Interview with bluesman Bobby “Hurricane” Spencer, a living legend of chitlin' circuit for over for 4 decades

"Blues helps me live with myself – with my strengths and weaknesses, successes and failures, marriages and divorces. It has been a constant that has given me strength to keep on going and live life with gusto."

Bobby “Hurricane” Spencer: The Bluesman

Vocalist, saxophonist and songwriter, the bluesman Bobby “Hurricane” Spencer has a musical past that has spanned over 45 years. Born in Detroit, Michigan he arrived in Alemeda, California by way of Arkansas at the tender age of eleven months. Oakland in the sixties. There was Al's House of Smiles, the Showcase, the Sportsman, Esther's Orbit Room and the Continental Club. Later, the Shalamar and Troyce Key's famous Eli's Mile High Club. If you were lucky enough to have heard the soul pumping from these clubs than you know the "Hurricane!" That's cause he was anchored dead center in the horn section of those house bands.                                     Photo by Warren Hill

The house band played it all, jazz, soul, rhythm and blues and blues. In these house bands the "Hurricane" backed the likes of Big Mama Thornton, Sugar Pie De Santo, Charles Brown, Solomon Burke, Etta James, Lowell Fulson, Pee Wee Crayton, Z.Z. Hill, Percy Mayfield, Carla Thomas, Irma Thomas, Big Joe Turner, Elvin Bishop, Charlie Musselwhite, J.J. Malone and Red Foxx. He played in the legendary bands of Jimmy McCracklin, Johnny Tolbert and De Thangs and Marvin Holmes and the Uptights. He played sessions with Roger Collins and the late Finis Tasby. There were sessions with J.J. Malone and Sonny Rhodes. As musical director he wrote charts, did sessions and recorded with Jimmy McCracklin. There were horn charts for Harold Andrews and work with Ray Shanklin at Fantasy Records. As a writer Koko Taylor has recorded his work. Currently the "Hurricane" resides in L.A and you can hear his horn at times with his own All Star Band, J.J. Badboy Jones, or The Oozie Blues Show. In 2013 he was inducted into Jazzabration Living Legend Foundation. The diversity of the tunes on new album “Hurricane Unleashed” (2014) is fitting when you look at his career which spans 45 years, starting as a doowop singer, moving into jazz, latin jazz, big bands, and evolving into an unrestrained deep dive into the blues. According to the Hurricane, everything is rooted in the blues – the earthiness and realities of life.

Interview by Michael Limnios

What do you learn about yourself from the blues and what does the blues mean to you?

Blues helps me live with myself – with my strengths and weaknesses, successes and failures, marriages and divorces.  It has been a constant that has given me strength to keep on going and live life with gusto.  Blues has taught me how to approach life. I can remember walking into a blues joint many times in my life feeling low down and whipped. When I pulled Big Maybelle (my Selmer Mark VI) out of her case, put her parts together and blew a long mournful blue note, my troubles evaporated. I knew I would be all right.  That’s what the blues have taught me.

What is the story behind the nickname “Hurricane”?

I was one of J.J. Bad Boy Jones “bad boys” which is what he called his band. One night we were playing at the House of Blues up on Sunset and I played a really hot sax solo. J.J. turned to me and said, “Bobby, you the Hurricane!” It stuck and that’s what I’ve been called ever since. In fact, my latest album we named Hurricane Unleashed. In fact one reviewer compared the way I tore through the songs on that album “like the hurricane he was so aptly named for”

What experiences in your life make you a GOOD BLUESMAN and SONGWRITER?

Three wives, three divorces and five children have given me all the material I need for a lifetime to play and write the blues.

"Everything is rooted in the blues. Blues has certain characteristics."

Photo by Warren Hill

How do you describe Hurricane’s sound and progress, what characterizes your music philosophy?

I can trace the beginnings of my sound back to my audition with Johnny Tolbert and the De Thangs band.  We were playing a tune called Kidney Stew. He stopped me right in the middle and said “What is that shit you’re playing?” I was soloing on some kind of abstract stuff out of a whole tone scale –not bluesy at all. He told me to go down to Reed’s Record Store and buy Honky Tonk part 1 & 2 and memorize every note in the sax solo of Bill Doggett’s record featuring tenor man, Clifford Scott. Johnny told me that record would help me learn how to “put some dirt on it!”  Forty years later I’m still playing Honky Tonk and in fact it’s one of my main songs on the CD I’m working on right now. Johnny was on Kent Records at the same time as BB King and Ike & Tina Turner. He’s been a big influence. 

