Friday, January 12, 2018

A birthday with analysis

Well, since I did a post past year on Spencer's birthday, it would seem appropriate to keep with the tradition, since I so greatly admire Spencer and his work. 
Of course when I say "admire" in this context it's not at all in the more attractive context I use when regarding Fred Hager. I cannot enough emphasize how eyeopening those Walsh articles on Spencer. Seeing the sweet side to Spencer described in such vivid detail was heartwarming, and made me see him as a fully realized and complicated human. I'll not stay on that matter, as I described it in that post regarding that, almost moving myself to tears as I wrote it. 
After really reading through those articles a few times, Spencer makes so much more sense, but when I say that, I actually mean he's more complicated. Most of my critical questions regarding him have still not been answered, even after reading all of the articles in great detail. But one thing was evident, after reading the articles, it's clear that the idea of Spencer having two sides is certainly true. 

He had a good side, and a bad side. 

Unfortunately, we may never really know what his "bad side" was truly like, since it's only the other that is spoken of anywhere, and it's likely only what we'll see. This "bad side" was referred to in the articles, but not at all by the daughters(which is probably a good thing). Only from his second wife "Liz" do we get slight hints of something else within him that never showed to his beloved daughters. Of course, what we are teased with is what we crave to know most, and this is exactly what perpetually peeves me. Any time I get to thinking about Spencer, I am reverted to thinking of what his unspoken side was like. The only one who would have known about Spencer as a whole was his wife "Liz", but she fiercely remained silent regarding her affairs with Len. His daughters were all too young to remember him in the 1890's, and only saw him after he had seemed to have calmed down a little(after 1900). From thinking of how his records sounded in 1894-95 compared to 1898, and then to 1906, he  went from a wild youngster with an infectious laugh to a slicker type with perpetual wise cracks. He had all of these attributes throughout his recording career, but these specific characters he played became dominant in his recordings at certain periods of time. 
(he probably wrote this signature left-handed)
A lot of these changes in character must have corresponded with changes in his life, whatever they may have been. 
Other than typical standards of the time, there must have been a reason that Elizabeth was so quiet, and refused to speak of Len. Since she refused to do so around the girls, it must have something to do with Liz and Len's relationship. The suspicion I've always had around his quick and long separation from her seems to rightfully be there, since Walsh seemed a little weirded out by it when he described their marriage in detail. Just to refresh those who forgot exactly why their marriage was strange, they got married in 1892, but then after a few months they separated, and then they remarried in 1895. Since it's also evident that the studio staff gossiped like mad about Spencer, they most likely spread all sorts of stories around regarding this strange separation. Throughout most of his time working every day at the U.S. phonograph company, he was not having to go back home to see Liz. And as expected from Len, once they  remarried(for whatever reason), they got right to business. Just as a side note, the reason I implied that he got right to marital business is that he did that with his first wife, though to the disappointment of all the family, he was only 18. I hope you all know what I mean here with "getting to business", please, don't make me explain it...
When speaking of why Liz was so quiet and reserved(other than standards of the time), all sorts of theories come up. I have had long conversations detailing why this may have been so, some outrageous claims have been made, but some logical. It wouldn't be surprising at all if Len was a frequent cheat, or that Liz hated his gambling habit with a passion. Both of those are very likely true, but it seemed Len was never immune to the vices of a few Columbia staff members. Russell Hunting and Fred Hylands were particularly bad influences on Spencer, or maybe it was the other way around? 
Len's saintly mother knew he was a "wild child" and spoke often of how that was true. She must have resented him, and he must have felt the same. Another layer to Spencer's complexities, was his bitter relationship with his mother. Though some of The Phonoscope sections that mention her say otherwise, there was no way that she enjoyed hearing of her son's ramblings and capers from work. Since he clearly did not hold Liz to an equitable standard, without doubt his mother was cross with him. His mother must have approved of the kind atmosphere that he provided for his daughters, while at the same time scolding him about spending so much time away from the family. In one of the articles, Ethel recalled that her father didn't see the youngest daughter Clara until she was three weeks old. That alone says quite a lot about Spencer, as I would assume he did that sort of thing often. Of course, I'd assume that this was more common with him before 1900, especially in those days of the publishing firm with Hylands. I'm also sure that the family did not at all approve of Hylands, they probably saw him as insensitive "white trash"(excuse my terminology), and probably was kept out of the house. Many others of his co-workers likely had a similar status to Hylands in their home, though the more respectable ones like Steve Porter and Roger Harding were held to a different standard. 

So all of this brings to me the ever illusive question,
what was his bad side?

Of course there's no way to know at this point in time, but we can piece things together from outside sources(by this it's meant other than the family). Fred Gaisberg's accounts of Spencer remain the most questionable and tantalizing of them all, since they regard a side to him that we wouldn't see with the family. Fred Gaisberg not only described him as "particular pet", and specifically stated thus:

Perhaps because of his unsavory reputation, my particular pet and hero of this time was the handsome Len Spencer. 
Later on in the section, Gaisberg elaborates on the subject of his "hero" of his earliest days at Columbia in 1889. 

Later I was always to remember his handsome face disfigured by a scar, the result of a razor-slash in an up-river gambling brawl. he was said to have been an adroit poker-player.
(both of these sections came from A Voice in Time)
In so many ways I agree with what Gaisberg says here, but what's interesting is that many of these comments were contradicted by the accounts that Walsh collected. However, the accounts of managers and fellow co-workers have a sort of value to them that the family accounts do not. Though Gaisberg is not always the best source for these accounts, as many of them are twisted around and exaggerated, but his accounts of Spencer are very realistic, and help us better understand(to a certain extent) why he had this "unsavory reputation". This exact term that Gaisberg used is exactly what I mean by his "bad side". Long before I had the privilege of powering through that book(A Voice in Time) I got little bits of that reputation from all of the usual sources, such as The Phonoscope, even his fellows were hinting at it here and there. 
A perfect example is this infamous section from August or so of 1898: 
Ah yes, that one. 
This hints at another aspect of him that all of us can see in pictures of him, but have very little written evidence of it. 
We all see his rugged face illuminate any picture he's in. Just as Gaisberg described, his face seemed marred by something, and unlike the account, it didn't seem a razor slash was the culprit. By this, I mean that being a ravaging alcoholic may have been the answer. The evidence lies in pictures of him, and in that single Phonoscope section listed above. I'm sure this idea is nothing that Liz would have spoken of, even if directly asked the question. Being involved and rambling around with those Columbia "sports" must not have helped his case, though since he had so much status at Columbia, he was likely the leader of this group(or "fellowship" or whatever you call it...).

 With his clearly dominant influence at Columbia, he likely took a stand to lead the group whenever orders were given from the management, or some serious changes were made in the studio. At a certain point in time, Fred Hylands attempted to take over this role, since he did essentially have the power to do it when he was their house publisher, but he abused that power far faster than Spencer could have expected. 

Other than his addictive side(whether it be alcohol or drugs of any kind), I have pointed out before how he was also a "two-timer" for all of these record companies. He may have been a leader, but at the same time was a first class hustler who was ever loyal to record companies, at whatever costs. He would even do a midnight raid of one company to earn back trust. As we recall that story of him and the Emerson brothers raiding U.S. for Columbia, keep in mind that his gambling habit may have also forced more sneaky under-the-table deals with record companies. 
For the raid, that's how he covered his tracks...using The Phonoscope.
Other than that bust in 1897, and the one in 1894 or so with the North American lawsuit or that weird thing Columbia went through from 1893 to 1896. He clearly had his hands in that weirdness of Columbia around 1893, much like the second time Columbia almost died in 1896-97. Spencer's greed kept him in a smart place at all times in the early days, his hustling skills forced him to learn which companies were best to remain with. While it was a good thing in terms of remaining in the business, it also became part of the so-called "unsavory reputation" that Gaisberg described. 

So even with all of this information I've pieced together regarding his "bad side", I still have no candid evidence of this side to him, at least not from the most reliable sources(his family). But from what we can see, he was a wild man with lots of complicated layers to his soul. We often wonder about this so-called "unsavory reputation" regarding Spencer, with only bits and pieces of what it might actually be, though there is enough to slightly understand how his fellows at work saw and spoke of him. His friends at work often spread rumors about him, one of them was mentioned one of the Walsh articles, and it was kind of regarding his first wife(?), though the names were all out of whack:

...Margaret Agnes Kaiser, whose foster parents were named Allen, is the "Elizabeth Allen" that old-time Columbia officials thought Len married in a runaway match...

I still do not know for the life of me what "runaway match" means in this context, please, if someone knows please leave a comment on this post.
Okay, at least that kind of explains where Spencer got that strange pseudonym from on his early records. Luckily, someone put up one of those highly desired records by Spencer with that strange "Gary Allen" pseudonym, so now we can hear one of them!
here's the c.1891-92 Columbia with Spencer using that pseudonym
Even though the speed doesn't really sound right, it's still clear that he sounded much different before 1895. He most certainly became a better singer as the years went on. It would be interesting to hear an early "Ethiopian song" that Spencer recorded, as by 1895 he was already well-known for such songs. 
Allow me to zoom in to the little thing on the top of the cover...
This tune was published right before the term "coon song" was used to describe these early "rag" songs. 

At this point, it seems I've said all I really need to say about this matter, since you all know my opinions and feelings regarding Len Spencer. Since it's his birthday when I'm putting this up, everyone ought to get out all their Spencer records, and luckily, there's quite a lot of them out there. 

Still hoping day by day that I am contacted by the descendants of this fantastic family, with so many fascinating characters baring the name Spencer.

Hope you enjoyed this! 


  1. You see multiple sides of Len's talent. His darkness is a part of what made him a better singer as he aged. Also it made him meaner and harder on loved ones. Not that it was good, but it was Len.

  2. You mention that Spencer's first marriage (supposedly to the "Elizabeth Allen" mentioned later in your piece) was when he was 18, and was also a disappointment to the family. A "runaway match" would imply an elopement between two people _who were underage_, at least to me; it seems likely _both_ Spencer and his bride were under 21.

    1. Oh of course! That would easily make sense, it just seemed unclear, but of course coming from Spencer's rough and tumble co-workers, that isn't too surprising.