G'bye, Merrill

Writing a memorial for a man whose music meant something to me is a solemn task. It's positively excruciating when that man was also a close friend and a wholly wonderful person. San Diego's MERRILL MOORE passed away June 15 at age 76, following a six-month battle with cancer.

Many considered Merrill a rockabilly pioneer, a fact that alternately amused and confounded him. The brilliant recordings he made for Capitol Records from 1952 to 1957 were in fact primarily western boogie, which proved Merrill to be not only among the most gifted and exciting pianists ever to pound the 88s, but an ingratiating vocalist as well. His musicianship was sophisticated, but his manic energy was proto rock & roll.

Which is why Jerry Lee Lewis frequently cited Merrill as an inspiration and why a chapter on Merrill was included in Nick Tosches' influential 1985 book, Unsung Heroes of Rock 'n' Roll.

The title of Tosches' book said it all: for all his prodigious talent, Merrill never really received the renown his musical innovations warranted. His sound was too black for country markets and too white for R&B markets—a puzzle Capitol never solved. Despite this, his recording of "House of Blue Lights" started a slow ascent onto the charts in 1953. Merrill was unable to capitalize on the momentum, though, as San Diego club owner Jimmy Kennedy held him to his six-nights-a-week contract at the Buckaroo Club, preventing Merrill from touring and reaching a national audience.

In the mid-'50s, Merrill moved to LA and worked sessions with such Capitol recording stars as Wanda Jackson, Faron Young, Tennessee Ernie Ford, Speedy West & Jimmy Bryant, and Buck Owens. He eventually returned to San Diego, where he was a fixture at a nightclub called Mr. A's for decades.

Merrill prided himself on his versatility and never stopped studying, practicing and improving himself as a musician; he could play anything from a raging boogie to a hot stride workout to atonal jazz to the most difficult classical sonata.

It was one of the great privileges of my career that Merrill agreed to play on my 1991 album, Guttersnipes 'n' Zealots. As far as I know, this was the only session he worked as a sideman after leaving Capitol—in retrospect, I'm more humbled than anything. In 1994, Germany's Bear Family Records released a boxed set of Merrill's Capitol recordings called Boogie My Blues Away, which led to a popular renaissance in Europe. In recent years, Merrill was invited overseas a couple of times to play festivals in front of thousands of adoring fans.

Merrill Moore was a proud, complex and private man who had no patience for bullshitting sycophants but was a sweet and devoted person once you'd gained his trust and friendship; he was an inspiration to anyone lucky enough to have earned that friendship. He was a tough-minded good ol' boy from stern Midwestern stock, but underneath his gruff exterior was a heart as soft as goose down.

I visited Merrill at his home a couple of weeks before he passed and was struck by how healthy he appeared. At the time, his prognosis was guardedly optimistic, and I felt confident he'd survive; he was a very robust 76. I still can't get over the fact that the cancer actually got him—it seemed somehow ordained that he'd live forever. I'll risk the clich by saying that through his immortal Capitol recordings, he will, in fact, never really die.

Bob Wills & His Texas Playboys were Merrill's all-time favorite band, so he would have loved the latest CD from ASLEEP AT THE WHEEL. Ride With Bob is a Wills tribute album and features an amazing list of guests, including such heavies as Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson, Lyle Lovett, Dwight Yoakam and Don Walser. There's an even bigger roster of contemporary country-pop crapmeisters onboard, though, begging this question: Why'd they include all these hat-act clowns whose music has about as much to do with Wills' legacy as Britney Spears'?

"That's preaching to the choir," lead Wheeler Ray Benson says of the notion of using only trad-minded guests. "Part of this is a bit evangelical; you want people who don't know anything about Bob Wills to get into it. That's why there's the Tim McGraws and Clay Walkers on there. The thing was we wanted to use people whose legacy isn't supposed to be about this. Tracy Byrd, Mark Chestnut . . . These are young Texas musicians who I felt it was very important to get to participate. It's their heritage. It was inspirational, hearing all these folks get to do that music. You're used to hearing Reba McEntire doing pop stuff, and all of a sudden, you're hearing her sing like she can. It was great hearing these people out of the context of that modern Nashville crap."

True, but are you sure trying to sell a few more units didn't play into it as well, Ray? No matter. Ride With Bob is a joy ride from start to finish; there's not an embarrassing track on the bus, and some cuts, such as Yoakam's "New San Antonio Rose," Walser's "I Ain't Got Nobody," the Dixie Chicks' "Roly Poly" and Haggard's "St. Louis Blues," are events. Benson wisely elects not to tackle the Wills versions of the tunes literally and comes up with some unique arrangements that remain true to the spirit of the King of Western Swing. The essence of another important influence comes through as well, as many of the tracks pay homage to early century blackface vaudeville singer Emmet Miller, whose work had a huge effect on Wills and Hank Williams Sr. The corny spoken routines that pop up throughout the proceedings are pure Millerisms, sans the politically incorrect black dialect. Asleep at the Wheel is currently touring to support the Wills project, so this is a perfect time to catch the group when they play Friday at the Sun Theatre.

A couple of years ago, I would have sworn that local bands Barrelhouse and Soul Candy were on the verge of igniting a soul-music revolution in then-ska-obsessed OC. That never happened, but members of the groups have joined forces to form SATIVA BRAND, which headlines Linda's Doll Hut Friday night. Barrelhouse singer/guitarist Harlis Sweetwater and drummer Joey Ianello are joined by ex-Soul Candy bassist Mike Presley and OC reggae group Crazy Wizdom's former singer, Zhanine Luttrell, to create a rock/ soul group that's less rootsy than the mother bands but has vast potential to continue their respective legacies. Slashing guitar licks and tight, funky-butt rhythm work combine with Luttrell's passionately beefy singing to weave a sound that recalls the James Gang, Etta James and the Clash doing reggae, all at once, over the course of their four-song demo. As I said, the potential is vast, but I have to bitch about something anyway: Why isn't Sweetwater singing, too? Luttrell is an excellent vocalist, but Sweetwater is world-class, and the group would be well-served by letting both crooners strut their stuff. Ever heard of a vocal duet? Get to work, ya slackers!

ASLEEP AT THE WHEEL AND KATHY MATTEA AT THE SUN THEATRE, 2200 E. KATELLA AVE., ANAHEIM, (714) 712-2700. FRI., 8 P.M. $29.50-$38.50; SATIVA BRAND AT LINDA'S DOLL HUT, 107 S. ADAMS, ANAHEIM, (714) 533-1286. FRI., 9 P.M. $6. 21+.


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