" Can't Stop My Heart From Lovin' (& DIGGING ) You "
I will NEVER FORGET... the very first time I heard LIVE Rock & Roll Music. It was 1956 and it was in the same place where I first heard and saw "THE KING" make his TV Debut on The Dorsey Brothers Show and many years later, The Beatles, repeat that event on Ed Sullivan. But this was live, not coming from our 17" Halicrafters B&W TV or from Alan Freed over the radio 65 miles away. It was just two feet away from me in our knotty pine living room. Pumping and pulsing out of what was probably thought of as the most uncool instrument a soul could play Rock & Roll on ... The accordion.
It didn't matter if it wasn't cool, for there in front of my eyes and ears was Johnny Kruk, a high school pal of my sisters boyfriend Dennis. Johnny was holding me spellbound, as he launched into an instrumental version of Don't Be Cruel, which was the very first R&R record I ever bought with my 50 cent a week allowance.
The sound Johnny got out of his squeeze box, that after school day, just filled up the room and owing to the fact that there was a cathedral ceiling, that was a tall order and for me a religious experience. When Johnny joined the Marines, he left his accordion with us, perhaps because he saw how interested I was in what it could do. I would often try to recreate that elusive throbbing full sound he got out of it that day. I never could, but by then I had something else to hold my musical attention ... my own guitar.
Some 4 Years Later... I Was As Close To Johnny's Accordion That Day, As I Am To That Ashtray On The Coffee Table
The guitar and later the Hammond organ too, took me on many wild and unforgettable journeys into the world of music making for fun and profit, starting in high school and continuing for decades afterwards.
Fast forward thirty years. It's late 1986 and I am planning a major move in a few months to Nashville, Tn. to pursue a new career as a songwriter. I'm tooling down US 19 in Clearwater, Florida, and with me for the ride is Erik, my three year old son. I have the car radio tuned in to WQYK and on comes this new group called The O'Kanes. They are sounding a bit like The Everly's and playing a tune with a great beat called "Can't Stop My Heart, From Loving You" I'm instantly transported back to my living room in 1956, because of all things in the mix. I am hearing an accordion. To add to my glee, Erik is going wild and starts singing along at the top of his lungs. With me beating on the steering wheel, we must of looked a sight to anyone along side of us.
Little did I know that day, that within less than two years, I'd be working in a recording studio in Nashville with both Roy Huskey the Bass player and Roy Yeager the Drummer from the now disbanded O' Kanes and pinching myself at how lucky I was to be playing music with these guys. As if that wasn't enough, we were cutting some of my original tunes, that were being considered for Elvis ...The Early Years TV series. I also had The Jordanaires (Back Up singers for all of Elvis' early recordings) on the session. I recall during a break, I asked Roy Yeager if Jay Spell (the O'Kanes accordion player) was still in town. Roy gave me his number and I knew someday I would be calling him too, when I had the right tune that needed an accordion. Had I known then, that Jay also played some of the most rockin' barrel house piano to ever touch anyones ears and heart and soul, I would of called him much sooner. A few years later, I had a freshly co written tune with Bob Cheevers called Destiny Rides Again and I heard an accordion fitting nicely into the arrangement.
This was one of the last incarnations of the O'Kanes Band . . Photo courtesy of Richard Kane
My cold call to Jay ( he didn't know me from Adam) quickly turned very warm, thanks to his most gracious and giving personality and his true eagerness to be of assistance in anyway he could. Before I called him, I had brushed up on just some of his long list of credits as a sideman to or studio player for the likes of Ronnie Milsap, Vern Gosdin, Randy Travis , Emmy Lou Harris ,Conway Twitty, Jimmy Buffet, Tower Of Power, Canned Heat etc. Long before the call ended ( we talked like oldest of friends) I knew I had found another true kindred spirit.
The only regret I always have about using players of Jay's calibre, is that the music ends too soon, That is they get what you are looking for and deliver it within a take or two. Now some just say thank you, pack their gear and go on down the road, but some become true blue friends. Jay fell into the latter category. Also he lived less than a mile from my place, so there were frequent visits for a few years until he left Nashville. He had a jaw dropping incredible record collection, encyclopedic knowledge of music and a beautiful mind. I enjoyed helping him whenever he needed me, because as you may of noticed in that photo above that Jay is blind. I would take him to gigs and sometimes to the airport too, for out of town gigs, whenever he would ask me.
I recall introducing him backstage one night to new singer Faith Hill (she had her first song out then) as he heard she was looking for a keyboard player. He didn't get that gig, but I knew it wasn't because he couldn't cut it. Hell, Jay could cut anything, anyway, slice and dice it and gift wrap for you.
Another time he had a gig at the huge Summer Lights Music Festival they used to have here. He was playing piano for Al Kooper, Al also had Jim Fielder playing that night. Jim had played bass with Al in Blood Sweat & Tears and long after Al left. As it turned out Jim & Jay were old friends . I had a great time that night just listening to the music and the war stories afterwards.
Just last week (end of Jan 2011) another kindrid spirit, Fred Koller and I were writing a tune together. Fred also has a tremendous record collection and he went hunting something he wanted me to hear. I said his room full of vinyl reminded me of Jay Spell's and Fred quipped, "Can you believe how Jay can walk up to any of his shelves, run his hand like a scanner and pull out the exact album he wants? " Yeah his arm and finger tips moved across the album spines like a Wurlitzer Juke Box.