My sound comes out of the field holler. It’s a cry going all the way back to slavery.  It permeates all blues, gospel and soul music. My influences have been Junior Walker, King Curtis, Earl Bostick, Jimmy Dorsey, Charlie Parker, John Coltrane and Gene Ammon.  On the vocal side people compare me to Lou Rawls, Bobby Bland, BB King and Ray Charles.

As for the Hurricane, it happened one night on the bandstand. JJ Bad Boy Jones turned to me after I’d laid down a searing solo, and said, Bob, you da Hurricane. And it stuck with me for all these years. 

Which is the most interesting period in your life?

It’s really tough for me to pick one interesting period of my life. Being on the scene when the music was being created, I’ve loved every minute of the evolution throughout my lifetime. I lived the life from Sly and the Family Stone, the Golliwogs/Credence Clearwater Revival, Timex Social Club, Etta James, the Whispers, opening for Marvin Gaye, Otis Redding, Solomon Burke, Big Joe Turner, Lowell Fulsom, ZZ Hill, and yet today I’m still privileged to be right out there where the face of blues is changing. I’m working with a young genius named Ray Goren who at age 13 is taking the blues world by storm. His creativity is simply astounding. It just keeps getting better and better.

"At its best, Blues and Jazz are authentic – the real deal. Not the phony formulaeic music that feeds the commercial music machine. As long it is about telling the truth, about peoples’ real experiences and feelings it will be relevant and stay alive. It may have its ups and downs, but I feel a real resurgence in blues today." (Hurricane & Ray Goren / Photo by Warren Hill:)

Which was the best and worst moment of your career?

The worst moment of my career was a few years back when my health began to fail me and I couldn’t play to the level that I expected of myself. Burning the candle at both ends had caught up with me.  As I learned to take better care of myself, I managed to survive that period and today I’m feeling that my best years are right now. I have the years of knowledge that I’ve accumulated and I am enjoying using that experience and passing it along to young players like Ray Goren. I’m arranging, writing, and still out there gigging with the best of the best! I feel blessed to work with these guys – I’m not going to name them because I’d leave someone out – but all I can say is playing today is a heckuva lot of fun! And now is a great time for reflection. This past September I was honored to be inducted into the Jazzabration Living Legends of LA at the same time as Les McCann, and an honor held by so many before me such as Barbara Morrison.  It’s just a great time to be alive and making music. 

Why did you think that the Jazz and Blues music continues to generate such a devoted following?

At its best, Blues and Jazz are authentic – the real deal. Not the phony formulaeic music that feeds the commercial music machine. As long it is about telling the truth, about peoples’ real experiences and feelings it will be relevant and stay alive. It may have its ups and downs, but I feel a real resurgence in blues today. 

What’s the best jam you ever played in?

Actually there are two jams that I would have to mention. First, the jam I ran at Lucy’s 51 in Toluca Lake became known as the place to be. LA Times Readers poll quickly awarded it the Best Blues and Jazz in the San Fernando Valley. My house band – Hurricane’s All Star Blues Band – set the standard. Situated in the Entertainment Vortex of Studio City, Burbank, and Toluca Lake, it drew top notch professionals as well as amateurs learning to play the blues. But I have to name the jam at Babe & Ricky’s Inn – the home of Mama Laura in South Central Los Angeles. Mama ran that club with an iron fist. It had to be blues and if it wasn’t blues she would let you know.  When tenor man Bill Clark died, Mama Laura asked me to take his place and playing in that club was the best blues education in Los Angeles. It wasn’t blues rock – Mama kept it authentic. Add to that the Monday night buffet with all that great soul food of hot water cornbread, collard greens, fried chicken and fish, macaroni and cheese, red beans and rice, and it just didn’t get any better. But Mama was strict! Bobby Blue Bland was visiting the club one night and Mama Laura had a rule that whoever visited her club had to sing. Bobby didn’t want to sing so Mama kicked him out of the club.    

