Thursday, June 18, 2009

Whatever happened to Leon Spencer?

Perhaps one of the least known helmsmen of the Hammond B-3 organ, Leon Spencer, who is also known as Leon Spencer, Jr., is one of the finer practitioners of organ groove music that's now referred to as acid jazz.

Call it jazz funk, groove jazz, what have you, Spencer was one of the art's best contributors and while people dance, tap their feet or bob their heads to his music all these years later, hardly anyone knows his name today.

His recording career was mercilessly brief (roughly 1968-76), concentrated most heavily in 1970 and 1971, when producer Bob Porter was helping birth that confluence of jazz, r&b and rock that yielded a new kind of funk that wouldn't be appreciated until the 1990s when it was revived and revered as what became known as "rare groove" and "acid jazz." Spencer was part of the appreciation society, but - oddly - his career never recovered when admiration of his music did.

Leon Spencer was born in Houston, Texas, on November 1, 1945, and started piano lessons early, studying the instrument for more than 10 years. He gigged around Texas with David Newman then attended Texas Southern University to study engineering. He later attended the University of Houston. After getting out of the army, Spencer heard Jimmy Smith in person and decided to take up the organ and backed Houston visitors like Peggy Lee and Lou Rawls when they came through town.

He also gigged around Texas with fellow Houston native, guitarist Melvin Sparks, whom he first met while the two were in school together. In 1969, Spencer spent three months in Los Angeles, where he made his recording debut with guitarist Wilbert Longmire, who he'd work with again over the years. He came to New York in 1970 and immediately found opportunities working with his friend, Melvin Sparks, who'd already established a journeyman reputation in New York and over the years has recorded with practically every jazz organ player except, strangely enough, Jimmy Smith.

"As a player," wrote Bob Porter in his 1997 notes to Legends of Acid Jazz - Leon Spencer, "Spencer was all Jimmy Smith on top, but his use of organ bass was most unusual. He would use the lower manual much more than most players and develop bass lines that had considerably more than average range. It is fortunate that master engineer Rudy Van Gelder was aboard for these dates because he brings out the very best in Spencer's organ sound."

Spencer is too often unfairly or inaccurately compared to Jimmy Smith when he's considered at all, or marginalized as a mere imitator not worthy of further merit. But this does not do justice to what Spencer brings of himself to the Hammond B-3.

Spencer may use "The Boss" as a launching pad of inspiration. But he goes places that Smith would have never dared, mixing the cosmic funk of Larry Young and Lonnie Smith with the spacey soul of rockers Greg Rolie, Brian Auger, Steve Winwood or Ray Manzarek. Young R&B-3ers like Billy Preston and Booker T. Jones seemed to have had something to say to Spencer as well.

As a composer, Leon Spencer contributed a number of strong funky originals to most of the sessions he participated in. But, oddly enough, the tunes themselves weren't that memorable as melodies. You listened to them for their rhythmic foundation and remained transfixed by what the improvisers did to enhance the groove.

The melody of Spencer's tunes seemed to be derived from little more than vampy highlights or accents to the exotic rhythms he laid out with his bass pedals. The structure was based on the blues; simple ideas that could be expressed in one, two or three chords (no complicated changes) and the delivery was a hook that could grab any listener's attention in a few short seconds.

There is something of a signature to many of Spencer's tunes that render them almost meaningless in anyone else's hands, which may explain why his music is never covered by other players. For this reason, most of Spencer's few compositions stand out in the boogaloo crowd and sound different than most other organ combo grooves.

Surprisingly, when the "acid jazz" renaissance of the 1990s re-launched many an old funkster's career, Leon Spencer was left out of the equation and all inherent retro celebrations. Several of Spencer's old recordings began to appear on CD - one under his own name - but Spencer, undoubtedly rooted back in Houston, was neither asked nor resurrected to claim what was, at least in part, certainly his due.

So, what happened to Leon Spencer?

Was he unable or unwilling to stay in New York for the sake of plying a low-pay trade on a heavy instrument which began falling out of favor almost completely in 1973, the year he disappeared from records? Did he refuse to do session work? Was he too forthright a personality to do sessions that pleased producers or other leaders? Was he too headstrong to commit to backing other leaders and possibly get stuck in their fake book of outdated standards? Was he too unyielding to adapt his groove to the changing tastes and the onslaught of disco? Is it, simply and sadly, that no one ever asked him to come back?

Who knows? While I, for one, would like to know and hear more of Leon Spencer, it's time now to consider the groovy evidence he left behind for us to enjoy and remember him by.

Revolution - Wilbert Longmire (World Pacific, 1969): After gigging around Ohio with Hank Marr and recording an album with Trudy Pitts in New York, guitarist Wilbert Longmire went out to California, where he met Houston native Leon Spencer. This album resulted and ended up as a first for both players: Longmire's first record as a leader and Spencer's first official recording. The whole thing was arranged by Jazz Crusader and fellow Houston native Joe Sample and also featured Wilton Felder, also a Jazz Crusader and fellow Houston native. The album is a collection of jazzed up covers of pop hits of the day, caressed by what liner notes writer Philip Elwood refers to as Longmire's "elegant" and "melodic" lines. Spencer gets several spots and tears up the super-charged "Scarborough Fair/Canticle," "Galveston," and Longmire's bluesy "Movin' On" on organ and takes a nice solo on the "Bewitched" theme on piano.

Pretty Things - Lou Donaldson (Blue Note, 1970): Leon Spencer, who was no doubt introduced to Lou Donaldson by the alto saxist's guitarist at the time, Melvin Sparks, appears on all but one of this album's six songs (the opener, "Tennessee Waltz") and contributes the funky great "Curtis' Song" to the program. Donaldson's group on these tracks consists of Leon Spencer with Blue Mitchell on trumpet, Ted Dunbar on guitar and Idris Muhammad on drums. Odd that Melvin Sparks wasn't at this session, but he did appear three days later on Rusty Bryant's Soul Liberation, where he as good as burns down the title track.

Sparks! - Melvin Sparks (Prestige, 1970): This marks the first occasion that "The Mod Squad," producer Bob Porter's name for the hip triumvirate of organist Leon Spencer, guitarist Melvin Sparks and drummer Idris Muhammad, recorded together. Sparks' covers here - Sly and the Family Stone's "Thank You," The Coasters' "Charlie Brown" and, most notably, Eric Burdon and War's "Spill the Wine" - are well known, well sampled, well compiled and well worth every second to hear how tight this unit was. Spencer contributes the driving funk of "The Stinker" to the program. Issued on CD as part of Sparks!/Akilah! (BGP, 1993) and Legends of Acid Jazz - Melvin Sparks (Prestige, 1996).

The Scorpion - Live at the Cadillac Club - Lou Donaldson (Blue Note, 1970): First issued in 1995, this formerly unissued live performance was recorded on the same day as another unissued studio album Donaldson recorded with the same group that included two takes of this CD's title song (one of which was issued on the 1995 Blue Note compilation The Lost Grooves) and the excellent "Turn It On," which Spencer ended up recording and releasing under Sonny Stitt's name. Spencer contributes the first-rate title song and jams rather interestingly on Lonnie Smith's excellent "Peepin'."

Sneak Preview - Leon Spencer Jr. (Prestige, 1970): Leon Spencer couldn't have started out any better than he did here, as part of what was dubbed Prestige's "Mod Squad," with Virgil Jones on trumpet, then-unknown Grover Washington, Jr. on tenor sax and Buddy Caldwell on conga. The players are strong, the playing is strong and the program is strong too. Spencer contributes three interesting originals ("The Slide," "First Gravy" and "Sneak Preview), takes on a jazz standard ("Someday My Prince Will Come") and chooses two R&B hits of the day (The Meters' "Message from the Meters" and The Presidents' "5-10-15-20 (25-30 Years of Love)"). Spencer is authoritative throughout, a commanding and inviting presence on the B-3 and inspiring equally well-done performances from the other musicians. The well-sampled "Message from the Meters" is unquestionably the album's highlight. Issued on CD as part of Legends of Acid Jazz - Leon Spencer (Prestige, 1997).