Jay used to let me borrow his records and I got to hear a lot of unique stuff . He always did the refiling though. When Ronnie Milsap's True Believer came out, he gave me a promo copy. While reading the fine print, I noticed the title track ( a real groovin John Hiatt tune about early R&R radio and Nashville DJ Hoss Allen) was published by Whistlin' Moon Music. That gave me part of a title for another tune called The Lone Wolf & The Whistling Moon that I wrote two completely different ways with Bob Cheevers. We kept the exact same lyric, but used two different melodies and tempos for it . Jay got to play on that session too.
The last time I saw Jay was far too long ago. It was probably around 2000 or 2001, about the time I wandered away from the music world into my new literary one. I took him out to the airport to join up with Ronnie Milsap for an early morning flight. They were on their way to Myrtle Beach on the Carolina coast, where Ronnie had one of those performing theatres. There he would play shows for weeks at a time. Jay must of really enjoyed it there as he wound up staying . When we talked on the phone he said he just loved playing live every night.
About three years ago, I had a hunch or may of had a dream ( I really can't recall ) that Jay was either sick and might of actually passed away. The phone number I had for him wasn't no longer working and an internet search led me no where. I asked mutual friend, Ronnie Godfrey, if he knew anything. He got in touch with Jay and told him of my concern. In turn, I got a phone call from Jay, saying the reports of his demise were greatly exaggerated. Sometime after that, he moved to California, but that was unbeknownst to me until yesterday. The truth is, there was something very wrong. Jay developed cancer and fought it for three years before succumbing the day before last New Years Eve. As late as last October, he was still performing. I do not think any of the Nashville papers carried anything about it and I find that really sad. Ronnie Godfrey e mailed me this obit yesterday from a California paper .
Jacob Astor Spell lost his three-year-battle with esophageal cancer on December 30, 2010 at age 65. He died at his home in Canyon Country, California, surrounded by friends and family. Jay was admired as one of the finest keyboard players in the music industry. Jay also played fiddle and accordion and was a vocalist, a music producer, writer and arranger. He played throughout the Santa Clarita Valley with the Alan Wright Band and Jerry Sockorsky.
Jay was born on December 22, 1945 in Sampson County, North Carolina. He started life with a handicap that in the end, only helped to make him the person he was. Born blind, he attended the "Blind School" in Raleigh where he met Ronnie Milsap in 1956. The two of them remained life-long friends, often touring and recording together.
Jay often said he was the luckiest man alive in that he was able to make a living with his favorite hobby.
Jay performed and recorded with many bands including: Baillee And The Boys, Jimmy Buffett, Canned Heat, David Clayton-Thomas, Judy Collins, Steve Cropper, Clifford Curry, Jose Feliciano, Eddie Floyd, Earle Gaines, Vern Gosdin, Roy Head, Emmylou Harris, Robert Earle Keen, Tim Krekel, Sam Lay, Jim Leslie Band, Little Texas, John Mayall, Ronnie Milsap, Buddy Miller, Don Nix, The O'Kanes, Dan Penn, Poco, Larry Raspberry * and the Highsteppers, Jeannie C. Riley, Steve Ripley, Dan Seals, Roscoe Shelton, Michelle Shocked, Greg "Fingers" Taylor, Richard Torrance and Eureka, Tower Of Power, The Tractors, Randy Travis and Conway Twitty.
Jay had a website with samples of his music at JaySpell.com. He also has several videos on You Tube and MySpace.
Jay leaves behind his long-time girlfriend Faye Benafield, brothers Glen and Danny Spell, and hundreds of friends who loved him dearly and will miss him the rest of their lives. Those who wish, please make a donation in Jay's name to your favorite charity. A celebration of his life will be held at a later date.
* Larry Raspberry from Memphis wrote one of my faves "ALWAYS DRIVE A CADILLAC"
I went searching and found some of Jay's you tube vids and an MSNBC interview. where he talks about his fight with cancer. I have linked them up below along with the two tunes I am proud to say, he played on for me in my home studio and The O'Kanes "Can't Stop My Heart:". I think you will enjoy them all. But this simple vid I have embedded here, really captures the Jay I knew. It must of been taken at a pre concert load in someplace. It's just Jay "NOODLING" on a Yamaha grand on a bare stage, while a lone stage hand wanders around doing some work on it gets highly entertained. Besides some incredible playing, you will hear Jay make comments about how great an instrument it is and that he has to figure out a way to improve upon his economic situation to get one. Jay where ever you are now, I hope you have the grandest piano in the universe, bigger than a Bosendorfer, far stellar than a Steinway. with more Yowza than that Yamaha too.
JUST PURE MUSIC
JUNE 6th 2015
WHAT AN HONOR TO BE PRESENTED WITH JAY'S BEAUTIFUL ALBERTO MORBIDONI ACCORDIAN
BY FAYE BENAFIELD HIS LONGTIME FRIEND & EXECUTOR OF HIS ESTATE
JUST TO HOLD AN INSTRUMENT WITH MUSIC HISTORY PROVENANCE THIS INSTRUMENT HAS IS INSPIRING
TO NOW BE THE CONSERVATOR OF IT AND MAKE MUSIC WITH IT ONCE AGAIN, IS BEYOND WORDS