ATM: Spencer, why do you have a strong attachment to human rights?
SP: I am an immigrant Gabrielle.
ATM: I am aware.
SP: My parents were from Poland. They were in concentration camp in Auschwitz. I was born in Munich, Germany and came to America when I was 6 years old. I was a minority. I was beaten up on a regular basis, being a blonde haired kid who didn’t speak English in Albuquerque, New Mexico during a period where there was a lot of prejudice in our country. Being the dreamer that I am, I had my own struggles at very young age while I wanted to do my parents proud. They immigrated to America with their only kid, me – and wanted to make something of my life.
So my early alignment with Dr. King’s civil rights struggles here was a natural movement I was drawn to. I so relate to minorities and people who want to make something of their lives and be heard. On the professional front, I had the good fortune to work with such great artists like Stevie Wonder, Tina Turner, B.B King, Gladys Knight, Gregory Porter and others who showed the world their heart, with their music..
ATM: What was your first music project that gained a prestige award.
SP: The very first one was in 1978 when I was the Executive Producer of the UNICEF charity album, which featured Rod Stewart, The Bee Gees, Olivia Newton John and other great artists. This was recorded at Pasha, and sold over 1 million copies.
The next record I was involved with as an Executive Producer which won awards was the “Staying Alive” soundtrack with Sylvester Stallone directing John Travolta as a follow up to “Saturday Night Fever”. That was also recorded at Pasha and was also a platinum record. Those were my first two major record awards, although the Tina Turner ‘Acid Queen’ album from Tommy which I produced and played guitar on did not do so poorly either. But it did not sell one million albums like these other two did.
ATM: From producing over 200 albums, what have you learned about yourself as a man?
SP: Do things that you really believe in and hope it all works out. So many variables Gabrielle that go into a successful hit project, even if while you are making it, you think it is wonderful. I have always had that habit of pride, thinking what I produced was solid. Well the work has to be promoted and marketed well and connect with the public. Out of one’s control after a while.
I have always gone for the dream and did the best work I could. I do understand that everything I do won’t be successful. But if it is successful in the effort and process, then to me it is a successful project, whether it makes a lot of money or not. I would, however, like my work to make a lot of money too. No penalty. I have done a lot of projects that have made a bunch of dough and many that have not. But, to me, each one was a good journey, otherwise I would not have done them.
ATM: When producing the Acid Queen, Tina Turner album, did you ever think her music would have a huge impact on American culture?
SP: I knew she was fantastic. In 1974, I had gone to an Ike & Tina Turner concert where they opened for the Rolling Stones. Tina stole the show. I saw her and Mick Jagger jam on stage together. I got this epiphany that she should be performing Rock n’ Roll because this audience fell in love with her. A natural demographic for her. I did not realize she would become such a big crossover artist. I was fortunate to play guitar on this with Ray Parker Jr. I would sing her some ideas. She would come back to say, “You mean like this honey!!” I loved the process and the experience working with Tina.
ATM: How did you get to handle the music on 54 films and 2 ministries for the Showtime Network?
SP: The Showtime experience was a 7 year off campus journey where I could quarterback their music interests as a partner to the Network I would hire composers, mix the scores, and write title songs as I was learning the craft of putting music to film. The President of Programming for the network, Jerry Offsay was a very strong and creative leader who gave me lots of rope and support to be creative. I will always love him for that plus his great skill as a leader. The opportunity he gave me at Showtime led me to do similar work for two sister Viacom companies, MTV and VH1. Jerry ultimately allowed me to develop my own projects at Showtime where music became an element. I produced four pictures for him there.
ATM: Do you ever second guess yourself?
SP: Sure. But once I cross the line and I commit to something I get involved with, I stay with it. Sometimes I think that I might have done something differently in retrospect but if I went for it at the time, I own it. To me, my work is always about the song, movie, screenplay and project. My job is to help bring that project to life, be it a song, recording, screenplay or event
ATM: How did major talents such as Denzel Washington, Common, and Former President Bill Clinton get involved in the John Coltrane film that you were a producer on?
SP: I really give John Scheinfeld and Dave Harding the credit there. They made these interviews happen for our film. We all noted that former President Bill Clinton appeared on a David Letterman show, speaking of the influence of John Coltrane on his sax playing. We thought he would be a fantastic voice from another lane to speak about John’s influence. Denzel was also John Scheinfeld’s idea. He gets the props for this one.
