RJ Spangler seems to know everyone in Detroit. Hell, he's on a first-name basis with people all over the world. Given the caliber of the folks he has managed and played with, that's not surprising. The W.C. Handy-nominated drummer dedicates the bulk of his time and energy promoting the artists he represents -- Alberta Adams, Joe Weaver, Odessa Harris, Stanley Mitchell, Kenny Martin and, until last year, Johnnie Bassett. His forthright manner toward both music and the business of music puts him in good stead with promoters, bookers, club owners and fans from San Francisco to Vancouver and Holland to Greektown. Spangler is a man of boundless enthusiasm. An ardent fan of music and an inveterate collector of vinyl, compact discs and books, he will wax eloquently for hours on any number of musical sub-genres, particularly those with origins in Detroit. He knows his stuff, too. "I'm pretty knowledgeable about Detroit music in particular," he'll state matter-of-factly. An articulate man, RJ Spangler has served as Chairman of the Board of the Detroit Blues Society for most of the past decade and is a frequent contributor to Big City Blues Magazine.
The nephew of Bud Spangler, once an icon on the local jazz scene as well as an early and influential DJ on WDET, RJ credits his uncle with making key introductions.
"Having Bud Spangler as an uncle was a great door-opener. Like when I was in high school, my uncle was a drummer in a group called Tribe with Marcus Belgrave, Phil Ranelin, Harold McKinney, and Wendell Harrison. Those guys all went on to become great leaders in their own right. I've known them since I was a boy. I walk in the door and they go 'Hey Rick! How ya doing'? It's very nice to have all the elder statesmen in jazz today in Detroit know me because of Bud."
Spangler speaks fondly of time spent as a patron at the fabled Cass Corridor jazz club, Cobb's Corner ("I was there every week"), while still a relative youngster. At around the same time, he says he learned the nuts-and-bolts of the business, from writing a press release to building a stage, under the tutelage of John Sinclair and Frank Bach at the Detroit Jazz Center. There, in the company of Sinclair, he saw musicians like Donald Byrd and Jackie McLean perform and he learned to recognize tunes within their first few notes. "That's an integral thing, guys learning tunes. Hear the chords and know what the song is. That's a useful talent." The Sun Messengers' would later play their first weekly gigs there.
Of note, too, is time he studied with Roy Brooks (drummer with Horace Silver, Randy Weston, Max Roach's M'Boom and various local congregations). "I took three buses across town to Roy's house as a kid before I even owned a car. I learned a lot being around him" RJ was in the ground breaking 25-drummer Aboriginal Percussion Choir under Brooks' direction in the mid-1970s and enthuses, "Yusef Lateef would come to our shows!"
The Sun Messengers. Spangler co-founded The Sun Messengers with Rick Steiger in 1980. They gigged with Leon Thomas, Martha Reeves, Johnny Adams, the Drifters and Earl King, among others. He speaks enthusiastically about the year that tenor saxophonist Louis Barnett was in the band. Barnett played with the Todd Rhodes band, the great Detroit-based R&B jump outfit of the late 1940s and early '50s, and was "a pre-Bird" style player. Ever gracious with giving credit where it's due, Spangler says, "I learned a lot from him."
"In the '70s and '80s I had opportunities that the kids today will never have. I got to meet and hang out with these guys." When it is suggested that kids today will have similar opportunities hanging out with him, Spangler's response is a chuckled "I suppose, huh?"
Working with Barnett got him interested in 1950s R&B. "I didn't know about R&B. Like how the whole thing came from here to there. When I was a kid you got the Average White Band being influenced by Stax Records and the Isley Brothers. How did that connect to what came before it? So I had to work my way back ... Before that I was a modernist. I was into post- Coltrane." And before that, he was a typical teen of the era. He bought records by Cream, Steve Winwood & Traffic, Dave Mason, and the Allman Brothers.
"I started to look at the records and wondered 'Who is this Willie Dixon guy?' ... By the time I was out of high school I had all those records, but I also had Muddy Waters, Elmore James, and Coltrane and all that stuff, too."
