During the 1960s, Scottish-born Barrie McAskill earned a reputation as one of the country's pioneering soul/R&B singers. A great bear of a man with a commanding presence and gravelly voice to match, McAskill led numerous line-ups of his band Levi Smith's Clefs between 1967 and 1975.
Levi Smith's Clefs initially earned a reputation on the disco/club circuit as a gutsy R&B band in the vein of Max Merritt and the Meteors, eventually proving to be a breeding ground for the swelling ranks of Australia's progressive scene. Tully, Fraternity and Southern Contemporary Rock Assembly (SCRA), for example, all sprang almost intact from the bosom of the Clefs. Smith's philosophy was to encourage his band members to improve as musicians, and for them to move on as the urge arose. Accordingly, more than 60 musicians passed through the band's ranks over the years.
The Levi Smith's Clefs story actually began in Adelaide, South Australia during 1963 when Tweed Harris (organ) formed The Clefs. The early line-up included Trevor Pridham (vocals), Les Tanner (guitar), Michael Atkins (drums), Dennis Marshall (sax) and Bruce Howe (bass). The Clefs became an in-demand dance band on the city's thriving club circuit. McAskill (ex-Fabulous Drifters) joined in 1965 and the line-up became Harris, Howe, Tanner, McAskill, Bob Jeffrey (sax) and Vince Jones (drums; ex-Fabulous Drifters).
The Clefs issued three singles in 1966, `I Can Only Give You Everything'/`Roberta', `Last Night'/ `March of the Siamese Twins' (both on EMI/ Columbia) and `A Boy Like Me'/`Bring It to Jerome' (on the Phono Vox label). When Harris accepted an invitation to join supergroup-in-the-making The Groove in early 1967, McAskill assumed leadership of the band. The Clefs' manager Peter Raphael suggested the band be renamed Levi Smith's Clefs (which in a roundabout way had been inspired by the name of the Four Tops' lead singer Levi Stubbs).
As a five-piece, Levi Smith's Clefs moved to Melbourne and then to Sydney where they took up an 18-month residency at the Whisky A Go Go club. The line-up shifted constantly along the way, with Inez Amaya (vocals), Les Stacpool (guitar; ex-Chessmen, Merv Benton and the Tamlas), Ian Walsh (organ), Michael Carlos (organ), Doug Stirling (bass), John Blake (bass), John `Yuk' Harrison (bass), John Helman (bass), Gil Matthews (drums; ex-Max Hamilton and the Impacts) and Jimmy Thompson (drums) passing through the ranks, some for the second time.
By 1968, the line-up had stabilised with McAskill, Amaya, Carlos, Blake, Mick Jurd (guitar), Richard Lockwood (flute, sax) and Robert Taylor (drums). At the end of the year, Carlos, Lockwood, Blake and Taylor all left to form Tully, before joining the Australian stage production of the American `tribal love-rock musical' Hair in June 1969 as resident backing band. Amaya also joined the cast of Hair. McAskill and Jurd assembled a new Levi Smith's Clefs with John Bissett (organ), Bruce Howe (bass) and Tony Buettel (drums; ex-Bay City Union). That line-up recorded the adventurous Empty Monkey album for the Sweet Peach label. It was one of the first local albums to combine soul/R&B/pop with a more progressive rock outlook.
Despite being a groundbreaking release in many ways, the music was somewhat ponderous and the album failed to take off. The standout cut was an 11-and-a-half minute arrangement of The Beatles' `We Can Work it Out'. Sweet Peach also lifted two singles from the album, `Lisa'/`Roadrunner' (January 1970) and a cover of Junior Walker's `Shotgun'/`Who is it that Shall Come?' (April 1970). By the time the album came out in March 1970, Jurd, Bissett, Howe and Buettel had all left to form Fraternity.
