The Midwest soul-jazz piano legend Roy Meriwether has had an extraordinary career during his 50-plus years as a professional musician. Meriwether was born and raised in Dayton, Ohio where he gained notoriety as a child prodigy on the piano. But Meriwether came to national prominence in the 1960s, recording soulful, pop-inflected instrumentals for both Columbia and Capitol Records.
However many Meriwether fans would argue that the pianist really hit his stride in the 1970s when he independently recorded and released a series of brilliant underground jazz classics including his epic 20-minute version of “Nubian Lady” off the 1973 LP of the same title.
Nubian Lady has attracted an enthusiastic international cult audience, and original copies of the LP are rare and valuable collector’s pieces regularly selling between $200 to $300. Fortunately the Nature Sounds label released a deluxe reissue of the LP earlier this year, providing the LP with its widest distribution since its initial release more than forty years ago.
I caught up with Roy Meriwether via phone in advance of his Sunday, October 23rd performance in Downtown Indianapolis at Chef Joseph’s.
NUVO: Mr. Meriwether you were born in Dayton, Ohio in 1943. But I know you’ve played all over Indiana throughout your career. You've also recorded a couple albums here, including your highly collectable 1972 LP Jesus Christ Superstar Goes Jazz recorded live at Arni's in Lafayette. What can you tell us about your connection to Indiana?
Roy Meriwether: Well, Meriwether is a nice name. But you can call me Roy.
In the mid '60s when I was with ABC Booking, they were booking me at the Trolley Bar in Fort Wayne, Indiana. They would have people like Ike Cole, Freddie Cole, and people like that. It was very successful and it worked out good for me there.
Then in the late '60s ABC booked me at Arni's Market Square Lounge in Lafayette, Indiana. People like Ramsey Lewis and the great saxophonist Eddie Harris played there. They had a variety of people there. It was a Pizza King, but it was a very nice Pizza King. I didn't think I'd be invited back to play, but people there took to me very well. Arni is dead now, but he was a great club owner. Man, he was great to work for. I played there sometimes twice a year from the '60s all the way through the '70s.
NUVO: You weren't coming down to Indianapolis to perform in the 1960s?
Meriwether: Well, in the '70s my manager at the time Paul Watson wanted to book me in the old Marott Hotel on Meridian Street. So I went in there around Christmas of 1973 and played the New Orleans Room six nights a week. No offense, but because my name is Meriwether people thought I was white. (laughs) So they mistook who I was. But people white and Black started to notice that I played good and it got to be jam packed just about every night. The New Orleans Room seated about 450 people.**
[During this part of the conversation, Meriwether talked briefly about an incident of racial discrimination in Indianapolis that NUVO is working to substantiate.]
NUVO: Did you ever make it to Indiana Avenue to play, or catch a show?
Meriwether: I was there a couple times, but it was on its last legs while I was there.
NUVO: As a jazz musician what had you heard about Indiana Avenue’s music scene?
Meriwether: I heard it was like 52nd Street in New York, very active club-wise and historic jam sessions, so to speak. I met a lot of those guys from the Avenue, they'd come to hear me play when I was at The Marott because they'd heard about me.
NUVO: Roy, I do want to ask about your incredible catalog of music. At a young age you signed with one of the most important labels in the world, Columbia Records. I believe you were about 22 when Columbia released your debut LP Soup & Onions in 1965.
How did a 22-year-old musician in Dayton, Ohio get signed to the one of the biggest record labels in the world?
Meriwether: Let's see ... how did I do that? [laughs] I used to tell people when I was teenager that I was going to be on Columbia Records. But I didn't have any idea how I was going to do it.
