Wednesday, 2 October 2013

Bob Meyer and the Rivieras

Bob Meyer and the Rivieras (not to be confused with the Indiana Rivieras) were another band from Charlotte, NC. They were one of the earlier beach groups, originally formed in 1958 by Nat Speir and Charles VanWagner. Bob Meyer joined as lead vocalist in 1963. A year later they released “Behold”, co-written by Bob and Nat. An up-tempo pop group vocal number, “Behold” was a very popular sound on the coastal areas and was ultimately released in 1964 on Casino (103) and Lawn (L-238-Y). The flipside “You’ve Got to Tell Me” was introduced to UK soul fans by Keb Darge, again at Stafford’s Top of the World all-nighters in the early 1980s, and has remained a popular record on the northern soul scene ever since, primarily via the more common Lawn release.

“I Only Get That Feeling” on Blue Soul (BS-45-101) initially appears to be a solo effort by Meyer, although clearly there were still some links with the old band as this was arranged by Nat Speir.  Recorded in 1967-1968 at Belmont Studios in Belmont, NC , this was a version of the original Big Dee Irwin northern soul classic dancer from the same time which appeared briefly on Redd Coach, Cub (9155) and ultimately on Imperial (66295). Bob’s take on it was a similar tempo, but  with a much rawer edge and prominent wah-wah guitar effect, almost a psychedelic approach perhaps signifying a sign of the times musically in the south east and elsewhere. The track was also covered by Chuck Jackson on ABC in 1973. Bob Meyer died in 1998, but Nat Speir was located for interview:

Nat Speir (NS): The Rivieras began as five or six junior high school friends and acquaintances, mostly aged 13, who had an interest in R&B. We were all extremely interested in the music of The Midnighters, The Moonglows, The Flamingos and also the great sounds of New Orleans. We attended as many shows at The Charlotte Coliseum as we could (no age requirements to get in) and we soon added horns and dance routines. The late 50s and early 60s were a great time to perform in our area because our audiences appreciated everything from doo wop to James Brown. We came of age in the 60s - cars, girlfriends, and frequent weekend gigs. Our repertoire was quite mixed in the early days - although the ‘great groups’ and Huey Smith were mainstays. We also got to know the music of Curtis Mayfield and The Impressions pretty early. The group first met and worked with The Impressions in 1963. By then we had a nine piece band and we began to do back-up work for The Drifters and many others. Then there was Georgia Hand. My brother and I met her in 1964. It was immediately apparent that she could sing better than almost anyone we had met locally, black or white. Georgia was from Memphis but she loved the same music we did. She always wanted to be the south-eastern US Dusty Springfield. Georgia was a trouper and didn't even ask us to lower the key on "Dancin’ in the Street". She was always hoarse after four hours with our band. 

Mark Windle (MW): What kind of venues did you play at this time?

NS: The gigs were usually fraternity or debutante parties, or typical high school sock hops alternating with ‘show and dance’ engagements with national artists. We worked a radius of several hundred miles, causing our parents some concern! Exciting times. The Rivieras were booked with the largest agency in our area, Hit Attraction, but we never had a formal manager.

MW: I always assumed The Rivieras were an all white line up?

NS: In about 1964 we had a black tenor sax player named Henry, who we borrowed from The Zodiacs. Henry was a good player, probably better than I was, who was in training to sell insurance. Poor Henry, a quiet and friendly fellow was involved with us in our first racial situation. We were on our way to Myrtle Beach. We stopped for a burger at a drive-in in the middle of nowhere and out of an old Pontiac came three guys who tried to turn our car over. Our manager at the time got out of our car and asked them to spare us, saying we were army recruits on our way to basic training. Really flimsy, but they bought it for a few minutes and we got away. Henry got scared after that and resigned. Many of our jobs required hours driving on backroads in NC, SC or Georgia - in the middle of nowhere. Going across the mountains to Tennessee was like watching "Deliverance" - some scary people in those days!

We had some black fellas from New York (Bo, Tap and two others) who were with us for less than six months. They were smart and fearless. We ran once and talked our way out of trouble a few times. Still, the boys from NY didn't want to go through that crap. They wanted to sing, so they did that back in NY. When I worked with The Zodiacs in '65-‘66 I was threatened for sharing a beer with the black drummer. The club owner pulled a gun on that redneck, and I am told that the bouncer took care of him. The club owner was protecting his business and his profits. That's all. Bob and I performed with many good black musicians in our time together, but The Rivieras didn't have another black member until 1990. Miss Pam Phiffer became the lead vocalist of the new Rivieras. She was a charmer and things have changed a lot.

MW: Did you open for or were billed with any national sixties soul / R&B acts?

NS:  We played with almost every major soul and R&B act of the day: Stevie Wonder, The Tops, The Temps, The Marvelettes, The Platters, The Olympics, The Five Royals, Chuck Berry, Jimmy Reed, Barbara Lewis, Peaches and Herb, Wilson Pickett and many others. Bob Meyer was with us for one year, 1963 - that was probably our best year in many ways, although our work with the above mentioned acts was also a highlight. My old band mates and I talked the other day about our favourite R&B groups we worked with. I think it was Curtis Mayfield (and The Impressions) hands down. We got them to come with us after a gig once to play a late night party and jam for us and our friends. We had a ball. They stayed around to go bowling too, their favourite pastime, at one of our lanes the next day. I also remember Curtis in our dressing room singing a new song of his “Sad, Sad Girl and Boy” just for us. Maybe practising a little too?