Having been left high and dry by the departures, McAskill had no recourse but to assemble a new Levi Smith's Clefs line-up that comprised Linda Cable (vocals), Ken Deacon (vocals), Steve Doran (keyboards), Peter Karlenick (guitar), Doug Stirling (bass), John Freeman (drums; soon to be lured away to join Fraternity when Buettel quit, and to be replaced by Michael Darby), Mike Cousins (trombone), Steve Bowden (trombone), Bill Harrower (sax) and Mike Kenny (trumpet). As Barrie McAskill's Levi Smith's Clefs, the band issued two brassy R&B singles, `Live Like a Man'/`Piece of My Heart' (September 1970), and `Gonna Get a Seizure'/`Dancing and Drinking' (April 1971), plus an EP, Best of Whisky A Go Go (shared with Autumn), on the Chart label. The Barrie McAskill and Levi Smith's Clefs tracks were `Down in the Valley' and `Lawdy Miss Clawdy'.
Throughout 1971, the band held down the residency at the famed Chequers club in Sydney. Line-up changes continued apace with Julie Robinson (vocals), Bruce Howard (organ; ex-La De Das), Michael Carlos (organ; ex-Tully), Jim Kelly (guitar; ex-Affair), Billy TK (guitar; ex-Human Instinct), Ted `The Head' Yanni (guitar), Yuk Harrison (bass; by then ex-Genesis), Doug Stirling (bass), Russell Dunlop (drums; ex-Aesop's Fables), Allan Turnbull (drums), Greg Henson (drums) and Bob Jeffrey (sax) passing through. Kelly, Dunlop and Kenny formed the basis of Southern Contemporary Rock Assembly (SCRA) when they left McAskill's band.
The late 1971 line-up of McAskill, Carlos, Stirling, Henson and Jeffrey became known variously as Barrie McAskill's Bear Brigade or McAskill's Marauders. Carlos and Henson then joined the backing band for the local production of the Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice rock musical Jesus Christ Superstar. Barrie McAskill's People comprised Vince Melouney (guitar; ex-Billy Thorpe and the Aztecs, Bee Gees, Fanny Adams, Cleves, Flite), Michael Barnes (guitar; ex-Nutwood Rug), Ken Firth (bass; ex-Tully) and Kevin Murphy (drums; ex-Wild Cherries, The Aztecs, King Harvest, Chain).
In mid-1972, McAskill reverted to the Levi Smith's Clefs name for the line-up of Doug Stirling, Kevin Murphy, Les Stacpool and Ian Clyne (keyboards; ex-Loved Ones, Ram Jam Big Band). By October 1972, McAskill was working with a line-up which comprised Murphy, Clyne, Mal Capewell (sax, flute; ex-Dr Kandy's Third Eye, Dada, Company Caine), Russell Smith (trumpet, vocals; ex-Ram Jam Big Band), Barry Sullivan (bass; ex-Chain) and Barry Harvey (drums; ex-Chain). A month later, Murphy, Clyne, Capewell, Sullivan and Harvey broke away from McAskill and Smith, recruited Phil Manning (guitar, vocals; ex-Chain, Band of Talabene), and became Mighty Mouse.
Having been left high and dry once again, McAskill formed a new band called McAskill which occupied him until 1976. The members of that band at various times included Alvin Tutin (guitar), Lindsay Wells (guitar; ex-Healing Force, Chain, Blackfeather), Jeff Spooner (guitar), Ian Mawson (keyboards; ex-Company Caine), Howie Morgan (keyboards), Eddie McDonald (bass; ex-Bakery), Doug Stirling (bass; ex-Levi Smith's Clefs), Warren Ward (bass; ex-Flying Circus, Blackfeather), Bob Fortesque (bass; ex-Blackfeather), Roger McLachlan (bass), Dallas `Digger' Royal (drums) and Paul Johnson (drums). McAskill returned to Adelaide in 1977 and formed an ever-evolving series of bands including East End Street Band, Barrie McAskill's on Fire, Barrie McAskill and Friends, Barrie McAskill's Levi Smith's Clefs, Barrie McAskill's Soul Survivors, Who Dat Dere and Topsy and the Bear.