Len Spencer: Gave ’em the Business

Is it me or does he look a lot like Garrison Keillor?

A peculiar phenomenon of the latter days of the 19th century and early days of the 20th, was the existence of performers who ONLY worked in the recording industry. I’ve come across numerous of these. They appear not to have any any appreciable stage credits, and radio and film weren’t yet happening, so they only worked at studios like Victor and Columbia recording the sound of singing, playing instruments, reciting and performing comedy sketches.

Len Spencer (Leonard Garfield Spencer, 1867-1914) was one of these. Spencer got into show business by the most unlikely route. His family ran a famous chain of schools called the Spencerian Business College. His grandfather had developed Spencerian penmanship, which was the national business standard for handwriting circa 1850-1925, prior to the universal adoption of the typewriter. Len was in the family business; he taught classes at the school. Amusingly the school itself was Len’s avenue of escape from it. The school made early use of gramophones for dictation purposes. The excellence of his voice was noted, and this led to a professional recording career, for he could sing and play the piano and be funny as well.

His professional career began around 1889. Spencer has been called “the Orson Welles of early recording”, for he not only sang funny and sentimental songs, but also did a variety of dialects and accents in vaudeville sketches, created sound effects, performed monologue, and wrote a lot of original material. Some of his early hits included recordings of “Ta-Ra-Ra-Boom_De-Ay” (1892), “The Old Folks at Home” (1892), “A Hot Time in the Old Town” (1896), “Hello, Ma Baby” and the monologue “The Arkansas Traveler”. Starting in 1905 Ada Jones was a frequent collaborator in sketches and music duets.

Spencer was only 47 when he died of a fatal heart attack in 1914, else we might have had the opportunity to know his work in later media. As it is though, happily, there many extant recordings of his work. You can find them on Youtube and many other online sites. This vintage article tells more about his life.

To find out more about the history of vaudeville, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous