I got to know Merrill pretty well in his later years when he would come by my store and talk to me about the old days when he and his Saddle Rockin’ Rhythm Boys recorded for Capitol Records and he was playing a lot of session work for Capitol with guys like Merle Travis, Speedy West, Jimmy Bryant, and most anything Cliffie Stone was producing in the LA area. He was also appearing as the hot boogie piano man with the Cliffie Stone Band on his “Hometown Jamboree” radio and TV shows and barn dance from El Monte Legion Stadium every Saturday Night. During the week he and his band appeared at clubs in the San Diego area with an occasional Las Vegas gig or country music tour thrown in.
Merrill was born in Algona, Iowa on the east bank of the Des Moines River in the northern part of that state. It was in high school that he discovered the boogie woogie piano records of artists like Pete Johnson, Meade Lux Lewis, and Albert Ammons and big bands like Will Bradley, which featured the great piano of Freddie Slack and Bob Crosby, featuring a guy named Bob Zurke. “Those were the cats that laid it down for me” Merrill told me. “That’s what I wanted to play like.”
And so he did. After a gig with Uncle Sam in the war, he moved to Tucson, got married, and then moved to San Diego, playing his own style of boogie woogie mixed with a bit of western swing and jazz and found steady work. By 1950 he was working for Cliffie Stone and starting to record for Capitol records. Sides like “Rock-Rockola,” “Snatchin’ and Grabbin’,” “Buttermilk Baby,” and one I always asked him to play “Hey Bartender, There’s A Big Ol’ Bug in My Beer,” and the closest thing he ever had to a hit “The House Of Blue Lights.” His Capitol recordings of those and other tunes are some of the finest, most raucous rockabilly on record; a wedding of R&B and hillbilly boogie that wouldn’t be equaled until the coming of Jerry Lee Lewis.
Merrill never heard the term rockabilly until long after the craze was passed. He told me, “We were doing that in 1948, long before I ever heard of Bill Haley or Carl Perkins. We’d do “Down the Road Apiece” or “Red Light” or “House of Blue Lights,” or we’d take a bunch of Hank Williams numbers or some Bob Wills tunes and boogie-woogie them up.”
Those three tunes were Merrill’s best selling records but Capitol didn’t know quite how to market him or to whom. He never had a hit and he never made the charts. Merrill told me, “I never was country. I was more boogie woogie and rockabilly and that kind of stuff, but in the early ’50s they just hadn’t figured out what that was and Capitol dropped me in 1958.
Although he got regular work around Southern California and Las Vegas, Merrill wouldn’t record again until 1969, although BMC in Great Britain reissued his Capitol stuff on two fine LPs in the mid ’60s and he was building a steady following in Europe. Merrill told me that in the 1970s he was asked to be the opening act on a European tour that would headline Carl Perkins. He told me, “Carl’s a real nice guy but he was kind of bent when I would get louder cheers and more encores than he would, and I was dumbfounded; I never knew there was that kind of following for my music.”
Merrill had a long time local gig at Mr A’s in San Diego and as he would say, “I play that stuff better today than I did when those records were made.” I tried my damnest to get Merrill to play at one of the Adams Ave. Roots Festivals but he always said, “They like that stuff in Europe but no one in San Diego wants to hear it.” One of his last recordings was on one of late rocker Buddy Blue’s last CDs and San Diego never got to hear that final acclamation of one of their best in a public forum. Bear Family records out of Europe has the complete Capitol recordings of Merrill Moore in their catalog. It’s something you should own.
BIG MAMA WILLIE MAE (HOUND DOG) THORNTON
Back in March of 1969 I was writing a column and various other things for the San Diego Door newspaper. These words appeared under the headline: Big Mama a Gas. “My Singing comes from experience. My own experience. My own feeling for everything,” said Big Mama Thornton in her dressing room at the Candy Company late Saturday night.
“I never had no one to teach me nothing. I never went to school for music or nothing. I was working in a chorus line and one night the singer got sick and they said you gonna sing tonight, so I sang, and I been singing ever since.
“I got the name Big Mama when I was billed in a Battle of the Blues with Little Esther. Big Mama and Little Esther they put on the poster. I played on the Johnny Otis show with Little Esther and I stole the show.
“The first blues I ever heard was Bessie Smith, Memphis Minnie, and Big Maceo, but I got my singing from what I felt. I didn’t have to take no one’s songs like Janis Joplin. Actually Columbia Records wanted me to record ‘Ball and Chain,’ that’s my song you know. I wrote it, but they couldn’t meet my price and so Janis got it. She’s all right but she ain’t no blues singer. That’s why she drinks Southern Comfort. That’s all she can handle.
“I got me a new record coming out on Mercury called Stronger Than Dirt and on it I do a lot of these songs I been doing here tonight. It ought to be out in a week or so.
“People talk to me about the blues coming back. The blues have never left. The blues will never leave. The blues satisfies the ear. They can hear what you’re saying if you sing them fast or slow. In the blues, you got more feeling. You got to really understand the blues to play the blues. I can sing them all when I put my mind to it. I never sang pop. I never really wanted to. What do I want to go out there and try to be like Ella Fitzgerald for? I want to be me.
“I can go first, second, third, or last. I don’t care who you are I’m going to do my little bit the best I know how. Wherever they put me they know I was there. I just go out and sing what I feel. I just sing what the public wants because I like to eat. If I didn’t, they’d call me Skinny Mama.”
NOTE: The Candy Company was a club on El Cajon Blvd. just inside the City of La Mesa. I recently made contact with Cliff Nimen who used to manage the place and he donated a series of concert tapes that were recorded at the club plus some posters and fliers to go into the collection of San Diego Music we are compiling for the Library Of Congress and the UCLA Ethnomusicology California Music Collection. Included was the above interview I did, way back when, with Big Mama. I hope you enjoyed an oldie from my sordid literary past.