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Stewie Speer

An Autralian drummer.

Australian rock and jazz drummer mainly known for his association with 'Max Merritt and The Meteors'.

Born in Melbourne, Victoria, Speer was part of the generation of distinguished Melbourne jazz drummers who came onto the scene in the late 1940s and early 1950s.

Alongside contemporaries like Len Barnard, John Sangster, Laurie Thompson and Alan Turnbull, Stewie was strongly influenced by Melbourne's three leading "trad" drummers, Bob Featherstone, Charlie Blott and Billy Hyde, who founded the well-known Australian music company that bears his name.

Throughout the 1950s Speer played the prevailing trad jazz style with Roger Bell, Bob Barnard, Frank Traynor and others, but he was drawn irresistibly to bebop, which had begun to filter across to Australia from the USA in the late 1940s.

Although 'trad' ruled the roost in Australian jazz well into the 1950s, both Speer and Charlie Blott amassed considerable collections of imported bebop records and both were avid fans of the new genre.

In early 1956 saxophonist and bop fanatic Brian Brown returned from Europe and formed a new band with like-minded players Stewie, trumpeter Keith Hounslow, schoolboy pianist Dave Martin and bassist Barry Buckley.

The Brian Brown Quintet were regulars at Horst Liepolt's influential Jazz Centre 44 in St Kilda, which operated from 1955 to 1960. As indicated by the 'Blakey for Pope' message on Speer's kit, the Quintet championed the more progressive (but less popular) east-coast style of modern jazz. At that time, the preferred genre was the "cool", west coast style epitomized by artists like Chet Baker and Dave Brubeck who were then all the rage with modern jazz fans in Australia.

The Brian Brown Quintet were enthusiastic ambassadors for bop, introducing Melburnians to music whilch was still largely unheard in Australia including artists like Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis and Sonny Rollins.

Stewie moved to Sydney and became a regular at local jazz haunts like Quo Vadis in Martin Place, Chequers, and Sammy Lee's legendary Latin Quarter.

It was during this period that Stewie succeeded legendary New Zealand actor-drummer Bruno Lawrence as the drummer in the Latin Quarter's resident band, after Bruno (who was soon to join The Meteors) fell ill with hepatitis.

In the mid-Sixties, Speer was an integral part of the fertile scene that centred on the famous El Rocco Jazz Lounge in Kings Cross, playing with groups that included by John Sangster, Judy Bailey, pianist Col Nolan, clarinettist Don Burrows, Warren Daly and others. Founded by Arthur James in 1957, and developed by musicians including Sydney drummer John Pochee from 1957-59, the converted plumber's shop at the top of William Street became the centre of modern jazz in Sydney in the 1960s.

Speer might well have remained a respected member of the local jazz scene had it not been for a series of coincidences that brought him together with Christchurch-born R&B singer Max Merritt.

Merritt had risen to the top of the New Zealand beat scene with his band The Meteors before moving to Australia in 1963.

After a tough start, the group had enjoyed moderate success, and they were a popular draw on the Sydney circuit, but by the mid-1960s, with the beat boom starting to fade, their manager Graham Dent was keen to steer them into a career in cabaret. A perennial problem was the regular turnover of personnel many prominent players passed through the ranks in the band's ten-year life to 1966, but none of the lineups lasted more than a year.

By the end of 1966, the lineup had settled down to long serving guitarist Peter Williams, bassist Billy Kristian and drummer Bruno Lawrence, but their recording career had stalled and they needed a change of direction to survive.

In early 1967 the band reluctantly took a gig entertaining passengers on a Pacific cruise liner, but just before they left both Williams and Kristian announced their intention to leave after the cruise.

As a temporary addition, Max took Bruno Lawrence's suggestion and brought in one of Stewie and Bruno's Latin Quarter colleagues, saxophonist Bob Bertles.

Another stalwart of the Sydney jazz scene, Bob was a powerful and commanding tenor sax player, who also had a strong background in rock as a member of Johnny O'Keefe's backing band The Dee Jays from 1961-65, and he was also a regular session player on pop recordings.

But Speer's new career as a rock drummer almost ended in tragedy only one month after he joined The Meteors. The band was planning to travel to Britain, but while preparations proceeded they had to live and this meant taking gigs wherever they could get them.

On 24 June 1967, on their way to a country gig in Morwell, their van collided head-on with a truck just outside the town of Bunyip, 90 miles south east of Melbourne. Only Harrison, who had been sitting in the back with the equipment, escaped unhurt.

In 1978 Max broke up The Meteors, retaining only Stewie, He signed a new deal with Polydor, and recorded an album in Nashville, then relocated to Los Angeles, where he was based for many years. In May 1979, Max toured Australia with a 12-piece band, and returned in late 1980 for another visit with a band comprising Stewie, Paul Grant (guitar), John Williams (keyboards) and Phil Lawson (bass). This was Max and Stewie's last major tour together.

Stewie Speer returned to live in Sydney in 1980, and he remained active on the local scene, although the health problems stemming from the 1967 car accident affected him increasingly during his last years.

He died of a heart attack in Sydney on 16 September 1986, aged 58.

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