We noted that the sonics on some of the interviews Coltrane had done in his career were not all that clean but the words he spoke were brilliant and meaningful. So, John thought it would be great if we would get a serious jazz fan who was familiar with Coltrane and his music to speak the words of JC. Additionally, that narration would take us through the journey of his life and influence. Denzel was making “Fences” at that time. We were able to have a rough cut of the film that John and Dave had put together and sent to him in Pittsburgh. Denzel loved what he saw and agreed to read Coltrane’s words in his unique style.
We were able to also secure other great talents such as Common, Wynton Marsalis, John Densmore and Santana along with other esteemed musicians who performed with Coltrane such as Sonny Rollins, McCoy Tyner, Jimmy Heath and Benny Golson, to also share their stories about influence and experience.
We were further blessed that Kamasi Washington, a brilliant young talent and voice of a new generation of jazz musicians, participated very eloquently.
ATM: Take us through some of the production aspects of the film As Seen Through These Eyes narrated by the late American poet Dr. Maya Angelou.
SP: I only produced and mixed the music for this film. That is when I had the great fortune to meet and work with Dr. Angelou. As I mentioned earlier, my parents were in Auschwitz so the basis of the film, about inmates in the camps surviving through their art renderings, resonated with me directly. “As Seen Through These Eyes” was a documentary directed by Hilary Holstein and produced by former Showtime production President Jerry Offsay. He asked me to get involved on the ground floor and I readily did.
Ironically, from a timing standpoint, my wife Judy and I I had just taken my two sons to a small village outside of Krakow, Poland to hold my son Morgan’s bar mitzvah ceremony in the 500 year old temple that my father had been Bar Mitzvah’d. As a result of being there and going to the camps, Judy wrote a poem about her experience. I wrote the music to the poem along with a friend, songwriting collaborator of mine, David Pomeranz. It ended up becoming the key song for the film, whose themes composer Lawrence Brown laced throughout the film. I recorded a vocal version with Columbia Records hit artist, Anna Nalick, with a string quartet.
ATM: Please tell us a bit about the Jackie Robinson of Basketball story called Sweetwater, coming out in 2019.
SP: Another good friend of mine, Martin Guigui, spent 12 years writing the true story of Nathan Sweetwater Clifton, the first black basketball player to become a star in the NBA. He asked me to join forces with him and kick the film to another level because of my love of respect for the triumph of the human spirit and sports. We are making it independently and it will release in 2019.
ATM: Discuss your relationship with your “Film Forward” producing partner, Beth Broday.
SP: My friendship with Beth dates to 40 years ago. Beth originally worked in management for Billy Thorpe with whom I made the Children Of The Sun Record in 1978. She went on to establish a successful company that produced rock videos during days when MTV had just become popular. In fact, she produced my band Quiet Riot’s first videos (‘Bang Your Head” & “Cum On Feel The Noize”). Recently we reconnected to work on Film Forward. The project will hopefully help to get the vote out and help bring democracy forward. We are going to screen it via Fathom Events in many AMC, Cinemark, Regal theaters a month before the midterm elections this year.
ATM: How are you expecting your Film Forward movie to impact the new generation of citizens?
SP: We will explore activism from the Civil Rights Movement, the Dreamers and Immigration Reform, Women’s Rights, Gun Reform as well as LGBT rights and environmental causes. We are going to profile some very important films. Woven in between film segments young spoken word poets from Get Lit and Street Poets each original piece will use a few lines from a famous historical speech or quote as a starting off point. From Los Angeles schools, their voices and visions are at the epicenter of political change and power. They will stand alongside their peers from Parkland, Florida as well as every city and state demanding change.
We will end our film with me producing a 70 member gospel choir version of Michael Jackson’s hit “Man in the Mirror.” I plan this to be a very emotional ending for our film.
At the end of the exhibition, we will have a panel of high profile and articulate voices from both side of the aisle discussing what the public has just seen. My dream is to have Rachel Maddow, Anderson Cooper, Trevor Noah or another great news personality as the moderator for our panel.
