From the heart is the only way Spencer Wiggins has ever known how to sing.
When he recorded the mid-‘60s deep soul masterpieces “Take Me (Just As I Am)” and “Up Tight Good Woman” for Goldwax Records, the melismatic Memphian wrung every ounce of emotion from each country-tinged ballad handed him by producer Quinton Claunch. From the mid-‘70s until fairly recently, Spencer turned down entreaties to perform those fondly recalled soul gems live, having returned to the sanctity of the gospel music that originally spawned him. But happily, he’ll revisit his timeless classics during a rare appearance at this year’s Ponderosa Stomp (Spencer will perform Saturday, Oct 5th at the Rock N Bowl).
Born January 8, 1942 in Memphis, Spencer found his early musical inspiration at New Friendship Baptist Church on East Georgia Avenue, where his mother sang in the choir. Spencer soon followed suit. “I was brought up in the church,” he says. “That’s where all my roots come from.” Many of his gospel influences were female. “Back then, they had Mahalia Jackson, and they had The Caravans, they had The Davis Sisters,” he recalls. “I had a whole bunch of singers that I was crazy about.” He also cites a male spiritual star as a precedent: Brother Joe May, “the Thunderbolt of the Middle West.” “He was some singer, man,” says Wiggins, who proceeded to join younger brother Percy and sister Maxine in a family gospel aggregation, the New Rival Gospel Singers, to perform at local houses of worship. Spencer and Percy also sang in another sanctified group during the late ‘50s, the Southern Wonder Juniors.
Though his neighbors as a lad included future R&B stars James Carr, Homer Banks, and J. Blackfoot, exercising his vocal cords in song wasn’t paramount on Spencer’s mind as a youth. Percy, born in 1943, nudged him in that direction. “Funny as it may sound, Percy was the one that got me interested in singing,” says Spencer. “I would be outside playing, and he’d be in there listening at the radio, getting songs. His favorite idol was Sam Cooke. He was crazy about Sam Cooke. Really, when I started, I was doing Bobby Bland and B.B. King mostly, Ray Charles.”
Percy Wiggins, who’s made quite a splash in recent years singing with the Bo-Keys (he’s already performed at the Stomp), confirms Spencer’s account. “When we were growing up, he didn’t seem to be interested in music at all. I used to try and get him to sing two-part harmony with me. And I’d give him a note to hold on to, and I would sing along with him. And every time I would give him a note to sing, he would always get on the note that I’m singing,” says Percy.
“But after awhile, he became very interested in music. ‘Cause I used to practice with him all the time. I remember the times when he really could not carry a tune from here to that wall! But seemed like it was an overnight sensation, as far as his vocal cords and all.” Percy would wax his own superb soul singles for Nashville producer Jerry Crutchfield, notably “It Didn’t Take Much (For Me To Fall In Love)” on RCA Victor in 1966 and “Book Of Memories” the next year for Atco. In ‘69, Percy cut “That’s Loving You” for Excello’s A-Bet logo.
After graduating from Booker T. Washington High School in 1961 (the Wiggins brothers had performed R&B as half of the Four Stars, along with David Porter), Spencer set out to make his mark as a secular singer. He eventually settled in at Clifford Miller’s Flamingo Club, a top Memphis nightspot. “We had two clubs,” he says. “We had one called the Flamingo Room, and we had a club downstairs called the Sounderama Room. It was two clubs, one up and one down.” Trumpeter Gene “Bowlegs” Miller led the Flamingo’s combo; Howard Grimes manned the drums. “Isaac Hayes was playing the organ, and I was the house vocalist,” says Wiggins.
Performing at the Flamingo brought Wiggins his big break. “I was singing there,” he says, “when Mr. Quinton Claunch came down and heard me one night. He asked me, was I interested in recording? I told him yes.” Hayes wrote both sides of Spencer’s 1965 debut for the short-lived Goldwax subsidiary Bandstand USA imprint, the blazing blues “Lover’s Crime” and a stomping “What Do You Think About My Baby,” the latter penned with Bowlegs. “We were very, very close,” says Spencer of Isaac, who played keyboards on some of Spencer’s early sides.
