With an uncanny ability to play slide guitar and sing like Elmore James, Jeremy Spencer was an original member of the British rock band Fleetwood Mac, formed in 1967.
And while Fleetwood Mac achieved international success early on with their unique rocking blues, Spencer left the band in 1971 in search of spiritual fulfillment – joining a Christian organization called the Children of God. He was also the first member of Fleetwood Mac to release a solo record.
After virtually disappearing from the public eye for 33 years, Spencer re-emerged to release his 2006 album, Precious Little, which was met with sparkling reviews. And on his new album, Bend in the Road, Spencer’s love for the blues and artists like Otis Rush and Elmore James remains intact, as he covers old staples like Homework and Stranger Blues, along with several fiery and spiritual original tunes.
In an exclusive interview, Rock Cellar Magazine tracked down Rock and Roll Hall-of-Famer Jeremy Spencer for a wide-ranging conversation about the blues, Fleetwood Mac, and God.
Rock Cellar Magazine: How did you first come to hear the music of legendary bluesman Elmore James?
Jeremy Spencer: Back in 1964, a friend of mine named Acker rescued me one evening from a cruel student prank at Art College. And afterwards, he invited me for dinner and put on a blues album while we ate – a British Pye Records compilation from Chess called The Blues Vol. 3. It had Howling Wolf, Muddy Waters, Jimmy Witherspoon, and others – good stuff. But it wasn’t necessarily grabbing my ear as I was preoccupied and down about the incident that happened earlier.
Suddenly, The Sun is Shining by Elmore came on. And I jumped up and stood mesmerized at the record player. I had never heard of him before and I couldn’t believe my ears. From that point on, I was determined to play like that, and if possible sing like that. Problem was, that was the only available song of his in England at the time – until Sue Records issued an album called The Best of Elmore James. Which I got about the time of my fractured leg accident about nine months later.
RCM: So what was it about Elmore James that grabbed you?
JS: I think it was Elmore’s singing and the answering of his slide, like one voice — the perfect vocal call and guitar response. The way it sounded so anguished and powerful. When it comes to blues, I have always preferred these two elements to be combined in one artist… even if there has to be some compromise of skill in one area. That’s why I never went too much for those blues super-groups.
RCM: You really trade licks with guitarist Brett Lucas on the new album during the Elmore James cover Cry for Me Baby.
JS: Brett is an excellent all-around player. When I heard the original recording of Cry for Me Baby, I thought the backing guitar riff would be perfect for him to learn and give a new twist. Brett knows how to keep it driving and simple on songs like Earthquake, along with Homesick.
RCM: In the liner notes, you wrote how you’ve wanted to record Homesick by “Homesick James” (Elmore James’ cousin, James Williamson) since hearing it for the first time 45 years ago. But that you couldn’t get a copy until recently. Why was it so difficult to find?
JS: I don’t know. Although there were later versions, I had asked around for the original 1952 version that was recorded for the Chance label, which I’d heard on a rare Spivey records compilation back in 1967. There were no results until one day I came across a rare collection of all Homesick’s recordings online.
RCM: Before joining Fleetwood Mac, you formed your own band The Levi Set and played Elmore James and Homesick James songs, right?
JS: Yes, along with some easy-loping Excello (Records) stuff by Lonesome Sundown and Lazy Lester. We gigged mostly in folk clubs and pubs in the Midlands. The trio comprised John Charles on bass, his brother Ian on drums and me on guitar – we started playing around 1966. And I played organ originally and we went through a couple of guitarists. But it never really clicked until we got into being a 3- piece, and I started playing the slide and occasionally regular guitar. I remember borrowing a nice Hofner Verithin a couple of times.
RCM: What was behind the name “The Levi Set?”
JS: We pronounced it ‘Levee’ like The Levee Camp Moan, which was a blues song. We could have called it The Levee Set, but we called it Levi because we all wore faded Levi jeans. Levis were a rare and expensive commodity in England in those days!
RCM: Did you make any recordings with The Levi Set?