I was playing at The Tropics, which was one of the top clubs in Dayton, Ohio. They had Dean Martin, Jerry Lewis, Jimmy Durante and a lot of those old, traditional big stars. I was playing the lounge there and I remember I had eight teeth pulled that day. I was as sick as a dog. I didn't know anything about the union at that time or hiring a substitute, so I went to play while I was sick and bleeding. There wasn't many people in the audience that night, but Bob Hadley who owned the Trolley Bar in Fort Wayne was there. That's how I got booked in Fort Wayne. He told his friend Joel Muzzy about me, Joel was a booking agent at ABC in Chicago. Joel contacted Joe Glaser, the president of ABC Booking in New York, who talked to Clarence Avant, who became one of my A-list Black managers. Clarence Avant handled Jimmy Smith, Sarah Vaughan and all those people.
Clarence Avant flew in to Dayton to hear me play at The Nowhere in Fairborn, Ohio. There was a snowstorm that night, and I went with the owner of The Nowhere to pick up Clarence Avant at the airport. We saw all these well dressed, dignified white men get off the plane and walk by us, and finally we saw this well dressed Black guy who showed up at the end of the departure line. We figured Clarence had decided not to come and we turned around to walk away when we hear the Black guy say, "Roy?" [laughs] I had no idea at that time who Clarence Avant was, for some reason we thought he was white. We drove Clarence to The Nowhere, and because of the snowstorm Clarence figured there wouldn't be anybody there. When we got there the place was just about full.
So Clarence Avant was shopping me around to labels. Because of Freddie Hubbard and some of the other jazz greats, I told Clarence, "I'd sure like to be on Blue Note." Later Clarence called me and said "I couldn't get you on Blue Note, but I got you on Columbia."
That's how I got on Columbia, Clarence sold me to Tom Wilson who had discovered Simon and Garfunkel.
NUVO: Wow, Tom Wilson is a legendary and influential producer who recorded Bob Dylan, The Velvet Underground, Sun Ra, The Mothers of Invention and so many others.
Meriwether: Yeah, he was the A&R man that recorded me. He was real easy to work with. After him I got Teo Macero. Do you know about Teo Macero?
NUVO: Of course! He produced some of the most famous records of all-time, including Miles Davis' Bitches Brew and Kind of Blue, Dave Brubeck's Time Out, and Charles Mingus' Mingus Ah Um.
Meriwether: Right, and Thelonius Monk and Duke Ellington too. But at the time I didn't really know who people like Teo and Tom Wilson were. Teo called me and said "Roy, I got you now because Tom is sick." He talked like I was supposed to know who he was - but I had no idea! I was fresh out playing in the church.
I didn't know the workings of the music business thing. My father was a minister. You read write-ups where some musician's father took them to hear Art Tatum when they were five or six years old. My father never took me to hear any of these people. I learned only spiritual music. I think our family only owned two jazz records, some 78 RPM record from Duke Ellington and I think Lionel Hampton's "Hamp's Boogie Woogie" was the other. Other than that everything else was spiritual music. Me and my brothers and sisters were not allowed to play anything other than spiritual music.
NUVO: So how did your father feel about you pursuing a career in jazz music?
Meriwether: My father always wanted me to be a minister. But I was in Dayton playing on Third Street at age 17. Third Street was the original Route 40 and on Friday and Saturday everybody lined up at the Red Light and I'm playing in this big picture window. I had to play in this window and all the church people would see me and tell my father, "Your boy is playing for Satan!" My father would tell them, "He's making an honest living."
My father would walk up to me and shake my hand firmly when I was young and say, "Son, there are a lot of people very jealous of you." That's all he would say and then he'd walk away. I didn't understand it then, but now I understand. He was getting all kinds of flack about me playing in the window of this club. I was a popular minister's son and a prodigy at age four. So I was pretty well known around town because I played every hotel in Dayton when I was four years old.
NUVO: That's wild! What type of music were you playing at four years old?
Meriwether: I wrote a couple of boogies and I could play the blues. I would play things like "Tomorrow's Just Another Day To Cry," which I'd heard off the radio. "Nearer the Cross" was the first song I ever played. I learned the "Wedding March" because my family used to have me play at Tom Thumb Weddings. Have you ever heard ever of a Tom Thumb Wedding?
NUVO: No, I haven't.
