Saturday, April 9, 2011


Redrawn by Darian Zam from and uncredited publicity photo

I realised I was musical at about age 5,6. From that age I wanted to play Clarinet. Dad had a great record collection of Swing music - Artie Shaw and the like. On my 9th birthday he sent me to the train station to pick up a parcel that had arrived. It was a Clarinet! I never had any formal lessons - I just learned the songs from all of his records.

I was born in 1939 and we moved around a lot; from Newcastle to Maitland, then Tamworth. I'm not really sure why. My father was in management of retail furniture shops; probably he was offered better jobs, or transferred. Finally about 1952 we made it to Sydney - I was about twelve by then; first living on the North Shore and then to Mascot.

At 15,16 I started lessons for saxophone and that became my passion. I Have five saxes now. Apart from clarinet I also play flute, drums and percussion and I use piano for composition.I started playing professionally around 1956, 1957 at "Club 11", which was a nightclub in the State Ballroom on Wednesday nights, under the State Theatre in Market Street. At the same time I was playing nights at the "Bel Air" in Woollahra, near Cooper Park.

"Get A Haircut" single, Max Merritt and The Meteors, 1959

Through that, I made connections with a piano player and started playing at the Rockdale Hotel, with "Johhny Rebb and the Rebels" - and that in turn led to Johnny O'Keefe coming into my life. 1. We recorded two 45's - one was "Rebel Rock/Johnny B. Goode" (1958) at EMI in Castlereagh St, and there was another record with two tracks which was for Lee Gordon's "Leedon" label, recorded at Natec Studios in Bligh street, on the fifth floor above the Savoy Cinema. The tracks were "Hey Sheriff", and our own -"Noline". Johnny Dellbridge (2) would have written it, about the relationship with his girlfriend, which it was named after (laughs). Were the records successful? I can't really remember but they got air-play.

Anyway, it was when we were recording "Hey Sheriff", and Johnny O'Keefe, who was with "Leedon"3, came into the studio and heard us playing while we were recording. He took me aside and asked "would you be interested in joining the band?", and so I did - that lasted for 5 years. O'Keefe really turned everything around for Australian music through Lee Gordon's 3 stadium shows, and his own TV show. He got all the new young rockers into the spotlight - Lonnie lee 4, Bary Stanton 5, Booker Hyland - and we were the backing band. Working with O'Keefe we were travelling a lot doing stadium shows, and TV shows like "6 O'clock Rock" 6 on ABC channel 2 - it was between 6-7 Saturday nights, opposition to "Bandstand" on TVC9 in the afternoon.

Max & the Meteors in one of their many appearances on "Uptight" an Australian TV pop show of the late 60s - early 70s.

There were all sorts of stories on Lee Gordon, like his sleeping in a white coffin! It's true he was pretty messed up; he was always into all sorts of dope (He was eventually charged with attempting to obtain drugs without a prescription in Mexico). he was a "hyper", a wheeling-and-dealing kind of guy. I personally found him very respectful; he often just liked to "hang around" on the scene much like Abe (Saffron) 7. I worked for Abe, got on well with him and never had bad dealings; in my view he was just an ordinary guy, who obviously had some shady stuff going on, but he never "dudded" me money-wise. I think he treated performers with respect.

I was performing a lot during 1958-59 at El Rocco 8. It wasn't what you'd call a main gig, the strip joints provided that. The Cross was packed with small clubs all along the streets. Many were strip places and some were music places like El Bongo, Taboo, and also the Afro-Cuban that had bands -there were lots of them. They were more "night clubs", not jazz venues. I didn't play at those, and didn't frequent them because it didn't interest me. But they were known as "after hours" drinking clubs (6 O'clock closing was enforced in NSW until 1967). "Clip joints" 9 is an apt description of them, the equivalent now would be those seedy places with the bouncers hawking outside on the main drag. "Getting our musical rocks off" was what El Rocco did for us.

Max & the Meteors 1968 Stewie Speer and Bob Bertles at back, seated John "Yuk" Harrison, at front, Max.

Even to play there was a great indulgence, and we'd take two or three quid, whatever was on the door. As for the story that musicians would work there just for privilege and a good cup of strong black coffee, well you never got a good cup of good coffee - it was Nescafé instant! We would take our bottles of whisky down and put it in cups so it looked like black tea. The atmosphere was very bohemian- which the new version is not. Occasionally we'd see the police hats from a distance making their way down the street to grouse the place, looking for joints and stuff, occasionally someone got busted and spent the night in jail!, Yes We did have a lot of "speed" in those days - Ephedrine, Dexedrine; we ate them like lollies! A whisky and joint to slow us down when things got too wound up. We thought we were invincible! Generally the musicians were pretty well behaved apart from booze or the odd spliff though,. and there wasn't a lot of heroin and hard stuff like that. The R&R period (generally considered to be 1939-1975, with troops coming and going throughout the wars) really killed it off. there always marijuana around, but the influx of heroin and coke changed the scene for good.

