Jeremy Spencer Interview

September 29, 2009 in Uncategorized

The unexpurgated version of the interview that appears in Issue 90!

Asking the questions: editor Fran Leslie.

You have been invited to play at the Chicago Blues Festival and I see that you are doing a workshop entitled The Art of Slide. How did that come about?

In July of last year (2008), I was playing with the Norwegian band at Fitzgerald’s, a blues club in Chicago, and while the band did a number to give my voice a rest, I went to the bar. A well-dressed, bearded gentleman of about my age was sitting there and he told me that Elmore James wasn’t the one who originally recorded “It Hurts me Too”  (I had introduced the song earlier as being recorded by him). I said, “I know. It was Tampa Red.” That seemed to please him. It turned out he was Barry Dolins, who works for the mayor’s office and organizes Chicago’s arts and cultural events. He is a great slide guitar fan and told me that part of the 2009 Chicago Blues festival was to be in honour of Robert Nighthawk’s centennial and that he wanted to book me for it.

Months passed and it wasn’t until about February of this year that I heard anything more about it. Details followed and it turned out that, besides the main show on Sunday evening, on Saturday afternoon, I am to do a slide guitar workshop alongside Elmore James Junior, Lil’ Ed and John Primer. That should prove to be interesting. I have done some workshops during my concerts in India about ten years ago, so I am not as freaked out as I could have been! They are actually fun to do.

Actually, it wasn’t until recently that I began to appreciate him and his influence on electric slide players. I had long appreciated the old country acoustic blues sliders like Blind Willie McTell, Furry Lewis and Son House, but I had had the blinders on for many years regarding other electric slide players beside Elmore and Homesick James!

So just before recording ‘Precious Little’, I heard a couple of tracks by Robert: ‘Sweet Black Angel’ and ‘Cryin’ Won’t Help You’, and I just loved his special slide vibrato reminiscent of Tampa Red, who I found out was his main influence. In fact, I based the main slide riff of ‘Bitter Lemon’ on his style.

Anyway, hearing that early stuff by him, I could see his influence on Earl Hooker and even Elmore in some cases.

How you feel about playing slide?

Jeremy SpencerI love it more than ever! And through some biographies, history has revealed that finger-style blues guitarists such as B. B. King, Otis Rush, Albert King and even Eric Clapton developed their finger trilling style by wanting to imitate the bend, sustain and vibrato of the slide guitar! These fellows are masters of it, of course, and I believe B. B. was the first. Correct me if I am wrong!

But while in a dressing room during a Fleetwood Mac tour with B. B. in 1969, he showed me how he wanted to do what I do with the slide like his cousin, Bukkah White. He then played the opening line of Elmore James’ ‘Sky is Crying’, demonstrating how when he first started playing guitar, he discovered that bending the note up and down with his finger he could make it sound like a slide. It was a little amusing for me to watch, having seen the British rock guitarists like Beck, Page and Clapton doing the same thing, but B. B. was as thrilled as a little kid to show me this, as though he had just discovered it yesterday! A dear, humble man!

Unfortunately, I wore him out on the tour bus drilling him for info about Elmore! Finally, after wearying him with questions about what he thought of Albert and Freddy King, Buddy Guy, Otis Rush and so on, he said, “You know, somethin’? They’re good, but basically they’re copying me.” End of subject. And although those mentioned have their unique style, I think he was right.

As for me, after hearing Elmore James and so wanting to play like that, as I said, I paid little attention to other electric sliders. But I did pay attention to the black finger-style blues players, particularly Otis Rush and Albert King, and in contrast to their desire to make their guitars sound like a slide, I wanted to make my slide guitar sound like them! To me the vibrato is everything, by the way. It doesn’t matter what gymnastics are going on around it, if the vibrato doesn’t grab me, forget it. That’s why the slide is so beautiful; its vibrato is so smooth and varied.

Anyway, I would try to duplicate their trills and phrases with the slide, and I even used a Gibson Flying V for a while in hopes that I could get a sound like Albert King. I was largely unsuccessful until I threw away the pick about twelve years ago. I had always known that Albert King and Albert Collins used their fingers to pluck, but I did not have the confidence to step out and try. I was more or less forced into it when I traded my vintage Gibson SG for a Paul Reed Smith. It was a 24 fret, wide-thin neck model and I couldn’t get used to the narrower frets; I was inaccurate when striking the strings with a pick no matter how hard I tried. But I was shocked to discover how nimble my right hand fingers were (hmmm … a late starter!), but seriously, that was probably due to my piano training, and a completely new world of slide guitar opened up.

