Soulfinger brings a party to KMA’s ‘Alive After Five’ on Friday night
By Steve Wildsmith (firstname.lastname@example.org)
It’s neither a racist statement nor an insulting one to describe Soulfinger front man Tim Spencer as the blackest white dude in the Knoxville music scene.
A harmonica player and the band’s vocalist, Spencer has felt an affinity for styles of music that developed out of African-American culture — particularly soul, R&B and funk — for most of his life. He bears no ill will toward country or rock, nor is he diverse to dabbling in such genres; however, he feels more at ease on stage leading Knoxville’s No. 1 soul-party than he does doing anything else.
“The music’s got soul,” Spencer told The Daily Times this week. “I think we’re so musically challenged in the white community from a standpoint of being educated on music outside of what our ancestors listened to. The soul of the music is what speaks to me, and that kind of music has gotten me through some of the hardest times of my life.
“Also when I was younger, I attended a black church when I was 19, and for the longest time, I was the only white guy there. After going for several months, I joined the choir, and that kind of furthered my getting deeper into that kind of music. And eventually that spilled over into what I was doing in the local music scene.”
A 1988 graduate of Bearden High School, Spencer cut his teeth on everything from The Beatles to Sam Cooke while growing up, and his father made certain his Motown education was a thorough one. He started playing harmonica when he was 15, and within five years, he was playing blues with guys like Labron Lazenby and Rick Rouse.
“We would run around and do little impromptu blues shows, just to entertain people,” Spencer said. “We’d go to speakeasies where we were the only white boys around, or we’d go over to Western Heights and play for a little house party or something. And it just progressed from that point on.”
He started singing as well as blowing, channeling the forceful delivery and funky syncopation of James Brown. He lived in Las Vegas for a couple of years, playing with more professional musicians out there, and back in Knoxville he sought out a place at local blues bands.
Eventually, bass player Danny Michel and guitarist Jamie Meade asked Spencer to throw in with them. They started out in 2005, heavy on the blues side of things, but the ultimate goal was to have a soul band. They took their name from an old song by The Bar-Kays (which they cover on occasion), and eventually they decided to bring in a horn player. It sounded good, but it also sounded like a novelty, like the musicians added a horn player as an afterthought and not as one of the engines driving the music.
Enter Pee Jay Alexander, a veteran of Gran Torino and a respected horn player locally.
“Pee Jay joined, and he took everything up a whole other notch,” Spencer said. “With his experience and his background, he was able to help attract other horn players. That’s become a real focal point for us.”
These days, the band writes roughly one-third soul music and two-thirds funk, Spencer said. Given the renaissance of soul music of late, typified by bands like Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings and Fitz and the Tantrums, audiences have been growing, and as word of Soulfinger’s ability to take control of a crowd and lay down the laws of a funk-soul party, so have the opportunities available to the band. Regular gigs at Tin Roof Rocky Hill, Preservation Pub and other venues have given Soulfinger a reputation as a band for dancing.
“As we started coming together as a unit, people started realizing, ‘This is great music,’” Spencer said. “And I think women are really a huge catalyst to our success. Usually we get so many women at our shows, we’ll announce, ‘Fellas, we appreciate ya’ll coming, but you can drop the girls off and pick them back up at 2 a.m. We’ll take care of them.’”