MW: What was your connection with Bob Meyer?

NS:  I had a long friendship with Bob, stretching more than 30 years. Bob was a vocally precocious child. He was a featured soloist in the Charlotte Boys Choir in our home town. At 16, Bob became the lead vocalist for The Catalinas. As you probably know the group are still together. About 1960-1961 Bob met Sam Hemby, a bachelor from a wealthy banking family who became his personal manager. Together they travelled to L.A., New York and New Orleans. Those trips yielded a Fire/Fury contract for Bob. He was singing a rather blatant copy of Lee Dorsey over a Toussaint track meant for Mr. Dorsey. I have the record, and it is without much merit - although Bob is on pitch and trying very hard. This was produced by Marshall Seahorn for Bobby and Danny Robinson of Fury Records. After spending 18 months or so with Sam Hemby, Bob took some time out. That's when Bob and I began writing together. I had known Bob from his early Catalina days. During the same period (1962-63) my group lost Howard Chadwick, our lead singer. We had a rather disciplined group with a number of shows and dance routines. We wanted Bob but he was hesitant because he didn't care for discipline very much. In the end we got a one year agreement - which he stuck with - and took us to new heights with his Ray Charles and Isley Brothers medleys etc. Bob was also a great background singer. Bob and I also worked on the side with Maurice Williams and The Zodiacs.

MW: Bob Meyer and the  Rivieras "You Got to Tell Me" - do you have any memories of recording this? Which recording studio?

NS: We recorded Bob's tunes with Bob Richardson (later president of RIAA) in his garage, on a two track recorder. Bob Richardson had great faith in Bob Meyer and The Rivieras and did all he could for us. He was with Mercury records, and later owned and operated Mastersound Studio in Atlanta. Memories of this one? Sure. It was our regular (10 year) band on it. We had notions of big studio reverb, and back up girl groups- but it ended up as five guys recorded "dry" on a two-track. We were very satisfied anyway. Bob Richardson and his partner, Harry Karras, The Swinging Medallions' producer, shopped the song around and got the commitment from Lawn (Swan). The member line up at the time was Bobby Speir (drums), Nat Speir (tenor saxophone and keyboards), Eddy MacAleer (bari saxophone), Bud McNeely (guitar) and Doug Neal (bass).

MW: Bob Meyer’s “I Only Get That Feeling” - the 45 lists Bob Meyer only as the artist but I know you had some involvement - to what extent was this? Was this The Rivieras in effect? Do you know the member line up for this one?

NS: I was co-producer, arranger, and tenor sax player. Bobby Speir (drums), Bobby Donaldson (guitar), Sidney Smith, of  The Catalinas, (bass) were on it. The horns were the usual 60's guys; me, Danny Michael on trombone, Ray Alexander on trumpet. With the exception of Bob himself - Bob travelled for a record distributer by this time - the band was The Rivieras, less the vocalists of that day. 

In 1969 Bob and I travelled to Memphis to record with Elvis’ studio band at American studios.  Bob wrote a number of tracks and five were recorded though unfortunately all but one saw the light of day and the demo tapes are untraceable.

MW: What happened to the band in the end?

NS: I kept The Rivieras going until 1970 with some good people. My brother stayed on drums and we found James Bates, from The Spontanes, to sing lead. About 1972 I became a social worker with our local mental health centre. I got fired after four years for "moonlighting" as a musician. Figures. I've been exclusively a musician and music teacher for 35 years now. Bob died in January 1998.  Alcoholism and suicide. Very tragic. He was a lot of fun in the earlier Catalina and Riviera days. He and I would go fishing every week. We went fishing on the coast every Thanksgiving when the Spot and the Bluefish were running. Big fun. His drinking was moderate then. But that got progressively worse. He ran out of friends, and finally shot himself. He was found leaning against the couch with the small 25 automatic in his lap. The other original members studied and got masters or counselling degrees (two became Presbyterian ministers but gave that up in favour of social work). 

Two made it big in real estate and financial planning: one of them also owned the Budweiser franchise for the Raleigh and Chapel Hill areas. Howard Chadwick, our first lead singer with a beautiful baritone voice got into the evangelical stuff, and sang for Dove Records. Don't see him often, but a great singer. Ray Alexander (our trumpet man) and I never left the music business. Ray toured with The Temps, Tops and Spinners for 20 years. Several were drafted for Vietnam in the late sixties. They saw action but there were no fatalities. Even considering the Vietnam service for some, Bob is the only tragic story, we were lucky. 

The black guys from New York also were successful and I think there was a reunion for them in NY recently. They all went into community work or social work. Did well for themselves. Georgia sang with us until 1968, then left to return to Memphis without any notice. We missed her; she was a great singer with a great smile and a warm personality, she had been our friend. For us a lot of things ended with the close of that decade. The candid snapshot I have sent you was from Georgia's last gig with us Spring of 1967. Although the picture quality is not great, this is an important one to me. We were at the Tanglewood Country Club in Winston-Salem, NC. These were happy and sad times. Reminds me of the last five minutes of American Graffiti.”

Copyright  E. Mark Windle 2013.


Nat Speir. Personal coms. July to October 2012.
Dave Abbott. Personal coms. July 2012.
Ted Hall. Personal coms. October 2012. 

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