Sunday, February 12, 2017

Columbia's Jack of All Trades--Len Spencer

Well, it seems to be about the time to do a post on Len Spencer once more, especially since it's his 150th birthday! It would be hard to speak about the early recording business in general means without at least mentioning Len Spencer. You can't talk about the history of Columbia without mentioning Spencer, so he must be important. 

Talking about Spencer never gets old, since there's so much that goes into anything about him, and his personality seemed to never be dull. He was just like one of those supposed 800 electric lights that Columbia set up at their headquarters at 1155 Broadway, so bright and seemingly everlasting. 
Of course, there's not really a great account out there that best describes Spencer's character, but from the little bits we get here and there in The Phonoscope and in Theatrical magazines, we can piece together a fantastic personality. We could just begin with the way Spencer looked, since he was someone who couldn't be missed at Columbia, or anywhere for that matter. He was likely one of the tallest members of Columbia's staff, at about 6 foot 4, he made any recording session an adventure in balancing an setup. Also, how could you forget that crazy hair! His hair always seemed to look different, no matter what day it was, or what was in fashion(notice that his hair looked different in every photograph of him). Most often, he had to straighten his hair with irons it seemed, because oddly enough, his hair naturally appeared similar to that "Dandy Sandy" character he portrayed on all those recordings. By that, it is meant that his hair was a kinky, curly mess when it wasn't cared for. In burnt cork, you would barely notice if he was white, being that his bright green eyes only gave that away. Even most who came to the exhibitions were shocked to see that Spencer was white, thinking before that he was most certainly a black man, since his records were so convincing to most listeners. 

We know very well that he began working at Columbia by chance in 1888, when his father, Henry Caleb Spencer Sr., bought a phonograph to use as an office dictation device, and almost as soon as it was acquired, young teacher Len caught wind of it. Recall that Len was a teacher at this time(still don't know what he was teaching...), and comfortably married with a baby girl at home, so he seemed like any normal 21-year-old in the late-1880's. Of course, playing around with this new recording device completely dissolved his previous career, unknowingly it did this. Once he began frequently experimenting with the thing, he began going back and forth to the newly established Columbia headquarters, to further dig into what this new contraption held. By 1889, the Columbia staff hired him finally, out of his boiling curiosity and desire to work for them. He had to do everything himself though, set up the machines, play the piano accompaniment, state the announcements, and of course sing for the machines, all at once. During these earliest days at Columbia, Spencer oddly enough used the pseudonym of "Gary Allen", and he used this name until about 1893, why? I don't know. There had to have been a reason for it. Something certainly Columbia related. I've only had the chance to hear a snippet of one of these few surviving records of Spencer's. While doing that, Spencer also worked as Edward Issler's "roadie" of a sort, which meant that he went to Issler performances outside of the studio(having to do with record companies), as well as being Issler's sound man in the studios. Issler's orchestra records are the oldest examples of Spencer we have so far, even if they are just announcements and sound effects, they are still important recordings, and not just for Issler. 