Born in Tishomingo, Mississippi in 1922, Claunch relocated to Muscle Shoals in the early ‘40s and played in a hillbilly band before moving to Memphis in 1948. Sam Phillips released a good number of country platters in the early days of his Sun logo, and Quinton played guitar on quite a few of them. He was in on the 1957 formation of Hi Records with several other investors, but exited the company before he could relish Hi’s early success on a steady diet of instrumentals by the Bill Black Combo, Ace Cannon, and Willie Mitchell.
Working full-time as a hardware salesman, Claunch founded Goldwax in 1964 with a $600 investment from partner Rudolph “Doc” Russell. “Quinton was the one that was doing the most business,” says Spencer. “It was really Doc that really was mostly like the financer. He was a pharmacist. He was tied up most of the time. Quinton was the one that went and seen that the recording got made.” Claunch’s C&W roots translated into a country-soul hybrid approach at Goldwax, its singers delivering some of the deepest deep soul imaginable. Distribution for Goldwax was initially handled by Chicago’s Vee-Jay Records, though the venerable Chicago label soon fell on hard times; Claunch and Russell moved their distribution over to Larry Uttal’s Amy/Mala/Bell empire in New York.
Quickly emerging as Stax/Volt’s primary competition for Memphis soul hits, Goldwax hit regional paydirt with the Lyrics’ “Darlin’” and O.V. Wright’s “That’s How Strong My Love Is,” followed by the Ovations’ 1965 national hit “It’s Wonderful To Be In Love.” James Carr emerged as Goldwax’s top attraction with his gut-wrenching “You’ve Got My Mind Messed Up” and “Pouring Water On A Drowning Man” in ‘66 and 1967’s immortal “The Dark End Of The Street.”
Though he sometimes did his studio business at home in Memphis (Sam Phillips’ second studio on Madison—still a working facility to this day, operated by Jerry Lee Lewis’ legendary guitarist Roland Janes—was a primary haunt), Claunch often escorted Spencer down to Rick Hall’s Fame Studio in Muscle Shoals, the region’s other soul recording capitol, to cut his Goldwax sides. “We would always drive down there,” says Wiggins. “Most of the time we would have to spend the night, ‘cause it took a lot of time.” There they would be greeted by Hall’s house band, including guitarist Jimmy Johnson, drummer Roger Hawkins, and keyboardist Lindon “Spooner” Oldham. Bowlegs was a mainstay in the horn section.
Spooner and songwriting partner Dan Penn provided Wiggins with his next Goldwax offering in 1966, the profoundly stirring “Take Me Just As I Am.” Penn had cut it himself the year before for Fame as “Just As I Am” under the sobriquet of Lonnie Ray. “Back there in the old days, Mr. Rick Hall would like to change your name,” says Penn. “He was into all those little names, you know. Lonnie Ray, Danny Lee–I was all kinds of people.”
“Take Me” got around. Arthur Conley waxed it in the fall of ‘66 for the Fame label, and Solomon Burke weighed in with it on Atlantic the following spring, barely missing the R&B Top Ten. Memphis composer Dan Greer provided the jaunty, brass-powered flip for Spencer’s version, “The Kind Of Woman That’s Got No Heart.” “Dan Greer and I, we went to school together,” says Spencer. “Me, him, and Percy finished school in ‘61 at Booker T. Washington. He also is a great writer.”
Claunch generally allowed the musicians more latitude than Hall, whose seminal slew of ‘60s hit productions at Fame included Jimmy Hughes’ “Steal Away,” Wilson Pickett’s “Land Of 1000 Dances,” and Clarence Carter’s “Slip Away.” “Rick is a real tenacious worker, a hands-on type of person,” says Spooner. “Quinton was more of a solid-type producer. He wasn’t instructional, or wouldn’t ask anything. I perceived he brought the goods, the artists and good singers, and got the songs together and the players together, and then his work was done. He just sort of trusted it’d be alright.”
Amazingly prolific southern soul songsmith George Jackson collaborated with Woodrow Webb to brainstorm Spencer’s Goldwax encore, the powerful country-tinged ballad “Old Friend (You Asked Me If I Miss Her).” “‘Old Friend’ came out in ‘66, and it was really a smash,” says Wiggins. “They was crazy about that everywhere I went.” Fans of relentlessly swinging, horn-leavened blues no doubt went crazy over the Jackson-penned flip, “Walking Out On You.”
“Great writers, great writers. They were there,” says Wiggins. “Once they gave it out to me, I have to sing it the way I feel it. I just sang the way I feel. Any singer, you can write a song, and you could sing it down to ‘em. But I just sing it the way I feel it.”