You see, towards the end of my days with Fleetwood Mac, I was losing interest in playing the slide, in playing music period, actually. I felt I had dried up. When I joined the Children of God in 1971, I felt a new lease of life for it, partly due to participating in the many different styles of music floating around the group, but mainly due to a newfound inspiration to play. Then after about seven or eight years, although I would play it on occasions, I lost interest in the slide again. I was content to just noodle with finger-style lead like Mark Knopfler, whom I had just discovered. He was the first guitarist to grab my attention in ages after the 60’s and 70’s onslaught of Les Paul guitars and Marshall amps.

It wasn’t until the mid nineties, that I regained interest in playing the slide, and since then I have hardly wanted to play anything else. Finger lead, rhythm guitar, even the piano, just don’t give me the same satisfaction!

The technique these days for me when playing slide guitar is in the ability - like playing a harp - to pluck a string with say, the forefinger on the second string, while deadening the first and third string with your third and thumb respectively, thereby silencing unwanted harmonics and tones from the other intruders! I hope that’s clear! I don’t usually like having to get so technical with this kind of thing, especially regarding blues, as I find it can kill the mood and mystique! But I think those that are playing or wanting to play slide will get my gist. When playing with a pick, I used to try to accomplish the same thing by dampening the unwanted strings on the bridge with the ball of my hand. It didn’t always work, which is painfully obvious to me when listening to some of my old 60’s recordings, especially the bootleg live stuff!

But then I was just learning; I had a ways to go. I was, after all, only 20 years old or so! Since when should a musician’s development reach a plateau at that age? It was not so in bygone days, when writers, poets, musicians and artists did not reach their zenith until their latter years. Victor Hugo, Dickens and Handel are prime examples. I think the modern James Dean dogma and the never-Neverland, Peter Pan eternal youth fantasy, which dictates that only the good die young or accomplish anything worthwhile is a discouraging load of bollocks, to put it in the British vernacular.

More on technique: I hold the slide on the little finger of my left hand while dampening the strings behind it with my forefinger, this helps to eliminate unwanted harmonics from behind the slide, and to ensure steadiness and accuracy. Oh, and I have to be sure to play right above the fret bar itself, and not between! Of course, I have noticed I look at the fretboard less and less over the years, as I often have my eyes closed. As a point of interest, for about a week when I first started learning slide, before I got hold of a copper tube, I used a glass tumbler. I couldn’t see the frets, but that did help me to develop accuracy in pitching by ear. Like playing a violin, I suppose.

What kinds of slide do you use?

Up until about the time of recording ‘In Session’, I had always used brass or steel slides, but then while in Norway I happened upon a ceramic one called a ‘Moonshine Slide’. I really liked it, and used it extensively on ‘Precious Little’. I had found that the metal slides (especially the lighter steel ones) left an annoying scraping sound as the notes died, which can be okay on some things, but I wanted the tone to be purer. Although many slide players use them, I never went for glass slides - almost too smooth in my opinion. I wanted a little grit and the ceramic and porcelain ones seem to hit the sweet spot! Alas, they’re fragile and I broke three (two ‘Moonshines’ - the ceramic one, and one ‘Mudslide’, its sister, made of porcelain). So I decided to contact Jim Dunlop, which distributes them, to see if I could get a deal on purchasing them in bulk!

Their response was not so hot, but in hopes of trying again, I absentmindedly Google-searched ‘Moonshine Slide’, instead of Jim Dunlop, and it took me straight to the site of the woman who makes them, Terri Lambert in California. She’s a ceramicist who got turned onto slide guitar about twenty years ago and decided to try making slides out of porcelain and ceramic. They’re a hit!

We talked on the phone for quite awhile about slide guitar and she gave me a good deal! She’s had quite a rough go in her life of late and we look forward to meeting at the Chicago festival. Slide players like Keb Mo, Sonny Landreth and Louisiana Red are in touch with her and use her products. I believe she even made a custom one for Joe Perry!

