You had to be there. Spencer Bohren’s extensive catalog of recordings present him in all his strengths as a singer-songwriter, a guitarist who knew how to frame a song and make every note count, a great interpreter and, to a lesser extent, a storyteller. You really had to see him in person to get the storytelling part, because everything else was in service to it. Spencer’s gentle, assuring voice lulled you into the contours of his tales, but could turn on a dime and shock you with its moral sternness. Few guitarists have accompanied their stories as deftly as this master. But there was something more at work. Like all the great singer-songwriters, he had an aura about him, an ability to project his vision into the far corners of a room or across the field on the Gentilly stage at Jazz Fest. He was beatific, a glow that radiated out from a smile that seemed to encompass his whole person and express itself to everyone in range.
In my years at OffBeat, one of the very best things that happened to me was getting to meet and become friends with Spencer and his family. Visiting the house he and his wife Marilyn rebuilt after it was mostly destroyed in the 2005 flood, was like entering a museum of New Orleans resurrection. It was just down the block from Liuzza’s by the Track and was one of the secret delights of living in New Orleans—watching the black and gold butterflies dance around his garden, being treated to Marilyn’s cookies, and looking at Spencer’s treasures, his cherished guitars and the shoebox art works he kept displayed in a widowed cabinet. His big kitchen table was the site of many deep conversations, much merriment, some brilliant brainstorming sessions, and a lot of music. This is where one of the most ingenious collaborations in recent New Orleans music history took place, the four songwriters who joined forces in a quartet known as The Write Brothers.
The idea for the Write Brothers might have been inspired by Jim McCormick’s epiphany, or spurred by the open contours of the Paul Sanchez Rolling Road Show, but Spencer was definitely the spirit of the Write Brothers, and that kitchen table was where he held court. The quartet was completed by Alex McMurray. Alex and Spencer were involved in numerous other projects together as well.
They gathered around the kitchen table for a few days in 2014 and came up with ten pieces for their debut album, First Flight. Spencer said they needed one more, but they didn’t have time. Then they went into Piety Street Studios to cut the record with producer Mark Bingham, a process that was proceeding swiftly.
I’ll let Paul Sanchez pick it up from there:
“As Alex and Jim were working on a song in the studio I called Spencer into the kitchen and said ‘I may have a chorus for that one extra song you’ve been wanting.’ I played him a chorus: ‘Let’s lift our glasses /and drink to the sadness /and sing the familiar old songs with our friends /All too soon comes the end of the tune and who knows when we’ll be together again.’ He said, ‘I like it,’ a few minutes later he walked back into the kitchen with his guitar and sang this verse, ‘When we were kids /we’d cross the Mississippi /We’d take the ferry to old Algiers /me and my buddies we’d ride for hours /Go back and forth while the day disappeared.’ Alex and Jim came in, we finished the song over lunch and recorded it that very day.”
Of course Spencer was a lot more than the Write Brothers. He traveled constantly, playing to appreciative audiences around the world, telling stories around campfires, but always coming back home to New Orleans. Home, where he got to play with his son Andre in various groups—the Chilluns, the Whippersnappers, Rory Danger and the Danger Dangers. These were his happiest times. He was diagnosed late last year with Stage Four prostate cancer, a rapacious disease, from which I also suffer. It takes you down, believe me. He had to cancel some gigs, but he made it out to play the Debbie Davis and Matt Perrine holiday special, Oh Crap, It’s Christmas! He was wonderful that night.
Things took a turn this year and the family announced that Spencer’s Jazz Fest gig would be his last for a while as he took time off to battle the illness. It turned out to be his last waltz. He arrived at the Gentilly stage to play a magic gig with the Whippersnappers. He couldn’t walk without a cane or help from Andre, but once he got into position he played and sang at what sounded like peak strength. The music can do that for you. He looked out at the crowd and said “You are all so beautiful,” and it was so heartfelt. I think it just melted everyone there.
Next up was Paul and his Rolling Road Show, and Spencer stayed at Gentilly to take part in a reunion of the Write Brothers. They all stood on stage, trading verses, and then sang the chorus one last time: “Who knows when we’ll be together again.” Hundreds of people in the audience sang along with them. Spontaneous tears of grieving joy flowed as they joined in on what somehow everyone understood intuitively was a final farewell. Thank you, Spencer, for all you gave us.