I don’t fear for the future of music, because in my opinion music is so powerful that it takes care of itself. I remember when the old generation was critical of rock and roll, and now all that music is classic. I believe that the truth will stand up."  (Photo: Bobby and Eddie Lee Harris)

What are some of the most memorable gigs you've had?

The gigs from my early days in Oakland were tough. East Oakland was one of the most dangerous places in the area – and it still is. Just going down to the corner to the Quarter Pound to get a burger you needed protection. I played clubs like Al’s House of Smiles as part of the house band for over two years. My blue Cadillac Coupe Deville was stolen from that place twice. The second time it got stolen I called my buddy and told him to bring his pistol and we were gonna go find it!  And we did! 

One gig I remember – Lightning Hopkins at Esther’s Orbit Room. I was up on the bandstand playing with Billy Soul’s band. Whoever came through without a band, we played behind them. So Lightning was booked and when he came up to do his show I tried to stay up there because I really wanted to play with him. But of course, he told me to go sit down because he didn’t use horns – I knew that but I just had to try. What I most remember from that night is when Lightning sang,

“Let Lightning off this bottom,  ‘fo this water rise. 

Let Lightning off this bottom,  ‘fo this water rise. 

Lightning ain’t no Christian  -- he don’t wanna be baptized.”

Are there any memories from Big Mama Thornton and Percy Mayfield which you’d like to share with us?

I was in the house band at the legendary Eli’s Mile High Club. The owner, Troyce Key, regularly booked people like Percy Mayfield. Percy was a really gentle man, easy to talk to, and he liked the band to play very quietly behind him. He was the mentor of one of my mentors, Jimmy McCracklin.  Jimmy had learned from Percy to have the band play quietly. Percy taught us all how to make the performance much more effective with dynamics like that.

I was really impressed that an artist like Big Mama Thornton would come by the club she would announce she was just visiting.  But by the end of the evening she’d be jamming with us, even though she wasn’t on the bill. She had a really strong presence. She didn’t allow any of the musicians to get out of line – we were all in awe of her – she could whip you!

"There are so many great musicians playing today – both young and old, and honestly, they put themselves out there for less than what they are worth. The pay for musicians is not commensurate with what they put into their music." (Photo by Warren Hill)

Which meetings have been the most important experiences for you?

Meeting Johnny Tolbert was probably the most important influence on my music and on my life. He taught me how to think about the music, how to think about my life, and all about the blues. He taught me how the blues related to other music, who the most important artists were in the development of the blues.

Are there any memories from Etta James which you’d like to share with us?

Etta James – the woman never showed up for a rehearsal, but when she showed up for the gig, look out!  She took no prisoners. The band would rehearse Tell Mama or At Last – but she didn’t really pay attention to her hits. She might not even sing them. She rocked the house with low down blues like Jimmy Reed’s You Got Me Running, You Got Me Hiding.

If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?

There are so many great musicians playing today – both young and old, and honestly, they put themselves out there for less than what they are worth. The pay for musicians is not commensurate with what they put into their music. So many people think it’s perfectly normal that a musician would have to work a day job, and then contribute their music at a very reduced pay rate. I’d like to see more respect for musicians as professionals.

"The blues is still alive – maybe not as prevalent as it was because there is so much distraction."

What do you miss most nowadays from the past?

Every now and then I go play in a joint – just for the smell of it, the look of it, the flavor it. It reminds me of the old days and I get a bit nostalgic. I remember when I lived in Oakland at the Ebony Plaza hotel – a cheap hotel with roaches and prostitutes. That was the flavor of the blues. This is where the music came from and though I don’t want to return to the Ebony Hotel, playing in a joint helps me remember those days. Now I know what I’m doing and I feel what I’m doing.  In those days I just felt it and lived it.  Now when I play, I remember it. 

What are your hopes and fears for the future of music?

I don’t fear for the future of music, because in my opinion music is so powerful that it takes care of itself. I remember when the old generation was critical of rock and roll, and now all that music is classic. I believe that the truth will stand up. 

Which memory from Big Joe Turner, Charles Brown, and Pee Wee Crayton makes you smile?