Quinton once again dug into the diamond-studded demo pile of Penn and Oldham for what endures as Spencer’s best-known Goldwax single, the spine-chilling “Up Tight Good Woman.” “People think there’s stories behind these songs, but really it’s just we would sit down to write, and we wrote, and most of those just came out of–a lot of that stuff we just made up,” says Penn. “I had the key to the studio, and we’d just go in there every evening. Usually our way of doing was we’d get together late in the afternoon, we’d ride around, get some dinner. And then we’d go to Fame and we’d lock ourselves in for the night and we’d come out at all kind of times. Sometimes really late, sometimes we’d stay to midnight and that’d be it.”
Paired with the blues-based Claunch/Russell/Earl Cage, Jr.-penned upbeat entry “Anything You Do Is Alright,” “Up Tight Good Woman” was a 1967 regional success. “I was really crazy about that myself. That and ‘Old Friend’ was two of my favorites,” says Wiggins. “That was a hit from the start. You could hear that.” Spencer’s rendition was partially overshadowed by Wilson Pickett’s impassioned treatment of the song on his Atlantic LP The Wicked Pickett; Laura Lee’s gender-switched ’67 rendition for Chess and Solomon Burke’s 1969 version on Bell both made solid R&B chart impressions. All were cut in Muscle Shoals.
Quinton himself pennedbone-chilling country-soul ballads for Spencer’s next two Goldwax offerings in 1967: “The Power Of A Woman” and “That’s How Much I Love You” allowed the singer to testify at full throttle. “Then, I was just mostly a ballad singer,” Spencer says. “I just feel that. I can sing the fast ones, but slow songs were better for me.” Quinton and Doc were credited with composing “Lonely Man,” the impassioned minor-key flip of “The Power Of A Woman,” while Claunch shared authorship on the bouncy “I’m A Poor Man’s Son,” the other side of “That’s How Much I Love You,” with Claude Dante (its chord progression and groove exhibited a Motownish streak).
Claunch was also in on the composition of Wiggins’ hair-raising 1968 ballad “Once In A While (Is Better Than Never At All)” with David Hall and Alabama-born Goldwax labelmate Carmol Taylor, a future country hitmaker who helped write George Jones’ consummate weeper “The Grand Tour.” “That really hit real big down in Florida,” says Spencer. “Everybody was crazy about that. The jukebox played round the clock on that every time I would go into one of the joints down there. That’s all they would play. Somebody would just stand there saying, ‘I’ve got the whole jukebox,’ and that’s all they would play, ‘Once In A While.’” The lyrics of its relentless horn-driven flip “He’s Too Old,” by Claunch, David Hall, and Jackson, recalled Joe Tex’s wry downhome humor.
For his 1969 Goldwax farewell, Spencer gender-switched Aretha Franklin’s first Atlantic smash as “I Never Loved A Woman (The Way I Love You),” abetted by punchy brass, electric piano, and some vicious slide guitar supplied by a future rock superstar.“Oh man, they had some musicians. They had some really good musicians down there,” says Spencer. “They had a guy down there called Sky Man, this guy played guitar. I never seen this: he went outside and broke a glass bottle and put it on his finger, and he would slide it up and down the neck! He was some player, man. He was a character!” Of course, Wiggins refers to Duane “Skydog” Allman, then a young Fame session standout. Spencer paid frantic tribute to his R&B-soaked hometown over a vicious rhythmic thrust on the flip, Claunch and Taylor’s “Soul City U.S.A.” “I was just really recording whatever they put before me,” says Wiggins. “I was young, and I just loved to sing.”
Without a manager to guide Spencer’s career, all those spectacular Goldwax singles didn’t translate into a consistent touring itinerary. “I did a few things down in Louisiana, down in Baton Rouge and New Orleans. I went down there a couple of times. Milwaukee. But I never did do Chicago. I never did do New York. None of the great big places where I really wanted to go. I never did go,” Spencer says. “Back then, whoever brought me in would just go on and then just make up a band, get some musicians. They’d get my stuff down, and I would get in early enough to work with ‘em.
“When I came along, man, I didn’t have nobody really out there for me. That’s why I really got lost in the shuffle. I mean, my music was out there, but I wasn’t out there, because they couldn’t find Spencer Wiggins. Actually, I was just a young man with no leader. So I really didn’t get a chance to go around the world with my music.”