In his mid-twenties, Spangler was listening to the Art Ensemble of Chicago and the like, expanding his repertoire. "I never forgot about blues. I'd go to jam sessions and play blues tunes - - but, yeah, I'd be at home workin' on jazz." He became friends over the years with members of Sun Ra's band. He was awed by Ra's ability to meld the 'spacey' work with Henderson and Ellington swinging precision and endless boogie woogie tangents. "I always thought you gotta know the whole bit. You gotta know it all."
Just as moonlighting big band players take solace in small band gigs, Spangler stretched his artistic and technical reach outside of the relative confines of the Sun Messengers.
"Around 1985 I started playing Sunday gigs with my buddy James O’Donnell. We had a little jazz and blues group and that's what we did, we played old 40s and 50s jazz and blues. Bill Heid played piano, a guy named Big Red came down from Lansing, and Kurt Krahnke on bass. That group did pretty well. I always had some little group after that, besides the Sun Messengers, playing swing-type jazz and r&b mixed together."
"Paul Carey, our guitarist in the Messengers, had a group called the Blues Disciples, with Terry Thunder, Thornetta Davis, Johnny Evans, James O’Donnell and a lot of these guys playing old r&b -- some swing tunes but much more r&b and jump stuff. We put out a tape on a little label with that group."
[Photo © by Ray Stiles, all rights reserved.]
Johnnie Bassett. "Shortly after that group, I saw Johnnie Bassett playing at, I believe it was the '90 or '91 [Montreux-Detroit International] jazz festival in an organ group with a guy named Ben Baber. Ben was a blind organist playing that cool old greasy organ thing. We knew he had cancer and he'd never played Montreux [-Detroit], and he finally got a gig at Montreux. And we all went, a whole bunch of us. And he's got a whole bunch of horn players, pulled out all the stops, all his buddies are up there playing, and he said 'we're gonna do a blues, folks and we're gonna feature the blues man of the band' and this guitar player gets up from the back of the stage and he stands up and plays this blues and oh my God!" Spangler would call Bassett and hire him for a an upcoming gig. Their professional relationship would last another decade. Keyboardist Bill Heid had been in "Japan or LA, one of those two." Heid, a native of Pittsburgh, "knew all about Fortune Records" and would teach Detroiter Spangler about that aspect of local history. "Johnnie and Bill and I soon had an every-Thursday night gig at Sully's." Bill Heid and saxophonist Scott Petersen left the group off and on for other gigs. Spangler was still committed to the Sun Messengers and he didn't want to replace Petersen with another member of the Sun Messengers, so "I got a sax player named Keith Kaminski. Bill left so many times that I finally replaced him. Against Johnnie's and Bill's advice, I hired Chris Codish, a very young Chris Codish. I was still playing so much with the Sun Messengers that I recommended Chris to play with Larry McCray." Codish spent some seven years with McCray before coming on board full- time with Bassett. "About the time I was ready to quit the Sun Messengers full time, Chris was about ready to go full time with Johnnie, too. That was 1995. We had recorded live at the Montreux Jazz Festival in '94, and that came out on No Cover in '95. In between those times, I had recorded with Steve Nardella, Bugs Beddow and a bunch of other guys."
"So, I just got busy with Johnnie and put all my eggs in that basket, as it were." This would be his first experience as a manager. It would not be his last.
Spangler recorded five albums with Bassett and was nominated for a Handy in the process. Their relationship isn't as tight as it once was. Bassett hooked up with an agent who had different ideas about how to market the guitarist star. Spangler still calls him a friend, though. "I was hired to produce the blues tribute to Detroit 300 and I hired Johnnie for that, and out of that [we did] another show similar to that at the Motor City Casino. We do things together like that."
"So, I started with Johnnie and we got the record on No Cover and then I booked a tour of Europe which was the single greatest undertaking I've even done in my life. I always wanted to go to Europe musically. I'd been to Europe..."
