Commentary

Saunders: A musician misses his dad, and “Color Him Father” is born

bsaunders@newsobserver.comJune 13, 2013 

Richard Spencer was 13 years old, getting dressed for a school program in Wadesboro, and having trouble tying his necktie.

“My mom came in and helped me. She did the best she could, but she didn’t know what she was doing, either,” Spencer told me.

The jointly tied tie, it turned out, was a mess. “My classmates laughed at me. I felt so bad,” he recalled, schoolhouse angst discernable decades later.

That night, he said, he lay in bed and plotted revenge on the father who was in and out of his life – mostly out. “I remember thinking ‘I’ll get him,’” he said.

More than a decade later, he did get him. Spencer wrote a song that many – OK, perhaps just I – consider the ultimate ode to dads. “Color Him Father” was inescapable in 1969, back when AM radio ruled the airwaves and a hokey, sentimental song could receive airplay.

This was, after all, only a year after the saccharine “Honey” by Bobby Goldsboro and the bombastic “MacArthur Park” by Richard Harris – both great songs with weird stories – had topped the charts.

Father’s Day perennial

“Color Him Father,” by The Winstons, reached No. 4 on Billboard’s Hot 100, No. 1 on the R&B charts and won a Grammy. Tremendous debut for a band that had spent years backing up stalwarts such as Otis Redding and Curtis Mayfield & the Impressions, right?

It turned out to be their only hit, but it is a Father’s Day perennial.

True, the song about a man who marries a woman with seven kids – whew, that had to be love – makes a lot of “worst songs” lists, along with the aforementioned two. But those lists are, with all due respect, written by cynical hipsters whose ears are full of creamed corn.

Unlike the song’s dad who “got killed in the war,” Spencer said his real dad simply caught a Greyhound and dipped. “It was somewhat autobiographical,” he said, “but I fictionalized it to make it more marketable.”

Spencer was in Clearwater, Fla., as The Winstons, what he called “a bar band,” played backup for the Impressions in 1969. “I was having really bad marital problems. It was one of those mornings I was feeling kind of bad. Even though he had rarely been there for me, I felt like I wanted to talk to my dad.”

A letter to Dad

When he dialed dear old dad’s number, he said, “his phone was disconnected. ... I was angry because every time I needed him, he was never there. He was a helluva nice guy when he was around. Never violent. Never mean. He just seemed never to grow up.

“It started as a letter to him,” he said of the song. “I made up an imaginary dad who married my mother and took us in. Now, I was a sax player, not a songwriter, so I went down and asked Curtis Mayfield: ‘How do you know when you’ve written a hit record?’ He said after you write it, put it aside for a while and go back to it. If it still works, it’s a hit.

“I went back to it and liked it. The band laughed when they heard it, but they played it for me,” he said.

Spencer said a dispute between his publisher and producer ended up derailing his songwriting career. He said he “didn’t know until years later” why none of the subsequent songs he wrote were recorded.

“The publisher said ‘If I can’t make money off him, nobody will.’ Not to say that I would have written another big hit ... but it was disappointing when I found out.”

Spencer retired from the D.C. Metro System, went to college and got a degree, then returned to Wadesboro to teach high school social studies. He has since retired.

Thinking back on his one foray onto the hit parade, and his patriarchal antipathy no doubt mellowed by time, Spencer said he now realizes he didn’t write the song to hurt his father. “I wrote it,” he said, “because I missed him.”

bsaunders@newsobserver.com or 919-836-2811

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