Back in March, I called Dr. Allen Mask in Raleigh to complain that I hadn’t heard from our mutual friend, Richard Spencer.
I called, texted and emailed the dude, I lamented, but I still got no reply.
Richard, Dr. Mask sorrowfully informed me, had died three months earlier.
He was 78.
Spencer was the Wadesboro native who wrote and sang lead on The Winston’s Father’s Day perennial, Color Him Father.
He was also a retired beloved schoolteacher in Wadesboro.
Even though I knew intricately from our many conversations the details of what inspired him to write this Grammy Award-winning classic, I liked to hear Spencer tell it again - or just talk about his time as Otis Redding’s musical director and saxophonist.
So close were the Big O and he, Spencer said, that everyone assumed he was aboard the fatal flight that killed Otis and all but one member of his backup band, The Bar-Kays.
The neighborhood, he recalled, converged on his mother’s home in Wadesboro to offer condolences.
“My mama and those (folks) thought I was on the plane,” Spencer told me. “In those days, everybody didn’t have a telephone… and I guess I hadn’t done a good enough job of staying in touch” with the homefolk.
His sister, Sharry Spencer, still lives in Anson County and she recently recalled that gut-wrenching time.
“I was young at the time, but my mother was a nervous wreck,” she said. For several fraught hours the family didn’t know if Spencer was on the flight that went down in an icy Wisconsin lake.
Fortunately for Spencer, he said, Otis and he had had a fight weeks before and he’d quit. It wasn’t much of a fight, he admitted: the 6’2,” 220 pound Redding pretty much mopped up the dressing room floor with the 5’9” Spencer. Want to know what they were fighting about? Check out The Saunders Report.
Otis called and apologized days later, he said.
“He called and asked me to go on the tour with him,” Spencer said. “He said ‘C’mon, man. You know these cats don’t know my music the way you do.’ ”
Spencer said he considered accompanying the master showman, who was piloting his own plane, but ultimately decided against it.
While most songs about daddies featured a paterfamilias who was, at best, a cad, Spencer’s classic song extolled one who stepped up to the plate and stayed:
There’s a man at my house
He’s so big and strong
Goes to work each day
And he stays all day long.
He comes home each night
Looking tired and beat
Sits down at the dinner table
And has a bite to eat.
Never a frown, always a smile
When he says to me “How is my child?”
I say “I’ve been studying hard
All day in school
Trying hard to understand
The Golden Rule.”
I think I’ll color him father.
Think about the dads in songs such as Papa Was a Rolling Stone, Daddy Could Swear, I Declare, Daddy Don’t You Walk So Fast and possibly the saddest daddy song of all, Cat’s In The Cradle. (Although, as one gets older, you're more inclined to cut that dad some slack.)
They’d be lucky to get a used necktie for Father’s Day.
It was, incidentally, a tie that proved traumatic to Spencer: at 13, he was getting dressed for a school program but was unable to tie his tie. His mom “did the best she could, but she didn’t know what she was doing, either,” he said. “It was a mess.”
When classmates laughed at his tie, he said, he vowed vengeance toward his dad: “I said ‘I’ll get him.’ ”
Dr. Mask, whose mother, Gloria Mask, as a high school music teacher tutored Spencer, said General Johnson offered Spencer his pop paean to Pops, Patches, a year after Color Him Father: he turned it down, and Clarence Carter had a massive hit with it.
Mrs. Mask, whom Spencer introduced from the stage when he was honored in Wadesboro last year, said Spencer was in her Glee Club at Faison High School in Wadesboro, was a church organist and attended Beckwith Piano School in Charlotte.
“I don’t know how much good that did him, though, because he always had a really good ear.”
And, to those of us who knew him well, a really good heart.