Johnny Tolbert, Band leader of De Thangs,  has been my mentor for more years than I can count. I was with his band for about 12 years.  One night we went over to a dive where Charles Brown was playing  because Johnny  was a friend of his and he wanted to introduce me.  I asked him if I could sit in with him and sing Misty. He was so cool --- – backed me up and I sang and he accompanied me.   

I played a gig with Big Joe Turner where Charles Brown was sitting in on keyboard. The joint was part of the Chitlin Circuit – one of those cut and shoot places where if there wasn’t a fight, you weren’t playing the blues right. Big Joe was ill, but he was still so powerful and Charles Brown was on fire. We didn’t realize at that time we were in the final days of that Chitlin Circuit.  Integration actually killed the circuit because more and more “white clubs” began to allow entry for anyone – including blacks. Black people began to leave the ghetto because they had more opportunities elsewhere. No longer was there a captive audience for pure black clubs. 

What are the lines that connect the legacy of Blues with Soul and continue to Jazz and Rhythm & Blues music?

Everything is rooted in the blues. Blues has certain characteristics. Blues puts some dirt on it – the earthiness and realities of life. Even when you aren’t playing blue notes, even when you aren’t playing 1, 4, 5, even when you aren’t playing 12 bars, when you are playing truth, you are playing the blues. 

What's been your experience from the psychedelic era of west coast in the 60s?

Early on in the 60’s I was really unaware of what was happening with the flower children over in Haight Ashbury. I was working at Fantasy Records on Treat Street in San Francisco rehearsing with Roger Collins. Roger had a hit record called “She’s Looking Good!”. (Later I signed with Fantasy for a song Will That Turn You On) The owner of the record label, Max Weis, laughingly said to me one day “Hi Hippie”. I came from the black ghetto of Oakland and this term was new to me. As time went by I found out about the hippies.  In the studio next to ours there were a bunch of long haired white guys working on their music. They were called the Golliwogs – they later became the Credence Clearwater Revival. There was quite a contrast – they didn’t care much about their attire – while where I came from it was important to look hip. We were into James Brown and they were into whatever was going on in Fillmore. So we were there at the time – and without question it influenced the changes in music.

How has the music business changed over the years?

YouTube and the Internet have changed the music business like it has changed everything else. It is still evolving. I have blues friends all over the world that I’ve never met, but we enjoy each other’s music. 

Do you believe in the existence of real blues nowadays?

The blues is still alive – maybe not as prevalent as it was because there is so much distraction. But there is still great music – look at Chicago and Kingston Mines – Eddie Shaw, J.W. Williams, Carl Weathersby and then you see Bobby Rush – the music is still there. The culture is still alive. And there’s a new blues coming forward with the Ray Gorens of the world. 

Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really wanna go for a whole day..?

Going back to the authentic flavor of the blues at Al’s House of Smiles in Oakland in the 60’s when life seemed so simple – that would be cool – but just for a day.

"Be true to your music and it will take care of you.  My mentor would say to me when I was having a rough time in life – Blow your horn!  That will take care of you!"

What has made you laugh lately and what touched (emotionally) you from the chitlin’ circuits?

Recently I went into a club over in Watts, a club similar to what I might have played in back in the day. I laughed my head off seeing one of my old buddies, Sir Stan, jitterbugging, cutting up, all with just the same passion that he had back in his twenties (he’s 70+ today).  Music is just as authentic now as it was then. His wife in those “high heel sneakers” and one of those dresses was playing a one note solo on her harmonica – while she was twerking the audience! The only thing that has changed is the age of all of us enjoying this!

Which memory from Jerry to Jimmy McCracklin, Lowell Fulson, and Pee Wee Crayton makes you smile?

I never think of Jimmy McCracklin without remembering how he would crack us up with one of his songs about a Rolls Royce – the way he would pronounce it was Roller Royce – and he sang it with a straight face – a signature Jimmy way of saying things. You gotta remember, I’m 71 years old now – they’ll be telling funny stories about ME one of these days – my memory is gone.  What I remember is that in all these clubs, people like Red Fox would have us laughing so hard my jaw would hurt and my stomach was killing me from laughing so long and so hard.

What is the best advice ever given you and what advice would you give to new generation?

Be true to your music and it will take care of you.  My mentor would say to me when I was having a rough time in life – Blow your horn!  That will take care of you!

Bobby “Hurricane” Spencer - Home

(Photo by Warren Hill)

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