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Stewie Speer (Stewart Speer, 26 June 1928 – 16 September 1986) was an Australian jazz and rock drummer who is best known as a member (1967–1976, 1980) of the Australasian group Max Merritt and the Meteors.
Throughout the 1950s Speer played the prevailing trad jazz style with Roger Bell, Bob Barnard, Frank Traynor and others, but he was drawn irresistibly to bebop, which had begun to filter across to Australia from the United States in the late 1940s.
Although 'trad' ruled the roost in Australian jazz well into the 1950s, both Speer and Charlie Blott amassed considerable collections of imported bebop records and both were avid fans of the new genre. Jazz historian Andrew Bisset records that on returning home in the early hours after gigs, Speer and his friends, including sax player Splinter Reeves, would "... sneak in through the back window so as not to wake his mother and stay up until breakfast trying to work the records out."
In early 1956, saxophonist and bop fanatic Brian Brown returned from Europe and formed a new band with like-minded players—Speer, trumpeter Keith Hounslow, schoolboy pianist Dave Martin and bassist Barry Buckley. Bisset remarks that in Speer, Brown found a drummer " ... who swung. Speers had beautiful time, especially on cymbal, hard and straight ahead, with the message on his kit 'Art Blakey For Pope'."
The Brian Brown Quintet were regulars at Horst Liepolt's influential Jazz Centre 44 in St Kilda, which operated from 1955 to 1960. As indicated by the 'Blakey for Pope' message on Speer's drum kit, the Quintet championed the more progressive (but less popular) east-coast style of modern jazz. At that time, the preferred genre was the "cool", west coast style epitomized by artists like Chet Baker and Dave Brubeck, who were then all the rage with modern jazz fans in Australia. The Brian Brown Quintet were enthusiastic ambassadors for bop, introducing Melburnians to music which was still largely unheard in Australia including artists like Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis and Sonny Rollins. Speer continued to work in 'trad' bands to earn a living, but he was a regular member of the Quintet until it split in 1960.
Speer then moved to Sydney and became a regular at local jazz haunts like Quo Vadis in Martin Place, Chequers and Sammy Lee's legendary Latin Quarter, where Jimmy Sloggett's band (which included Bernie McGann, Bob Bertles and Graham Morgan) was introducing Sydney club-goers to the latest sounds of soul music and the revolutionary Motown beat. It was during this period that Speer succeeded New Zealand actor–drummer Bruno Lawrence as the drummer in the Latin Quarter's resident band, after Bruno (who was soon to join The Meteors) fell ill with hepatitis.
Stewie Speer might well have remained a respected but relatively little-known member of the Australian jazz scene had it not been for a series of coincidences that brought him together with Christchurch-born R&B singer Max Merritt. Merritt had risen to the top of the New Zealand pop scene with his band The Meteors before moving to Australia in 1963. After a tough start, the group had enjoyed moderate success in Australia, becoming a popular draw on the Sydney circuit, but by the mid-1960s, with the beat boom starting to fade, their manager Graham Dent wanted to steer them into a career in cabaret. Another enduring problem in the band was its frequent turnover of personnel—many prominent players passed through the ranks in the band's ten-year life to 1966, but none of its lineups lasted more than a year. By the end of 1966 the lineup had (briefly) settled down to long-serving guitarist Peter Williams, bassist Billy Kristian and drummer Bruno Lawrence, but their recording career had stalled and they needed a change of direction to survive.
In early 1967 the band reluctantly took a job entertaining passengers on a Pacific cruise liner, but just before they left both Williams and Kristian announced their intention to leave the Meteors after the cruise. As a temporary addition, Merritt took Bruno Lawrence's suggestion and brought in one of Stewie and Bruno's Latin Quarter colleagues, saxophonist Bob Bertles. Another stalwart of the Sydney jazz scene, Bertles was a powerful and commanding tenor sax player who also had gained extensive experience playing rock'n'roll as a member of Johnny O'Keefe's backing band The Dee Jays from 1961–65, and he was also a regular session player on pop recordings by emerging performers such as Jeff St John.
The temporary five-piece version of the Meteors embarked on the Pacific cruise, but along the way they lost Bruno Lawrence, who jumped ship in Auckland, forcing Merritt to play drums on the last leg of the cruise. Another other significant event took place during The Meteors' visit to Auckland, where Merritt's old friend Jimmy Sloggett introduced him to Otis Redding's new LP Dictionary of Soul. In particular, Otis' famed version of 'Try A Little Tenderness" had a huge impact, and it transformed Merritt's thinking about The Meteors' direction.
The importance of acts like Max Merrit & The Meteors in the development of the Australian pop-rock scene cannot be overstated. In the 1960s and beyond, the Australian pop scene was dominated by commercial pop radio stations, and in general their programming policies were strongly biased against music by African-American performers. Many seminal black recording artists were not played on Australian pop radio—in his recent book on Australian radio, media historian Wayne Macardle records that (as in America) the classic single "River Deep, Mountain High" was effectively banned by commercial stations because it was considered "too black and too loud". Major black American soul acts like James Brown and Sly & The Family Stone were rarely if ever played on commercial radio in Australia, and as a result, local acts like Max Merritt, Jeff St John, The Groove, The Groop, Ray Hoff and others. These performers energetically championed soul and R&B music and played a major role in popularizing these genres in Australia; many young Australians of the time first heard famous soul songs of the period through the performances and recordings by these local groups.
