Melissa Walsh

Melissa Walsh

Blues/jazz artist reawakens Detroit’s musical past

Grosse Pointe News | March 15th, 2018 | Pointer of Interest


POINTER OF INTEREST: Blues/jazz artist reawakens Detroit’s musical past By Melissa Walsh | on March 15, 2018

Blues and jazz are bridge genres of American music, connecting epochs and generations in rhythm and verse. Grosse Pointe Park resident RJ Spangler, 61, is a force in this connection.

The affable drummer and mover on the Detroit music scene removes from obscurity hidden-away artists of pre-Motown and Motown-era music and sets them in the spotlight.

And in any set on any stage, Spangler generously treats patrons to Detroit delights, serving up choice jams like “Cadillac Assembly Line” by Sir Mack Rice with his Soul-Blues Gang, for example, or “Such Sweet Thunder” by Billy Strayhorn with his swing jazz big band Planet D Nonet.

Bassist John Barron said, “(RJ’s) kind of responsible for the resurgence of Detroit musicians who’ve been lost to history.”

Among the artists Spangler returned to the stage and studio are rhythm and blues pianist Joe Weaver, Detroit’s “Queen of the Blues” Alberta Adams, “Driving Wheel” legend Odessa Harris and jump blues guitarist Johnnie Bassett.

“One of my kinds of claim to fame is I got a lot of people another grab at the apple,” Spangler said.

Spangler’s work with Bassett — former Motown studio musician who played with lifelong friend Weaver in the Blue Notes — led to him forming the Blues Insurgents in the mid-1990s.

“(Bassett) was like a side man when I first discovered him. And I put a band together around him. We took that band to Europe about 15 times and played in over 35 states in America, eight provinces in Canada. It was a very successful thing.”

Spangler managed the band, hiring the musicians, booking gigs and contracting four record deals. The band’s 1997 release, “Cadillac Blues,” attracted five W.C. Handy awards.

Spangler, a 1975 graduate of Grosse Pointe South High School, became a full-time freelance musician at age 25.

“My uncle was a jazz drummer and a radio broadcaster, Bud Spangler,” Spangler said. “He influenced me a lot. My dad and my uncle, my natural dad — John Spangler — and Bud, they were jazz aficionados.”

He said MC5 legend-turned-jazz-poet John Sinclair and piano player Bill Heid also mentored him in his teens and encouraged him in his pursuit of music.

“I was playing about 10 to 15 nights a month through my early 20s,” Spangler said. “Then at about 25 I said, ‘Heck with it; I’m just going to do this.’”

That’s when Spangler walked away from his day job in the aluminum business. Thirty-five years later, Spangler stepped into employment again, accepting the position of entertainment director at Cliff Bell’s.

“I’m in a unique position in Detroit,” he said of his new role, “because really there are very few people that know all of the older musicians, all the middle-level musicians, age wise. And I know all the good young musicians.”

Spangler’s career is one of following the music to build a band. In 1980, he co-founded Sun Messengers with Rick Steigler.

“We were a well-regarded (jazz) band,” he said of Sun Messengers. “Now you go and see them and it’s a kind of all R&B and soul show. But, yeah, we started in jazz.”

In 1990, Spangler followed his curiosity in Detroit music to launch his “little boutique label” Eastlawn Records with Grosse Pointe South alumnus Frank Traum. The label recorded several of Detroit’s aging, lost-to-history artists, with Spangler’s Rhythm Rockers musicians backing them up.

In 2009, Spangler launched Planet D Nonet with two musicians from Sun Messengers.

“We were all together in the Sun Messengers in 1980 and I’ve been playing with some of those guys — like James the trumpeter, which is my co-leader in the Planet D — since 1977,” Spangler said.

Like Sun Messengers and Blues Insurgents, Planet D Nonet attracted many accolades. For its album “Tribute to Billy Strayhorn” — released November 2016 by Detroit Music Factory — the band won the Detroit Music Award for “Outstanding Traditional Jazz Artist/Group.”

Spangler also accrued several honors, including a 2001 nomination for a W.C. Handy Award by the National Blues Foundation, a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Detroit Blues Society in 2005 and induction as Master Blues Artist to the Blues Hall of Fame in 2013.

Locally, Spangler served 25 years in the Detroit Blues Society, including chairman. He also was artistic director of the Jazzin’ on Jefferson Festival 10 years and co-founded the Anti-Freeze Blues Festival in Ferndale 25 years ago.

Not only has Spangler fueled careers of classic Detroit musicians, he has mentored young talent, including a young keyboardist he hired for the Blues Insurgents, Chris Kodish.

“(Kodish) has more Detroit Music awards than you could shake a stick at. He’s done very well for himself,” Spangler said. “That started that chapter for me, hiring younger guys.”

Spangler plays regularly on festival stages and the venues of great cities in blues and jazz, but performing onstage at Harlem’s Apollo Theatre, he said, “was a big one for me.”

After living in Detroit and St. Clair Shores for decades, in addition to traveling with bands nationally and internationally, three years ago Spangler settled in Grosse Pointe Park. He said he’s known to join musician friends onstage at his regular Park hangouts.

“I love my community and I am very connected to my school friends,” he said.

See Spangler with the DJ7 at 9 p.m. Friday, March 23, at Cliff Bell’s in Detroit’s Harmonie Park; with the PD9 4 to 7 p.m. Sunday, March 25, at the Blue Goose in St. Clair Shores; and with the Soul-Blues Gang at 10 p.m. Saturday, March 31, at the Fire House Pub in St. Clair Shores.