Max & the Meteors 1968 advert for a Coburg concert.

There was a lot of work backing for strip shows in those days. I was playing at El Rocco with Chet Clark 10 on Sunday nights when we got a good gig and opened a new strip club halfway up William Street from the city direction, on New Year's Eve 1960-1961 - so I don't know what year you would technically call that!. It was called the "Folies Bergère" and was on the left hand side, around Forbes street. It was 6 nights a week. It was a quartet; piano, bass and drums - and myself on Alto Sax. I did that for somewhere up to a year. It was fairly upmarket, with a few steps down from hat check into the main room - that seated about 250 people. It was more or less like a night club except with less clothes. There were 3 shows a night with 8 strippers a show. I remember "Yolanda", a black American, "Gay Abandon" (laughs), she did an unusual reverse act starting naked in the bath and slowly got dressed! "Big Julie", a blonde with huge boobs. We would back the performers with numbers like "The Stripper", "Harlem Nocturne" and "Peter Gunn" - some of them had charts but most were happy with anything they could boink around to on stage! (laughs). Booze was all bought in to order for customers, it was all labelled with bogus names on the bottles in case the police raided us!. Frank "Bumper" Farrell I never really knew but he was around. They could do with a new Bumper in my opinion to keep things in line now! There was a bit of bashing then - but it's gone out of control now. He used to come in to Folies Bergère, Strip City, and El Rocco. Folies became "Whiskey a Go Go" after a couple of years.

I played with Johnny O'Keefe from 1958-1963. In between that and the various strip clubs it was a pretty busy time. But it wasn't musically satisfying for me and El Rocco was really for letting off creative steam in those days!

The "Out of the Blue" album (Arista, 1976) hit number #13 on the Australian charts.

After that came "Chequers" (Goulburn street), "Spelson's" (Castlereagh street). But it was mainly the "Latin Quarter" (Pitt street) owned by Sammy Lee 11 and Reg Boom 12. Ricky May 13 and Norm Erskine 14 were playing shows and roped me in.

Reg Boom also had "Andre's" (Castlereagh street) and I was sometimes working there too. All three were Night Clubs in the strict sense of the word, starting at 7:30 playing dinner music, then dancing. There would be Several acts such as Sarah Vaughn, Billy Ecstine, Shirley Bassey, or Billy Daniels. Also there were showgirls as opposed to strippers in the other clubs. Occasionally I sat down with Reg for a drink - we got on well and I thought he was a really nice man. Sammy Lee was all boisterous, with that Chicago, Chicago kind of stuff, you know what I mean. Sammy was a very good drummer actually, he sat in with the band sometimes. I don't know technically accomplished he was, but he had a good feel. I really liked his wife, Maureen Lee. She was lovely and she was like opposite half of Sammy - Sammy was bad cop, she was good cop shall we say.

There were a couple of incidents there I recall. One was some gangster got his head blown off in 1967. I don't know who it was, but I can tell you that apparently 250 people were in the room and no-one saw a thing - amazingly they were all in the toilet when it happened!

Eventually Sammy Lee and I came to blows on New Year's Eve 1966-67. I had been band leader there for 18 months, 2 years by that time and I'd had enough anyway. This night, Sammy came up and said "I want you to play..." whatever it was he wanted. I remember I said "I can't play it because I don't know it". He responded that I was to just play it anyway. "Fuck you!" I yelled at him and it quickly became a fist fight. I stormed off into the dressing room. The band held him back and while I packed up to leave. He had a mild stroke or heart attack or something, and they took him downstairs to lie down! He died years after that so I didn't kill him! Anyway, that was the end of my Latin Quarter gig, not long after I saw that the poster with Norm and Ricky was still up but my face was blacked out! (laughs).

Photo of Bob Bertles by © Laki Sideris

So I went off and joined Max Merrit and the Meteors15, playing sax. After a couple of months we moved to Melbourne to try our luck and we started to get success around 68-69 with a big hit. By 1970 we went to London to make it there and nothing much happened, which didn't matter because we were on a retainer - but it was boring! I did session work outside to keep occupied, and the band was starting to peter out - eventually just folded by 1974. I next joined a group called Nucleus 16, and after some time in Europe I came back to Australia in 1976.