You may wonder why I like to mention people and their influence. Well, I must tell a story from when I worked in an accountant’s office for Bison concrete in Lichfield for two years after leaving art college (the job was far from being my cup of tea, but it paid enough to be able to buy a decent guitar on the hire purchase and still have some spending money!).

I was enduring my office job during the day and gigging with my local three-piece band at night, often getting home at three or four in the morning -- then up at seven for the office job! The remarkable thing was, I found I was making more money playing two or three nighttime gigs a week than all week at the office job. Our little band was getting a small local following playing our brand of Elmore James blues in the folk clubs and pubs around the Midlands.

Anyway, to my story. Working just under the chief accountant in the office, was a man named Brian Downing who sometimes trained me with the accounting ledgers. He was a quiet man in his late twenties or early thirties, who worked without fuss and fanfare, and in the winter, would pause from his work, take off his glasses and gaze serenely at the sunset. One evening, right after one of those reflective times, he was working with me and told me, “You know, Jeremy, once you have climbed the ladder of success and are famous, you must never forget those who helped you get there. Always give them credit whenever you can.”

I was mystified, as at the time, I was a nobody, just gigging around with my two friends, but I never forgot that prophetic message. I did not follow his advice during my stroppy Fleetwood Mac years, however, but I have tried to do so ever since, when the opportunity arises.

If you use different kinds of slides do you get different tones?

More credit where it’s due. By a remarkable ‘coincidence’, Mark Gregaro from Detroit, a fan of my music and slide guitar, who is more familiar with my recorded licks than I am, met my wife and me in Chicago last year. His wife, Nancy accompanied him and we all instantly clicked while talking over a meal. He plays good slide and is a walking archive of blues slide guitar and guitarists, and he sent me an array of slides of different sizes and materials. PVC lined with copper, copper and brass lined with PVC, glass (including a Coricidin bottle, as used by Duane Allman, and a sawn off bottleneck slide), steel, and even one made out of fibre optic material, which has become one of my favourites! They all give a range of tones as wide as any amp can give. It depends on what I want: biting and thin, edgy, plucky, resonant, smooth and bright, smooth and dull. And then, some of them work fantastic with the resonator but not so hot with the electric and vice versa. It’s amazing. I feel like I’m only just starting to discover slide!

What guitars do you use when you play slide?

I play slide on an acoustic/electric resonator made by Amistar of the Czech Republic. An excellent guitar, which I used a lot on ‘Precious Little’. Did you know that the Dopyera brothers who hailed from there, made the original Dobro resonators? A few years ago, Amistar actually received the Dopyera award.

Another guitar I used for a couple of years until recently, with two P90s, was one custom built by an excellent Norwegian luthier called Jan Ingar Kvisler. Because a strange pattern of cracks appeared in the varnish due to a fault in the drying process, I called it ‘Mona’, as the cracks resembled those on the Mona Lisa. Unfortunately, she is with her maker right now, who is checking her for a hum problem.

I now play mainly on a beautiful limited edition, dark cherry sunburst Paul Reed Smith (only a hundred made in 2007) with three P90 pickups and a five-way switch. Mark Gregaro recommended it, purchased it and traded it for my other Paul Reed Smith I had use for twelve years (which I signed for him!). I get all the tones I need (I can’t stand stomp boxes), and for some inexplicable reason, I have found P90s are excellent for slide. It must be something about them being single coil and, unlike humbuckers, able to pick up the subtle nuances, especially when playing with your fingers, even when you turn down the gain.

Who introduced you to Elmore James?

One evening in 1964, while attending Stafford Art College, a group of the boys played a student prank on me by stripping me of my clothes, binding my hands and feet and tying me up in a sack! They then dumped me in a lavatory stall in the annex next to the football field and left. A friend of mine nicknamed ‘Acker’ or ‘Acky’, who must have been hanging around late, heard about it, found my clothes and rescued me.

As it was dark and late, he invited me for dinner at his house in Cannock Chase. He asked me if I wanted to listen to some music. I asked for some blues, so while we ate he put on a blues album. It was a British Pye records compilation from Chess called The Blues Vol. 3, which had Howling Wolf, Muddy Waters, Jimmy Witherspoon etc. Good stuff, but it wasn’t grabbing my ear while we chatted, as I was preoccupied and down about the student prank incident earlier.

