryweather turned to photography. For a number of years, he worked as a model builder for the City of Los Angeles. In the mid-1990s, he produced songs for two children’s television programs: Super Human Samurai Cyber Squad and Tattooed Teenaged Alien Fighters From Beverly Hills. In 2014, he sang two songs for Mountain of Power and collaborated with their mastermind Janne Stark on two subsequent discs as Merryweather Stark.

Merryweather died on March 29, 2021, in Las Vegas, Nevada, after a short illness.


Discography:

  • Merryweather (1968)
  • Word of Mouth (1969)
  • Neil Merryweather, John Richardson and Boers (1970)
  • Vacuum Cleaner (1971 • Lynn Carey & Neil Merryweather)
  • Space Rangers (1974)
  • Kryptonite (1975)
  • Differences (1978)

Sources:

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