Meriwether: Well, I was four years-old and I'd play for all these little boys and girls who were dressed up like grown-ups in tuxedos and gowns and they would all march and have what they called a Tom Thumb Wedding. They were all little kids and I had to play for all of them to march in. I had to play on my knees because I was too short to reach the keyboard when I sat down on the piano stool. My knees got pretty sore playing for that long wedding march, because every kid on the block wanted to be in the wedding! [laughs]
NUVO: Getting back to your time at Columbia Records, you recorded three albums for Columbia before transitioning over to Capitol Records. I'm curious if you had a good relationship with Columbia?
Meriwether: Yes, basically. After my first album Soup & Onions did so well, they said, "Let him do whatever he wants to do." But at the end of the '60s Columbia started letting go of some of their biggest artists, like Andy Williams. I mean big sellers. I was on the fence, and I probably could've stayed because Teo liked my talent. But I didn't push it and then Capitol was interested. I should've just stayed with Columbia, but I went with Capitol in 1968.
NUVO: You jumped from one giant record company to what was probably their largest rival.
Meriwether: Yeah, Capitol Records, the home of The Beatles. Capitol were glad to have me, but you have to understand I really had zero experience. When I was getting mixed reviews for my albums it discouraged me. I didn't know at that time like Donald Trump does, any publicity is good publicity.
I remember playing at The Trident out in Sausalito, which was owned by the Kingston Trio. I got panned for my second album Popcorn & Soul and I remember the manager of The Trident telling me "Roy, don't worry about the reviews, it's all good!" But I couldn't hear him because I was just so embarrassed. I had zero experience at this thing.
For Popcorn & Soul Columbia approached me and they wanted me to record "The Shadow Of Your Smile" which won the Academy Award for '66. Columbia told me I had to do "The Shadow Of Your Smile" and "What's New Pussycat?". All the rest of the songs I could pick from different movie themes. Overnight I learned all these songs for that album. At 6 a.m. I went down to Columbia after staying up all night learning the songs and I recorded that album. They were quite impressed with me when I did that. I was impressed with me too. [laughs]
NUVO: I want to skip ahead to your work in the 1970s. In the ‘60s you'd been making what I'd consider more commercial records for Capitol and Columbia. In the 70's you started recording independently and that gave you a chance to really stretch out as a musician, correct?
Meriwether: You could say that, I stretched out on Columbia but they really edited it. They edited 16 minute things down to a minute and 58 seconds. It made me angry! So I recorded on my own label records like Nubian Lady, which has just been rereleased.
NUVO: You released Nubian Lady through Stinger Records in 1973. The album was recorded live at The Magic Carpet in Dayton, Ohio and as you mentioned it was independently produced and released. But it's gone on to attain a worldwide audience and it's a very valuable record in its original pressing. It's a beautiful record. That was the first record of yours I ever owned and I just fell in love with the music. Tell us about that album and the continued interest from hardcore jazz fans and record collectors.
Meriwether: I took my own piano into The Magic Carpet, it was a full grand piano. A friend of my bass player brought us some equipment to record. I wanted to play without being restricted. It was in protest of being edited so much by the big companies. People used to say to me "they just need to hear you live Roy! People just need to hear you live, that's the problem." I kept getting that back in the early days. When I did Nubian Lady I just wanted to play like I'd normally play, and that's what you heard on the record. I released it pretty much as is. Nothing was edited on Nubian Lady.
I played it for Clarence Avant, and it was the strangest thing. I just knew "Nubian Lady" was a hit. It had a nice ride on the solo, and even though the bass player was from the avant-garde, the beat was still present. The beat stayed present through the whole thing and I knew that made it listenable. Clarence Avant said "It's just not danceable enough." And there were about 20 kids who heard the record when I had the door open in my apartment and they’re like "What is that?" They started dancing in the yard! My girlfriend said, "Tell him to tell these kids it's not danceable!"