By 1896, Spencer was recording not for Columbia, but the U. S. Phonograph company. Recall that this company was essentially the test run for Columbia's setup in management in the later part of the decade. I'm only saying this because Victor Emerson ran the company for the entirety of its existence. Spencer also happened to remain there for that long as well, working there for the most part in the mid-1890's. Spencer's pianist in the studio for everyday work was Issler so nothing was changed from before. It was all business as usual for Len, other than getting himself in a tangle with the film business in 1895-96. What was this? Well, we can thank Russell Hunting and Steve Porter for this scramble, since they were the ones who decided to start a small film company in that period. This somehow pulled in Spencer, and when I say Spencer, I mean both of them. Though Henry(Harry) was the one who ended up with all of the film equipment, Len was also involved in this endeavor, and it was inevitable that he would be, since his natural curiosity pulled him in, and it was Hunting's idea after all. After that passed over, it left Len ever-curious about film and photography, and this never seemed to leave him for the rest of his life. In 1897, Len was forced out of the U. S. Company, jut as everyone else was, since the company was crumbling quick. With that gone, Len was fully engaged with Columbia, soon signing a contract to ensure this until after 1900. Around the same time as becoming Columbia's main baritone and everything man, a new unusual face entered in Columbia's studio, and this was not just a new manager or singer. 
That new face was this one:
Fred Hylands. 
Spencer had likely heard around of the management searching around for a "Rag-Time" pianist, and once they found him, Spencer probably was very interested in who this might be. Soon Spencer was in for a surprise, he was different from the previous Columbia pianists, a fantastic Rag pianist, and a genuine one too, fresh out of Chicago's clubs. Spencer quickly got to know this strange young Indiana chap, and was wanting to know more of him. Whether he liked it or not, Spencer saw Hylands every day at Columbia, on his good days, and bad ones. Spencer had been used to working with the agreeable and industrious Issler, so seeing him leave Columbia by the end of 1897 was a little awkward for him, he now was only to be stuck with this still slightly strange "rag" pianist. Once 1898 came along, Issler was gone, and Columbia was fully settled in their New York office, so was Spencer. This year was a very productive one for Spencer's repertoire, as all of these fantastic Rag-Time songs were published, and that meant that Spencer had to try and grasp all of them, but that also meant a lot more time with Hylands in the studio. His records with Spencer are(sorry for saying this for the hundredth time...)  among the best examples of Rag-Time out there, and his 1898 Columbia recordings are some of the better ones in fact. 

It seems that Spencer and Hylands had a complicated friendship, more so that many would think by just hearing their records. There are layers to this. The first thing to note and consider with Spencer and Hylands is the fact that Spencer was essentially the vocalist equivalent to Hylands, and Hylands was the pianist equivalent to Spencer as a vocalist. Their abilities and tendencies with Rag-Time and music in general were the same, and this is why they worked so well together, it's also why their records are so much fun to listen to. They also had their differences... Spencer was serious about his work, and therefore very industrious in this matter, but Fred was not like that by any means. Fred(at least by the middle of 1898, remember that he was heavier at this point in time) had grown weary of Columbia to some extent, and like none of the pianists preceding him he grew tired and moody with later takes and later recordings in the days. 
I would always like to imagine one of these conversations as thus:

"What's wrong with you Fred? We've still got a few more songs to go at."

"Aww Len...don't make me do it. Ah'm all worn out. Ah'm drenched with sweat all over, no fan could help me here. Ya might as well go one home."

"Quit that Fred, and play! We've got to get to our finish Freddy."

Something like that. If you haven't already guessed, I really like to write dialogue between Spencer and Hylands. Their banter between takes must have been just as good as the material on the records. As we know, Spencer's relationship with Hylands didn't stop there, as we well know of the whole publishing venture of the next year. It seems that the publishing firm was started because the two of them thought they were a good enough duo in the studio to where they thought the business aspect of music could agree with them. Of course, we don't really know which one of the trio(Hylands, Spencer, and Yeager) dropped the idea in the first place, but it's likely that Hylands did, since he must have been flustered over the last failure with Roger Harding and Steve Porter("The Knickerbockers"), he was more than happy to sign the next year and a half of his life to Spencer and Harry Yeager. Recall that Harry Yeager was Spencer's booking agent, for that minstrel troupe that he forced to travel around in horrible weather...yep, that one. Harry was likely pulled into the partnership by Hylands, who needed as much stability as he could get with this firm, so Yeager helped to provided for some of this. Spencer created that beautiful footer:
(from my collection)
And it made their pieces of music attractive to a degree that not many other publishers had at that time. At the beginning of the firm, Spencer was the sole reason that they were publishing music, because of "You Don't Stop the World From Goin Round", which was essentially their biggest hit, as Hylands had long assumed, as did other publishers. As much as Spencer ran the firm, he wasn't the sole leader, since he had recording to get to every day, and so did the man who owned the firm(Hylands). While bound together under the firm, Hylands and Spencer still went to the studio to fulfill their duties in recording. It was during this period of the publishing firm that we get some of their best recordings, and also when we see the most of Hylands in the studio, behind every one of those singers, and in the studio orchestra always. Spencer also took to having Hylands as his stage accompanist, which meant that he would go on the tours that his minstrel troupe went on in 1899-1900. He was playing piano most of the time, though sometimes playing bones(!) and running sound effects to some extent.  Here's a more detailed description of one of these performances:
Who's Harry Cooke?  
(it might mean that we found another Columbia Rag pianist... here we go again...)

