Mike’s been with Conan since the 1993 debut of NBC’s Late Night with Conan O’ Brien, and has a long association with Basic Cable Band leader Jimmy Vivino since their days with piano legend Johnnie Johnson.
Along the way, Mike’s toured and recorded with bluesmen Johnny Copeland and Son Seals; was a member of the Howlin’ Wolf All-Star Tribute Band along with Vivino, Hubert Sumlin, Levon Helm, and David Johansen; was a member of The Rekooperators with Al Kooper; played blues rock with Popa Chubby; vintage rock with Chuck Berry and Chubby Checker; Jersey rock with Bruce Springsteen and Southside Johnny; was an original member of Levon Helm’s Midnight Ramble Band;
And has backed up some great female vocalists including Keely Smith, Phoebe Snow, Ruth Brown, Joan Osborne, Catherine Russell and Shemekia Copeland.
Current projects include Rock Candy Funk Party and The Paul Tillotson Love Trio.
Born and raised in Philadelphia, PA, Mike was influenced and guided by his father, bassist Jymie Merritt, a jazz legend.
“Jymie is the first bass player I’d ever known, and he’s the reason why I do what I am doing today. He had established himself in the 1950’s and 60’s on gigs and recordings with some of the top musicians of his era, people like Dizzy Gillespie, John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, Chet Baker, B.B. King, and most famously, Art Blakey and The Jazz Messengers. Their 1958 recording of “Moanin” is a classic of the genre and cemented Jymie’s rep as one of the best hard bop bassists ever.
He was also one of the first jazz players to use the electric bass, as well as the electric upright bass, which you can hear him play on the Lee Morgan recording “Live At The Lighthouse”.
Jymie had also started The Forerunners, in Philly, which featured original material based on his own unique harmonic and rhythmic concepts.
I spent my formative years as a player becoming involved in this project and learning from the other Philly players like Odean Pope, Warren McClendon and Colmare Duncan, who were part of it.”
After studying double bass with Eligio Rossi at Settlement Music School, Mike focused on learning jazz with percussionist/composer Warren McClendon, whom he also played with in an ensemble called The Nuclei. Their material was based on the concepts Jymie Merritt had incorporated into The Forerunners. This experience culminated in a recording titled “Spirit of the Ghost Dance”.
“ I was way in over my head, trying to play this really demanding material at such a young age. It was not the jazz that I thought I wanted to play, but I was up for the challenge, and learned so much about being rhythmically independent. It was like playing funk music with James Brown, where every instrument was the drums. Stylistically, it was totally different than the popular music of the day that I was listening to. I loved Sly, Hendrix, Led Zeppelin and The Allman Brothers, but I didn’t get to the blues, and rock n’ roll, until I got to New York”
Once in New York, Mike got a gig with Texas bluesman Johnny Clyde Copeland, who had relocated there from his native Houston. Highlights of that experience included lots of touring in the US and Europe, which helped make Copeland a fixture on the international blues circuit.
Recordings with Copeland included the Grammy-nominated live session “Ain’t Nothin’ But A Party.” Another session with Copeland was “Bringing It All Back Home,” recorded in Abidjan, Ivory Coast. A unique project that fused blues with African influences, it was one of the first world music albums from an American bluesman.
“Working with Johnny Copeland gave me my first taste of being on the road. I’ll never forget what my dad told me years before then. He said if you want to play anything, you got to play the blues. And so I did. Along the way I had a chance to meet and sometimes jam with some of the great bluesmen like Buddy Guy, Albert Collins, Stevie Ray Vaughn, Lonnie Brooks, Joe Louis Walker and Robert Cray.
Drummer James Wormworth and I met on Johnny’s gig, and we’re still playing together these days in the Basic Cable Band.
As a matter of fact, I met Johnnie Johnson and played with him for the first time on a festival in Sicily while with Copeland. I eventually wound up touring and recording with Johnson; his career finally received long-deserved attention as a result of the Chuck Berry film “Hail Hail Rock and Roll”. With Johnnie Johnson, that’s where The Worm, Jimmy Vivino, and myself first played together, which resulted in us recording the album “Johnnie Be Back”.
After leaving Copeland’s band, Mike worked as a free lance player on NYC’s blues circuit, eventually falling in with Vivino and Wormworth to become “Jimmy Vivino and The Black Italians”, who held court every Thursday night at Downtime on W. 30th St.
“We started doing Thursdays at Downtime as a 3 piece. Then everybody who came in the club wanted to sit in. Of course Jimmy would invite his brother Jerry onstage, along with Felix Cabrera, Fred Walcott, Catherine Russell, Danny Louis. Sometimes there would be a dozen people up there. It was a blast, those Downtime days.
Everybody from Johnny Rivers, to Al Kooper, to Mick Fleetwood would sit in. Max Weinberg and Danny Federici from E Street came by, and eventually Max and Jimmy called me when they were putting the band together to audition for the house band gig at NBC’s Late Night.”
September 13th 1993 marked the debut of Late Night with Conan O’ Brien, and since then Mike has played on well over 3,000 shows and counting; has backed up guest artists like B.B. King, Bruce Springsteen, Pete Townshend, Jack White, Slash, Steve Cropper, Tony Bennett and many others; appeared in sketch comedy pieces like The Band Show, Inner Thoughts and Basic Cable Band Name That Tune.
“I was really excited, not just to get the gig, but to play so many different styles with really great players, five days a week. We all came from a background of rock n’ roll, blues and soul music, with strong jazz influences as well. We could switch from a Ramones or Zeppelin or Bowie groove right into Count Basie, and almost never miss a beat. We also understood sketch comedy, show tunes, Broadway, variety shows; everything we watched on TV as kids was an influence on how we started out with Conan in the very beginning. To have been part of this show from the start, to learn and evolve and contribute, is something I’m very proud of.”
Since 2009 Mike has lived in Los Angeles. “Conan” is currently produced at stage 15 on the Warner Bros. lot in Burbank, CA.
Mike’s first solo recording project, co-produced with sister Mharlyn Merritt on vocals, was Alone Together, released in 2006. The material is a mix of jazz, pop and soul standards, and features contributions from Uri Caine, John DiMartino, Brian Charrette, Lew Soloff, Al Kooper, and brother Marlon Merritt on guitar.
JazzImprov’s review states “Alone Together….brings together the Merritt family, whose second generation obviously is as talented as was their father”.