How does one book a tour of Europe with no experience? "With great difficulty. Like I said, it was the single greatest undertaking of my whole life. I'd never done anything like that. I found, oddly enough, an ad for a European festival looking for American acts in the back of Jazz Times, and I sent them my stuff. They said 'We want you [Johnnie Bassett & The Blues Insurgents] to come and we know it's short notice, so here are the dates for the next three years and if you can come any of those years, let us know.' So, I targeted the year after that. I knew I wouldn't make it that year. And he sent me a list of agents and he sent me a list of festivals in the area that he would allow me to play at. You can't play at some events if you're playing a certain thing within some radius. So, we got on another festival that was 45 minutes down the road. So, I was off. I called up my buddy Fred Reif and said 'Fred, I have four days in Europe. How much work can I get out of this?' He turned me on to a guy who got me a few gigs. He became my agent in Europe, but then he wasn't my agent he was just helping me out. He'd call me up at five in the morning and say, 'OK, I want you to call this guy. Here's a gig I know about that you can get right now.' Ran up thousands of dollars in phone calls. I'd never seen phone bills like this before. I just shook every little tree. Everything that I could come up with in Europe. I asked Fred, 'Can you help.' My parents have this other couple they're close with who have a son who owns a bar in Brussels. This guy got us to play his bar as part of the Brussels Jazz Marathon. He hooked me up with this other lady who was a promoter in town that he does some shows with. She got me a gig at another bar and another gig on the same Brussels Marathon at a hotel, in their theatre. And she hooked me up at a hotel, the same hotel we were playing at in their theatre, she said, 'I'll betcha if you give them 'x' number of nights they'll give you a good rate.' So, sure enough, I was able to book a whole tour, for an entire month, in Europe, all on my own. The nights we had off, we had rooms at this hotel for like twenty bucks a night. It was great. And because of that, I sent a tape to Black Magic. We made that record [Bassett's I Gave My Life To The Blues] while we were over there on that tour."
Alberta Adams. "We did a show around '94 or '95 on the East side here, an outdoor multiple band thing for the Blues Society. She was there and asked if I'd be her manager." As he was a big fan of Alberta, he happily took the gig.
"I start slow. I get a gig here and a gig there. That's how I do it with all the artists. I don't ever like 'I'm your manager now' and have a voracious schedule the next week. I move slow. The whole first year we got to know each other. By the time I was done working with Johnnie, Alberta already had two CDs out on Cannonball, plus Blues Across America: The Detroit Scene [all under Spangler's management]. There's always going to be a need for a certain amount of authentic African-American artists out there. Especially, these blues festivals need women. They're very male-heavy. They're testosterone-laden events. Men with pony tails and beer-bellies and t-shirts and suspenders and stratocasters. So, Alberta is great for that. People love her. So, it wasn't a hard thing. When I was done working with Johnnie it was 'OK, I've got a lot going on with this girl here'. If I couldn't make a gig because I was out with Johnnie, I had a whole other band trained to back her up --- Blue Suit. They knew all of her songs. I've sent them on the road with her. I've had them work hundreds of nights around Detroit."
"In the past two years Alberta's done the Monterey Blues and the Monterey Jazz, the Pocono Blues, the San Francisco Blues, Chicago Blues Festival, Vancouver Jazz Festival, Edmunton Jazz Festival, Calgary Jazz Festival, one in Florida, a couple in South Carolina... She does well. She gets out there." Though he's not willing to offer any specifics just yet, he's working on a new record deal for Adams.
[Photo © by Robert Barclay, all rights reserved.]
Motor City Rhythm & Blues Pioneers. Joe Weaver, Stanley Mitchell and Kenny Martin represent the latest RJ Spangler project. Billed appropriately as the Motor City Rhythm and Blues Pioneers, their eponymous compact disc was released in January on Toledo's Blue Suit Records. The CD release party at the Music Menu reportedly broke all attendance records at the Greektown blues club.
"I met Joe Weaver at a back yard party at Johnnie Bassett's house," he remembers. "I only knew him through Johnnie and from Bill Heid, 'cause Bill knew his records. Bill was there, too. We all met Joe the same day. I knew a disc jockey named Howard Cosey in Pittsburgh. I knew him through Fred [Reif]. Howard hooked us up with a guy who was a member of this organization called the Society of Oldies Collectors, and sight-unseen he hired us to come to Pittsburgh and paid us really well to bring Joe and Johnnie and Bill and I to play a concert. That's the first time Joe had been on a stage in 20 years. We rehearsed a lot before that show, and we played a lot at that show, so we got better and better. And we took Joe to the Blues Estafette in Holland in 1998. Then Black Magic made a record the following year [Weaver's Baby I Love You So]. Joe's hooked up with those old guys, still. So, I get invited over to this guy's ... I don't know how much you know about the Fortune sound ...So, you understand that Fortune and Hi-Q, these labels were owned by Jack and Devora Brown. Jack being the guy recording, Devora being the songwriter. He basically started the label for his wife to write songs -- hillbilly records. But they also did R&B records. Their biggest artist was probably Nolan Strong & The Diablos, but they also had Andre Williams. Anyway, so Johnnie and Joe were the house band at Fortune. They were the musicians and they had a band, Joe's band, called Joe Weaver and the Blue Notes. Joe recorded under his own name and had a record called 'Baby, I Love You So.' Joe and I met a disc jockey at the Pocono festival last year who saw Joe playing piano with his band backing up Nolan Strong and the Diablos on an Allen Freed Rock & Roll tour. Is that cool or what? And performed his own number, too. Bob Porter from WBGO, told me that when he was a kid, he grew up in that era of 'Baby, I Love You So,' in Boston where he grew up he said still to this day it's in the Top 20 all-time greatest, maybe Top 10 of oldies tunes in Boston. They say the same thing is true in Pittsburgh. So there are certain spots where these songs were big. So, I got to know Joe. We made the record and played and developed. And Joe knows all these old guys, so I met through him Stanley, who had a number 5 R&B hit with "Four O'Clock In The Morning" on the Chess label. That's Stanley Mitchell. Stanley came by a gig and we talked. He asked if I was interested in working with him and I said, 'Yes, I am, but I move slow. You just have to bear with me. I have to get to know you and your music and how you sound, what you do.' And then we all went to a barbecue, Joe invited me to a barbecue at this guy's house, Charles Evans. Charles Evans was a singer in the 5 Dollars. One other singer in the 5 Dollars was Alberta's son, James, who just passed away. So all this stuff connected. Alberta, Joe, Johnnie, all these guys, Alberta's son. Alberta'd be the blues singer on Joe's gigs. These guys have been intertwined for years. So for me to be with them it makes a whole lot of sense. Once you work with one, you're kinda in the whole gang. So, Joe introduces me to Kenny Martin at this party at Charles' house last summer, and he's just a really cool guy, as you know. In the intervening year, we've moved this along. Last winter we started getting together once a week at a studio I rent working on stuff."
At the Music Menu, each took a few tunes from the disc, completely floored the SRO house, and moved on. Before the first break, they shared the spotlight for "Motor City Man," with choruses offered up by each singer. The place exploded. Alberta Adams was in the house that night. So was Johnnie Bassett.
"I have great hopes to pull that revue into some national festivals next year, some regional festivals and also to just get some work-work, ya know, playing at a park concert, get those guys working."
Odessa Harris. "I also have this other singer, Odessa Harris. She was with B.B. King for three years." Spangler pulled an old Capital single out of his collection to illustrate a point. At 65, Odessa still sounds like quite a bit like Dinah Washington in her prime. The single is "Rockin Good Way," a 1960 hit for Washington and Brook Benton.
"Capital put her under contract because of how well she did the Dinah thing. Little Esther, Nancy Wilson, Etta James -- those are all her singers. She's in that vein. Anyway, she sings her butt off and I've been working with her for a couple of years now. The first year we worked in a trio with a piano player and a bass player. In the intervening years that pianist has worked on becoming an organist. And our second bass player is a great guitarist in the Grant Green style, so that group has evolved into its own thing. They work with or without me. I'll still be booking Odessa. I have another drummer that fills in for me. She keeps on working. I'd like to record her this year."
"I like Detroit. I live in Detroit, but wherever the people want to hear the music, I'm there to bring it to them. My artists, like Alberta and Joe and the revue, the national scene is where I see them all. That's where Alberta works. She'll do it again next year and that's the future of the Revue. That's where my site is always aimed, playing the Chicago Blues Festival and the Pocono Blues Festival. I've booked many artists on the Queen City Blues Festival in Cincinnati. I have connections at numerous blues festivals across the United States and Canada. I've booked a lot of them in the Western Canadian provinces. They have a real nice series of jazz festivals that want blues. I want to be able to ply my trade anywhere someone might be interested in whatever I have musically to offer... I want to contribute while I'm here."
"Really, when it comes down to it, I just like playing the drums behind old rhythm and blues artists."
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