In contrast to many of the other artists discussed in Rhythm Message, Merle Calvin Spears was a singer very much in the gritty R&B vein. For few recordings he made, Spears demonstrated a vocal talent similar to that of Bobby Bland. The author recalls that somebody once said of Bland (or perhaps Little Milton, though it could easily apply to both) that the artist belonged to a genre “too bluesy for soul fans, too soulful for blues fans”; Merle Spears could be described similarly. Yet all these artists have firmly established their musical home in northern soul Hall of Fame. With their heavy blues influence, Spears’ recordings perhaps sound raw and ‘early’, possibly even for their time but these up-tempo R&B dancers have soul collector appeal. Tracks such as “I Want to Know”, “Ain’t No Need” and “What You Gonna Do” are past and current favourites on the rare soul and mod scene in the UK, particularly with the re-embracement of ‘roots’ R&B sounds within these scenes over the last decade or so.
Merle Spears started singing with family relatives as a quartet in his younger years. His brother Allen recounts:
“Merle was born October 25, 1939, in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. His father was a Baptist minister who died when Merle was two years old. His mother was a housewife and also sold beauty products. There were two older brothers in the family; James Russell and me. We lived in a rural area outside the city limits of Baton Rouge in a small town called Alsen, Louisiana. Merle lived there all his life. He was well liked by the community growing up as a child and had a love for football and baseball. Since his father was a minister, the three brothers were brought up singing in the church. His mother started a singing group consisting of the three brothers and two first cousins when Merle was six years old. We toured most of the Baptist Churches in the Baton Rouge area. Merle sang for about three years in the group . After being baptized, he joined the Church choir, then started singing in the band in the early 60's.”
‘The band’ was known formally as the Lionel Whitfield Orchestra. Whitfield was the manager, leader and trombone player. At one point Whitfield was also band director at two local schools; Crestworth and Capitol Middle School. Other band members Allen remembers were Johnny Cage (alto saxophone), Leroy Pero (trumpet), Harvey Knox (lead guitar), Paul Adams (trombone), Claude Jackson (bass guitar), Calvin Reed (guitar) and ‘Poochie’ on drums.
By 1965 Merle had started his recording career with Whitfield’s own label. Whit had a connection with Cosimo Matassa’s one stop recording, pressing and distribution empire. Cosimo’s distributing arm, Dover, took over the operation for numerous independent labels around New Orleans and the Baton Rouge area, including Whit. The first record to appear on the label, by Larry Seibert and the Jaguars (“Never come back” backed with “You said” (Whit 1), was recorded at Matassa’s studios in New Orleans, and released in 1963. However, Lionel Whitfield was based in Baton Rouge, for the live work which Lionel undertook with his band and for label management. Merle’s “I Want to Know” (Whit 711), written by brother-in-law and guitarist Calvin Reed, was the second release on the label, appearing two years after the Seibert effort. Allen reports Merle’s recordings as being made at a studio in Baton Rouge.
In retrospect, trends in the Whit catalogue numbering indicate that Lionel Whitfield’s success with the label and acts became established after Spears’ first 45. “Merle's mother didn’t like the idea of his singing the blues” says Allen. “She preferred him to sing spiritual songs only. However he became the opening act for various stars when they came to Baton Rouge such as Al Green and Bobby Bland. Merle and the band toured most of the south playing in several cities. There was also a back-up group called “The Treats” consisting of two sisters, Geraldine and Myrtle Jackson and their cousin, Margaret Valet, all from Port Allen, Louisiana. Atlantic Records picked up “I Want to Know” because of the popularity of the band in the southern states.”
The purchases by Atlantic in 1964-1965 of “I Want to Know” (Atlantic 45-2243) and a second recording, “It’s a Matter of Time b/w “Ain’t No Need” (Whit 713; Atlantic 45-2274) doubtless injected the local label with financial and motivational drive, even if both 45s remained regional hits. Whit ran in total from 1963 to around 1971, with the bulk of the output from Bobby Powell from the mid sixties. However “Aint No Need” was to be Merle’s last Whit 45.
Around 1966 he teamed up with Johnnie Jackson and the Blazers. The custom label listed the publishing address as Baton Rouge although “What You Gonna Do” on J-MER (101) was likely recorded in New Orleans. This 45 is another up-tempo R&B number well suited to the rare soul dance floors of the UK and Europe. Jackson had close connections with the Southern University, recruiting singers and musicians from there. Indeed, the university was a major source of much of Baton Rouge’s musical talent in this era. Connie Bailey, of The (Elvitrue) Passions also sang with Johnnie Jackson’s band whilst she was attending the Southern. When Lionel Whitfield eventually passed away in 1976, Johnny Jackson took over the band leadership. Merle was later also to make recordings with the Southern University Band in Baton Rouge. These appeared on the ultra-rare Whit LP Southern University Stage Band in a Soul Session (Whit LP 711) alongside appearances with Mary Holmes, who was a session singer (uncredited) for some Whit 45 recordings.
Merle eventually paired with Chuck Mitchell to join The Herculoids (Herculoids 1001/1002). The group name was derived from a 1967 Hanna-Barbera animated cartoon series. The Herculoids band itself consisted of Roy and Ralph Stewart, Harvey Knox, Big Bo Melvin, Big Lucious Brown, Kenny Neal, Napoleon Martin, Leroy Pero (a session musician from Whit) and Don Evan. The band was set up to back up national acts which Buddy Stewart - local promoter and brother of Roy and Ralph- brought to Baton Rouge. The Herculoids produced an admirable version of Sam and Dave’s deep soul Stax classic “When Something is Wrong with My Baby”. The release year of this particular 45 is debated: on-line and literary sources list it as a 1967 release although The Herculoids were not formally named as such until the early 1970s.
Merle Spears recording career appeared to come to a halt after this. He continued his steady job as an interstate trucker, an occupation which he maintained throughout most of his life – music was really an additional element, with live work and recordings fitted in on weekends and on some nights when driving. Merle retired from secular music and returned to the church choir in the late 1970s. He passed away in October 2009 aged 69 years, at Baton Rouge General Medical Center and is buried at Southern Memorial Gardens.
Excerpt from "Rhythm Message" by E. Mark Windle. Available to order from the new book section.