(Spencer Brewer is a composer, pianist, performer, and impresario… founder of Ukiah’s Concerts In The Park. His website is spencerbrewer.com. A few years after Spencer and his wife Esther got together in 1977, they both drew up a list of 20 things they each wanted to accomplish in their lives. Spencer has crossed off 19 of his. There is one more left to do…)
I was born in Dallas, a 5th generation Texan… all of my family and relatives still live there. I’m the only one in the family that escaped Texas. My dad had always wanted to play piano and my mother and his mother bought an old McPhail upright in a garage sale for fifty bucks and they brought it home. My dad didn’t have the time to play or take lessons but I took to it. I was six years old. His mother, my grandmother, taught me how to play boogie woogie and the blues when I spent weekends with her. I took lessons until I was about 12 and just hated them. After my first recital I made a deal with my parents that I could quit under one circumstance… that I still had to play an hour a day. I was into making up stuff because that’s what boogie and blues were all about, so that sounded like a good deal to me. I wanted to know the language of music, the theory of it, so I was teaching myself and asking a lot of questions from other people. I drove my parents crazy playing way too loud and way too fast like a teenager will do. I started hanging out with bands and learning how to play rock and roll during the 60s and early 70s, went to college for two years studying music and business but dropped out because I wanted to be a rock and roller. I was working in the biggest record store in Dallas, the Melody Shop at the time, and made enough money to accumulate all the killer gear of the day needed to be a professional player. I bought a Fender Rhodes Suitcase keyboard… a MiniMoog and an Arp Odyssey, both sitting on top of the Rhodes. I also got a gigantic Peavy Amp that weighed more than I did. I then moved to Austin with all my toys to become a rock and roll musician because there were gigs everywhere. I played dinner dates and nights with different bands and different gigs. During the days we lived outside of Austen on an old, abandoned dairy farm and I played the piano all day, then went into Austin and played around town at night. It was quite the life.
I really liked the old blues cats… Meade Lux Lewis, Cow Cow Davenport, Robert Johnson… I would take one of their songs, learn it, then transpose it to every key so I could learn the keys… then I’d go back and play at night. I also had an upright piano on wheels that I would roll around in a local mall in Austin and the stores would hire me for $50 an hour to play in front to bring in customers. During that time I met up with a flamboyant gay man named Billy Ray McCauley who looked like a cross between Burl Ives and Santa Claus with flowing silk scarves who gave me his card and said “You’re fabulous, call me.” He was an off-Broadway set designer from New York who was designing storefronts in the mall. He lived in this amazing mansion in Austin and was finishing up a book for a musical when we met, and he needed a composer. We soon became business partners and wrote this musical together while I was gigging around Austin or importing goods from Central America the other six months out of the year. During this time in the late seventies, I was working on the Mississippi Queen Steamboat on week-long cruises up and down the Mississippi River as a waiter, busboy or kitchen cook and I got this table with this man named Tom Reese… a bigger than life, extraordinarily wealthy character. For each meal with his entourage, I would sing or recite songs from the musical we were writing. One night at 2:00 am, I got the opportunity to play and sing the whole musical for just he and his wife when the ballroom was all closed down. It was a scene right out of a movie. The river, the empty ballroom with a bottle of champagne between two people and the music. Lights, camera, action! Afterwards he asked me what I was doing working as a waiter on the steamboat with all this talent. I said I had to make a living and he promptly handed me $500, which was a lot of money back then and said “Get off the boat tomorrow, I’ll pick you up in my private jet this next week.” True to his word, the next week he showed up in our small town in Missouri in his Learjet and we flew to Indianapolis. He owned the biggest water tower company in the country… Universal Tank. He also owned a cosmetic company with Ringo Starr… he co-owned oil refineries… he was a player. He brought me in front of Indianapolis’ biggest producer at the time, a guy named Skeet and I did my thing for them. Skeet said he should produce the musical and I became his personal project. Reese funded McCauley and I to live in the Hamptons and develop this musical called Once Upon a Time… a take off of Cinderella with a twist. He also paid for us to go into New York City two or three days a week to just listen to musicals and come back and write and rewrite. We did it for months. We rewrote the musical seventeen times, which is normal I found out later. We got in front of the right people who said they would take it off Broadway for $2.5 million dollars. Reese tried to raise the rest of the money but couldn’t get enough, so I went back to making music elsewhere.
During this time I was also touring with modern dance companies and was a accompanist at the local college dance programs. There was some real cutting-edge creativity making our own instruments and touring with some great dance groups.
