Jeremy Spencer: “if real blues got the recognition it deserves, something precious might get lost”.
by Daniel Pavlica
For many, Jeremy Spencer’s slide guitar remains one of the defining sounds of 60’s rock, or blues rock if you chose. He will always be best known for his resourceful musical relationship with Peter Green in Fleetwood Mac. Nowadays he is kept busy creating comic strip illustrations and writing stories, as well as making music!
Eric Clapton had Robert Johnson, while musically you grew on Elmore James. Is that a fair verdict?
I’d say that is a fair assessment!
If I were a little wicked, I would say that you two took blues a little too seriously.
I suppose I was, in the sense that I wanted to listen to as much as I could, but I balanced that ‘seriousness’ with hefty doses of 1950’s rockabilly, doo wop and country music.
What is so special about Elmore James in comparison to other blues greats?
Everyone has different influences, so I can’t speak for other musicians/guitarists. But for me, out of other blues artists, he caught my attention enough to want to play and sing like him. I wanted to sing and play like Otis Rush, too, but I seemed to have been blessed with an uncanny knack to get a handle on Elmore’s music!
Was it as natural to get involved with blues in the 60s, as it is generally believed today?
At the time (around 1966) it wasn’t natural for most young musicians. To be successful when gigging, bands had to play soul music like Sam and Dave, and Wilson Pickett, or cover pop bands like the Who, Beatles and Beach Boys. When I was playing with my little hometown band, blues was not a great crowd draw, but we gained a small following with it.
What are your memories of working with Peter Green? After all, you had one of rock’s most creative partnerships.
I would say that I learned from Peter Green, not so much from his guitar playing – which of course was excellent, but his simple ‘less is more’ approach to music. We shared similar sensibilities regarding it. For instance, Peter once told Eric Clapton that he preferred listening to Hank B. Marvin than a certain fast playing rock/blues player that was on the scene at the time! I think that gives an idea of what I mean in a few words.
A lot of the music that was around at that time was heavily influenced by blues, still nobody else was playing it the way you did. How do you see your role in the British blues boom?
By the late 60’s, due to the commercial success of John Mayall, Cream, Hendrix and us (Fleetwood Mac), overdriven blues styles were becoming acceptable in mainstream music, and through bands such as Led Zeppelin, those styles were filtering into stuff antecedent to the heavy metal and glamrock bands of the 70’s and 80’s.
I think for the first year or so of Fleetwood Mac, we were adamantly trying to stay true to the classic forms of Chicago blues despite what we considered the cosmetic, progressive images and forms that many other British blues bands were taking. Especially when some of those bands, who previously had been playing pop or soul music, had merely donned a ‘blues’ hat now that it was fashionable and fairly lucrative.
You jammed with Otis Spann and Willie Dixon on one of Fleetwood Mac’s US tours. Tell us more about that?
During those ‘Fleetwood Mac in Chicago’ Chess sessions, I played with Elmore James’ sax player, J. T. Brown. On my tracks there was Willy Dixon on bass and Mick on the drums. Pretty sparse! But J. T. and I had a wonderful time playing together; he and I must have smiled the whole time, and I think that comes across on the album. Anyway, J. T. was like a grandfather to me, he had none of that ‘territorial’ vibe of blues is ‘our’ (black’s) music and he seemed rather taken that this little whitey from another time and place was so into his music. We chatted a lot over coffee in the break, mainly about Elmore of course and he didn’t seem to mind!
About nine months after the recording, J. T. called me in London from Chicago, and played me a ‘78 over the phone of Elmore’s ‘Coming Home’, telling me the history of how Elmore had cut it the day after coming out of hospital. Apparently the time in hospital had affected Elmore’s fingers so he could only play slide and not finger lead for the flip side which was ‘Twelve year-old Boy’. About three months later, J. T. died. He was ‘Coming Home’.
What is the definite bottom line on you leaving Fleetwood Mac?
I don’t know if this is the ‘definite bottom line’ under why I left, but I was sad, uninspired musically, I had questions about life, death, love, my future, God – everything! I couldn’t go on with it. Bottom line, I had to leave in order to step back from the picture and get my life sorted out. I wouldn’t be here today if I hadn’t and they would not have gone on to be one of the biggest bands in history! I don’t say that in a self-demeaning way, because I knew when I heard the first album with the Buckingham-Nicks line up, that they had hit on something good with an enormously catchy appeal.