Turn It On! - Sonny Stitt (Prestige, 1971): Jazz sax legend Sonny Stitt recorded prolifically throughout the 1960s and 1970s, often showing up and blowing over whatever they made him play, collecting his paycheck and playing the standards he preferred in the clubs at night. Here, producer Bob Porter assembled "The Mod Squad" of Leon Spencer, Melvin Sparks and Idris Muhammad with Virgil Jones to back Stitt on a program of three Spencer originals (the excellent "Turn It On," "Bar-B-Que Man" and "Miss Riverside") and two older numbers or, er, semi-standards ("Cry Me A River" and "There Are Such Things"). The playing here is uniformly top-shelf, but weakened somewhat by someone's insistence that Stitt electrify his tenor with a Gibson Maestro Attachment, which gave his otherwise beautiful sound the quality of a farting duck. There is no reprieve. He's electrified the whole time. So it's a pleasure to hear anyone else but him play. Still, all concerned blow the roof off the house. The long "Turn It On" is a classic and it, along with the equally sinister funk of "Miss Riverside," overcome any weaknesses otherwise present and makes this album an essential acid jazz purchase. Issued on CD as part of Legends of Acid Jazz - Sonny Stitt (Prestige, 1996).

You Talk That Talk! - Ammons & Stitt! (Prestige, 1971): Probably the most traditionally jazz-oriented date Leon Spencer ever participated in, You Talk That Talk! is dominated by the dueling saxes of co-leaders Gene Ammons on tenor and Sonny Stitt on tenor and the creepy Varitone. As a consequence, it's difficult to hear Spencer's personality here - even on his perfunctory blues, "You Talk That Talk." It sounds as if Spencer was brought to the session by Bob Porter and both Ammons and Stitt wholly disapproved. Spencer doesn't solo much and seems far more restrained than usual. Ammons' guitarist at the time, the great George Freeman, replaced Melvin Sparks in Porter's "Mod Squad" and brings a very different sound to the Spencer/Muhammad groove. One would guess that the sax legends were dissatisfied with Porter in all of this too. Issued on CD as part of Legends of Acid Jazz - Gene Ammons (Prestige, 1997).

Akilah! - Melvin Sparks (Prestige, 1971): In which Spencer's reign of participating in albums titled with exclamation points ends. Hard to see why an Arabic word that means bright or intelligent needs exclamation. Be that as it may, the "Mod Squad" collaborates to produce another notable effort here. Sparks starts it off with the cover of Kool and the Gang's "Love the Life You Live" which, fine as it is, sounds completely out of place here. Even at its brisk tempo, it leaps and lopes too strangely for your average funkster. The album kicks into gear on "On the Up," the first and best of Sparks' four compositions here. Spencer solos distinctively on "On the Up" and "Blues for J.B.," switches to piano for "Akilah" and contributes the mid-tempo ballad "The Image of Love" (a feature for the guitarist and flutist Hubert Laws). Issued on CD as part of Sparks!/Akilah! (BGP, 1993).

Fire-Eater - Rusty Bryant (Prestige, 1971): Leon Spencer reunites with guitarist Wilbert Longmire on only two of this excellent album's four tracks, "The Hooker" and "Mister S," both Spencer compositions. While they're good, they can't hold a candle to the album's other two tracks ("Fire-Eater" and "Free at Last") with Spencer replaced by even less well-known organist Bill Mason. Issued on CD as part of Legends of Acid Jazz - Rusty Bryant, Volume 2 (Prestige, 1998).

Spark Plug - Melvin Sparks (Prestige, 1971): Leon Spencer appears only on one of this album's five tracks, the heavily sampled cover of Kool and the Gang's "Who's Gonna Take the Weight," featuring great solos by both Sparks and Spencer. Sparks also recorded the album's title track with Spencer, but this version went unissued in favor of one featuring organist Reggie Roberts, who mans the B-3 on the album's best track, "Conjunction Mars," and throughout the rest of the disc. Issued on the CD titled as part of Legends of Acid Jazz - Melvin Sparks (Prestige, 1996).