I came to Mendocino County for the first time in 1979 to attend my sister-in-law’s wedding in Willits. There was a guy there who heard me play and said, “Oh, you play New-Age music.” I said, “What’s that?” He said, “It’s that one piece you played that didn’t have words.” I researched what that was and found out there was a growing market for it. People called it woo woo music and I thought I could do that. I stripped the vocals off some of the musical songs, formed a record company, Willow Rose, and released my first recording in 1980. Back then, it was a record.
In the early to mid-1980s we were juggling forty to fifty distributors and selling a goodly amount of albums. It came to a point where I was doing 80% business and 20% music. That was not why I got into it, so I sold the label to Narada Records and got back to playing and performing. I made a bunch of records, sold lots of copies, had two number one records on that label and toured all over the place, up to 150 concerts a year. Windham Hill, the biggest new age record company was exploding everywhere selling tons of records with Narada being the number two label. My peak was 1985 - 1991. After 1992, I stopped touring and started producing music for other people. In 1994, we built the studio here, Laughing Coyote, where I was the engineer/producer. We made 35 albums during our busiest year and over 300 during its tenure being open. What a ride.
In 1999 I was in a head-on automobile accident. Despite the accident, I could still play, but the composing side of me seemed to go silent. I believe everybody has a gift for something. Some are out on stage, others are very quiet in a back room, yet we all have a gift. Mine was that I had this radio channel in my head that I was born with… and all I had to do was just listen and the music just flowed out of me… all styles. It was no problem for me to write 2, or 3, or 10 songs in a week. It just poured out of me. A melody would come in, I’d sing it or hum it, then I’d sit down at the piano and play it. The accident turned the radio channel off… and it never turned back on again. In 2002 we bought the Ivory Palace and turned it into the Ukiah Music Center where we sold pianos, guitars, drums, music and supplied instruments to schools in Mendocino and Lake counties. We had double digit growth every year until the 2008 economic collapse. In 2009, half the music stores in the country shut down. We closed the store, closed the studio, closed the production company and I got out of the music business. What helped the collapse was people would come in and see an instrument in the store, ask questions, then go home and buy it online. They then would bring it in, all proud of their purchase and ask us how to set it up or play it. So much for loyalty and buying locally. The piano has been a good friend and companion all my life. I have always been working on them… restoring, repairing, tuning, buying, selling… I’ve worked on over 20,000 and owned hundreds and hundreds of them. They are in my blood. Because of all the touring in my life, I love putting on events, specifically benefits. I created the Sundays in the Park series, Professional Pianist Concerts, Happination, Live at the Playhouse, BandSlam, Sunset at the Cellars, Acoustic Cafe series… and most are luckily still going. I have also started focusing more on sculpture art, which I call Industrial Ephemera (see his website), also known as Assemblage. And I still do solo concerts now and then.
A year or so after my wife and I met, we drew up a list of the 20 things we each wanted to accomplish in our life. I wrote down my twenty… she wrote down her twenty. She’s done quite a number of hers on the list and I’ve only got one thing left I want to do from mine and that is to build a Wind Harp. There are only five or six in this country, and only a dozen or two in the world of the kind I want to build. If you took a picture of an orchestral harp and turned it into something 20 or 30 feet tall with the strings 6 inches to 20 feet long, that would be a harp played by the wind.
During the Viking era, where they would be out in the water in their boats and needed to get back to shore, there were no lighthouses to guide them in. But there was wind. They would string different lengths of gut together in a large wood frame which would hum or sing when the wind was up. They navigated through the rocks, knowing where the sound was coming from through the fog. That’s where the whole mythology of hearing “sirens” singing from the shore and boats crashing on the rocks came from. The alien boats would go towards the sirens and crash on the rocks in the fog, not knowing what was between them and the seductive sirens. The first one that was ever built in this country was in the late sixties on the east coast and a double record was made of its sounds. When I found that rare album at the Melody Shop in Dallas 45 years ago, listened to it and saw the pictures, I knew I had to eventually build one. There was another one made in the San Juan Islands up off Washington that I visited 20 years ago. I got inside and listened to it, took pictures, and was that much more enthralled.
I need a hilltop that gets wind in Mendocino County that is not too near neighbors because it can get a tad loud. It really sounds quite luscious and calming from far away… ancient and eerie. My God, it’s so beautiful… especially in a wind storm sitting inside the main box of the harp. Every frequency heard and not heard high and low goes through your body from all directions.
I want to build a Wind Harp before I die.
(Coming up: Todd Walton — Author, Musician, Artist, AVA Columnist; Terry d'Selkie — Teacher, Mendocino School Gardens, Mendocino Food Action Plan, Ocean Harvest Sea Vegetables; Mark Scaramella — Managing Editor of The Anderson Valley Advertiser.)