MERV BENTON: A TRUE AUSTRALIAN ROCKER (By Tony Wilkinson)
Setting The Scene.
In the northern hemisphere, our knowledge of Aussie rock 'n' roll was initially limited to the music of Johnny O'Keefe who had made several attempts to break into the international market. However, come the rock 'n' roll/rockabilly revival of the seventies and eighties, a twenty track various artists album titled 'Rockin' At The Kangaroo Hop' (Teen Records TC-001 LP 61) appeared in the specialist shops around Europe. Once one could get beyond the pretty hideous cover of a cartoon drawing of two kangaroos jiving in front of a guitar picker, the music spoke volumes regarding the high quality of rock 'n' roll that had been produced in the land of Oz. This LP included four tracks by Merv Benton, who is the subject of this article and whose music is worthy of high acclaim.
In and around the Melbourne area down in the south east part of the country, the first leader of the localised rock 'n' roll industry was Johnny Chester and The Chessmen but this was before Merv Benton came along. Born Merv Bonson in Preston Victoria on 12th August 1942 to Edward David Bonson, a porcelain manufacturer and Rae Bernadine Bonson nee Hadlow, he and sister Lexie Rae Bonson lead a relatively quiet life. But he was listening to the radio and soon became enraptured by the music of Elvis, Sam Cooke, Gene Vincent, Chuck Berry, Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis. Merv saw his first big show in 1957 which featured visiting American acts Bill Haley, The Platters and Freddie Bell and it was the last mentioned especially that provided him with the desire to become a singer.
Benton became increasingly aware of the local talent that existed in Melbourne and started to attend dances at which The Planets were the headline act. He became friends with several of the group, especially the piano-ponder Graeme Howie and it was he who provided further influence and gave Merv confidence. Unbeknown to Merv, Graeme entered him in a talent contest at the local Canterbury Ballroom in October 1960. Singing 'Don't Leave Me This Way', Merv secured first place. This was also the night that he met Brian deCourcy who asked Merv one week later whether he had the courage to follow and realise his dreams. When the answer was yes, Brian became Merv's manager. This in turn lead to Benton becoming the vocalist with The Ramrods, a group lead by Ian B Allen and which resulted in appearances at venues such as Whittlesea Hall and the Preston Migrant Centre.
The First Recordings.
The leading record label in the Melbourne area was W&G, a company based at 186 Batman Street and was lead by Ron Gillespie. The company started out in 1910 as White and Gillespie (Melbourne) Limited and was formed by E A White and J Gillespie to make printing plates. Circa 1936, it commenced making records and so the W&G Record Processing Co. Pty. Ltd. came into being. It was affectionately known as The Woggle & Goggle label, a name given it by Geoff Haynes, a disc jockey on Radio station 3UZ. They had on their books the aforementioned Johnny Chester and The Chessmen, The Loved Ones and The Thunderbirds. Sensing the potential talent that was Merv Benton, he was invited to make a demo recording for the company. This was produced by Johnny Chester and in the studio was the late Stan Rofe, a man who as a leading disc jockey was instrumental in spearheading rock 'n' roll into Australia, especially helping the home grown talent to realise their dreams. Backed up by The Chessmen, Merv laid down his versions of 'Baby Let's Play House' and 'Endless Sleep'. On the topside, Merv really gets into the feel of the song and turns in an exciting interpretation whilst the flip is full of menace. Both sides have a lovely sparse backing.
The disc was released in March 1964 and reached position # 17 on the Melbourne charts. Merv was on his way. This lead to television appearances on Graham Kennedy's 'In Melbourne Tonight', the top local show all of which raised Benton's public profile. W&G wasted no time in getting Benton back into the studio and this time backed up by The Strangers, he recorded his interpretations of Eddie Cochran's 'Nervous Breakdown' and Elvis's 'Don' Cha Think It's Time'. The topside is a fine rockin' performance of what is now rightly regarded as a rock 'n' roll classic song. The Thin Men, who turn in a good Jordanaires style performance, provided vocal backing on the last mentioned track. Unfortunately, this disc only made position #40 on the Melbourne charts when issued in June 1964 but W&G had confidence in Merv. For his third disc 'Be Sweet' c/w 'You're The Dog' released in August 1964, Merv sang vocals over a track originally recorded in Germany.
This record proved reasonably popular with the public and reached position # 22, again on the Melbourne charts. Merv was increasingly becoming well known throughout Australia. He appeared on national television shows such as Brian Henderson's 'Bandstand' and Johnny O'Keefe's 'Sing Sing Sing'. Benton learned an invaluable experience from O'Keefe who, living up to his wild man image slammed his fist into Merv's diaphragm and telling him to give it all he had. As Merv concedes, this was a lesson he had to learn.
