Interview with Riviera Guitarist
Q: So, how did you get the job playing guitar with “Bob Meyer and the Rivieras”?
A: One Sunday in May, 1963, I was enjoying lunch with my family when my mother answered a phone call. It was for me. Nat Speir was on the line and I was speechless. Why was this well known musician, founder of The Rivieras calling me? Nat explained that he and most of the other Rivieras were graduating from high school and going their separate ways. But Nat was planning to stay in Charlotte and reform the group with Bob Meyer, a more contemporary R&B focus. This would be the grittier sound of Bobby Bland, The Isley Brothers, Ray Charles, Rufus Thomas, Chuck Jackson, and others. The new Rivieras would require a full time guitar player, and that was to be me.
Anyway, Nat was asking me and my bass-playing friend, Doug Neal, to be part of the reborn Rivieras. I think Doug and I started our orientation that very day.
Q: How did you get your start playing rock ‘n roll music?
A: I learned to play guitar in the summer of 1961 when I was 13 years old. In those days not many kids played guitar. Most in our social strata considered it to be sort of a red-neck instrument that belonged in rock-a-billy or Country groups like Arthur Smith and the Crackerjacks. During my years in high school I only remember one or two other kids out of a class of over 600 that played guitar. However, I saw a future in learning guitar. After a few weeks of lessons on a rented Harmony Stella, I bought a used Les Paul Jr., making the $10 monthly payment by taking an afternoon newspaper route. I cobbled together a little five-watt amplifier using mail order parts.
In those early days of rock and roll there were a number of hit guitar instrumentals on the radio. Songs like “Raunchy,” “Sleepwalk,” “Walk, Don’t Run” used only three or four chords and were really easy to learn to play. By the middle of that summer I already had a repertoire of about a dozen of these tunes and was ready to go. As luck would have it, there was a kid who played piano and another who was a decent drummer right there on my street. So, by the end of that eventful summer in 1961, we were making music, and we even played a couple of church dances
Doug played piano and trumpet and wanted to get in on the action. His daddy bought him a bass guitar and a real Fender Bassman amp. (Big bucks back then). Our piano player got a Wurlitzer for Christmas (even bigger bucks). I bought a Silvertone twin twelve with paper route money and got a white Fender Jaguar, serial no. 00009, for Christmas. We added a tenor sax player and a couple of singers which got us into the entry level country club scene. Thus began the “Twilighters.” Ninth grade saw us gradually improving, trying to emulate the Rivieras, but always falling woefully short. Just not enough talent – especially in the horn and singing departments. But, I guess Nat heard us and thought that Doug and I had potential.
Q: So, tell me a little about how the new Riveras started out.
A: So, my promotion to the big leagues started with Nat passing along some basic music theory that had been omitted from my rock-a-billy lessons. Chord playing needed to be crisp and syncopated with an emphasis on the backbeat. To facilitate this I switched from a flat pick to thumb-and-index finger style like I had admired in the Delacardos player, Odell Greer. Doug was similarly reprogrammed. Nat’s younger brother, Bobby (same class as Doug and I) had been the Riviera’s drummer for a while and was very skilled and funky. In a matter of days we became a pretty tight rhythm section.
Nat recruited another tenor sax player, a black guy named Henry Jackson. As I said, our singer was Bob Meyer, an alumnus of the Catalinas (the other highly-regarded white band in the Charlotte area that had been around longer, had a large following , but did not yet have horn players). Bob was a local heart-throb and the lead singer on the beloved Catalinas regional hit “Hey Little Girl.” My older sister had even dated Bob a few times. Bob had quite a reputation with the ladies, but, most importantly, he was arguably the best singer in the entire area. So, it was appropriate that the band was renamed “Bob Meyer and the Rivieras.”
So here we were: a six man integrated R&B band in the Jim Crow South prior to the 1964 Civil Rights Act. First, it was determined that the normal rehearsal location in Nat’s den would not work due to parents and neighbors in this all white neighborhood. So, one of Bob’s friends had a wife who was a dance teacher. She let us use her studio in a commercial area on weekends. Away from prying eyes, we started rehearsing songs like “Pride & Joy,” (Marvin Gaye), “Any Day Now,” (Chuck Jackson), “Mickey’s Monkey,” (Smokey & the Miracles), "Yield Not To Temptation"(Bobby Bland) – songs that did not have background singers, or where our horns could play the vocal parts.