Beth and I are hoping this film inspires people to vote and understand it is all a journey. Quincy Jones and Smokey Robinson’s life coach, Tim Storey will be speaking at this event. Tim has a great relationship with Oprah Winfrey on a regular basis and is a great motivational speaker. He will be performing a spoken word section in the middle of the film as well.
ATM: Why have you mixed every single record in your career?
SP: I mix every record I produced, yes. I put my hands on it so that it embodies the vision that I have. Also, it protects the artist’s vision. I have worked with excellent engineers, but at the end of the day, it is my hands on the board with the bass, guitar, and vocals. I am there to support the vision of the artist, writers and my own take on the gig. Since it is my responsibility to get it right, I will take it upon myself to see each recording through to the end.
ATM: For one second, let’s take fame and monetary status away. Let’s concentrate on you. We all are our worst critic. Tell us the definition of Spencer.
SP: I care so much that sometimes it gets in the way. I am always proud of what I do at the end of the day. I only get involved with things that I am passionate about. I get lost in the weeds of the creativity which has caused me to not make as much money as others. I’ve spent too much time making sure the vision of the project was correct and that I (and those I work with on a project) would be proud of it for years to come. My view is that I could have made more money, but I could not have had more fun.
ATM: Let’s learn a bit more about the space camp scholarships you gave out in 2012?
SP: My younger song Morgan wanted to be an astronaut as he was growing up. I am so proud of him today since he did fulfill his dream to fly. He is a captain/pilot. He is doing great at 29.
At the age of 9, Morgan found out about Space Camp in Huntsville. There, they teach fantastic leadership and kids gain fraternal skills. Morgan went here for eight consecutive summers in one week increments.
Before he went to graduate school in Paris, Morgan went back for a summer to give back, working as a counselor. During this time, he called me and said “Hey, Dad, there is a film you can make about kids who dream about space and flying”. He introduced me to the head of marketing and the CEO there, the wonderful Dr. Deborah Barnhart. I met them, not as a Hollywood guy producing music and films but as a father. I got the rights to make a film at the Camp, which we did called “Space Warriors.” It was well directed by Soul Surfer director, Sean McNamara and starred Danny Glover, Josh Lucas, Dermot Mulroney and Mira Sorvino.
During filming, I noticed there were a lot of kids who wanted to go here that could not afford it. This is not a cheap camp. So I donated 25 scholarships to kids all around North America, in Morgan’s name, to go to Space Camp for a week each — in the hopes that they would gain the same magic that my son did by going there.
ATM: Did you have any mentors in your early years?
SP: Clearly Clive Davis was a business mentor. The late Ahmet Ertegun was a visionary, producer, writer, and executive at Atlantic Records whom I worked with on projects. I learned a lot from him and that made a big difference to me in terms of how I approached things.
Richard Branson is someone whom I very much emulate and respect. He makes money doing good things and has for decades. He is a great humanitarian whom I admire a lot.
ATM: What is your perspective on social responsibility around the world?
SP: The way I can make a difference in the social responsibility lane is to produce media that reaches people all over the world. This is how I get the message out.
I get off on producing projects that have an element of social responsibility at its core. I am lucky to be working with great and passionate producers like Mark Wolper, who put together the 2016 miniseries “Roots” whom I know feels similarly.
My journey in this lane is to bring media attention to things that matter and do well with it at the same time.
ATM: What is your take on the music industry today?
SP: It is exciting. It is all about the content. There are new ways of delivering content to the world. There are some brilliant young artists such as Kamasi, Ed Sheeran, James Blunt, Arcade Fire and Imagine Dragons amongst many that I like a lot.
ATM: Do you consider yourself a workaholic?
SP: I love what I do so if we call it work, then yes. But I do have balance. If you ask my wife Judy, she would definitely say ‘workaholic’ is a term that applies to me.
Gabrielle, when I went to college and law school, I learned how to get things done on little sleep. Since I was so poor, I had to find a way working three jobs while playing in a band and sleeping 4-5 hours a night. Nothing has changed in my sleep lane. So today, its work, family, travel and dreams
We are grateful to have had the time to speak with Spencer Proffer. He continues to inspire social responsibility to the world by combining music with his film projects. For years to come, Spencer will continue to utilize media to bring inspirational and meaningful work to the world while making money and a hopeful difference. We need more people with Spencer Proffer’s heart, soul, talent and passion.