R.J. Spangler is into the blues.The music stalwart helped resurrect and nurture the careers of such luminaries as Johnnie Bassett, Alberta Adams, Odessa Harris, Joe Weaver and the Motor City Rhythm and Blues Pioneers. With the exception of Bassett, he still manages these acts.
Spangler, 46, is also an accomplished musician, a drummer. Cognoscenti say his signature shuffle beat is one of the tightest, most authentic anywhere. Spangler was a founder of the Sun Messengers, a jazz band that’s claimed more Detroit Music Awards than anyone can remember. He performs and records with the artists he manages, and has his own combo, R.J.’s Rhythm Rockers. The guy has played all over the world, played on more than 40 records, and seems to play that many gigs each month. He’s also the sitting chairman of the Detroit Blues Society.
Over the years, Spangler has kept more than time on a trap set. He’s a music scholar and collector who amassed a 4,000-title collection of vintage vinyl blues and jazz LPs, 45s, cassettes and CDs. Rare music texts — many signed by the authors — are another pursuit. Two drum sets, a piano, myriad other percussion instruments. A prodigious postcard collection is a more whimsical distraction, but expansive and impressive nonetheless.
It’s all gone.
After spending blackout night at his mother’s, Spangler returned last Friday morning to find that his home of 17 years had been reduced to a smoldering shell. The discovery of his TV set abandoned near his back fence suggests it was a burglary-arson.
Did I mention that Spangler is into the blues?
Some things smell good when they burn. Not houses. It’s an evil stench, a charred house.
It’s Sunday evening at 8913 Canyon, just off Interstate 94 near Moross. The bungalow is a total loss. The roof is gone. All the windows are gone. Sooty bricks have tumbled into the concrete drive. Towering trees are burnt back, their limbs and leaves scorched. The home’s interior is a convolution of blackened cinder. Water spatters incongruously from the kitchen tap. The sink is missing.
“I inherited two things from my father — his love of music and his jazz record collection,” Spangler says, his voice trailing off.
In the vestiges of his office lies a 6-foot-long accordion-like bale of oxidized LPs. They’re all one document now.
Spangler points to the metal frame of a rollaway bed. “A lot of drunk musicians slept on that,” he says with a chuckle.
He picks up a scrap of a paper. It’s a page from Blues A-K, an encyclopedia volume of artists and their discographies. He lets it flutter to the ground. There’s a melted Sun Messengers LP — a record he’s on.
Spangler speaks, as always, like his snare drum — in staccato fashion. His dark eyes flash with the familiar confidence and intellect. His gallows humor survives. He says he may raze the wreckage, move into his garage and enjoy his “really big yard.” Says he’s relieved to be leaving on an extended tour because he doesn’t have a place to live.
Still, you know the ache is there.
The self-described “packrat homebody” was in his home office last Thursday when the lights flickered and died. He went to his brother’s house, then decided to spend the night at his mother’s place.
He was uncomfortably prescient. At 1 a.m., he called a friend who lives near his home to ask him to check on it. No answer.
He awoke early on Friday and drove to his home, or what was left of it.
His neighbor says he noticed the fire and called authorities around midnight, but that no fire truck arrived until 1 a.m. A Fire Department spokesman says a truck arrived at 12:34 a.m. The spokesman couldn’t, or wouldn’t, pinpoint the time of the 911 call.
“I don’t think he cares about the clothes and stuff,” says Paul Carey, a virtuoso guitarist who’s known Spangler since both were 11, and played music with him for decades. “He had his books, his album collection, his 45s. Plus his whole database and his computer and all his memorabilia. That’s a lot of stuff to accumulate, stuff that’s irreplaceable. How do you put a price on it? You can’t go out and buy that stuff tomorrow.”
Carey laments the callousness of the crime: “The maliciousness of it. They didn’t necessarily know the full impact of what they were burning or whose life they were destroying, but they didn’t care. They just didn’t care.”
Detroit’s music community watches out for its own. Dispatches disclosing benefit concerts for stricken or victimized musicians are common on these pages.
R.J. Spangler is certainly worthy of a big one, and he’ll get one. His influence on blues and jazz in Detroit can scarcely be overstated.
“Without R.J.’s efforts to get me the notoriety, I would not be doing what I’m doing now,” Johnnie Bassett tells me. “He was diligently working on that, promoting my name and being part of it. I appreciated it.”
Bassett was a well-known session man in the ’50s and ’60s, but his career was stalled until Spangler convinced him to be his front man in the early ’90s. The band was the Blues Insurgents, which carried Bassett to his New York debut and top awards from national and local blues societies.
Spangler’s done similar turns to reinvigorate the careers of other neglected talents.
“I don’t know anyone else like him. R.J.’s really the foremost revivalist of rhythm and blues artists in not only the city, but maybe in the country,” says Matt Lee, a former musician turned peripatetic publicist. “Look at the countless artists — Johnnie Bassett, Alberta Adams, Odessa Harris, Joe Weaver and the R&B Pioneers. I think what he does is underappreciated, the way he sacrifices to develop these people. He does it because he loves the music in his heart.”
Spangler won’t quibble with that last sentence.
“It’s what I love,” he explains. “It’s why I have a lot of old records. The music of the ’40s and ’50s has deeply, profoundly affected me.”
Music Menu owner Rick Pinkerton has seen Spangler on the road.
“If you ever go out of town with him, you see how many people know him, people from all over the world and the county,” Pinkerton says. “You see what a force he is in the blues scene. His circle of friends is enormous. It’s just amazing how connected and well thought of he is.
“He’s a real scholar on the blues. He’s a real activist in that world, too. He believes in it whole-heartedly and his passion is real evident. He’s a hell of a good drinking buddy, too.”
Heart. That word keeps coming up when people talk about Spangler. It’s apt, because Spangler’s a big dude, heart-shaped, all heart.
Now, ironically, many of the musicians whom Spangler helped rise from the ashes will get a chance to help him rise above his. His home was insured, but his legion of friends wants to help him try and re-create the sanctum he’s lost. A benefit concert is on the drawing board, though there’s no firm date yet.
“All the blues community and musicians that I can get together will be a part of it,” Bassett says. “It’s going to be one giant jam session.”
Wonder who’ll keep time.Jeremy Voas is the editor of Metro Times. E-mail [email protected]