Cover Story

Still Riding the Wave

Blue Wave label founder Greg Spencer celebrates 30 years with a Kingsnakes concert.

Exactly 30 years ago, Fulton native Greg Spencer applied a little bit of business sense to a whole lotta blues to create Blue Wave Records, Central New York’s most accomplished independent recording label.

Releasing an average of one record for each year it has existed, Blue Wave’s catalog runs the gamut from legendary rockers such as Eric Burdon, Cub Koda and Syracuse’s own Jimmy Cavallo to the cream of Central New York’s blues crop, bands like Built for Comfort, Backbone Slip, Kim Lembo and Blue Heat, and, of course, The Kingsnakes.

Greg Spencer. Michael Davis photo | Syracuse New Times

Greg Spencer.
Michael Davis photo | Syracuse New Times

An indie label owner must be a jack of all trades. Over the past three decades, Spencer has coordinated the sessions, overseen the track lists, commissioned the cover art, arranged for pressings, stocked the stores, filled the orders and kept the books.

All that work had a purpose over and above making records. Spencer wanted to share the sounds of Syracuse with the world.

“I didn’t want to be a record company,” Spencer says. “I wanted to be a stepping stone.”

Spencer and Blue Wave’s most prolific recording act, The Kingsnakes, will celebrate the label’s 30th anniversary on Sunday, Dec. 27, 7:30 p.m., at Eastwood’s Palace Theatre, 2384 James St.

The concert recalls the inaugural Blue Wave Records release Take a Chance, the 1985 Kingsnakes cassette that served notice of things to come. Eventually, Blue Wave would release nearly three dozen discs, and its roots-rockin’ catalog would earn Syracuse its reputation as one of America’s bona fide blues burgs.

But Spencer — who’s now 58 and lives with his wife, Sue, in Baldwinsville — had no grand plans to make records. For a while, he’d managed regional rockers Mark Doyle and Joe Whiting, then earned a degree in business at SUNY Oswego and naturally drifted into managerial jobs at Record Town and later Mainly Disc. But the Fulton man was mainly a fan.

His older brother, Ron Spencer — now a respected guitarist and bandleader here — turned him on to the recordings of Muddy Waters, Jimmy Reed, Freddie King and other urban blues artists. Greg also found himself immersed in the British blues revival, listening to music by John Mayall, The Yardbirds and the Rolling Stones.

At age 16, Greg Spencer was the type of fan who would hitchhike to the Carolinas to hear British blues blasters Savoy Brown at a rock’n’roll festival in Rockingham, N.C. As it turned out, Savoy Brown canceled that appearance, leaving the headlining slot to Alice Cooper.

Years later, however, Spencer would forge a close friendship with Savoy Brown’s leader, guitarist Kim Simmonds, the Welsh expatriate now living in Oswego County. Simmonds would go on to wax five discs with Blue Wave, from 1992 to 2007, and he also engineered some Blue Wave sessions at his White Cottage Studio, notably for Jimmy Cavallo’s The Houserocker (2002) and You Better Believe It (2006), and two CDs by Buffalo blues guitarist Jony James.

“These guys were all my heroes,” Spencer exclaims. Blue Wave would also issue albums by Detroit’s Cub Koda (of “Smokin’ in the Boys’ Room” fame) as well as Eric Burdon and Arthur Brown, two English singers who had monster hits in the 1960s. Spencer also released product by Canadian blues acts such as Toronto’s Downchild Blues Band and Hamilton’s King Biscuit Boy.

Downchild’s 2000 compilation, A Matter of Time, remains one of his best sellers. Blue Wave issued five Downchild albums, which all sold well in Canada.

The King Biscuit Boy disc, Urban Re-Newell (1995), marked Spencer’s debut as a producer. It was a daunting task because harpist-singer Richard Newell, a.k.a. King Biscuit Boy, was a lifelong alcoholic. But Spencer laid down the law and Newell’s sober studio efforts were good enough to earn the record a nomination for a Juno Award, the Canadian equivalent of the Grammys.

Along the way, Blue Wave products and performers won several Syracuse Area Music Awards (Sammys), and Spencer himself would be inducted into the Sammys Hall of Fame in 2005.

Blues-Bitten by ’Snakes

But it all started with The Kingsnakes, a kick-ass Chicago-style blues quartet from the Elmcrest neighborhood. The original foursome — Paul “Big Daddy” LaRonde, Pete McMahon, Lou Miceli and Terry Mulhauser — had a regular gig at Nappi’s, a North Salina Street dive where the band often appeared with the late blues shouter Kelly James, an Onondaga County sheriff’s deputy by day who used a stage name at night, Dr. Blue.

“I just saw these guys in Syracuse, guys like Doyle and Whiting and the ’Snakes, guys who were playing music as good as anything I’d ever heard,” Spencer recalls. “I wanted to do something to get them exposed to the world. So I was trying to get the ’Snakes signed to Alligator or maybe Rounder. I remembered when Jukin’ Bone was with RCA Records, and I wanted to get Doyle and Whiting another contract with a major label, but I got tired of waiting for it to happen.”

