The Houston Symphony is getting ready to rock, UK style, and they’ve called upon Texas-raised original Jersey Boy, J. Robert Spencer to accompany them for U.K. Rocks, their salute to the British musical invasion across the decades.
Spencer might at first seem like an odd choice for principal Pops conductor Michael Krajewski to pick in this celebration of the rise and continuing influence of British rock and pop from the Beatles to the Who to Coldplay and Adele. After all, Spencer is a Tony-nominated Broadway star who originated the role of the Four Seasons’ Nick Massi in the Tony-winning Jersey Boys and later joined his fellow cast members to form The Midtown Men.
He seems like a guy who’s spent most of his recent performance experience reveling in iconic, but mostly American, classic pop and early rock 'n' roll hits. Yet, when I had a chance to talk with Spencer before his upcoming visit, I realized Krajewski’s choice was a good pick for a traveling companion for the Houston Symphony’s musical trip across the pond.
“Musically it’s going to be a completely different event for me, and that’s one thing I’m looking forward to the most."
Spencer is certainly no stranger to the Houston Symphony. The Midtown Men have performed in the Pops Series before, and it was while working with Krajewski a few years ago, when Spencer first heard this London (technically UK) calling.
Krajewski pulled him aside and told him he was looking for a vocalist who could hold his own musically and charismatically with the towering, blond, larger-than-life Storm Large, of Pink Martini fame, who was already on the U.K. Rocks roster. When Spencer offered to recommend “some guys” who might just fit the part, Krajewski told him he was already looking at the guy the Houston Symphony needed.
In their hundreds of concerts over the year, The Midtown Men usually synchronize shimmy their way through the golden age of American rock 'n' roll with standards like “Working My Way Back to You,” “Up on the Roof” and “California Dreamin’,” so when we discussed his preparation for U.K. Rocks, Spencer seemed very excited about the chance to expand his repertoire with old and recent Brit hits.
“Musically it’s going to be a completely different event for me, and that’s one thing I’m looking forward to the most,” he explained, and went on to reminisce about listening to many of these songs on the radio growing up in Plano, Texas.
“That’s what’s so wonderful about working on this new piece, is the great music that I’m going to be able to take away from it,” he said and going on to give examples of Van Morrison’s “Moondance” and Procol Harum’s “Whiter Shade of Pale” as songs he’s raring to tackle.
“That music that came over the pond, the Beatles, the Who, the Rolling Stones all those bands were influenced by American blues and rock 'n' roll."
“I’ve always wanted to sing a Peter Gabriel song [in concert] but I’ve never had the opportunity. Now I get to sing one of my favorites "Solsbury Hill" with the Houston Symphony. That’s crazy.”
After grilling Spencer on the great rock mystery, what “Whiter Shade of Pale” is about (I was sure it was a vampire-mermaid song, but no it's just a reference to a girl at a bar whose face turned pale), I wanted to get a little rock philosophical with him. Getting to discuss the history of rock with a man who had portrayed part of American pop history on Broadway, I couldn’t pass up the chance to get his perspective on how British and American versions of rock 'n' roll fit together.
Spencer thinks both nations’ rock stories have to give credit to the blues, explaining that everyone from Elvis, to McCartney and Lennon listening to ham radios “in their basements or in their attics,” were greatly influenced by the blues singers.
“That music that came over the pond, the Beatles, the Who, the Rolling Stones all those bands were influenced by American blues and rock 'n' roll,” he said. “So in a way, we got them energized and inspired to become who they became and then they came over, inspired us, and took it to a whole new level, took it to a whole other revolution of styles and musical opportunities. There were no boundaries and limitless possibilities.”
In the end, Spencer thinks the music of both nations constantly influenced each other. “In a way, it’s always been one,” he explained.
Houston Symphony presents "U.K. Rocks: From The Beatles to Coldplay" April 2-4 at Jones Hall.