The Tamlas Are Formed.
However it was back to covers for the next record with Merv's versions of Fabian's 'Come On And Get Me' and Bobby Freeman's '(I Do The) Shimmy Shimmy'. Unlike Fabian, Merv can really sing and the disc abounds with menacing vocals. This release made its way onto the Melbourne charts in December 1964 and on its back, W&G Records issued Benton's first album. Merv had now been a recording artist for nine months and in that time, he had released four singles, one EP and one LP, a considerable output of quality music. Come early 1965, it was back to the recording studio but this time with musicians personally handpicked. For his next release, the Jackie De Shannon song 'It's Love Baby' was selected along wit a rockin' update of 'Goodnight Irene' and like its predecessors it entered onto the Melbourne charts. Merv's star was continuing its ascendancy and the tours continued. There are a number of songs that Merv remembers singing live on the stage but unfortunately did not get around to recording. Some of the most popular were Ronnie Self's rocker 'Bop A Lena', Ricky Nelson's 'Believe What You Say' and Lonnie Mack's 'Baby What's Wrong'. With these he used to tear the house down and there were many young ladies who used to go home with moist underwear.
The next release in May 1965 saw the national break through for Merv Benton music. For this issue, Merv's versions of Ral Donner's 'I Got Burned' and Johnny Burnette's 'Cincinnati Fireball' were selected and the record proved popular the length and width of Oz. In Victoria it was 'I Got Burned' that was accepted as the 'A' side but everywhere else 'Cincinnati Fireball' reigned supreme. The record made position # 3 on the Melbourne charts. Country wide tours were now the call of the day together with appearances on national television shows.
Keeping up the momentum, Merv's next record was issued in August 1965 and made number 6 on the Melbourne hit parade. This was 'Twenty Flight Rock' and 'Yield Not To Temptation' and came complete with a picture sleeve. This disc also saw release in the USA on the Marvel label, a fact that Merv was unaware of until 2002 when a reproduction of the label was used as part of the artwork for the Canetoad CD 'Greatest Hits: 1964-1967'. Merv's second album, 'Sounds Great' was also released and included sparkling versions of 'Rocky Road Blues', 'When I Get Paid', 'Hello Josephine' and 'Too Much'.
The next release, in October 1965, also made position #6 in Melbourne. This time around it was an original song with 'Can I Believe It's True' with a cover of Crash Craddock's 'Don't Destroy Me'. This record was the second biggest during Merv's career. Incidentally, the saga of Crash Craddock as a chart-making star in Australia is interesting. The leading Oz promoter Lee Gordon saw an advertisement for Crash and his then current USA record 'Boom Boom Baby' whilst flipping through an imported copy of Cash Box magazine Impressed with the potential he saw, he signed up Crash for a nation wide tour of Australia in 1960 along with Duane Eddy and The Rebels, Santo and Johnny, The Diamonds, Johnny Restivo, Floyd Robinson, Johnny O'Keefe and Dig Richards. Much to everybody's surprise, Crash was the hit of the tour and enjoyed phenomenal acclaim in Australia, more that he had achieved up to then in his native USA. 'Don't Destroy Me' was the flip to 'Boom Boom Baby'.
However we digress and return to the story of Merv Benton. The very next month, W&G issued a further Merv Benton single with '(I Do The) Shimmy Shimmy '65' and 'Baby Let's Play House'. The flip was a reissue of Merv's first single whilst the topside was a slightly modified version of his fourth record. The record charted in Melbourne.
But 1965 was not over for Merv Benton record releases. December 1965 saw the issue of yet another single and again it was the combination of an original song and a cover. The former was titled 'Sell My Soul' and was a good rocker from the pen of Noel Watson from Merv's backing group The Tamlas. The topside 'We Got Love' was originally by that well-known frantic rocker Bobby Rydell. Let us recap for a moment. Merv had now been a recording artist for twenty-one months and in that time he had released a total of ten singles, two EPs and two albums. For sure, he was prolific and indeed this total exceeds that of many other artists who recorded over a considerably longer period. However, to reinforce a point made earlier, it was in the main quality rockin' music. Overall, a remarkable achievement.
Sounds Of '65 Tour
1965 was also the year that Merv went on a national tour that consisted of Australian artists only. The other acts on the shows were Billy Thorpe and The Aztecs, Ray Brown and The Whispers, Max Merrit and The Meteors, Jade Hurley and a young lady by the name of Donna Gaye. It lasted for over three weeks and, in true rock 'n' roll tradition, was undertaken by bus! This trip mainly concentrated on the more rural areas of Australia and was rightly regarded as a success; indeed the show that took place in Perth was broadcast nationally on Brian Henderson's 'Bandstand' television show.