Anyway, back to Spencer... These tours took place at the end of 1898, 1899, and in May 1900(thank you Phonoscope!), and they were for promoting much of Columbia's records, the Imperial minstrels series, as well as Hylands Spencer and Yeager music, which by late-1899, was relatively popular, with agents in Toronto and in London. With all of that in place, it seemed that the firm was actually going to last, and benefit Columbia more than Emerson or Easton ever could have thought. By early 1900, the firm was at its height, though Spencer couldn't actually contribute to Hylands' cause nearly as much at that point. A little bitter, Hylands probably acted as such around him for this short period of time(of course until the performances they did in May of that year, such as the one in the image above), when Hylands supposedly got a crap ton of music sales after that tour(don't know if that's true...), of course he could forget his bitter taste with Spencer. That didn't last long though, by the middle of the year(summer more or less), Hylands rarely saw Spencer outside the studio, and then the bitterness came back. Of course in the studio they were almost every day making records still, that couldn't be avoided, and unfortunately for Spencer, Fred's bitterness was just the same. Spencer was getting in all his engagements with Harry Yeager, some with Hylands, some not, but this angered Fred, since it meant he was essentially all alone with the whole publishing thing, everyone else by this time was disbanding, as it was also this time that the old "Columbia Clan" was beginning to break up. By Fall, Spencer didn't seem to bother with Fred's publishing any more, as his new engagements with Victor and Berliner were becoming more important, and his contract with Columbia was soon to wear off. By October and November, Fred had sent out a scathing letter to everyone involved, and published one in The Music Trade Review around this time as well. Of course, Spencer was not happy about this, likely being indifferent with Fred, but at the same time avoiding as much conversation as before the whole thing. We can well assume Fred to be a moody chap, using the scathing letter in The Music Trade Review as an example. 

Despite this, Spencer slowly drifted away from solely doing recording work, and became more a a businessman in dealing vaudeville than a performer. We know that in 1903, Spencer was the manager of the Crystal Theater on Union Square, which was actually a very prestigious theater at the time, and it came as a surprise when I found this. Of course, we only know this because of theatrical magazines at the time, but mainly because of that hilariously ridiculous fight he got into with one of his performers. 

Yep, that one. 
Again, seems typical of Spencer. Recall that he had a scar on his face from getting into a knife fight as a youth. Sums up a lot about him. Wouldn't be surprising if Spencer got into fights with Hylands, or anyone like that for that matter. It is likely that the Crystal Theater did not keep him there after this incident, and with that he went off to start his own theater, or Lyceum as it was called. Here he employed some old friends from the recording business, including George W. Johnson as we well know. Johnson was his doorman, all dressed up to greet people who had no idea who he was. Spencer also employed some of his performer friends, like Hylands(this can be confirmed now), and also someone like Vess Ossman was also probably a performer at Spencer's Lyceum. 
During the period of 1905-1910, Spencer made records for Edison, Columbia, Indestructible, Victor, Zon-O-phone, Leeds, and pretty much every other disc label at the time. Some of his records made during this time are throwbacks to what he did ten years before, such as this one with Steve Porter from 1909. It's the same Spencer as ten years before, and oddly enough, Hylands was doing pretty much the same thing in 1909, expect that he was making records anymore. Spencer made many records with Ada Jones in this timeframe, and they were made for all the companies he worked for, which was every one of them that existed at the time. 

I don't need to get into detail about the last years of his life and how he died, because I've done that many times on this blog already, and I hate for this to seem too repetitive. So we'll just skip to the music and records! 

Since it is Spencer's birthday, here are some of my favourite records of his(that I've heard so far, because there are so many!)

 Spencer's hilarious "Having Fun with the Orchestra" with Banta and the Metropolitan orchestra

Two takes of his "My Gal is a High-Born Lady":

Two fantastic takes of "I Don't Care if you Never Comes Back":

There are so many more I could share, but these are the ones I could immediately consider favourites. The thing about Spencer is that there's such a strange variety of selections to choose from. 

Hope you enjoyed this! Starting to get ready for the Santa Cruz Rag-Time festival in two weeks! 

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