Solidly rooted in the Sid Catlett school of drumming was O’Neil Spencer, a somewhat lesser-known player who nonetheless had a significant effect on the musicians he played with and the drummers who heard him.
Spencer was born in Cedarville, Ohio, in 1909 and began his career with local bands in the buffalo, New York area. In 1931, he joined up with the Mills Blue Rhythm Band, which later became the Lucky Millinder Orchestra. However, it wasn’t until 1937—after he joined the popular John Kirby Sextet—that Spencer truly became an influential force on the jazz scene.
A first-class swing drummer and an exceptional stylist, Spencer was well-adapted to either a small group or big band environment. Along with being one of the finest show drummers who ever lived, he was also a superb brush player with a precise, powerful style that was quite capable of inspiring an entire band. Though never recognized as a flashy drummer, Spencer was a masterful player who performed on meticulously tuned drums in the tradition of Jo Jones, Dave Tough, and Sid Catlett.
Though he became well-known primarily through his work with John Kirby, Spencer also recorded during the late ’30s with numerous other groups, including those led by Red Allen, Sidney Bechet, Jimmie Noone, Johnny Dodds, Frankie Newton, Milt Hearth, and Lil Armstrong.
Buddy rich remembers hearing O’Neil Spencer: “I first met Spence when he was at the Onyx with the Kirby band. With those brushes, he caught the feeling and pulse of a hip tap dancer. His sound was clean and perfect. I haven’t heard too many guys play with the kind of depth and technique that Spence had. He could really make that little band move. He was great.”
Spencer left the Kirby sextet in 1941 to work briefly with Louis Armstrong, but returned in ’42. His career, however, was cut short when, in 1943, he contracted tuberculosis and passed away the very next year at the age of thirty-five.