A Dispute With W&G Records
It was quickly back into the Melbourne charts in February 1966 when Merv's next single, 'You Got What It Takes c/w Shake, Rattle And Roll' made position #16. This disc consolidated Benton's position as the top draw attraction in the Melbourne and surrounding area but not without difficulties. The topside was a cover of the Joe Tex song whilst the flip of the rock 'n' roll standard was rockabillyish in treatment. The next disc from Merv was released in May 1966 and reached even higher in the local charts when it peaked at position # 14. This was a top-notch cover of Tommy Sands 'The Worryin' Kind' together with Benton's reading of a relatively obscure song from the pen of Charlie Rich, namely 'Big Jack'Sadly this was the last record to chart by Merv, there were problems with the record company and his health. However, the same month saw the release of Merv's third album, a greatest hits compilation
After 'The Worryin' Kind' things came to a head at W&G. Constant complaints from DJs and fans about distribution and quality had got to the point where something had to be done. EMI expressed an interest and (manager) Brian DeCourcy started negotiations to change labels. In preparation for the move, Merv and The Tamlas went to the Bill Armstrong Studio in South Melbourne and laid down five tracks. Two tracks from this session were released on the W&G label in October 1966. These were an exciting work up of the James Brown R&B song 'I'll Go Crazy' and an interesting cover of 'It Hurts', a song that Elvis Presley had originally recorded for the 'Kissin' Cousins' movie. The record did little business due to distribution difficulties.
Two more tracks, 'King Of Love c/w 'Who'll Be The Next In Line', from sessions at the Bill Armstrong Studio were released by W&G in December 1966. It was back to the Fabian songbook for the superior reading of 'King Of Love', boy does this record cook.
After the dispute with W&G was settled, Merv returned to the W&G studio to record but with a modified line up for The Tamlas. Both guitarists Les Stacpool and Noel Watson had gone onto other things and had been replaced by Bernie O'Brien and Ron Gilbee. It was around this time that Merv started to have vocal problems and believes that he never performed live with the new line up. The first single from this session was released in May 1967 and was his version of Billy Grammer's 1959 hit 'Bonaparte's Retreat' coupled with 'Do It A Little Bit Slower', a song originally recorded by Jon & Robbin. Two records, his final singles for W&G, followed in August 1967. The first was 'Too Many Fishes In the Sea' c/w You Didn't Have To Be So Nice' and was followed by 'Lovin' Up A Storm and 'Come On Up.
Throat Problems and A New Career.
We have mentioned that Merv was having problems with his vocal chords but it is best that he tells the way it really was: Much has been written about the end. It was not a nervous breakdown, although the dispute with W&G was stressful and probably did not help a lot. Quite simply I had polyps growing at the back of my throat, they needed to be removed. They were not caused by singing, you either get them or you don't. As laser surgery was not even thought of in those days, they had to be burnt off. During the surgery the vocal chords received a laceration, consequently I could not sing, neither could I talk.. By the time my throat had healed some six to eight months later, there was no interest (except for a few loyal fans) in the career of Merv Benton. Due to the lack of positive interest, I made the decision that it was time to bow out gracefully as one could, it was time for the dream to end. For those few short years that I lived what I had dreamt, I thank all the fans and all those that supported and contributed to allow me to realise that which occurred.
With the cessation of his show business career, Merv returned to banking and went to work with the State Savings Bank in their public relations department. However this became boring to him and he began to feel stifled and frustrated with the red tape and bureaucracy. He wished to be able to make his own decisions with regard to his direction his life was to take. Accordingly, he relocated to Queensland in 1969 and set up his own real estate business, concentrating on speculative building. However, Merv did make some final recordings after recovering from his throat problems. Accompanied Melbourne based group The Fendermen, he returned to the studio in 1970 to cut a number of country tunes that were released by W&G on the album 'Great Country Songs (Movin' On)'. This is a hard album to find but there is a selection of tracks on the Canetoad CD 'Great Shakin' Fever'.
There was to be one more visit to the recording studio in the early eighties. Merv was approached by Ian B Allen to perform again in Melbourne. When he found out that the backing band, The Allstars, comprised Les Stacpool on guitar, Henri Bource on sax, Murray Robertson on keyboard, Ron Chapman on drums and Ian B Allen on bass, he wanted in. A five track E.P resulted from this line up and Merv sang on three of the cuts.
In 1991, Merv immigrated to the USA and became the child-care consultant and manager for the American Child Care Centres chain. Merv has only made occasional live musical appearances since those heady days. For the last couple of years, he has journeyed from his home near Phoenix, Arizona to Melbourne Australia for an annual reunion concert. He is a man who is happy to look back on the glory days with a fondness and little regret. He sure did make some great music.
Tony Wilkinson, 2004
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