After returning to Sydney, Merritt put together a new lineup, hoping to better emulate this new wave of soul epitomised by the artists on the artists of the Atlantic Records and Stax labels. He was greatly impressed by Bertles' talent and decided to keep him on for the new group. After recruiting flamboyant NZ-born bass player John "Yuk" Harrison (ex Invaders, Heart'n'Soul) Merritt invited Stewie Speer to join as their new drummer in May 1967. Although he played outside the band on various occasions over the years, Speer effectively worked with Merritt for the rest of his life.
Speer's new career as a rock drummer almost ended in tragedy only one month after he joined The Meteors. The band was planning to travel to Britain, but while preparations proceeded they continued taking gigs wherever they could get them to raise funds for their proposed trip. On 24 June 1967, on their way to a gig in Morwell in country Victoria, their van collided head-on with a truck just outside the town of Bunyip, 90 miles south east of Melbourne.
Harrison, who had been sitting in the back with the equipment, escaped unhurt, but Bertles, Merritt and Speer were trapped in the front of the crumpled van and it took firemen more than an hour to free them. Merritt sustained severe head injuries, Bertles' leg was smashed and Speer suffered multiple injuries—his legs were crushed, both arms were broken and he lost the tips of several fingers, resulting a four-month hospital stay and a long and painful rehabilitation. It took the better part of a year for the group to recover from the accident. As a result of their injuries, Merritt lost his right eye and his face was badly scarred, Bertles was left with a permanent limp, and Speer never regained full mobility.
Well-supported benefit concerts in Sydney and Melbourne raised money to support them through their convalescence, but their only gig that year was a one-off comeback show at Berties disco in Melbourne on 2 December. The Meteors gradually returned to performing through the early months of 1968 and by mid-year they were back on the road full-time, and winning acclaim as one of the hottest live bands on the scene. In July, they came in third behind runners-up The Master's Apprentices in the national final of the Hoadley's Battle of the Sounds. Ironically, the winner was The Groove, a new 'supergroup' fronted by Merritt's former guitarist Peter Williams.
The new Meteors were certainly an unlikely-looking group of rock stars—counter to the current trend, Merritt had close-cropped hair, and Speer was overweight, over 40 and greying, his bald pate covered by his ubiquitous cloth cap. But they were a firm favourite with other groups, a "musician's band" who were also renowned as one of the hardest-working groups in Australia.
By 1969 Merritt was Australia's undisputed "King Of Soul" and the group gained added stature when the ABC presented them in a four-part series, "Max Merritt and the Meteors in Concert", the first TV series ever made in Australia to feature a rock band live in concert. They signed to the Australian division of RCA Records and recorded their debut album Max Merritt & The Meteors. It included their first Australian hit single, their classic cover of Jerry Butler's "Western Union Man", which featured a punchy Stax-style brass arrangement by Bertles. It reached #13 on the Australian national pop chart in December 1969, and the album itself fared even better, reaching #8 in June 1970.
In October 1970 Max Merritt & The Meteors finally left for their long-postponed visit to the UK, but as with so many Australian bands of the period, it was mostly hard going for little reward. For Australian fans the highlights of that period were the group's brief returns for triumphant appearances at the Sunbury Pop Festivals in January 1972 and 1973. The Meteors slogged away with regular live work on the London pub circuit, building up a solid following, and they also began to pick up prestigious support slots on national tours by leading groups like Slade and The Moody Blues. However they suffered a major setback in 1974 when manager Peter Raphael suddenly decamped, leaving them stranded with no money and many outstanding debts. Bertles left to play with UK jazz-rock band Nucleus, Speer toured Europe with Alexis Korner, and Merritt was forced to fall back on his old trade and work as a bricklayer.
Max and Stewie put together a new, five-piece Meteors in late 1974, with British musicians John Gourd, Howard Martin Deniz and Barry Duggan. They went back to work on the London pub circuit and became the first act signed to the new UK division of the Arista label. Happily, the resulting album, A Little Easier, became their biggest success to date. An Australian best-seller, it reached #4 in November 1975, with the classic ballad "Slipping Away" reaching #2 in Australia and #5 in New Zealand that same month. Still based in the UK, The Meteors returned to Australia for successful tours in May–June 1976 and February 1977, the latter producing the album Back Home Live, recorded at Melbourne's Dallas Brooks Hall.
In 1978 Merritt broke up The Meteors, retaining only Speer. He signed a new deal with the Polydor label and recorded an album in Nashville, before relocating to Los Angeles, where he was based for many years. In May 1979, Merritt toured Australia with a 12-piece band, and returned in late 1980 for another visit with a band comprising Stewie, Paul Grant (guitar), John Williams (keyboards) and Phil Lawson (bass). This was Max and Stewie's last major tour together.
Stewie Speer returned to live in Sydney in 1980, and he remained active on the local scene, although the health problems stemming from the 1967 car accident affected him increasingly during his last years. He died of a heart attack in Sydney on 16 September 1986, aged 58.