Musician and producer Peter K. Siegel is an important figure in American roots music. His recordings have captured many historical performances, and his own albums celebrate the folk and protest traditions. Siegel built his favorite banjo
from a Boucher kit.
So they talked to the manager and the manager talked to Roy and they came back with one of the most bizarre counteroffers I’ve ever heard—which we accepted. The counteroffer was that it had to be with his band and we only get two sessions. It was all short notice, so we arranged for Roy to show up with his band. Let me tell you, Roy Buchanan—he spoke through his music. He didn’t speak a lot, himself. But in blues, especially, I can hear the words that go with the notes. So he showed up, and I worked with an engineer who could do this on the fly. In the next couple of nights, we recorded the first album and Roy was powerful enough to make up for the fact that some of the musicians didn’t have a lot of studio experience. And people who were outside the studio who heard him were saying, “What the fuck is that?” At the end, I said, “You got any more things we could try out?” And one of them was [the Don Gibson-penned country classic] “Sweet Dreams,” and he played that and it killed me. The band really worked on that and it became a minor hit in England. That “Sweet Dreams” track still floors me. Roy Buchanan sold a lot of copies, hundreds of thousands. It really did the job for Roy. I stayed in touch with Roy and we talked about music a lot.
They wanted to do another record. I wanted it to be more about Roy—an instrumental record. What I wanted to do was have Roy playing the music he played: mostly blues, Chicago-style blues, B.B. King-style blues, some country stuff. We got this group together in Record Plant’s Studio C and encouraged them to play the blues. And he played some well-known numbers like “After Hours,” and I encouraged him to play in different styles, like, “Hey, you ever listen to Elmore James?” And he did “Tribute to Elmore James.”
There’s a great take where he broke a string in the middle and kept going and going: “Five-String Blues.” We called it Second Album, which was the working title. That was the one that got a gold record. The sound was great. We worked on that with an engineer named Shelly Yakus. I sat next to Shelly for so many thousands of hours that it was like ESP. He knew what I wanted—how to do stuff that I didn’t know how to get.
My whole philosophy about mixing is that tracks are mixed the way they want to be mixed. You could have a preconceived idea of the sound, but it very rarely turns out that way. In this case, Roy was clearly the voice of the band. He had a little old brown Fender amp—don’t remember what model it was. He was not a screaming loud guitar player. One of the things you may have noticed: Stuff that’s played really loud in the studio is not always the best way to get it to sound loud. We got it to sound big. Years later, the last time I actually saw Roy, he said, “How did you get that sound?”
Let’s talk about one of the first highly influential guitarists you recorded: Joseph Spence.
Joseph Spence played guitar and did two types of vocalizing. One is very incidental, sort of like Erroll Garner or other guys who make sounds while they’re playing, and he also did a style of singing called rhyming. It came out of the sponging. One of the principal industries at the time in the Bahamas was gathering natural sponges. And to do it, these crews of guys would go out on a boat, rickety craft, four or five guys, and dive for sponges. Anything can happen, really dangerous, a lot of guys drowned, lot of songs about that. They would go out for weeks at a time and at night tie up the boats together and they would sing. It became kind of a competitive sport. They’d sing old hymns they called anthems—really beautiful three-chord songs where a group of people would sing the anthem over and over again. Typically someone would sing the melody, someone would sing the treble, someone else the bass. And the rhymer would start improvising vocal parts, usually based on Bible stories. It was improvised, but if you do it enough you pretty much get a rap going, and Spence had it down.
In the summer of ’65, the FOTM produced the last of their series of concerts at the New School, and one of the things they produced was music from the Bahamas. Pete Seeger volunteered to go down there to look for musicians. He found Joseph Spence, and arranged for Spence, his sister Edith, her husband Raymond Pinder, and their daughter Geneva Pinder to come up. It was my job—as a volunteer, nobody got paid—to host Joseph Spence and his family while they were in New York. Spence was legendary among people I knew. I got this idea to take Spence to the top of the Empire State Building and he was appropriately gassed by the whole thing. Years later, Guy Droussart, the Swiss guy who became the great expert on Joseph Spence, was down in the Bahamas at the Spence house and saw this little snow globe of the Empire State Building that Spence had bought on that trip.
I was living at home at the time. My parents had an apartment on East 31st Street, and I took the whole gang back and we went into my bedroom, and I said, “Hey, let’s make tapes.” And I recorded a lot of Joseph Spence in my bedroom. Great stuff. He was playing that guitar [points to a Martin D-28]. I got it in 1962 or ’63. It was used but only lightly. I recorded all these songs with Joseph Spence playing that guitar. When you’re 19 and suddenly you have Joseph Spence in your bedroom, it’s a big deal!
Then I got the idea to go to the Bahamas to record people with my friend and polymath musician, Jody Stecher. By this time, I had a Nagra reel-to-reel tape recorder, a good mic, and a rudimentary understanding of how to produce records. I could get a sound that [musicologist/producer] Sam Charters didn’t have the equipment to do. The first thing we did was find Joseph Spence. We had some instructions that we got from Rothchild, to go to Nassau and from there to a little village called Culmerville, and then ask around. And it worked ... but people were suspicious: these two white guys looking for Joseph Spence.