Saturday, February 22, 2014

Music Weird interviews Merv Benton, early Australian rock 'n' roller

For eight years I hosted a thematic oldies radio show called Rhythm Ranch, on which I played mostly '50s and early '60s pop, rock, country, rockabilly, and R&B. Occasionally I interviewed artists, but I never otherwise published the interviews or did anything with them. Whenever I find time to transcribe them, I'll post some of them on Music Weird. Here's my interview with early Australian rock 'n' roller Merv Benton. 

Merv Benton

As rock 'n' roll spread around the world, early Australian rockers like Johnny O'Keefe, Johnny Chester, Col Joye, and New Zealander Johnny Devlin led the charge in their part of the world. Some of their records were even released in the US in the early '60s. None of them was very successful here, but if they had been, the US could have had an Australian Invasion before the British Invasion! 

Merv Benton was one of Melbourne's entries into the rock 'n' roll sweeps, and he charted several regional and national hits in Australia in the early-to-mid '60s. His single "Yield Not to Temptation" was released in the United States on Marvel Records in 1965. 

After Benton semi-retired from music, his career took him to Arizona, which is where he lived when I talked to him on February 2, 2003. 

In Australia, '50s-style rock 'n' roll seemed to live on into the '60s longer than it did in the US and England. 

It still does, actually. There's a really hardcore audience over there for early rock 'n' roll, and they're all purists. If you go over there and fool around with one of the songs, and you rearrange it or something, they don't like it. They like it in its original form. 

You were there when rock 'n' roll came to Australia.  

The first real thing that grabbed me was Presley's "Heartbreak Hotel." Even to this day, I don't believe that there has been another record that turned the music industry around as much as "Heartbreak Hotel" did. It was just such a diversion from the music at the time. And with Presley, the guy just exuded something onstage. You only have to hear his voice and you know it's Presley. There aren't many people around who can say that. He was unique. 

Anyway, when "Heartbreak Hotel" came out, it was like night and day, as far as I was concerned. I remember when they first released "Heartbreak Hotel," a lot of the radio stations in Australia hesitated a little bit because they thought that he was black. You know, those early recordings of Presley's—a lot of it was early black music. 

So then, all the Presley hits were coming out, and rock 'n' roll became the thing. Everyone was walking around with blue suede shoes with crepe soles, the peg pants with the 16-inch bottoms, the Canadian jackets and white t-shirts. And at that stage, of course, I couldn't grow sideboards, but if I could've, I would've! 

I saw one of the first shows that came to Australia, which was Haley, the Platters and Freddie Bell & the Bellboys. Freddie Bell & the Bellboys sang this song, "Giddy Up a Ding Dong," and they just whipped that crowd over in Australia into a frenzy, and I was there. I think I was about 14 at the time. It just blew my brain, and I thought, "That's what I want to do." 

How did you get started? 

I did a talent quest one night. A guy called Graham Howie, a keyboard player, had been trying to get me to sing for ages. In those days, I was very shy and really didn't fancy the idea of getting up in front of an audience. Anyway, one night at this talent quest at the Canterbury Ballroom, unbeknownst to me, they put my name down to sing a song. Then they called my name. 

I made a beeline to the back door, but they already knew that I would do that, so they had two people waiting there for me and wouldn't let me out, so they took me up on stage. The first song I ever sang was "Don't Leave Me This Way," which was an old Ricky Nelson song. As luck would have it, I won on that night, and I met a guy there called Brian DeCoursey who later became my manager. 

Later, I'd been doing a few dances with the Chessmen, and John [Chester] had heard a few shows that I was doing, and apparently he and Brian suggested that we see if we could get a recording contract. In those days in Melbourne, the only people who would take a chance on local talent were W&G [Records]. Particularly if you were Melbourne based. They organized for me to go in and do a demo tape. I did that demo tape, Johnny Chester produced the record, and I did it with the Chessmen, and I think the four songs that were recorded were "Baby, Let's Play House," "Endless Sleep," "A Lotta Lovin'," and "Rocky Road Blues." 

How did Johnny Chester come to produce the demo sessions? 

I think he wanted to have a go at [producing], and also, his band the Chessmen were playing [as Benton's backing group]. I think that the actual producer, as far as W&G was concerned, was a guy called Lindsay Morehouse. He was one of those guys who, whenever the needle went into the red, turned it down. So, we arranged for Lindsay to go out for a meal, and then we recorded the tracks, and John produced them. 

You changed your name to Merv Benton. 

The reason my name changed from Merv Bonson to Merv Benton was, when I started work when I was 16, I worked in a bank. In those days, banks were very staid places, and they frowned on a person working for the bank having two jobs. So, that was the reason I called myself Merv Benton—so they wouldn't find out. And then one day, after "Baby, Let's Play House" had been released and was climbing up the charts, some young ladies who were walking past saw me in the bank, and they came in and just about wrecked the place. The bank turned around and said, "What are you doing to do?" And I said, "So long. See you later." 

"Cincinnati Fireball," which was a hit for you, sounds like a late '50s rocker, but you recorded it in, what? 1964? 

'64, I think. '63-'64. Well, a lot of that had to do with the recording companies. To a certain degree, they worked on the idea that if a song was known, then it was liable to get played, and if it was liable to get played, then it was liable to sell. They were very much along the lines of making the bottom line look good, and that was the way that they felt. It wasn't until around about '64, after the Beatles, that a bunch of younger groups got involved and started recording their own material with other recording companies opening, like Mushroom Records.

So you weren't able to choose your songs? 

Pretty much, in most situations, we picked the songs. In those days it was a little bit like England when rock 'n' roll started to come up. The record labels were mainly only interested in doing cover versions. They didn't have a comfort level with original material, and with some of them, there was a couple of times when they did interfere and said, "We want you to try this other record." 

