"People always need music that reaches their heart and empathises, especially in hard times."
Jeremy Spencer: Divine Blues
Jeremy Cedric Spencer, is a British musician, best known as one of the first guitarists in Fleetwood Mac.
Spencer was born (4 July 1948) in Hartlepool, County Durham. He grew up in South London and was educated at Strand School, where he became known for hilarious impressions of the headmaster and several of his staff. Spencer's speciality later became the slide guitar. He was strongly influenced by the blues musician Elmore James. He joined Fleetwood Mac in July 1967 and remained with the band until February 1971, when he joined a religious group called the "Children of God", now known as "the Family International", of which he is still a follower.
In the summer of 1967 Spencer came to the attention of ex-Bluesbreakers guitarist Peter Green, who was looking for another musician to join him in his new Fleetwood Mac project. Green had recruited drummer Mick Fleetwood and temporary bassist Bob Brunning, and wanted a second guitar player to fill out the sound onstage. Spencer was then playing with blues trio The Levi Set, and was already an accomplished slide guitarist and pianist. He fitted in well, and soon after his arrival the band's intended bassist John McVie eventually joined.
This line-up of Fleetwood Mac recorded two albums of traditional blues songs, with Spencer contributing many variations on the Elmore James theme, particularly centred around James' version of "Dust My Broom", plus a few songs of his own. Green became frustrated because Spencer did not seem willing to contribute to Green's songs, whereas Green always played on Spencer's recordings where necessary. Since Spencer's musical contributions to the band were too narrowly focused, Green and Fleetwood brought in a third guitarist, 18 year-old Danny Kirwan, after 1968's Mr. Wonderful. This album featured several of Spencer's Elmore James tunes.
Green and Kirwan found that they worked well together musically, quickly developing the style that provided hits such as "Albatross", "Man of the World" and "Oh Well", none of which featured Spencer. Spencer found himself slightly isolated within the band, and chose to contribute very little to the band's third album Then Play On. It was intended to complement this album with a separate EP of Spencer's work, but this never materialised. In the end, his input amounted to some piano on Green's neo-classical epic "Oh Well Pt. 2".
The rest are registered in the history of music
He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1998 for his work as part of Fleetwood Mac.
Jeremy, when was your first desire to become involved in the blues & who were your first idols?
In 1964, I started being acquainted with blues music, artists like John Lee Hooker, and Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, but it wasn’t until I heard Elmore James, that my ears really pricked up. That was towards the end of that year, while attending Stafford Art College.
The first gig of real note for me was seeing Dave Anthony’s Moods in Birmingham, 1966. I enjoyed the guitar player. I think the first famous act that I saw live was early Cream.
What does the BLUES mean to you & what does offer you?
Playing the Blues means more to me in recent years than it ever did in terms of feeling it. It’s not that I’m always sad when I play it, and that can be a misleading mindset to think that the most heartfelt only comes from sadness or misery. It can of course, but I think the more empathetic, the more beautiful it is. It can also be like praying – it can even be praying! Groaning that cannot be uttered in words!
Do you think that your music comes from the heart, the brain or the soul?
The heart and the soul.
How would you describe your contact to people when you are on stage?
It’s hard to describe it myself, but a German woman who attended a small gig recently commented to my wife that when I play “I am enchanting the audience.” I take that as a compliment. As for how I feel about it, I like to interact with the audience. Depending on the type of show, I don’t mind if they are eating and I especially like if they get up and dance. I even prefer that to a sit-down concert-style gig. In general, I like small, intimate settings, club-style.
What were your favourite guitars back then?
I had an old Gibson ES120T that I liked very much, but its neck broke, and a maple-neck sunburst 1959 Fender Strat that I used a lot. I prefer the three guitars I use now above them all – A PRS with three P90’s, a custom-made guitar from a Norwegian luthier and a maple-necked Mexican Fender Stratocaster.
Where did you pick up your guitar style?
In the beginning, I picked up my guitar style mainly from Elmore and Homesick James, Albert King and Otis Rush; over the last thirty years, Mark Knopfler and more recently, Robert Nighthawk and Tampa Red.
In which songs can someone hear the best of your guitar work?
‘Bitter Lemon’, ‘It Hurts Me Too’ and ‘Precious Little’ from my last album, ‘Precious Little’. There is more from my forthcoming album early next year.
Three words to describe your sound & your progress?
Clean, without pick!
Tell me about the beginning of Fleetwood Mac. How did you get together and where did it start?