I only sold Nubian Lady at my live shows. I'd gone out in the this college tour through the National Entertainment Conference. The colleges developed NEC because people like Sly Stone were coming so late to performances because they were getting stoned. They'd come at 11 o'clock for an 8 o'clock performance. So the colleges started this organization and you had to audition no matter who you were. No matter how big you were, you had to audition for twenty minutes and take the music through all kinds of genres.
So I took the Nubian Lady record along for that tour. The only distribution that album had was a college concert tour along the Upper Midwest. It was only sold off-stage. It was never distributed at all and it did what you were talking about. It's unreal. It was on Ebay for one-thousand dollars last year.
NUVO: How do you feel about the reissue that was just put out by Nature Sounds?
Meriwether: I was okay with it. I didn't get as much as I probably could've. I got a pretty decent amount. They released it as a double album with extra material and they added pictures of me from that period of time. It's got new liner notes that talk about my work and past. It's a nice package.
NUVO: What do you think it is about your recording of "Nubian Lady" that's been so enduring and continues to attract new generations of fans?
Meriwether: Billy Jackson the drummer, he doesn't play any more because of medical reasons, he was with Richard "Groove" Holmes for five years. He used to tell me "I got this beat that sounds like a tambourine." When we played "Nubian Lady" one night, he went into that rhythm spontaneously. He just went into that gospel-type beat. It was the rhythm he had that really locked in "Nubian Lady". The solo I did had nice layers, it built very nicely with the drums and I think that's what sold it.
NUVO: The paper I write for here in Indianapolis is called NUVO Newsweekly, and for many years Chuck Workman was the chief jazz writer at NUVO up until the time of his death in 2012.
Meriwether: [interrupts] Chuck was a friend of mine!
NUVO: I know Chuck was associated with your record label Stinger in the 1970s. Tell about about your work with Chuck.
Meriwether: My manager and Chuck were friends and Chuck helped to promote me. Chuck became the president of Stinger Records. I wasn't interested in being president at the time. It wasn't a big deal, but he was listed as president of Stinger Records. The home of Stinger Records was supposed to be in Lafayette, Indiana. It was really almost a pseudo-address. He was a big fan of mine and a big help. He booked me a lot. He was a very nice man. I was so sorry when he died.
Yeah, Chuck was the first president of Stinger Records. I made him president. I asked Mike Pence, but he didn't want to be president then. [laughs]
NUVO: There's one other Indiana-related project I wanted to ask you about. In 1987 you released a live album called Opening Night. I understand that album was recorded here in Indianapolis at a club called The Place To Start, which is now The Jazz Kitchen. Any thoughts on that album?
Meriwether: Most of that album was recorded at Just Jazz in Anderson, Indiana. There were a couple cuts on there that were done at The Place To Start.
I remember the stage at The Place To Start was very high. [laughs] It was a very high stage. I didn't like that. I love the way the stage is now at The Jazz Kitchen. The Place To Start was an okay place, I drew good crowds there. It wasn't as nice as the Kitchen is now, but that stage was very high! Very high. I mean, very high.
NUVO: That sounds crazy because I work a lot at The Jazz Kitchen and the ceilings are a pretty normal height, it doesn't seem like you'd have too much room to work with if you were building upward.
Meriwether: Well, you should've seen it. But I don't think they built it like that, I think it just happened to be that way when they got it. The stage was okay as far as being on it, it was just further from the audience than I like to be... height-wise.
NUVO: You’re going to be playing in Indianapolis on Sunday, October 23 at Chef Joseph’s. I’m curious if you’re still performing "Nubian Lady" and some of the classic tracks from your past?
Meriwether: Yes, and there's some new things too. I'm not bringing a group from New York as I normally do. I'm going to use a group from Dayton. I'll put something together with them and see what happens. I plan to do "Nubian Lady" because of the rerelease. We'll see how that works. I've never played with these guys, but they're professionals and I'll work the show up with them.
NUVO: Roy, it's been a huge honor to speak with you. I’m a huge fan and I’ve been collecting your records for many years.
Meriwether: Well, I’m kind of floored by that. It's been really nice talking with you.
Special thanks to Ralph Adams and Rick Wilkerson for making this interview possible.