Q: Did you play a lot of gigs that summer of 1963?
A: Not very many – summer was our slow season. The first one was at an exclusive country club in Myrtle Beach. Black groups were welcomed almost everywhere in those days but integrated groups were not. When the guy in charge saw Henry Jackson among our lily white faces, he ordered that we would have to play without him. Bob and Nat took a bold stance: either we play with Henry or pack up and leave! We played and it was a great evening.
I think the next one was at Park Center backing up the Olympics. One of the groups on the bill below us was called “Little Caesar and the Euterpeans.” They wore Roman togas – sort of an early reference to the frat toga party. Well, their guitar player got really sick at the last minute and they pressed me into service as a stand-in – had to wear this silly toga and some kind of shrubbery as a crown. Yes, my fellow Rivieras made a big joke out of this.
Q: Were there any personnel changes that summer?
A: Henry left to join Maurice Williams and The Zodiacs. Eddie McAleer, who had played in the original Rivieras, rejoined the group on baritone sax. Another original Catalina singer, Buddy Emmerke, also came on board. Later we added a trumpet player named Johnny Snyder.
Q: When did you guys start recording?
A: I’m pretty sure it was in August of that first summer. An older dude named Bob Richardson had a well equipped studio in the basement of his home off Park Road. Unlike today, home studios were pretty much non-existent in 1963. Bob Richardson had a multitrack Ampex recorder with sync. We used only our three piece rhythm section plus Nat on Wurlitzer. We recorded this instrumental backing on one track. Then Bob sang the lead vocal on the second track and his harmony on the third. The church organ was dubbed in post-production by an unidentified player. The “B” side, “You’ve Got to Tell Me,” dropped the electric piano and added the horns. This recording captures the essence of the early sound of the second generation Rivieras: clean, crisp, soulful and funky.
We did another session of instrumentals in that studio later in the year. To the 5-piece “Nat Speir Combo” were added Danny Smith on Trumpet and the amazing Billy Cathey from the Zodiacs on piano. The memorable result was “Church Song” which featured solos by Nat and Billy. This recording was lost over time.
In the fall of 1963 we recorded three instrumentals at WGIV radio studios for DJ “Hot Scott” Hubbs. These were used for leads and fills in his afternoon DJ spot. It was a real kick to be riding home from school and hear these tunes introducing his raucous show. These were well executed recordings and it’s too bad they were also lost.
Q: Any other stories from your first year as a Riviera you would like to share?
A: In the fall of 1963 we started playing fraternity parties in Chapel Hill. As a naïve eleventh grader, about the wildest parties I had ever seen were a few beers at somebody’s cabin out at the river. There was this place out in the boondocks near Chapel Hill called the “Little Red School House.” There was only one electrical outlet for the whole joint. Right on cue, we start playing and the fuses blow. When the lights came back on I saw things going on that had only been in my fantasy world the day before. The place was small, jam-packed with sweaty drunks, and you could feel the walls pulsating with the beat.
A few weeks later we played in the basement of one of the frat houses on the row. This place could have been the inspiration for “Animal House.” Besides dancing and carousing, the main attraction was a bathtub full of "Purple Passion" (sometimes called "Purple Jesus"). That was basically fruit punch and 190 proof grain alcohol. They kept bringing us cups of the stuff thinking the drunker we got the better we would play. Didn’t work out that way. By the third set we were fried and the music was getting looser with every beat (or lack thereof). Back at the motel, 4 per room, we were in bad shape. A little comic relief did bring us around when Doug hurled all over Bob’s tie. From then on we got a big laugh every time Bob showed up for the gig in that tie.