Besides that, after I left them, I prayed for God to reward them with success beyond their dreams. He answered that prayer.
How did Jeremy Spencer and the Children band come together?
When I joined the Children of God, a community that specialized in evangelical contemporary music, I found myself playing alongside black ‘soul’ brothers, Joni Mitchell and Joan Baez style folk artists, cowboy country and gospel singers, psychedelic Hendrix adherents and more. Consequently, some of us formed a band and an album resulted, consisting of mostly self-penned numbers — some people said that the music sounded like Jefferson Airplane and West Coast psychedelic rock! Well, I was experimenting with folksy songs and structured twin guitar work with my co-guitarist at the time, Phil Ham, who was actually a Clapton aficionado from Dallas, Texas.
You released three albums in the 70s, “Jeremy Spencer” (1970), “Jeremy Spencer and the Children” (1973) and “Flee” (1979), but right until the dawning of the new millennium you pretty much kept a low profile. What were you up to then and what was your relation towards music in that period?
I have recorded in various small studios and done the occasional performance, but it is with a great deal of thought and contemplation. I don’t have the time or the desire to go back to the gigging grind, although I love playing with like-minded musicians. I have recently enjoyed playing with a British blues artist, Papa George, and with a young French guitarist, Mick Ravassat and his little ‘Blue Team’. I am looking forward to working with them more in the coming months.
Comic strip and graphic novel illustrating is a pleasure for me too — black ink brush line work like Will Eisner, and Terry and Rachel Dodson. I get inspired with ideas for that and I love writing short novels and stories, too. I am happy to be busy!
With “Precious Little” (2006) and now “Bend in the Road” (2012) you seem to be having something of a purple patch.
(One definition of ‘Purple patch’: A period of notable success or good luck.)
If you mean commercially, not so much as yet! As far as the beginning of a tapping into and releasing of musical wealth, I very much think so.
On “Bend in the Road,” you are partnered by Brett Lucas, a young firebrand from Detroit, who co-produced the album.
Yes. He is much respected in Detroit and tours regularly with Betty Lavette, often in Europe. It was wonderful working with him on producing and arranging, as he is able to diversify, and he especially enjoyed working on the instrumentals. We even were able to indulge our liking for subtle string arrangements!
You’ve tweaked your musical style a bit adding a large range of influences.
I have. Although, as I have noted before, a lot of the material has been in my musical ‘cold storage’ for many years!
The new album will be released worldwide on August 28th. Do you plan to tour in support of its release?
As yet, I may do some low-key gigs here and there, but there are no plans for touring.
What is the first thing that leaps to mind when someone suggests a Fleetwood Mac reunion to you?
I think of Mark Knopfler’s response to a similar question in an interview — with an ‘audible sigh’!
What is your opinion on modern blues guitarists like Joe Bonamassa?
In general, I am neither keen on nor moved by what is termed ‘blues/rock’ style, as it usually means hard, fast and overdriven with little more emotion than aggression and bitter frustration for its own sake. I prefer to hear blues without the ‘rock’ mix! A Latin mix is nice, and can be quite moving and positively uplifting for me.
As far as Joe B. is concerned, I did hear a track called ‘Happier Times’, which I liked — although it is not strictly blues.
Do you think the blues gets the recognition it deserves these days?
I am all in favour of introducing that music to the youth, so that they can appreciate it and see the roots of some of what they like to listen to, but I think for the blues to retain its charisma, I am sort of glad it remains a niche market. We didn’t, don’t and hopefully won’t see too many #1 blues hits!
I have seen recently, however, a small growth of interest from young people in the more classic, subtle style of blues, rather than in the type that seems to have been prevalent in the last say, fifteen or twenty years — mostly derived from the screaming vocals and overplayed, overdriven Les Paul/Marshal stuff of the late sixties.
Still, I have a feeling that if real blues got the recognition it deserves, something precious might get lost. Fame, fortune, popularity and recognition do not always go hand in hand with true honour.