Jeremy Spencer interview
Jeremy Spencer is an original Hall of Fame member of Fleetwood Mac. Having originally started off playing the piano, Jeremy switched to the guitar after being exposed to the American blues legends such as Elmore James, Homesick James, Son House and others. As he studied these classic blues masters, Jeremy became an accomplished slide guitar player himself. Spencer came to the attention of Peter Green, who was in the process of forming Fleetwood Mac in 1967, when he heard his blues trio "Levi Set" perform. Jeremy's tenure with Fleetwood Mac lasted until 1971 when he decided to move on and become a member of the religious group "Children of God". For years, Spencer would continue to perform and record religious music all over the world with various different groups and lineups. In 2006, Jeremy released an album called "Precious Little" which featured him playing blues and gospel, and once again showcased his fine slide guitar work. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1998 as an original member of Fleetwood Mac. I recently corresponded with Jeremy.
R.V.B. - What kind of music were you exposed to around the house at a young age?
J.S. - The standard fare that BBC radio offered at the time (1950’s): classical music, trad jazz, popular British post war songs, some country music, and very little rock and roll (both of which I always tuned into).
R.V.B. - I understand you started with the piano... was there any music or event that made you switch to guitar?
J.S. - I wanted to play electric guitar after hearing Hank Marvin on Cliff Richard’s early hits and Big Jim Sullivan’s distant ‘lonely’ guitar phrases on Marty Wilde’s ‘Sea of Love’ and ‘Bad Boy’. I was about eleven years old at the time.
R.V.B. - What was your first guitar?
J.S. - A Spanish guitar with rusty metal strings an inch high off the fingerboard, which my father picked up at a jumble sale for five pounds. It certainly toughened my fingers! I was fifteen years old, and I learned Buddy Holly songs on it.
R.V.B. - What kind of music were you tackling on your first gigs? Did they go as planned?
J.S. - I initially sang and played organ (which belonged to the road manager) in our little band in Lichfield, which we called the Levi Set, doing soul and some blues songs. It went over okay, but took off amazingly with the audiences when our guitarist and the roadie left, taking the organ with him, reducing us to a trio, with me singing blues and playing slide guitar.
R.V.B. - Where did you first meet Peter Green and Mick Fleetwood?
J.S. - In July 1967, I met Peter at the Birmingham Metro club, when (at his request) my band filled the intermission for his gig with John Mayall. That’s where and when Peter asked me to join the new band he was about to form. I met Mick shortly afterwards at Peter’s London flat.
R.V.B. - How long after that, did you start jamming with them?
J.S. - A couple of months later, Peter invited me down to London, and we started practicing.
R.V.B. - Did you imitate and do parodies of other people before you started introducing it into your stage show?
J.S. - Yes. I was always a mimic – even in school! I didn’t introduce it on stage until I joined Fleetwood Mac.
R.V.B. - You developed into quite the slide player and there are obvious Elmore James influences. Did you have any other early slide influences such as the country blues players like Charlie Patton or Blind Willie Johnson?
J.S. - Yes indeed. Those country sliders had more influence on me than any electric slide-players outside of Elmore and Homesick James. I especially liked Furry Lewis, Son House, Blind Willie McTell, Sleepy John Estes, and Mississippi John Hurt. Those influences came to the fore on my recent Precious Little and Bend in the Road albums. Like many other English bands, Fleetwood Mac started as a blues band.
R.V.B. - How did you enjoy making the first couple of records and supporting them on tour?
J.S. - I enjoyed making those albums. I should have put more thought into the second one, though, (Mr Wonderful).
R.V.B. - How was playing in the hotbed in England at that time with all the great music coming out?
J.S. - To be honest, I didn’t consider most of the music coming out was so great. That’s why I turned to listening to Nashville country music, which I discovered was anathema to many hippies at the time. Although, I also found out that many ‘hip’ musicians secretly admired and enjoyed that genre!
R.V.B. - Did the band have the same feel of the blues when Peter Green left and you and Danny Kirwan carried the torch?
R.V.B. - There's a picture of you in 1970 playing a Flying V next to a Fender stack. Did you use other guitars during that period?
J.S. - I had a 50’s Strat, which I used mainly for finger lead and rhythm, and a cello-bodied Hofner President, which I later favoured more for slide because it had single-coil pickups.