Claunch and Russell, Wiggins’ producers throughout his Goldwax tenure, buried some great material that emerged in some cases several decades later. Bowlegs handed the singer the devotional mid-tempo “I’ll Be True To You,” while ex-rockabilly Mack Vickery was responsible for the threatening soul rocker “Who’s Been Warming My Oven,” Spencer unleashing his prodigious vocal cords full blast (the lyrics may have been a little too steamy for the era).
After recording Spencer frequently at his Muscle Shoals studio, Rick Hall acquired Wiggins’ contract from Goldwax for his Fame label in 1969. He also acquired the rights to seven of Spencer’s unissued Goldwax masters but only issued one of them, Taylor and producer Claunch’s violin-enriched “Love Me Tonight,” as half of Wiggins’ first Fame platter (Taylor had previously waxed a country version of his song for Goldwax’s Timmy subsidiary).
Rick produced the funky A-side “Love Machine,” its four writers including Cage and Spencer himself. Goldwax-cut standouts such as Bowlegs’ torrid “Let’s Talk It Over,” Claunch and Hall’s “We Gotta Make Up Baby,” and an upbeat treatment of James Carr’s “Love Attack” were consigned to Fame’s tape archives, unheard until a 2010 Wiggins CD reissue on the British Kent imprint, Feed The Flame: The Fame And XL Recordings (it was Kent’s second exploration of Spencer’s legacy following his 2006 disc The Goldwax Years).
Wiggins encored the next year with “Double Lovin’,” the catchy work of George Jackson and Fame studio stalwart Mickey Buckins. It became Spencer’s first and only national R&B hit in the fall of 1970, rising to #44. Producer Hall also helmed a version of the bubbly tune by none other than the Osmonds for MGM that went Top 20 pop in ‘71. Wiggins’ obviously superior “Double Lovin’” placed a revival of Etta James’ “I’d Rather Go Blind” on the flip (she’d cut her seminal ‘67 rendition at Fame, where great songs never faded away). Once again, some terrific sides were vaulted: a Clarence Carter-penned “Ooh-Be Ooh-Be-Doo,” the unstoppable “I’m At The Breaking Point,” and “Holding On To A Dying Love,” another Jackson copyright that Otis Clay would soon cut for Hi.
Spencer exited Fame in 1971. His next label stop in ’73 reunited him with an old buddy from Booker T. Washington High, Dan Greer, by then serving as A&R man for Gene Lucchesi’s Sounds of Memphis logo. Greer wrote and produced half of Wiggins’ Sounds of Memphis 45 by his lonesome. “I had just one song out called ‘I Can’t Be Satisfied (With A Piece Of Your Love),’” says Spencer. “That was the A-side.” Writers Robert Owens and Earl Cage shared production credit with Greer on its hard-charging flip “Take Time To Love Your Woman.” Though the major MGM label was behind Sounds of Memphis (the Ovations, Spencer’s former Goldwax labelmates, were also aboard the logo), the venture didn’t last for long.
Sounds of Memphis operated a local subsidiary, XL Records, that was supposed to release a pair of additional Wiggins 45s. But neither “I Can’t Get Enough Of You Baby” nor a followup revival of Penn and Oldham’s gorgeous “Feed The Flame” apparently saw the inside of a pressing plant later that year. Wiggins threw in the towel on his career, leaving his lifelong hometown for Florida shortly thereafter. “Me and my wife moved to Jacksonville,” he explains. “I was doing so bad in that field, I just got in the church and I just stayed. And I promised God that I wouldn’t go back out and do that.” Spencer drove a tanker hauling diesel fuel for close to two decades prior to his retirement.
At the 1997 St. Louis Blues Heritage Festival, sanctified material was all Wiggins sang, and he did so passionately. But he eventually abandoned his longstanding pledge to avoid performing his secular catalog onstage ever again, venturing over to Italy in 2009 to sing his R&B classics at the Porretta Soul Festival with Percy co-billed. A British concert was booked for Spencer the following year.
Spencer Wiggins will heartily embrace his deep soul roots at this year’s Ponderosa Stomp, no doubt displaying the same spine-chilling vocal power he summoned nightly at the expansive Flamingo a half century ago. Let’s welcome him back!