In early spring of 1967, my first band, the Levi Set, consisting of John Charles on bass, his brother Ian on drums and myself on guitar, received a surprise announcement from a friend, Phil Smith that we were to be auditioned by none other than Mike Vernon.
At that time, Mike Vernon’s name was to the blues enthusiasts synonymous with the great recording producers of Stateside blues. His name appeared on most Decca records of British blues, the most predominant being John Mayall who was having chart successes with his Bluesbreakers and Hard Road albums, featuring Eric Clapton and Peter Green respectively.
Unbeknownst to me, Phil had written in answer to an advertisement in Britain’s Melody Maker, a weekly music paper, which said that Mike Vernon was to be scouting the British Isles for blues talent and to contact him if anyone is interested or knew of a band or musicians who would fit the bill. Phil told him about this little fellow in Lichfield who played and sang like Elmore James. Mike replied that he would travel up to hear him, so for us to reserve a time and place for an audition.
I think it had to have happened this way, as I never would have answered the ad myself, and if Phil had told me beforetime that he was going to, I would have been reluctant.
We did a thirty-minute set for Mike and he was impressed and enthusiastic. He later arranged a session at Decca records for us to record about four tracks, two of which, ‘Look Down at my Woman’ and ‘Who’s Knocking?’ appeared on Immediate label’s ‘Blues Anytime #1’ album under my name, as they featured me singing and accompanying myself on piano without other musicians. I remember that we also recorded ‘The Sky is Crying’ and ‘Travelling Riverside Blues’. I would be curious to hear those tracks someday!
Anyway, Mike told me that Peter Green was quitting John Mayall in order to form his own band and wanted to find another guitarist. Mike then arranged for us to play for half an hour between the sets of an upcoming John Mayall gig at Birmingham’s ‘Le Metro’ club so that Pete could see and hear me play.
‘Yes,’ I said. ‘Do you listen to Elmore James?’
He said, ‘Yes, all the time. Do you listen to B. B. King?’
I said, ‘Yes,’ and we chatted until it came time for their set. I had seen John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers with Peter Green some months previously and had enjoyed it. Peter played his Les Paul with a pickup missing and suffered nothing from the lack! I had even asked John to play Otis Rush’s ‘I Can’t Quit You Baby’ that night, and I was impressed that he acknowledged my request.
Anyway, we, the Levi Set played for about half an hour between Mayall’s sets. John Mayall then played their second and last set, during which time I had pretty much discounted any idea of Pete wanting me in his new band. I was happy that a good time had been had and that was it. To my surprise, however, Pete asked if I wanted a drink and we stood by the bar, where he talked as though I was already in the band! He was saying stuff like, ‘Well, you can do a couple of Elmore things and then I do a couple of B. B.’s and so on like that…’
I finally said, ‘Are you serious? Do you like what I play?’
He said that I was the first guitarist that made him smile since Hendrix! Can you believe it? Then he showed me a page that he had written in his notebook while on his way up to Birmingham. It was like a prayer that said something like, ‘I can’t go on with this music like it is. Please have Jeremy be good, please have him be good.’
One comes to mind that I have illustrated in comic strip form --A joke on me! I will attach a pdf of it.
I wonder if you could tell me a few things about your experience with FLeetwood Mac in Chicago in the ‘60s.
I assume you are talking about the ‘Fleetwood Mac in Chicago’ Chess sessions, where we played with these black blues ‘greats’ – Otis Spann, Big Walter Horton, Willie Dixon, Buddy Guy and others. Sadly, there seemed to be an undercurrent of resentment brooding with some, manifested by their joking between themselves. It stemmed from a sentiment in those days among some black blues musicians that white kids were getting rich off stealing their music (understandable up to a point, but I do feel we were giving them a lot of credit). I know Pete sensed it, and it affected the vibe of the session for him. Willy Dixon, who was on bass, and being the ‘big boss man’ of blues was mindful of diplomacy, though.
Fortunately, J. T. Brown, who had been Elmore James’ saxophone player, seemed to be a more traditional old school gentleman and race and class didn’t faze him, thank God, and he and I just had fun playing together. We must have smiled the whole time, and I think that comes across on the album. He was like a grandfather to me and seemed to enjoy the novelty of this little whitey from another time and place being so taken with his music.
We chatted a lot over coffee in the break, mainly about Elmore of course and he didn’t seem to mind!