R.V.B. - How did Christine’s piano playing work at first? Was it a natural adjustment to bring her aboard?
J.S. - Being married to John McVie, Christine was living with us all in our communal Kiln House set up. Also, our mid-1970 US tour was coming up, we wanted to fill out the sound, and Danny and I wanted to do more harmony vocals, so she was a natural candidate to fill the bill, which she did admirably. She also brought a strong creative element to the band.
R.V.B. - It was right about this time where you made the first Fleetwood Mac solo record. Where did you find the guys to play with you on it and how did you enjoy making it?
J.S. - I recorded that album in 1969 with John, Mick and Danny. It was fun and gave me a chance to do parodies of the 50’s music I loved.
R.V.B. - You decided to leave the band in the early seventies. Are you happy with the decision?
J.S. - Yes.
R.V.B. - Was there any way of working a Christian lifestyle in with a rock and roll band?
J.S. - Of course. I know many Christian musicians who are working in rock bands, but I am sure there are times when they have to refrain from some things, or stand up for their principles regarding performing certain numbers, etc. It takes a lot of self-determination! The choice for me, however, was to drop out.
R.V.B. - When you were traveling the world in the mid-seventies (such as Brazil and Italy) with the "Children of God" group, were you learning other world music traditions and working it in with the new music that you were writing?
J.S. - The musically eclectic nature of the group’s members exposed me to many styles, and I tried to adapt. It was an education! Although I didn’t consciously try to learn the local styles, I know that the musical atmosphere of the country subconsciously influenced my creativity.
R.V.B. - How did you start with Brazil?
J.S. - A Texan country singer invited me over from England to participate in a recording venture there.
R.V.B. - Was it that same universal feeling playing a great Christian gig as a great rock and roll gig?
J.S. - This is a difficult question to answer, because, although I played spiritual music a lot, I wouldn’t say that I ever played a ‘great Christian’ gig as is generally understood! My live performances have largely been low-key and secular.
R.V.B. - What was life like for you in the Philippines? That seems like a very adventurous place to live and explore.
J.S. - I didn’t get to explore much there, as I was living in and around Manila. But I did experience the dire effects of the euphoric ‘people power’ revolution that overthrew President Marcos!
R.V.B. - You spent some time in India also; did you try to play any of the native instruments there?
J.S. - I didn’t. But I was amazed at how the Indian jazz musicians have a feel for the blues.
R.V.B. - How did your family take to all these exotic countries?
R.V.B. - I see you dabble in other arts such as drawings and other visual arts. Is that very enjoyable to do?
J.S. - Very. It’s a field, like music, where I am always learning, and wanting to improve in.
R.V.B. - What are some of the non-musical art pieces that you are really proud of creating?
J.S. - The hundreds of pages of comic art and illustrated story work that I have produced over the past forty-odd years!
R.V.B. - How do you feel about being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame?
J.S. - Honoured. They have treated me with much respect; even sending me a commemorative leather bomber jacket and a birthday card this year!
Stepping back from the picture, though, despite some controversy, I do agree with the RRHOF’s decision that the original line-up of Fleetwood Mac, along with the Rumours-era members, fit their criteria of inducting a band that has had an outstanding influence on rock music. In effect, Mick Fleetwood and John McVie should be inducted twice!
R.V.B. - As a member of the music community, I can speak for everyone in that we were very happy to see you play some festivals in the 2000's. Was it something that you felt that you had to do? Coming out with a new album and appearing in public playing some blues again?
J.S. - In some ways, circumstances pushed me into it and deep down I felt I needed to. However, although I love to play live with like-minded musicians (more than ever, actually), I have clearly concluded that intense touring and gigging is not for me. I have found that the promoters and the public naturally want the old, younger Jeremy Spencer, and it is difficult to present the new, older Jeremy Spencer! I resent and resist being musically dragged back into a three-year period of almost fifty years ago.
Nevertheless, I have been very happy with the critical response to my latest recording ventures.
R.V.B. - How are you enjoying yourself at this time in your career?
J.S. - I love creating -- whether it’s music, art or writing, and I am tireless when working in a recording studio.
R.V.B. - Is there anything you would have done different?
J.S. - We all have regrets. For one, I would have handled leaving Fleetwood Mac more considerately. I am eternally grateful to the way they handled it so graciously.
Interview conducted by Robert von Bernewitz
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