JS: One day, we rustled some money together and recorded two tracks, Dust My Broom and Ten Years Ago at a little place in Birmingham where you could only record in mono. And we got three acetate copies of it! [Fleetwood Mac's record producer] Mike Vernon wanted to use the original tapes and put it on one of his albums of British Blues, but the studio reused the tape.
Sometime later, at Mike Vernon’s behest, we recorded four tracks at Decca Studios, two of which came out on a British Blues anthology for Immediate Records. We also did a version of The Sky is Crying, which I thought came out pretty good. I sang and played the piano and then overdubbed the slide. I don’t know what happened to that take.
RCM: Do you think your voice has always been suited to singing the blues?
JS: It’s come naturally now that I am older. It’s hard to explain, but I feel it more in my heart and soul, and it’s not because I am sad. It comes more from not having to force an unnatural gruffing up or gritting of my voice like I did in my early years. It’s embarrassing when I recall attempting to record Buddy Guy’s Ten Years Ago when I was 17 years old!
RCM: Talk about those early Fleetwood Mac records, like Fleetwood Mac, or Mr. Wonderful.
JS: Mostly I cringe when I hear them. If and when people put them on, I have to leave the room! I would love to take another go at almost everything I have recorded before Precious Little. I wonder if most musicians feel that same way about their recordings.
RCM: How do you compare Precious Little to your new album, Bend in the Road?
JS: I’m happy with Bend in the Road. I think it compares favorably. Precious Little‘s material is simpler and a little looser-woven, because we had only a five-day deadline to record it on 24-track analog tape. And that was fine, but the musical scope was narrower than Bend, as we didn’t have the time to tackle much ambitious stuff. And most of the musicians involved were strictly blues players. Nevertheless, Precious Little will always remain “precious” to me in many ways…!
RCM: What’s the story behind that beautiful maple guitar featured on the cover of your new album?
JS: My beloved “Mona” was custom-created by the Norwegian luthier, Jan Ingar Kvisler. Mona is my choice for live performances and is modeled after a PRS in shape, and also has two P90s, my pick-up of choice for slide. Her pick-up covers are made out of the same maple as the top layer of her body – which actually was the result of a mishap – a fortunate mishap by Jan’s router. And her inherent tone is enhanced by his placement of sound chambers.
RCM: How about your gear?
JS: I don’t have much gear! I don’t care for big stacks or even over-priced boutique amps. I have a small Orange 15d and an Orange Tiny Terror tube head, both of which I like. I recently got to play a gig using a borrowed, budget-priced Vox Pathfinder 15R transitor amp and I was very impressed. I don’t know how the company did it, but it sounds amazing – like a Vox tube equivalent – and it would even be my current amplifier of choice for a gig. I’ve also been enjoying going directly through the PA when the occasion necessitates it. Mona seems to benefit from clean, warm clarity.
RCM: It’s like each individual note can really be heard on your new album, Like the country-blues instrumental Whispering Fields, for example.
JS: I got this Americana/Stephen Foster-style tune not long after joining Fleetwood Mac in 1967. I was finding myself preferring the earlier acoustic country sliders like Blind Willie McTell, and Son House, and Sleepy John Estes. Mississippi John Hurt, and Tampa Red.
A bit of all of them is mixed in this tune - Louise Collins, T’Ain’t Nobody’s Business, and a shade of Freight Train thrown in…! After a couple lame attempts to give the tune some lyrics over the years, I decided to just let it go as an instrumental for this album!
RCM: In the liner notes to Desired Haven, another instrumental on the new album, you describe the musical picture for this song as “A ship coming out of a storm and sailing on a calm, sunlit sea towards the land of its passengers’ dreams.” When writing instrumentals, do you usually see images in your mind’s eye depicting a story?
JS: When it comes to putting together an instrumental, musical tones and lines are like washes or strokes of a painting. The colors are important, whether they are strident and come forward, or they are pastel-like and form a backdrop.
RCM: You mentioned earlier that you went to Art College. Where did you study?
JS: I attended Stafford Art College in England for a few months after leaving grammar school, and studied Fine Arts. Apart from life classes – which I enjoyed a lot – I didn’t learn a whole lot because they seemed to be pushing and favoring modern abstract.