Are there any “Chicago memories” of all these “blues cats” which you’d like to share with us?
A little anecdote I like to tell is about nine months after that recording, J. T. called me in London from Chicago, and played me a ‘78 gramophone record over the phone of Elmore James’ ‘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’.
Which artists have you worked with & which of the people you have worked with do you consider the best friend?
I would say that Mick Fleetwood and John McVie are dear friends. Alan Simon, a French recording producer and songwriter, Jerry Del Judice of Blind Pig and Morten Gjerde of Bluestown records are friends, and Papa George, a British blues player is a recent friend. While living and working in Italy and Greece some time back, I got to work for quite a few years with an excellent keyboard player, Michael Fogarty, and we became friends.
I would have put more time and thought into my recorded and onstage material with Fleetwood Mac, contributed more to Peter’s requests and most of all, I would be kinder to people.
Who are your favourite blues artists, both old and new?
Elmore James, Hop Wilson, Robert Nighthawk, Otis Rush, Albert King, Blind Willie McTell, Son House, Mississippi John Hurt, to name a few.
What was the last record you bought?
A couple of CDs from a soulful Latin American troupe, busking in a Berlin plaza about a year ago.
Any blues standards that have any real personal feelings for you, & what are some of your favourites?
‘Dust my Broom’, ‘The Sun is Shining’ and ‘The Sky is Crying’ by Elmore James, ‘I Can’t Quit You Baby’ by Otis Rush and ‘It’s My Own Fault’ by B. B. King. Most of them slow blues!
What turns you on? Happiness is…
Many things! Musically, playing with sympathetic soulfull musicians.
From the musical point of view, is there any difference between US Blues & British Blues?
If you are talking about contemporary blues, it’s hard to say, not having listened to too much from either side in a long time. I have been impressed with the Norwegian blues musicians and a Swedish artist, Sven Zetterborg, who is an Otis Rush devotee. Junior Watson and Rusty Zinn from the States are good too.
I don’t know about the business, but much modern Blues music I get to hear seems to have lost an element of sweetness. It sounds loud and slick or (as a friend of mine put it), ‘blood-spitting’. As for the business, I don’t know if it ever had any (sweetness that is!) Sorry to sound cynical, but that’s how I see it (or rather, hear it.)
Some music styles can be fads but the blues is always with us. Why do think that is?
People always need music that reaches their heart and empathises, especially in hard times.
Give one wish for the BLUES.
That it will regain some measure of that simple sweetness.
Which of the historical blues personalities would you like to meet?
I think I will have to wait for heaven for that, as almost all of them have passed on! I would like to meet Otis Rush, though.
What do you feel is the key to your success as a musician?
People who have helped me to develop my God-given talents.
From whom have you have learned the most secrets about blues music?
You have travelled all around the world. What are your conclusions?
A big question! Briefly -- that people at heart are the same the world over, sharing a common need for love, peace, happiness and understanding – ultimately a need for God.
Fleetwood Mac never toured Greece while I was with them. But during 1980 and 81, Michael Fogarty and I had the pleasure to play a semi-nightly duo gig at the Athenian Inn in downtown Athens. The people loved it, and seemed to appreciate what little blues I played at the time!
Why are Europeans so enamoured with the blues?
I think that not only the Europeans, but also many people all over the world. I have been in touch with Blues societies and enthusiasts in Latin America and India, and I have heard that even in China and Japan, there is a great love of the blues. I think the interest could be due to economic, social and spiritual depression (which plagues rich and poor) and a seeking for something deeper emotionally amid the glut of ear candy. True blues music seems to have a healing quality for the heart.
What do you think were the reasons for the blues boom in the sixties?
I think for the same reasons.
Who are your favourite bands from ‘60s & of all the people you’ve met, who do you admire the most?
Except for Cream, I had no particular favourite band from the sixties, as I wasn’t keen on much of the music that was going down, but I did like individual artists such as Tim Hardin, Neil Young and Judy Collins. At the time, despite social pressure and it being before my ‘time’, I was more a fifties music fan: blues, country music, doo-wop and rockabilly. Right or wrong, I believed that music had died with Buddy Holly!
How is your relationship with the other British blues musicians of ‘60s?
Having not lived in England for many years, I have little. But I do have some communication with later blues players such as Papa George (he’s Greek Cypriot, you know, and we did some fun gigs in Prague together earlier this year. You could do an interview with him!) and Michael Messer, a resonator blues player, who has a line of guitars under his name.
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