I live up the Cross. I've always said that there's no such area as "Kings Cross". It's more people's idea of Kings Cross. It changes as soon as you get to the El Alamein fountain. Some of it has it still has a real village feel - like Upper East Side of New York. The real Cross was always where the Coca-Cola sign was, where there was a bit of excitement and underground stuff. I live on the fringe of it on Macleay Street now and have done for about 30 years. I've always loved this area. It has changed a lot but even though a lot of it is gentrified you'll never get rid of that seedy element!

1 Johnny O'Keefe (1935-1978), Australian Rock'n'Roll artist, Often referred to by his nickname, "The Wild One", remains Australia's most successful chart performer, with twenty-nine Top 40 hits between 1959 and 1974.

2 Johnny Dellbridge known as "Johnny Rebb" (-) Australian singer, went to the US solo to try his luck and released a few singles with no real success. Was dubbed the 'Gentleman of Rock' by the DJs of the time. 1Rebb joined The Atlantics from 1965-70, mostly known for their classic hit, "Bombora".

3 Lee Gordon (1923-1963), entrepreneur and rock'n'roll promoter, brought out OS acts for stadium tours including Frank Sinatra and Bill Haley amongst others. In 1958 Gordon started the "Leedon" record label. Johnny O'Keefe was signed and was also responsible for signing other Australian acts.

4 Lonnie Lee (1940 -), is an Australian Rockabilly artist, with 8 #1 hits and 5 Gold Records. His recording career achieved a number of notable firsts in the 50s and 60s. He worked in the US in the 70s with Glenn Campbell and Roy Orbison.

5 Barry Stanton (1941-) Discovered by fellow recording artist Johnny O'Keefe in 1958 and had several big hit records. He was one of the most popular Australian performers of his era.

6 "6 O'Clock Rock" was an Australian Rock'n' Roll television show which showed on ABC Television from 1959- 1962. It was the first youth music program and many entertainers got their first big exposure on it.

7 Abe Saffron (1919-2006), was an Australian nightclub owner and property developer who was reputed to have been one of the major figures in Australian organised crime in the latter half of the 20th century and was known as "Mr. Sin". Second and most well-known owner of Roosevelt Nightclub after founder Sammy Lee.

8 El Rocco, at cnr. Brougham & William Streets, Kings Cross is only one of a few establishments from the 1960s still operating - it re-opened recently. At 50 years +, It is the oldest jazz cellar in Australia. Sarah Vaughan and Frank Sinatra have graced it's small stage.

9 Clip joint: A restaurant, nightclub, or other business where the entertainment is poor quality and customers are regularly overcharged.

10 Peter Clark, known as "Chet Clark" (-) was discovered after an appearance on "Australia's Amateur Hour" age 17, and started playing with jazz and rock groups and writing hit songs for other artists. He hosted one of Australia's top TV shows "Six O'clock Rock" on ABC for a year and a half. He left Australia for the US for good in 1963 and had a long career as "Chet Demilo" .

11, 12 Sammy Lee (1912?-1975), celebrated night club and restaurant owner, founded Les Girls and the "Latin Quarter", both with Reg Boom. The "Latin Quarter" was a supper club at 250 Pitt Street that was turned into a discotheque in 1965, but business fell off dramatically following the shooting there of an underworld figure in 1967, and it became the "Cheetah Room".

13 Ricky May (1944 1988) was a vocalist, and also musician, who found fame in New Zealand and then Australia from 1962. He had a few hit records and found national fame and popularity with the show "Hey Hey It's Saturday".

14 Norm Erskine started as a boxer but discovered singing and was taken up by Lee Gordon, who took him to the US where he stayed and ended up recording with Capitol. Most of his career was in nightclubs and he befriended Frank Sinatra who dubbed him "The Singing Kangaroo".

15 "Max Merritt and the Meteors" were having minor hits in NZ from the late 1950s. After many line-up and record label changes they moved to Sydney in 1964 and made an appearance on Johnny O'Keefe's TV program. By 1968 they had become one of the most popular bands in Australia with Max acknowledged as "the soul king of Australia". There were big hits in the late 60s and mid 70s after returning from trying to crack Europe, but generally success was chequered.

16 Nucleus were a pioneering jazz-rock band from Britain led by trumpeter Ian Carr, who continued in different forms from 1969- -1989. In their first year they won first prize at the Montreux Jazz Festival.

Transcribed from a phone interview conducted with Bob on 26 March 2011.

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