On Easter weekend, it must have been 1964, I got my first chance to play at Myrtle Beach. We were booked at this new place near the Pavilion, the Cellar, for two nights backing up the Five Royals. I guess the idea was to lure customers away from Cecil Corbet’s popular “Beach Club,” which was out on the bypass, away from the beachfront area. Well, it didn’t work – the crowds didn’t show and the owner wrote us a rubber check. We didn’t have nearly enough money to pay for our rooms at the Singin’ Surf motel. But, somehow Bob got the Chamber of Commerce to front the money and we were ready to go home.
Unfortunately, we had one more hurdle to clear: the transmission exploded in our rickety Greenbriar van. Seems that one of our guys talked regular driver Bobby into letting him drive, but didn’t tell him he had never driven a stick shift- he missed second gear and hit reverse. Sounded like a shotgun going off. The repair consumed way more money than we had left. Waiting for the repairs at The Singing Surf, we played cards, and listened to WTGR radio, Myrtle Beach. Somehow playing at the beach never had quite the same allure for me again. That yellow bus proved to be about as reliable as our PA system, or Bob remembering words to songs.
(We had a cheap aluminum luggage rack on top of our van, from which Bobby's drums would fly and land on the highway periodically. We would just stop and run in front of cars to pick them up and strap them on again.)
Q: You added some girl singers that year?
A: Yes. For some reason, the regional bands of that era were all male. With more and more R&B hits featuring female vocalists, it was a natural evolution for us. The first two young women, from South High School, didn’t last long. As I remember, they were good looking but did not have the vocal chops to match. The next trio were sisters from the Mount Holley textile mill village. They ranged from gawky to beautiful with decent vocal abilities. They did harmonize as only siblings can and did look good on stage in their tight, black dresses. There was a large cultural gap, however. Their daddy would give us the evil eye as we drove up to their house in the mill village. This iteration of the Rivieras ended with the school term.
Q: In conclusion, how would you describe your personal relationship with Bob Meyer?
A: Bob was an enigma. As a youth, he was a soloist in the Charlotte Boys Choir. My uncle, who was the choir director, described Bob as the most talented vocalist he had ever coached. His charisma and personal charm opened doors wherever he went (although some of these should have remained closed). Bob married the beautiful daughter of the most prominent and wealthy attorney in Charlotte. His day job was working for a record distributor. He drove a van full of the latest 45’s to small town record shops mostly in South Carolina. This enabled him to get out in front of the latest hits and establish valuable contacts. But it also did not bode well for his lack of self control: his dad was an alcoholic and Bob abused alcohol regularly. When it came to women, he did not follow Bobby Bland's advice, and he often yielded to temptation. Of course, this led to an early end to his marriage. These habits also did not enhance his effectiveness as leader and singer for his namesake band.
I was never close to Bob. There was a large age gap and he hung mostly with Nat. Maybe I just never made a serious effort to get to know him.
Q: One more thing: Didn't you say that the Charlotte Musicians Union was an unexpected factor in your time with Bob Meyer and The Rivieras?
A: Yes it was. We had to join the American Federation of Musicians local in Charlotte. This was a bit of a shock to my conservative, Republican middle class parents. The head of the local was a guy named Sandy Jordan. He had an insurance agency in a big building downtown. There was a picture of AFM president James Petrillo on the wall (he’s the dude who caused so much misery during WWII by striking against the recording industry for two years). Don’t remember how much we had to pay but I do remember it had to be cash – no checks accepted. Maybe he had too many checks bounce or something even less noble. It was rare for our cards to be checked at gigs in North Carolina. The only place where you could count on it was Columbia, SC. Apparently the local was run with an iron hand by some Petrillo descendent.
The only time I ever got a call through the union to play a gig was a hoot. A big debutante ball was being held at snooty Charlotte Country Club. The famous “Lester Lanin Orchestra” was playing their swing book which I’m sure pleased the doting parents immensely. But these drinkin,’ partyin’ debutantes wanted rock ‘n roll and raised a big ruckus. I got a call on Saturday evening and was able to round up Doug (and Bobby??). We made it there by the end of the second set and managed to crank up the energy level several notches. I guess it saved the event and we were issued checks at union scale, which I believe was $35 (good money for 1964). Unfortunately, on Monday morning, the checks bounced. The union dutifully took up our cause and we got paid about six months late.