I don’t think it would be accurate to describe Louisiana artist Merle Spears as a great unknown – he’s too obscure for that. But all his recorded output shows an excellent singer, with a fine sense of timing and a real feel for a ballad. His first release “I Want To Know” is now a heavily in demand item on the R & B dance scene, with it’s flip being a carefully worked version of Louis Jordan’s “Gonna Move”. And if that was good, it can’t hold a candle to his second 45. “Ain’t No Need” is a rocking blues, featuring some super piano fills, but Its Just A Matter Of Time is a masterpiece. This wonderful blues ballad is one of the very best Bobby Bland impersonations on record, down to the pseudo-Joe Scott arrangements. At this time Bland was still the USA's biggest blues star and if imitation is the sincerest form of flattery then Merle Spears was Bland's biggest fan - and Spears' vocal nuances are so close to the master's that blindfold you'd be very hard pressed to tell the difference. No wonder both singles were picked up by Atlantic – but they never sold much outside the South.
Spears was featured on the terminally obscure Whit LP “The Southern University Stage Band In A Soul Session” singing a couple of covers in his own super fashion, helped by Mary Holmes, but there were no more 45s on the label. He cut with Johnnie Jackson on J-Mer, the excellent deep Wisdom Of A Fool which is one of the most effectively introspective blues ballads ever put on vinyl. Moody magnificence! He was one half of the Herculoids (the other being Chuck Mitchell) on their own label with a powerhouse cut of “When Something Is Wrong With My Baby”. And that seems to have been his recording career. Perhaps the best parallel here is the late, sadly missed Joe Medwick who could also sound uncannily like Bland, and whose 45s on a variety of labels are only known to the discerning few.
Spears is reportedly no longer with us but his vocal abilities remain treasured by discerning fans. A personal favourite singer.
UPDATE ~ Merle's brother has written to me with the very sad news that Merle has indeed passed on. He died on 8 October 2009. We shall miss such a very fine singer.
NEW UPDATE ~ Bob Eagle has kindly written with more details about this wonderful singer. Bob says:-
"I spoke to Merle by phone once (18 May 1992). Here are my notes, which now owe much to your page!
MERLE SPEARS (male secular and gospel vocal) was the recording name of Merle Calvin Spears, who was born at Hollywood, near Baton Rouge, East Baton Rouge Parish, Louisiana on 25 October 1939, a son of Ezekiel Spears and Idella Barron, and stepson of Alex Stewart.His father was a Baptist minister and Merle began singing in public at about age 5. Spears sang quartet with two brothers and two first cousins. However the family owned a nightclub at Baton Rouge when Merle was very small. He sang with the family quartet until he was about 13 years old.Merle married at age 16 and, by age 20, he had four sons, including Bruce Evans Spears. His brother-in-law is guitarist Calvin Reed. Spears began singing in nightclubs at about age 19 or 20.
He may have recorded as CALVIN SPEARS for VIN #1020 in 1959. Merle was working as an interstate truck driver in the 1960s and was still active as an interstate truck driver in 1992.
In 1964, Merle recorded I WANT TO KNOW and (having heard Ray Charles's version) I'M GONNA MOVE TO THE OUTSKIRTS OF TOWN (both Whit #711/ ATLANTIC #2243), reportedly as by MERLE SPEARS AND THE TREATS, at Baton Rouge, Louisiana. The Treats were a female vocal trio, two sisters and a cousin, from Port Allen. The titles AIN'T NO NEED and IT'S JUST A MATTER OF TIME (both Whit #713/ ATLANTIC #2274) were purchased from Whit by ATLANTIC on 26 January 1965. They were reportedly credited by ATLANTIC as MERLE SPEARS & LIONEL WHITFIELD ORCHESTRA. BMI shows both titles as compositions by Calvin Reed and Lionel T. Whitfield. Mary Holmes sang with him for Whit.
After recording with the late Lionel Whitfield's band, Merle formed a band with Chuck Mitchell called THE HERCULOIDS (named after the comic television characters), which included two of Buddy Stewart's nephews (playing bass and drums respectively), and recorded WHEN SOMETHING IS WRONG WITH MY BABY for Herculoids #1001/1002 by 1967. He recorded WISDOM OF A FOOL (J. Mer #101) with Johnnie Jackson at New Orleans in 1966.
Spears gave up singing blues in about 1978 or 1979. Since then, up to at least 1992, he concentrated upon singing in local churches. His nickname was “Bull”. Merle was still living at Baton Rouge, Louisiana in May 1992. An elder brother was still singing gospel in 1992. He died at Baton Rouge General Medical Center-Mid City, Baton Rouge, at 3 p.m. on 8 October 2009. Burial was at Southern Memorial Gardens, Baton Rouge."
I'm very grateful to Bob for all this extra info. Particualry the fact that Merle recorded as Calvin Spears for Vin - this 45 is now in the discography.
This update also give me the opportunity to give a plug to Bob abd Eric LeBlanc's upcoming book. The details are:-
Blues : A Regional Exploration
Bob Eagle & Eric S. LeBlanc
ABC-CLIO/Praeger Publishers, 2013
I shall certainly be buying a copy!
As CALVIN SPEARS
Doing the rock and roll / Come on home ~ VIN 1020 (1960)
As MERLE SPEARS
I want to know / Gonna move ~ WHIT 711 / ATLANTIC 2243 (1964)
It's just a matter of time / Ain't no need ~ WHIT 713 / ATLANTIC 2274 (1965)
As JOHNNIE JACKSON & THE BLAZERS feat MERLE SPEARS
Wisdom of a fool / What you gonna do ~ J-MER 101 (1966/7)
As THE HERCULOIDS
When something is wrong with my baby / Get back ~ HERCULOIDS 1001/2 (1967)
Southern University Stage Band In A Soul Session ~ WHIT LP 711 (vocalists Merle Spears & Mary Holmes)
Note ~ "It's Just A Matter Of Time" is also on the Wetside UK CD "Soul Jewels Vol.2".
Thanks to Pete Nickols for the CD info.