One booze-fueled night at Oswego’s Old City Hall at which The Kingsnakes had performed a sizzling set, Spencer leaned across the table and asked guitarist Terry Mulhauser if the band would like to make a record. Mulhauser readily agreed.

“The next day I sobered up and thought, ‘What did I get myself into,’” Spencer says with a laugh. “I figured the first thing I should do is hire someone who knows what he’s doing, so I hired Mark Doyle.”

Producer and multi-instrumentalist Doyle was an Auburn native who made his bones with rock bands such as Jukin’ Bone and Free Will before joining Meat Loaf’s touring band and producing sessions for artists such as Cindy Bullens, Andy Pratt and David Werner. Doyle also played jazz bass with his dad, pianist Bobby Doyle, whose keyboard chops he also inherited.

“Mark is probably the most musical musician I’ve ever worked with,” Spencer says. “Especially in the studio, he knows what to do or how to figure it out.”

In 1985, digital recording remained in its infancy, but Doyle and The Kingsnakes recorded Take a Chance at George Day’s Music One studio, where engineer Billy Scranton captured the live sessions on a then-brand-new Sony F1 tape machine.

The Kingsnakes. Michael Davis photo | Syracuse New Times

The Kingsnakes.
Michael Davis photo | Syracuse New Times

Doyle, who would become known as “the fifth Kingsnake,” took it from there. “I’ll never forget the first tune we tracked on the new Sony F1 system,” Doyle remembers. “It was ‘She’s Tough,’ and there’s a break where it’s just Pete McMahon laughing. And with the digital, there was absolute silence except for his laugh. It was the greatest thing we’d ever heard! So we were sold on digital recording even though the record was pressed on virgin Teldec vinyl, as were all of the Blue Wave records.”

Even at the time, McMahon — the ’Snakes’ primary songwriter — felt the good vibes. “It was a magical session,” he said after the eight-song cassette came out in 1985.

Syracuse New Times reviewer Dave Murray praised the “live” feel of the four Pete McMahon originals and four covers. Murray thought the tape’s best track was “(Please) Tell Me Partner,” a slow blues number by Mike Bloomfield bolstered by Doyle’s deft keyboard work, Mulhauser’s stinging lead guitar and McMahon’s smooth-as-molasses vocals.

The tape also featured the title track, “Take a Chance,” an original instrumental featuring Doyle’s organ fills, and “If You Can’t Get What You Want,” the only cut which was recorded to 16-track and mixed digitally.

“And we also put out the first Doyle-Whiting Band album, Good Rockin’ Tonight, digitally the next year at Utica’s UCA Studio,” Spencer remembers. “Billy Scranton really helped make it happen in those days.”

Take a Chance could have easily been a one-shot deal, Spencer says, “But somebody was smiling on us.”

The Kingsnakes and Blue Wave earned some national attention after the band’s second LP, Hard Life Boogie, received a 39-word review in the June 14, 1986, edition of Billboard magazine. “I got lucky,” Spencer says. Other notices would follow in Living Blues, Goldmine, CD Review and Cadence magazine, and orders started pouring in from blues fans from around the globe.

True to the Blues

One of Spencer’s influences was “The Delaware Destroyer,” guitarist George Thorogood, who was enjoying a brief but intense surge of popularity in the mid-1980s on the strength of hits like “I Drink Alone” and “Bad to the Bone.”

“George Thorogood never got the credit he deserved,” Spencer says sighing. It turns out Thorogood helped inspire the name of Spencer’s record label.

“I remember seeing him at Stage East (in East Syracuse) and it was standing-room only,” Spencer says. “The next week The Nighthawks played there, and (front man) Mark Wenner made an announcement. He said he’d heard the club was packed for Thorogood and The Nighthawks also had a good crowd, and Mark said, ‘Keep supporting the blue wave.’ And I thought that would make a pretty cool name.”

So when Take a Chance first came out as a cassette, it was released by Blue Wave Productions.

“I was really big on quality,” Spencer says. “I mean I made every one of those cassettes using real-time duplication.” The tapes were mastered at ESP in Buffalo on high-grade BASF chromium dioxide tape. Kingsnakes fans paid $5.99 to own one.

“And they sold like crazy,” Spencer recalls. “I went ahead and pressed a bunch on Teldec virgin vinyl, so that I could distribute some to radio, which wouldn’t play cassettes.” Before long WAQX-FM 95.7 (95X) began airing the ’Snakes cover of “She’s Tough” by the Fabulous Thunderbirds.

Blue Wave would go on to release four more albums by The Kingsnakes: 19 Lucky Strikes, Trouble on the Run, ’Snakes Alive!, and Hot Snakes: Live at Copperfield’s.

