KANNAPOLIS — When Richard Spencer began taking piano lessons at age 5, he had no idea he would later earn a Grammy. The 75-year-old will be inducted into the North Carolina Music Hall of Fame later this year.
Spencer, who still practices the piano, began taking lessons in 1947. He continued playing music when he attended Wadesboro High School. The then-teen wanted to play the saxophone, but was given a clarinet, which he learned.
When he graduated high school in 1959, Spencer had been on the road with an evangelist for several summers and played saxophone with the Swinging Pedros in Monroe. He also played for churches and revivals, and had a job playing for an R&B band in Wadesboro in 12th grade for $20 per weekend.
Spencer attended Johnson Smith University in Charlotte, staying one semester in 1960 before transferring to N.C. Agricultural and Technical School in Greensboro in 1961.
While in Greensboro, he discovered the musical culture there, where he said he was introduced to “real stars.”
“It was fascinating,” Spencer said. “That’s where I got my indoctrination into rhythm and blues. That’s when it got into my blood stream.”
Spencer, who is black, began making “good money” playing in a band that, while primarily white, played in some black clubs, he said, adding that it was unusual at the time.
He moved to Washington, D.C. and played with different bands, including Leroy Taylor, with whom he did his first recording. He still has the records.
Spencer met his first wife, a stripper in 1963, and was introduced to more music through her. He was married from then until 1970. In 1969, he was the songwriter for “Color Him Father” by The Winstons, which had a hit record.
He then left the music business to become a bus driver in D.C. in 1974 and went to university, driving a bus for 19 years. He earned a bachelor’s and a masters degree.
“It was just time to end it, and it kind of ended on me after our record was such a hit and we were so big, when the group broke up all of a sudden because it was like a job,” he said. “I had a lot of other things on my mind at time. I was only 26 and had gone from picking peaches to that. I think I was just tired.”
As much as he loves music, leaving the industry was freeing.
“I had one suitcase because everything else was in storage,” Spencer said. “I remember sitting on the floor, no furniture or nothing, and it was the greatest feeling in 10 years. It was almost like someone had taken a rock off my back. I was just free. I sat there in the dark two or three days before I collected myself and realized I’d survived it and was ready to move on. It wasn’t like I left the music business, but like I evaporated into it. It’s still very much a part of me: always has been, always will be.
“So it’s been a very good ride with this music thing,” he added
Spencer met his son Richard Spencer III’s mother in 1978, and he and his son moved back to North Carolina in 2000 after he retired. Spencer then met his second wife, an Episcopal priest and former writer for Newsweek, in Charlotte in 2006 and was married from 2007 to 2014. The couple is currently separated and have written and edited books together.
“So I went from a stripper to a priest,” he said. “They were extraordinary young women.”
After retiring and moving back to Wadesboro, he found himself back in the workforce.
“Some leadership heard I was coming back and pointed out that there were very few black males in the school system, and thought I would be better for the at-risk populations of boys, so they talked me into teaching,” Spencer said. “I loved it and taught in Anson County for eight years, then taught for a year in Montgomery County, then retired.” He taught social studies at Anson High School and at Montgomery Learning Academy.
“I think I was having too much fun,” Spencer said. He loved working with children.
“They’re our babies,” he said. “They come here and we have to help them live based on what their definition of life is, not ours.”
He added that kids need guidance, but also freedom.
“It takes patience to have that kind of relationship with kids,” he said. “They’re not just mini ‘us-es.’ They need people to understand, to give them a break. Black boys don’t look you in the eye when you talk to them because they get the idea that it’s confrontational. Their moms taught them that because they didn’t want them to get hurt.”
Spencer also briefly served as an associate minister for Ebenezer Baptist Church in Wadesboro before leaving religion.
Spencer is the copyright owner of the “Amen break,” an extremely popular eight-second drum solo played by Gregory Sylvester “G.C.” Colman in “Amen, Brother.” While he estimates millions have been made off of the use of that drum break by others, he said he never received any money from it.
“Particularly being a black person in the industry at the time, close to the time Dr. King was assassinated, black people weren’t making money,” he said. “You had to understand that you had to love it and understand that others would make the money.”
His son Richard, a 26-year-old girls’ varsity soccer coach for Langley High School in McLean, Virginia, is excited about his father’s induction into the North Carolina Music Hall of Fame.
“My son said I am music,” he said. “He said to let yourself enjoy it. All of a sudden, he’s the dad and I’m the child. I look for his opinion and he was very proud, also.”
His son tried piano when he was little, but it wasn’t meant to be, Spencer said.
“His only interest has been soccer — seriously, nothing else,” Spencer said. “He says his biggest regret was not continuing to take piano. I told him never to look back…never to put himself in a position in which he’d say, ‘I wish I had.’ It’s a form of self-pity. ‘You didn’t do it because you weren’t supposed to do it.’”
Spencer said the music industry has changed drastically since he was in it, but he likes it.
“It changed for the better,” he said. “Young artists today have input into their product. They own it, they are the masters and I’m proud to see that. They’re not being exploited by the man.”
There have also been large cultural shifts.
“Now, you don’t have black talent and white talent, you just have talent or don’t,” he said. “I wish it had always been that way.”
When Spencer was in The Winstons, their boss wouldn’t let them put a picture of the group on the album cover for “Cover Him Father” since the group was interracial and it was feared that distributors wouldn’t treat the group with fairness. Integration was still on the horizon then.
“These young folks realize, they’ve been to school together, fought, everybody competed, but they don’t want to be favored,” he said. “They feel I’ll compete with you based on abilities.”
He pointed out that many artists now have enjoyed success they might not have before due to integration and new music styles, using Christina Aguilera and Mylie Cyrus as examples.
“What would the world have missed?”
He appreciates that modern styles are enjoyed around the world.
“You could go to Iraq right now and hear hip-hop,” he said. “A little Pakistani boy trying to speak like Harlem: ‘What’s up, yo?’”
Spencer said that he is happy with his career and with the honor of the North Carolina Hall of Fame.
“I’m 75, I don’t have no hesitation; people can do anything,” he said. “If it’s adding some positive to my life, I’m good with it. I’m very proud.”
Spencer was inducted into the Washington, D.C. music hall of fame in 2014.
Other inductees for 2017 include: American Idol contestant and recording artist Bucky Covington, from neighboring Richmond County; Grammy-winning R&B singer/songwriter Anthony Hamilton of Charlotte; blues guitarist and singer Etta Baker Caldwell County; Grammy-winning musician and songwriter Jim Lauderdale of Troutman; The Sensational Nightingales, a black gospel quartet from Durham; and Grammy-winning bluegrass band The Steep Canyon Rangers from Brevard.
The induction ceremony will be held Thursday, Oct. 19 at the Kannapolis Performing Arts Center.
Reach reporter Imari Scarbrough at 704-994-5471 and follow her on Twitter @ImariScarbrough.