RCM: Like Jackson Pollock?
JS: Y’know, riding a bike through oil paint in the name of “abstract expression?” Which seemed to level the field. Cover for students with little or less talent.
Some of us - During these “free expression” periods – would do senseless daubing for a joke; acting very serious about it. One time, just before the opening of one of the college’s sculpture exhibitions, I slipped in this contraption of twisted copper and rags – brown hessian rags, mounted on a marble plinth. I put it right between two of these other “conceptual” exhibits. Then I watched from a distance as all the attendees would stroll past it, nodding, not even batting an eyelid. I believe that was instrumental in having me expelled!
RCM: There’s a cool drawing you did of your bandmates on the inside of your new CD. What is your preferred medium?
JS: I like to work in pastels, oil and dry, and colored pencils. For painting, I like watercolor… and Griffin Alkyd by Windsor and Newton as a substitute for oil or acrylic. I also like to try mixed media such as oil pastels and colored pencils thinned with spirit. I also enjoy doing portraits. On my website (jeremyspencer.com) you can see examples of my portraits of musicians – for these I used graphite pencils, and sepia tones.
RCM: And you also do comic strips, right?
JS: That’s my main thing. That’s where I get a lot of my inspiration and my enjoyment. I create black and white comic strips using brush and ink, in the style of Will Eisner and Terry and Rachel Dodson. She is an amazing inker.
RCM: There’s one you drew of a joke Mick Fleetwood played on you after a gig in Wales one night? What’s your process for making these comic strips?
JS: I start with a script and basic thumbnails of the plot and scenes. Then I lay out the text and speech bubbles in Adobe In-Design and print out those pages – onto which I sketch the frames in blue pencil. I put those blue-penciled pages on a light table and on overlaid sheets of Bristol. I draw the definitive final pencils, which I then ink with a fine brush. For details, hatching and building, I use a crowquill pen. Then I scan the inks, pop them into an InDesign file and…voila!
RCM: Speaking of Mick Fleetwood, do you stay in contact with him much these days?
JS: I keep up regular phone and email contact with Mick and John, and it is always pleasantly personal and newsy.
RCM: You jammed with Mick Fleetwood and John McVie, along with Rick Vito a few years back in Maui, right?
JS: Yes we came together for the filming of the Peter Green documentary, Man of the World. We jammed a bit and did some blues songs like It Hurts Me Too, Homework, and Shake Your Moneymaker. And Rick did I’d Rather Go Blind and some of Peter’s numbers like I Need Your Love So Bad and I Loved Another Woman. It was fun and informal.
RCM: You were known for landing the band in trouble with promoters because of your stage antics during some of those infamous early Fleetwood Mac concerts. You even got banned, right? Like at the London Marquee Club?
JS: It certainly wasn’t all in good taste, and I’m not proud of those antics. We were just a bunch of silly boys in the band acting up. Nowadays, that type of thing would hardly shock anyone – vulgarity is par for the course for bands. It’s the same old thing.
But to answer your question the main offender was a large dildo that we nicknamed Harold. Harold appeared in various settings… one of which was on a silver platter carried onto the stage by our road manager who was dressed as a butler.
RCM: You left Fleetwood Mac in 1971 to join the Children of God. Can you talk about that decision?
JS: I was sad and uninspired musically. And I had questions about life and death, love, my future, God — everything. And through prayer, support and opening up the Scriptures to me, the Children of God helped me do that. 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 Fleetwood Mac would probably not have gone on to be one of the biggest bands in history. I knew when I heard the first album with the Buckingham-Nicks lineup, that they had hit on something good, with an enormously catchy appeal.
After I left them, I prayed for God to reward them with success beyond their dreams, an d he answered that prayer. And even though I remain true to my blues roots, I enjoy and need to keep moving forward musically, and I hope and believe by the grace of God, that I have re-emerged a lot differently.
RCM: How strong is your faith in God today?
JS: My faith in God is stronger than ever in knowing that my dependence on him and his guidance is imperative in order to accomplish anything worthwhile.