Louisiana Slim - Leon Spencer (Prestige, 1971): Leon Spencer's (no Jr. this time) second album reassembles The Mod Squad with Grover Washington, Jr., Virgil Jones and Buddy Caldwell and gets even better results. Spencer contributes four originals to the program (the excellent "Louisiana Slim," the light and breezy mid-tempo "Our Love Will Never Die," showcasing one of Grover Washington's only performances on flute, and the near-gospel swing of "The Trouble With Love") and covers "Mercy, Mercy Me" (featuring a beautiful spotlight for Grover Washington, Jr., recorded two months before his own famous version for Kudu) and "(They Long To Be) Close To You." Louisiana Slim is a fine showcase for Spencer's writing and playing abilities and while Sparks hovers more in the background than usual here, Grover Washington, Jr. steps to the fore, showing his genuine talent and genius soulfulness. Issued on CD as part of Legends of Acid Jazz - Leon Spencer (Prestige, 1997).

Black Vibrations - Sonny Stitt (Prestige, 1971): Some sort of tension between Stitt and Spencer seems to have erupted on this album as Stitt insisted on replacing Spencer with longtime associate Don Patterson on two of this album's six tracks. Spencer contributes three tracks to the program, the expertly moody "Black Vibrations," "Them Funky Changes" and the album's best and best-known track, "Goin' to D.C." Issued on CD as part of Legends of Acid Jazz - Sonny Stitt (Prestige, 1996).

Cosmos - Lou Donaldson (Blue Note, 1971): The Mod Squad is still featured on this album, but it's the first of alto sax player Lou Donaldson's overly commercialized albums of the 1970s, and as such adds unnecessary vocals and additional musicians to the brew, including the great electric bassist, Jerry Jemmott. The addition of an electric bassist almost wipes out any personality Leon Spencer could bring to the occasion. But he solos well on the album's two best and funkiest tracks, Donaldson's "The Caterpillar" and Curtis Mayfield's "If There's a Hell Below (We're All Going To Go)."

Bad Walking Woman - Leon Spencer (Prestige, 1972): I don't know this album, so here is what the redoubtable Dusty Groove has to say: Supremely heavy work from organist Leon Spencer -- one of his classic jazz funk sessions for Prestige Records, and a record that shows him opening up his sound a bit more than before! The album has Spencer working in a few different lineups -- some with small groups that feature Melvin Sparks on guitar and Idris Muhammad on drums -- others with some slightly larger instrumentation and even a bit of strings, used in a sophisticatedly soulful style that reminds us a bit of CTI or Kudu backings of the time! Billy Ver Planck handles the larger arrangements, but even on these Leon's organ is right out front in the mix -- really dominating the tunes, and soaring over the top with a newly fluid style that reminds us of Charles Earland at his own best during this time. Titles include the killer funky title cut -- "Bad Walking Woman" -- plus "When My Love Has Gone", "In Search Of Love", "Down On Dowling Street", "Hip Shaker", and "Bad Walking Woman". Cool cover, too, with a huge collage of photos of the backsides of exactly 99 "bad walking women"! (Reissued recently on vinyl only).

Where I'm Coming From - Leon Spencer (Prestige, 1973): Another good one from Leon Spencer and, regrettably, his recorded swan song as a solo artist. For the most part, the group is a bit larger than usual and arrangements are handled by keyboardist Ed Bogas, who worked at the time with Cal Tjader. appropriately locates this album "somewhere between Blaxploitation funk and some of the grooves from the CTI/Kudu camp." I couldn't have put it better myself. The covers are well chosen and include intense workouts of Stevie Wonder's "Superstition," Curtis Mayfield's "Give Me Your Love" (from Super Fly), The Four Tops' "Keeper of the Castle" and Marvin Gaye's scintillating "Trouble Man" (recorded some two months before Grover Washington, Jr.'s excellent version). A notable change here is that Melvin Sparks and Idris Muhammad are not present on five of the album's six tracks, replaced by Joe Beck and Grady Tate; fine accompanists indeed, but the "Mod Squad" had clearly disbanded and times were a-changing. Bassist George Duvivier adds bottom to the four cover tunes, negating the need for Spencer to work his pedals into the heated groove one would expect from his records. Still, things click back into place on the Leon Spencer-Joe Beck-Grady Tate trio take of Spencer's "The Price A Po' Man's Got To Pay" and on Spencer's title cut, "Where I'm Coming From," the album's highlight. This last track, recorded at the February 1972 Bad Walking Woman sessions, is a classic and spots a nice feature for flutist Hubert Laws. Reissued recently on vinyl only.