Greg Spencer. Michael Davis photo | Syracuse New Times

Greg Spencer.
Michael Davis photo | Syracuse New Times

Trouble on the Run (2000) is Spencer’s favorite, partly because it showcases The Kingsnakes’ collaboration with two cats from John Lee Hooker’s band: saxophonist Deacon Jones and the late organist Kenny Baker. “All these years later, it still sounds great,” Spencer says. “Doesn’t sound dated at all. That’s what happens when you stay true to the blues.”

Largely on the strength of their Blue Wave recordings, the ’Snakes snagged gigs with artists such as Hooker, The Nighthawks and the Fabulous Thunderbirds. In the late-1980s, the San Francisco-based Rosebud Agency booked the band at big clubs down South including Rooster’s in Macon, Ga., and Tobacco Road in Miami, Fla. They also played illustrious events such as the Chicago Blues Festival.

“In the 1980s, even being on a small label like Blue Wave gave a group some prestige,” Spencer says proudly. When the label added names like Eric Burdon, King Biscuit Boy and Kim Simmonds to its catalog, “That made it better for local talent, too.”

Following in the footsteps of The Kingsnakes and the Doyle-Whiting Band, other Syracuse roots rockers made records for Blue Wave, including Built for Comfort, Kim Lembo, Stroke and Hamell on Trial, as well as Buffalo’s Jony James Band. Five Blue Wave compilations showcased other area artists such as Ronnie DeRollo, Cold Shot, Li’l Georgie, Gary Frenay, Austin Jimmy Murphy and Backbone Slip.

Spencer had accomplished his goal to expose the Syracuse sound to a wider audience. “You’ve got to get it out further than here,” he says. “Syracuse is not a big enough market. I’ve always looked at the bigger picture. You have to think beyond here to make it work. You have to find lifers, guys like Mark Doyle and Joe Whiting and Eddie Hamell. You can’t work with artists who say, ‘I’ll give it five years and then, if it doesn’t happen, I’ll go do something else with my life.’ You’ve got to have people who are committed for their entire life.”

Blue Wave’s last release was six years ago with the Savoy Brown compilation, Too Much of a Good Thing. “It’s hard to sell CDs these days unless you’re out on the road,” Spencer explains. “I’m not part of this download world. I don’t hear and feel the excitement there.”

He misses the thrill of stocking the record bins. “Borders (at the former Carousel Center mall, now Destiny USA) had been big for me,” Spencer remembers. “It was my best outlet, and they also sold product at all the local festivals. I personally distributed locally, servicing all the mom-and-pop stores as well as bigger outlets like Borders. It used to take me three days to hit all the stores to take inventory and restock as necessary. Now I’m down to one store: Sound Garden (in Armory Square).”

On the other hand, mail-order sales remain strong to this day. After the regional distributors buckled under to the downloading trend, Spencer threw in with Select-O-Hits, the national distributor founded by Sam Phillips and his brother, Tom, in 1960. Select-O-Hits’ clients include Sun, Stax and … Blue Wave.

He won’t ever say never, but for now Spencer is content to continue selling his catalog. “I’m lucky people still want to buy stuff I put out years ago,” he admits. “And locally The Kingsnakes never stopped selling, and I’m always restocking their CDs at Sound Garden. In fact, if I combine the sales of Take a Chance in all formats — cassettes, vinyl and CD — it’s about 9,000 units sold, which is very good.”

Kingsnakes Recoil for Special Show

When The Kingsnakes take the stage for Blue Wave’s 30th anniversary concert at Eastwood’s Palace Theatre on Sunday, Dec. 27, 7:30 p.m., three of the four original members will reunite with Mark Doyle (the “fifth Kingsnake”) and a talented array of supporting musicians.

The original members are singer-harp player Pete McMahon, drummer Lou Miceli and guitarist Terry Mulhauser. Filling in for original bass player Paul LaRonde, who now lives in Florida, will be Steven T. Winston.

Drummer Mark Tiffault, who replaced Miceli in the late 1980s, will share percussion duties with the original ’Snakes stickman. Also on hand will be keyboard veteran Jerry Neely, who played with the band in 1994 on sessions for the Salt City Blues compilation. Guest saxophonists Joe Carello and Frank Grosso will further kick up the ’Snakes sound.

Audience members can expect to hear traditional tunes such as “Boom Boom” and “Got My Mojo Workin’,” along with ’Snakes originals like “Hard Life Boogie” and “Talk to Me.”

“The ’Snakes have a special place in the hearts of people around here,” says Blue Wave honcho Greg Spencer. “They still love the band. You could really feel the love when they played for that big Clinton Square crowd at the 2015 New York State Blues Festival this past July.”

Admission costs $20, and those who buy their tickets before Dec. 25 will receive a free Blue Wave CD. For information, visit bluewaverecords.com or call 638-4286.

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