RCM: Very little has been written about your life in the ’70s, after the release of your second solo album, Jeremy Spencer and the Children. Can you shed some light on this time in your life?
JS: Unlike what some people have assumed, I didn’t work as a field missionary helping the underprivileged in third-world countries, for example. I don’t think God cut me out for that sort of work. That’s why I’ve been using my art and writing talent, and of course, I was always involved with music.
Jeremy Spencer and the Children and Flee in 1978 both were financial disasters. But I should mention that I’ve had a huge in-house musical output over the last 40 years. Mostly designed for use in the Christian community – for public distribution, or in-house inspiration or edification…audio dramas, children’s songs, scriptures set to music…
RCM: Recently, you took part in the Excalibur Rock Opera, written and produced by your friend Alan Simon. How was that experience?
JS: It was quite the Celtic spectacle! Performed in Merlin’s forest of Broceliande, Paimpont in Brittany [France]. It was quite a different experience for me, wearing a Celtic costume, tattoo and all. There was a huge ensemble – an orchestra, a male choir, a harpist, Irish dancers…and musicians and singers of the reformed Fairport Convention participated… Dave Pegg on bass and Gerry Conway – of Cat Steven’s fame – on drums. They reminded me a bit of Mick Fleetwood and John McVie in musical feel. Martin Barre [Jethro Tull] and Pat O’May played guitars and I performed one song – singing and playing slide.
RCM: It must have been a thrill to perform in Brittany, by the Celtic Sea?
JS: Although I can’t swim, I have always loved the sea. I spent the first 10 years of my life up in West Hartlepool by the North East coast.
RCM: You don’t swim?
JS: I was maybe four years old when my father tried to teach me to swim in the North Sea near where I was born. I’ve tried a couple times since then over the years, but I suppose it’s a bit out of fear. I don’t drive either, although that’s not really because of fear. People have tried to teach me on occasion; I just can’t seem to get the hang of it coordination- wise. I should give it another go someday. As for swimming, I just can’t relax enough!
RCM: In the liner notes of the new album, you write that the song Merciful Sea was inspired by the cover picture of Nicholas Montserrat’s novel The Cruel Sea. Do you have a favorite book?
JS: On Writing by Stephen King is one of my favorites. I like the book, and after reading it, I like him. I enjoy writing short stories and Stephen’s book echoes many of my experiences and sentiments regarding writing.
RCM: Has King’s book influenced your songwriting as well?
JS: I could apply some of his criteria to songwriting, and maybe I have subconsciously done so regarding lyrics.
RCM: I once read that Mark Knopfler is one of your favorite guitarists. Do you have a favorite song by Knopfler?
JS: That’s a hard question to answer. I like Sultans of Swing, of course, Down to the Waterline, Romeo and Juliet, Darling Pretty. What it Is, Back to Tupelo, I Dug Up a Diamond. Especially Done with Bonaparte, to name a few…!
RCM: And you’re also a big Otis Rush fan, right?
JS: For Otis, I like his Cobra sessions and a more obscure album, Troubles, Troubles, which was recorded in Europe in 1977 with just bass and drums. Beautiful clean guitar on that one. Unfortunately when it was released in the States in 1990 on Alligator under the title, Lost in the Blues, the head of the company had them artificially enhance the guitar tone and plaster keyboards all over the tracks.
RCM: There’s a great photo on your site of you performing in 1969 with Elmore James’ saxophonist, J.T. Brown. What was that like?
JS: In those days, there was a sentiment among some black blues musicians what white kids were getting rich off of stealing their music. That’s understandable up to that point, although I do feel that most of us were giving them a lot of credit. But J.T. Brown seemed to be a more traditional old-school gentleman; race and class didn’t faze him. He and I just had fun playing together, and he was like a grandfather to me. He seemed to enjoy the novelty of this little whitey from another time and place being so taken with his music.
About nine months after the recording, J.T. called me in London from Chicago, and played me a 78 rpm over the phone of Elmore’s Coming Home, telling me the story of how Elmore had cut it the day after coming out of the hospital. About three months later, J.T. had died. He was “coming home.”