Saturday, July 16, 2016

Delving into Len Spencer

(that's Spencer well re-touched and dressed dandyish in 1890-92)

It could easily be noticed that Len Spencer is an important name as far as this blog goes, and sometimes it might seem redundant, of which I do apologize. This also goes for Fred Hylands as well, but there's a reason very specifically why I continue to mention Hylands, and his kind great-great nieces know why. I still cannot thank you girls enough for all that you have done to help with Fred and Etta!
Anyway, sorry to get sidetracked, Spencer is mentioned many times on this blog for a variety of reasons, and it truly does surprise me how little collectors speak of him, and the fact that there are some that do not like his records. Not particularly liking his records I can understand, but it does seem like a setback when speaking to a collector who thinks this. There's really a whole lot more to Spencer than just the large repertoire of all the most racist Coon songs of the late 1890's. That's why most people back away slowly after hearing one of his records, as they are the most shamelessly offensive of the early studio Coon song singers. Most of the time, they've got Arthur Collins' records beat by a mile. Once you get past the racist material, there's a whole lot of great irony that comes with Spencer. 
He wasn't particularly prejudiced at all, though sometimes those offensive notions creep in to some of his doings. He wasn't as much so as Fred Hylands, who did not enjoy working with George W. Johnson, and later started a Union only for whites, to keep out anyone of colour. Yes, I know, even with that deed, I still enjoy Hylands, as that sort of thing right there is what makes him more interesting and complicated, I certainly don't think it was the most considerate thing to do, but it's typical for the era nonetheless. Back to Spencer. We know that he was very kind and amiable to George W. Johnson, and helped him along in the last twenty or so years of his life, which was a genuinely good thing for him to do, as there really weren't any more studio stars or record managers who cared enough to do that for him. 
It can be assured that Spencer was good to women, as he grew up around not only a strong mother, but around very influential and revolutionary ladies of the 19th century, which would include Clara Barton, Susan B. Anthony, and Clara Woodhull(look her up of you don't know about her).With all of this enlightened teachings to treat women as equals on all levels, it can be insured that the women he married were lucky as far as men went in the 1880's and 1890's. 
He was first married at 18 to a lady named Margaret Kaiser, who was a few years older than him(unusual for the time!), and this was in 1885. He was, when married to Margaret, a young teacher at his father's business college. What he was teaching, I have no idea, but would love to know!(if you know, input your thoughts in the comments!) One thing is for sure however, he was unhappy as a teacher, and wasn't sure if that was what he wanted to spend his life doing. I've always thought it would be interesting to have him as a college teacher, just to truly see a side of him of which almost nothing has been documented. He was just beginning his family in 1887 when his first child was born, Sara Allen, one of five girls. By 1888, he was still working as a teacher, and occasionally caring for little Sara, but later that year, a new fascination came to the District of Columbia. This was the birth of the Columbia phonograph company. Since Len's father learned of this new revolutionary device, he had a single office dictation phonograph installed at the college, and once Len had learned of this, he went daily to experiment with the thing. He did not use the contraption exactly for what its intended use was, he saw if he could record his voice, and also record various things that made interesting sounds. Soon afterward, his father found out about this, and probably got very cross with him, as he wasn't really doing his job as a teacher anymore, or at least by this time not very well. In late-1889, he was finally reluctantly dropped by his father from the teaching position, as by then, he was beginning to make records for the local Columbia company, taking parts and getting repairs from them for recording on his own. It took until 1890 for his name to begin showing up in Columbia catalogs, and by then, he was officially a Columbia recording artist. I would love to know what his wife thought of this strange and immediate transition, as she was probably not really sure if this new career would work since it was part of such a young new business. 

When thinking chronologically with Spencer, 1891 was one of the hardest years for him, as this was the most important transition year in his life. He was already working for Columbia as we know, but his regular record-making was cut short by the death of his father, which meant that the will and college headmaster position had to go to Len, but we know that he only took some of the money and ran, without wanting to be college headmaster. To only complicate the year even more, his wife caught smallpox, and not long afterward, his little Sara did as well. While caring for them, he couldn't go out to fulfill his duties at Columbia. By the middle of that year, his wife and daughter had both died, which left him broken and unsure of what to do next. As could be guessed, he went right back to working at Columbia, but did not remarry until the middle of 1892. 

His second marriage is one that was very unusual for the time period, and just odd in general. He married Elizabeth Norris in mid-1892, but soon afterward, he split with her. Perhaps we will never know why this happened, and it continues to perplex me. From 1892 to 1895, he was a regular studio worker, doing announcements, sound effects, and making his own records occasionally. He remained single for a few more years, until eventually re-marrying Elizabeth. Very strange indeed.  This marriage is where the two Spencer daughters came from, the ones that were later interviewed by Jim Walsh. 

With all of this background, it makes Spencer very interesting, and it set up much of his almost bi-polar means in situations we read about him from later. What makes Spencer truly like the subject of a period novel is how strange and polarizing he was outside the studios. Most of the articles we read seem really fun and playful, painting a picture of a thrill-seeking, complicated, and humorous character as Spencer. A good example of this is that hilarious 1898 tale of the trolley car crash on Broadway:
I think you could guess that this came from The Phonoscope. 

Wow! Every time I read this it still makes me laugh. I bet that his friends standing outside the studio doors ran down the street once they heard something, that's funny to imagine also(because it would probably include Steve Porter, Russell Hunting and Fred Hylands...). The reference in this section above to the piano flipping over on him was also written of in and earlier edition of The Phonoscope:
Love it every time. 
Like I've said before, that was why Columbia's piano sounded awful for several months of 1897. Thanks Len! 
It's funny how he didn't allow anyone to help him out when moving the piano, as I would think that some of the studio workers would have offered help, but of course, he objected to the logical idea, and made the piano tell him the same. Without knowing much of his personality, these two sections above really say a whole lot about him, and that the ways that I describe him on this blog are not just guesses. A better picture has been painted of Spencer than of Fred Hylands, I can tell you that much. With Hylands, we've really only got his publishing firm advertisement from 1899 and his self-loathing comment from 1898:
Oh sigh, you boys work me too much...

Spencer must have found that hilarious, thinking of his sense of humor from those auction records, and of course that cable car incident. But I hope you can see now why Spencer and Hylands not only got along musically. It's funny, first Spencer was a good friend of Edward Issler, and it remained a strong friendship until Hylands came along and stole Len's heart and ears. 

If there was any one of these early recording stars to write a book on, it would have to be Spencer, and I know that might sound strange coming from the Fred Hylands freak, but it's true. Whether you like him or not, he did the most for the early recording business than any of the other early studio stars. Sure, you can not like that Spencer was an alcoholic, probably did drugs of some kind, got into fights, caught some kind of venereal disease, and did other usually-considered-despicable things, but all of those things make him the most complicated and ever-interesting of these widely-forgotten studio stars. 

Keep listening out there! 

Hope you enjoyed this! 


  1. Here's a mystery piece...

    No idea on the company or performer...

  2. I have not heard of Metropolitan Orchestra on cylinder before...but there's some piano audible and the minor section is also included in this version of "Angel's Serenade" -

  3. Thanks Ramona for keeping up this blog! We will keep you posted of any new info on the Hylands fam! :)

    1. Thank you so much! I would love to know anything new you find or find out, many people in my Rag-time community can't believe that I'm in contact with you.