Robert George "Joe" Meek was born in a small town in England in 1929, and became interested in electronics at a very young age. After serving as a Royal Air Force radar technician, he became an audio engineer and then an independent record producer.
Meek did not play any musical instrument, and he couldn't read music. But he wrote and produced a number of hit records, including "Telstar," a 1962 instrumental that became the first record by a British group to make it to #1 on the Billboard "Hot 100."
Meek pioneered the use of overdubbing, audio compression, and the use of echo and reverb. At a time when most producers (Phil Spector, for example) brought a group of musicians into a studio and recorded them playing together in real time, Meek usually recorded the various instrumental and vocal components of a song separately and then processed and combined them to create records.
In 1991, the BBC aired a documentary about Meek, which it titled The Very Strange Story of . . . the Legendary Joe Meek. Meek's life -- and death -- makes the "very strange story" part of the documentary's title very apt. Click here if you'd like to view that documentary.
Meek was fascinated by the occult and was constantly attempting to communicate with the dead, especially dead musicians. (He claimed that Buddy Holly had spoken to him in his dreams.)
He set up tape recorders in cemeteries in an attempt to capture voices from "the other side," once insisting that a cat whose meows he had recorded was really speaking for a dead person.
Meek was also paranoid. He believed that Decca Records had hidden microphones in his studio to eavesdrop on what he was up to, and once accused Phil Spector of stealing his ideas.
|The Telstar satellite|
And Meek was a homosexual at a time when homosexual acts were illegal in the UK. In 1963, Meek had been convicted of "importuning for immoral purposes." His only penalty for that offense was a £15 fine, but subjected him to potential blackmail.
Last but not least, French composer Jean Ledrut sued Meek for copyright infringement, alleging that he had stolen the tune for "Telstar" from a film score Ledrut had composed. As a result, the royalties from Meek's biggest hit were withheld for years.
That was apparently the last straw. On February 3, 1967, Meek -- who was 37 years old -- killed his landlady with a shotgun and then shot himself. Three weeks after his death, the copyright lawsuit was dismissed.
The Tornados, the group that recorded "Telstar," was Meek's house band. They played on many records produced by Meek, and toured as a back-up band for Billy Fury, who was an Elvis-style English singer who had 26 top-forty hits in the UK between 1959 and 1966.
"Telstar," which was named after the communications satellite that was launched into orbit in July 1962, featured a small electronic keyboard called a clavioline. The bridge solo on Del Shannon's "Runaway" was played on a clavioline, and the Beatles used one on "Baby, You're a Rich Man."
Roger LaVern, who died last year, played keyboards for the Tornados. When he left the group, he received only £1900 in royalties from Meek in addition to the session fees he was paid. That's not much given the success of "Telstar" (which sold five million copies) and the Tornados' other hits.
LaVern's post-Tornados life was very eventful. From the Telegraph's obituary of LaVern (which you can read in its entirety if you click here):
“There were so many girls,” LaVern recalled. “You came out of the stage door and you could click your fingers and say 'you, you and you’. It was like plucking apples off a tree.” Over 30 or so years he bedded, by his own estimate, “a good 3,500”, married nine times (one union only got as far as the wedding reception and he married his last wife twice), and furnished a further four women with children (“all accidents”).
“I would get so wrapped up in girls that they would take over everything,” he recalled. “I felt a bit like a lemming that kept throwing itself off the cliff.”
|Roger LaVern in a rum ad|
On the strength of "Telstar," LaVern went on to develop a career as a solo pianist and found success in Mexico, where he appeared in television commercials for Ron Castillo Rum and Chevrolet cars and played the piano on television and in hotels and nightclubs.
Known as El Lobo Plateado (“The Silver Wolf”), he became something of a celebrity, playing at presidential cocktail parties. In 1978 he broke the world record in a piano-playing marathon which lasted 48 days, 20 hours and 47 minutes.
But eventually his hands seized up with Dupuytren’s Contracture and he had to return to Britain for a series of operations which took 10 years to correct the condition. His professional career was over, and at one point in the early 1990s he was reduced to working as a security guard for Associated Newspapers.
Click below to buy "Telstar" from Amazon: