For several decades, ever since he left Fleetwood Mac to join a religious sect in early 1971, Jeremy Spencer’s name has usually been preceded by the words “Where is ... ?” Or “What ever happened to ... ?”
Nowadays, however, those questions are moot.
The 61-year-old musician, who’s in town as one of the headliners at this weekend’s Anti-Freeze Blues Festival in Ferndale, recently sat in the spacious living room of his manager Mark Gregorian’s Plymouth home, occasionally playing guitar and piano and talking about his most recent album, (2006’s acclaimed “Precious Little”), his new music, of which there’s an abundance, — and, when asked, about the old days.
He is, not surprisingly, wary about the latter. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee notes that he’s been “burned” a few times when talking about his association with the Children of God (now called The Family), including magazine depictions of him as a “religious zombie,” shaved-headed and handing out evangelical pamphlets. “Don’t let the truth get in the way of a good movie, right?” Spencer — dressed in a gray sweater, scarf, jeans and Crocs — says with a shrug and a slight smile.
Even unembellished, however, Spencer’s story makes for a pretty good “movie.”
Born in Hartlepool, England, he was an art school student and onetime bank clerk who started out playing piano at 9 years old but found the guitar after becoming infatuated with the early rock ‘n’ roll of Cliff Richards & the Shadows, among others. But it was the blues — particularly Elmore James — that turned Spencer’s life around after a school friend played him James’ “The Sun is Shining.” A subsequent leg injury that laid him up for six weeks allowed Spencer to immerse himself in a James’ best-of album and hone his skills to the point where he became one of the hottest young slide players in Britain.
“I sat with the guitar and my (leg up) for six weeks, and the whole album got worn down,” Spencer recalls. “It all seemed natural; I’d hear it and go, ‘That’s it!’
“My 110 percent was Elmore — slide and Elmore. I wasn’t interested in anything else. Eric Clapton was coming on the scene, and Jeff Beck and all that, and I couldn’t care less.”
Spencer curried attention with his band, the Levi Set, and in 1967 was recruited by Peter Green, who was planning to leave John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers and form what became Fleetwood Mac. “(Green) told me ‘You’re the first guitarist who’s made me smile since Jimi Hendrix,’ which was quite a compliment,” remembers Spencer.
The early version of Fleetwood Mac jelled with its blend of Spencer’s slide and Green’s style, an urbane approach influenced by B.B. King and the Chicago blues of the time. Spencer also was something of a showman, occasionally in the lurid sense (one stunt involving a replica of male genitalia got the group banned from Marquee club in London) and also delivering crowd-pleasing onstage impersonations of Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly and others.
But after seven albums, Spencer became disaffected within Fleetwood Mac — especially after a third guitarist, Danny Kirwan, was brought into the group and left Spencer something of an odd man out.
“I wasn’t getting any ideas,” Spencer, who released a solo album in 1970, acknowledges now. “I was feeling a bit, ‘How do you get this inspiration? It’s not happening.’ Maybe I should have pressed a bit more, but ...
“So it was fun up to that point. One thing you can see very clearly in the videos is that when we were playing with the four of us, we were smiling, and after (Kirwan) joined, there was no smiling. I remember getting ready to go on one time and this girl who was standing near me turned to her friend and says, ‘They all look so sad.’ I thought, ‘Whoa ...’ ”
By the time Fleetwood Mac rolled into Los Angeles in 1971, Spencer, who frequently read the bible in his hotel room, “just wanted some space. I just asked God to, ‘Somehow, whatever it takes. I need to get out of this. Otherwise I’m not gonna survive.’ ” His answer came when he met members of the Children of God while out for a walk, though Spencer — who brought his now ex-wife, Fiona, and five children with him into the sect — steadfastly denies reports that he was “kidnapped” and “brainwashed.”
“It was just them — them as people, basically, and what they believed,” explains Spencer, whose abrupt departure caused Fleetwood Mac to cancel some shows and recruit Green to return to finish out the tour. “They just have love. It wasn’t phony. It’s not what the world wants to hear, perhaps, but ... that’s really how it was.” He’s long denied but does not comment further on the reports of child sexual abuse that have dogged the Children of God over the years.
Spencer’s music was sporadic after he left Fleetwood Mac. He formed a group with fellow disciples and released an album, “Jeremy Spencer and the Children” in 1972. Another, “Flee,” came out in 1979 but was the last studio effort he released until “Precious Little,” which he recorded in Norway and which was nominated for a Blues Music Award for Comeback Album of the Year. Mostly Spencer traveled around the world, living in a variety of locales, and doing a variety of artwork and story writing for The Family.
Now, however, Spencer — who resides near Guadalajara, Mexico, with Dorothea, his mate of 22 years, and has eight grandchildren and two great-grandchildren — is planning his next album. He recorded tracks during his Detroit area stay at Tempermill Studios in Ferndale with a band of local musicians led by guitarist Brett Lucas and also joined Lucas’ Fleetwood Mac tribute band Rattlesnake Shake onstage at Detroit’s Park Bar. Vintage Guitar magazine called his reemergence “the pop music comeback of the past several decades,” but Spencer sees it otherwise.
“You see a lot of comebacks, and I don’t want to go that route — ‘He’s back! He’s back with a vengeance!’ ” Spencer says with a laugh. “It’s not in me anymore to do it like that, y’know?
“It’s not been lost time, really. I’ve enjoyed my life. I’ve done a lot of things. But I’ve got so much material ‘cause I’ve just been, like, dormant. I just turned 61, so you do kind of want to get it out while you can and show people what you’ve got, so that’s really what I’m trying to do now.”
The 16th annual Anti-Freeze Blues Festival takes place Friday and Saturday (Jan. 15-16) at the Magic Bag, 22920 Woodward Ave., Ferndale. Jeremy Spencer, Jeff Grand/Jim McCarty/Bobby East, the Garfield Blues Band and John Latini perform tonight. Big Bill Morganfield & Larry McCray, Thornetta Davis and Laith Al Saadi play on Saturday. Doors open at 7 p.m. and tickets are $25 each night. Call (248) 544-3030 or visit www.themagicbag.com.
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