That was [the case] with one called "Be Sweet," which was originally called "Shake Hands" or something and came from a German production company. I think their main reason was that they had interest in the recording rights and the publishing. So we had to rewrite the words, and "Shake Hands" became "Be Sweet." I never liked that record. I've never sung it live. 

The biggest problem we had in the second recording session was trying to get that girl-group sound. If you listen to "Shimmy Shimmy," they seem like screaming banshees. We just could never get that vocal backing sound. And yet, with the male vocal backing, like on "Don't Leave Me Now," there was a group called the Thin Men, who very much in those days did sound like the Jordanaires, and we could get that type of sound. But we were never successful with the girls. 

"Cincinnati Fireball" knocked Elvis out of the #1 spot on some charts. 

That was exciting. When we recorded that, "Cincinnati Fireball" was to be the B-side. The A-side was to be the Ral Donner thing, "I Got Burned." And, while "I Got Burned" took off in Melbourne, "Cincinnati Fireball" was the first record that took off for me nationally in Australia. 

What about the rivalry between Melbourne and Sydney? 

Johnny O'Keefe, Col Joye–they were out of Sydney. At that stage there was a lot of competition between Sydney and Melbourne. Melbourne had John Chester and a guy called Bobby Cookson, but the heights that Johnny O'Keefe had and Col Joye had far surpassed anything that we had in Melbourne. I mean, their records were released Australia-wide, and it was always hard to crack the Sydney market if you were from Melbourne in those initial days. 

O'Keefe, at one time, I think, came to America and recorded in America. A song called "She's My Baby," which was released over here, also went to, I think, #1 in Australia. He was rather a phenomenon. Johnny, he didn't have the greatest voice in the world, but as a showman, you couldn't beat him. They used to always put him on when overseas artists came and did the tours with Lee Gordon. John was always on the shows, and they found it very hard to follow him. I mean, his act onstage was unbelievable. He was just a showman through and through. 

You had the right look for pop stardom. 

Al Martino was on Sydney Tonight. Each of the states—like, there was Sydney Tonight and Melbourne Tonight—had nighttime variety shows along the lines of Leno and Letterman these days. Al Martino was there, and I sang this old Bobby Darin number, "Somebody to Love," and when I finished, I came off and Al Martino said to me, "Forget singing, son. Get your head over to Hollywood!"

You recorded some country music later on. 

Yeah, I've always been into that type of music. I would much prefer to sing that, or really solid rock 'n' roll. 

Talk about your country "comeback" album, Great Country Songs, from 1970.

I enjoyed that album. I enjoyed doing it. Surprisingly enough, it sold reasonably well and got good reviews. 

Why did you retire from music? 

I had polyps in the back of my throat. You either get them or you don't—they weren't from singing. Promptly, I went and had opera lessons, actually, and the teacher said one day, "You're not enjoying this, are you? What do you want to sing?" I said, "I want to sing rock 'n' roll!" She said, "See you later. So long. Go off and have a nice life." 

Anyway, I had these growths on the back of my throat and they had to be removed. There was no such thing as laser surgery or anything in those days, and they used to burn them off. They could have gone through the throat [with the surgery], but they went through the mouth and serrated the vocal chords. I couldn't talk for around about four or five months. Then it was around about eight months before I could sing or get back into a rhythm. At that stage, the music industry was changing so dramatically, there wasn't a lot of interest in what I was doing. It was like, been there, see you later, you've had your fifteen minutes. So, rather than try to push something uphill that I thought wasn't going to work, that's when I got out of the business. 

Talk about your return to performing. 

Basically, a chap and his partner came to me in 1988 and asked me to do a show. I'd stayed out of all that—going back and doing the reunion shows—purely because everyone expects you to come out in a black pants, red shirt with an orange tie and white shoes, and be overweight, and do a few rock 'n' roll songs, and that's that. I was never like that. My thing was, if I'm going to do a show, I'm going to do it properly. Most of the other promoters at that stage turned around to me and said it won't work, you can't do it that way, this is the way it's got to be done, and I just said, well, leave me out of it. 

When these two came and approached me, I said I'm only interested if I can do it the way I want to do it. And that is, be professional.  I said I want rehearsals, I want the sound to be good, I want to do it in such a way that, when we're finished, people have really enjoyed the show, and the musicians as well as myself know that we've done a good show. 

Fortunately, they said let's do it. So I did that show, I think it was in '88, and then I didn't do another show until about four years after that. Then I've gone back every two years. The last show we did in August was, to me, the most pleasing one, because I reunited all the Tamlas, who were my backing group from those days. We were sitting around talking and we said, "Do you realize there's about 380 years of rock 'n' roll onstage here tonight?" It was crazy. If I go back and do any shows now, I won't do them without the Tamlas. After last August, the show was so good that I don't want to do anything without them. 

Canetoad Records released two CDs of your '60s recordings. 

I was delighted with the job David McLean from Canetoad did on my CDs. I mean the sound, to me, was exactly as I remember it in the studio. It used to be a very frustrating thing to me that when we heard the record on playback on the radio, I knew that they didn't sound like that in the studio. I really have no idea why we lost so much of the quality and the presence when W&G pressed them, but with these [CDs], I was absolutely delighted, because I thought, wow, that's as I remembered it. David himself told me that the only enhancement they did was a little bit of bass. 

I was really happy that, with the first one, he allowed me to do the liner notes. They said can we get someone to do them, a historian, but most of the historians who are around that they had access to are 35 or 40. I'm not putting any of them down for being 35 and 40, but they weren't there, and I felt that I could put a few words together in such a way that it would be an honest history of what I actually felt at the time of the records and of what was happening. 

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