Leon Spencer Jr., one of the most melodically funky organists during Prestige's Hammond B-3 era in the early 1970s and whose voicings and guitar-like touch on the instrument provided a powdery groove behind lead horn players, died on March 11. He was 66 and lived in Houston.
Spencer's recording career began in 1968 but didn't become significant in small-group settings until Lou Donaldson's Pretty Things in June 1970. Spencer's style wasn't as bombastic as Charles Earland's nor was it as gospel-tinged as styles unleashed by Brother Jack McDuff, Richard "Groove" Holmes and Jimmy McGriff.
Instead, Spencer combined a lyrical sensibility with a rhythmic approach that thrived on hooks and riffs. He also favored lower-note pedal tones to set up his blues-groove style. Most of all, Spencer had a knack for treating blues and pop standards with the same level of respect, making the blues sound deliciously soulful and pop tunes sound hip.
Spencer was frequently teamed with guitarist Melvin Sparks and drummer Idris Muhammad, becoming the Prestige label's house trio behind tenor saxophonist Grover Washington Jr. and trumpeter Virgil Jones. His last known recording was in 1976 with Wilbert Longmire—a guitarist with whom he recorded his first album.
One of the very first jazz albums I bought as a teen was Spencer's Louisiana Slim. Perfectly produced by Bob Porter, the album featured lengthy blues and several pop tunes—Mercy, Mercy Me, Close to You and Our Love Will Never Die. It was a mix that only Porter and Spencer could pull off. I went through four copies of the album, and I loved it so much that I bought one as a backup in case the others became damaged.
My great regret, of course, is that I didn't get to interview Spencer for JazzWax. Whenever I had the time, the people I turned to for his number didn't have it or weren't sure where he lived in Houston. And then I grew steadily busy and short on time. I would have liked to have told Spencer how much his music meant to me and how much I enjoyed his albums and taste. To this day I can listen to Louisiana Slim and never tire of its joy and gentle energy.
JazzWax tracks: Here are my favorite Leon Spencer Jr. albums, in chronological order...
- Pretty Things—Lou Donaldson (1970)
- Sparks!—Melvin Sparks (1970)
- Turn It On—Lou Donaldson (1970)
- You Talk That Talk—Sonny Stitt and Gene Ammons (1971)
- Louisiana Slim—Leon Spencer (1971)
- Cosmos—Lou Donaldson (1971)
- Bad Walking Woman—Leon Spencer (1972)
JazzWax clips: Here's Leon Spencer Jr. playing Mercy, Mercy Me from Louisiana Slim. The track was used in New York by Batt Johnson of WRVR as the theme to his midnight show...
Here's Spencer's Down on Dowling St. from Bad Walking Woman...
And here's Spencer on You Talk That Talk, the title track of this Ammons and Stitt release (ignore the clip's incorrect song title)...