Suddenly ’The Sun is Shining’ by Elmore James came on. I jumped up from my seat and stood mesmerised at the record player. I’d never heard of him, and I couldn’t believe my ears. From that point on, I was determined to play guitar and, if possible, sing like that. The problem was, to my knowledge at the time, that was the only generally available song of his in England until Sue records issued an album called ‘The Best of Elmore James’, which I put on order. It took awhile, and it finally came into the shop right at the time of my fractured knee accident about six months or so later. So while I sat with my leg up for six weeks, I learned every lick and nuance from that album!

I have told this story many times over the years, and often wondered whatever happened to Acky. I didn’t even know his real name! I had no idea how to get in touch with him, so I prayed that somehow our paths would cross. Well, about a week ago, this email came in on my website from John Hackney!

“I don't know why it's taken me 47 years to try and make contact with Jeremy, but just watched a Peter Green documentary on TV and felt moved to say 'Hello!' I was at Stafford Art College with Jeremy for a period of about 2 years. He may remember me as 'Acker'. We used to jam in the college canteen – him on piano and me on harmonica, wonderful times …”

He went on to give me his phone number and I called him. He remembers the incident well, although he didn’t realise what an effect that evening had on me and my musical destiny. He had just been a good Samaritan in my life. God bless him. It was wonderful to get back in touch (he’s the head of art at the ‘Express and Star’ newspaper. Maybe you know him, Fran!).

Tell me about your album Precious Little and the album and the DVD In Session you made with Dave Briggs.

Although it was only released last year, ‘In Session’ was recorded and filmed at the same time one afternoon at John Henry’s in London, 2004, about three months before I recorded my ‘Precious Little’ CD in Norway, with a Norwegian blues band.

Frank Lea, then of Secret Records and whose idea the project was, had originally asked me to do it solo, (which strangely enough, a few people have asked me to do the same thing). I didn’t feel quite confident for that, and still don’t, so I asked for the help of Dave Briggs on acoustic rhythm guitar, whom I had met at the Notodden blues festival that year. He was playing with Scotty Moore. I liked him and his unassuming, steady style.

What else are you doing now?

Now, as of 2009, I am still a member of Family International (it’ll be my 40th year with them, come February 2011) and I work for the in-house publications department. (I fully understand your d-day deadline fever!) I spend most of my time drawing black and white comics in the style of Will Eisner, using brush and ink with some crow quill pen thrown in, along with the occasional pastel or watercolour contributions. For the last seven years, I have also been writing stories, some short and some even novel length, which is my evening work. I look forward to that time very much!

On the musical side, besides any upcoming gigs, plans are in the works to record a CD for Family International distribution worldwide. It will be blues-based, and will contain personal insights and feelings.

Thank you ever so much Fran for your interest! It has been wonderful to be able to share some of my story with you.

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Comments (6)

 

  1. Chris Kimber says:

    A great and very talented man. Fantastic to read a little bit more about him!

  2. It is so nice to see Jeremy Spencer out on the public stage again. Good stories from the past. More music in the future.
    Keep on Jeremy, you have a lot of fans out there.

  3. David Briggs says:

    What an honour it is to see my name associated with that of Jeremy Spencer, I vividly remember the first time I saw Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac play at The Majestic Ballroom in my home town of Plymouth Devon in the late 60’s. Needless to say, I was blown away by the sheer excitement and dynamics of the band. I was lucky enough to see them again at The Colston Hall in Bristol, with BB King and Sonny Terry and Brownie McGee, at The Cromwellian Club in London and again in Plymouth at the Speedway Stadium. Fast forward to 2004 and I’m backstage waiting to go onstage backing up Rock n Roll guitar innovator and hero, Scotty Moore, when I notice Jeremy standing nearby. I’m not usually as forward as I was that day, I just had to introduce myself and try to impress upon Jeremy how much pleasure and guidance in my musical direction he had inspired all those years ago. What a lovely man he is and a true talent. For him to invite me to back him up on his DVD “In Session” remains one of the high points in my musical life. jeremy is one of the good guys, and his music is from the heart.

  4. What a cool guy…from the band who changed my life…the original Fleetwod Mac…I found Elmore James and the rest ’cause I found the Blues in Mac! A heartfelt “thanks”.

  5. Steve Hooker says:

    I loved Fleetwood Mac when I was a young bloke – I saw them at the Cricketrers Pub in Westcliff on Sea!

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