This Side of Heaven - Wilbert Longmire (J&M, 1976): The album's jacket lists no credits outside of the leader on what sounds like a guitar quartet minimally highlighted by a few string instruments. Tom Lord's The Jazz Discography credits Leon Spencer as keyboardist and vibes player here and it is probably guitarist Wilbert Longmire's third solo album, cut right before he made his three better known records for Tappan Zee (Sunny Side Up, the tremendous Champagne and With All My Love). If indeed it is Spencer heard here, he helms the electric piano - no organ - for five of the obscure and brief album's six tracks, overdubbing vibes on "Barbara." It's really Longmire's show, though, and he sounds beautiful throughout, if not a little reminiscent of George Benson, who is friends with the Ohio-based guitarist. The ever reliable Smooth has this one available for download on his incredible My Jazz World blog.

Dance Lesson #2 - Karl Denson (Blue Note, 2001): After what appears to be a quarter century absence from records, organist Leon Spencer, Jr. (as he's billed here again) pops up on former Greyboy Allstar Karl Denson's funky Blue Note debut. Spencer teams with old pal Melvin Sparks, MMW bassist Chris Wood and the unnecessary sound effects of DJ Logic on five of the album's nine tracks, including Spencer's own middling "I Want the Funk." Denson's "Flute Talk" and "A Shorter Path #2," are the disc's high points but Spencer is also on hand for "Dance Lesson #2" and "Who Are You." As before, Spencer gets his personality trounced somewhat by the presence of a bassist. More locomotion for the machine is ok. But not when it cancels out one of the more prominent drivers. As it stands, Spencer just kind of vanishes into the music like he disappeared again from the music after this and has not been heard on records since.


Jenny said...

Not sure if he's still alive -- or still playing -- but he is apparently back in Houston.

Check out here:

From his now defunct website: "For information regarding Leon Spencer Jr. the Soul Jazz Organist Extraordinary you can call the Leon Spencer agency at 713-738-7788.
The Leon Spencer agency provides unlimited entertainment to meet the needs and demands for all occasions. As a Licensed theatrical booking agent we are in contact with just about everyone in entertainment (inclusive of radio personalities, T. V. - movie stars, national speakers and famous athletes.)"

From a webpage where he apparently performed for some folks:

And, finally:

The Spencer Leon Agency
4830 Mayflower St
Houston, TX 77033-3521
(713) 738-7788

I'd love to find out what happened myself -- will you call him?


PS Is this the same Doug Payne who did that great Oliver Nelson discography? If so, sir, I am impressed. Can we talk?

Douglas Payne said...

Hey Jenny - thanks for the info and the kind words. You can contact me at

Hammond Jake said...

Hi Doug - Great write-up of Leon's recording career. I too am baffled (though not surprised) by his apparent low profile amongst Hammond heavywieghts.

What sets him apart to my ears is his unique left hand - those sinuous bass lines and his sense of time and groove make for a definite 'signature' sound.

I first encountered him on the 'The Scorpion' (Blue Note Lost Grooves version), which remains one of my favourite organ grooves to this day (along with Louisiana Slim).

I agree with your comments on the Karl Denson album - unfortunately, when you take away Leon's left hand you take away more than half his contribution. Even when (as elsewhere) you have the excellent and groovy Jerry Jemmott on Fender bass, you can't help but wish for both of Mr Spencer's hands!

As boogaloo and soul-jazz gave way to disco, I note that many of the Hammond 'names' went with it, invariably adding electric bass (and non-Hammond 'keyboards') to their recordings, supplying only right hand grooves to what became very 'produced' albums. Perhaps this environment didn't best suit Leon's unique talents?

Anonymous said...

Leon Spencer at the Jazz Standard with Alvin Queen's Sexter featuring Melvin Sparks, Thursday-Sunday 10/21-24/2010

Selena said...

Leon Spencer is/was an amazing organist, listening to Louisiana Slim right now. Brilliant. Nice write up about him.

Author at Cellulean