Once in a Lifetime

Local 802 member Mike Spengler tells all about standout moments in his career

Volume 118, No. 7July, 2018

Interview by Bob Pawlo

Photos: Chris Drukker, Mark Weiss and/or provided by Mike Spengler

(Update: Mike Spengler died on Dec. 31, 2021 at the age of 69. Tributes can be found on Mike’s Facebook page and in this obituary. Please enjoy this interview below from 2018.)

Trumpeter Mike Spengler, a member of Local 802 since 1981, has enjoyed a long and varied career that includes classical training with Rudy Nashan and time on the road with both Diana Ross and Bruce Springsteen. With these superstars, Spengler was lucky enough to play in two iconic concerts: Diana Ross’ 1983 shows in Central Park and Bruce Springsteen’s 1988 concert in East Berlin. Spengler contributed the introductory chapter to the second edition of Erik Kirschbaum’s book: “Bruce Springsteen: Rocking The Wall – The Berlin Concert That Changed The World.” He recently sat down with Local 802’s Bob Pawlo to share his musical journey. Spengler’s story proves that you can never truly predict your career ahead of time. Sometimes major gigs come from unexpected connections.

Bob Pawlo: I’d like to start with my usual opening question, because it opens so many doors: how did your musical journey begin?

Mike Spengler: I started playing trumpet when I was nine. In high school I played with a rhythm and blues band called the Soul Commuters, then a year with the Bergen Youth Orchestra. In sixth grade, I starting studying with Edward Treutel, who has been my greatest influence and who I ended up studying with for 30 years. He applied a bel canto vocal technique to brass playing and once said that if you’re playing correctly from a physical standpoint, there should be no reason you can’t be a better player in your 70s than you were in your 40s. I would see him whenever I was off the road, and stayed with him regularly until he passed in 1997. I took a summer of lessons with Ted Weis, who was really generous with his time. I went to Syracuse for college, and first took lessons there with George Coble, then Rudy Nashan, who had spent ten years as second trumpet next to Adolph Herseth in the Chicago Symphony under Fritz Reiner before being named as principal trumpet of the Syracuse Symphony. Rudy taught me that no matter what the music is, you should bring emotion to it and try to communicate that emotion to the audience. I took a semester off my junior year, and during that time I had some lessons with Harold Lieberman of the CBS Staff Orchestra. I also attended NYC’s Jazzmobile where the trumpet class was taught by Joe Newman of Count Basie fame. What stands out in my memory was when I once heard Joe play Etude No. 20 from the Chavanne book. He made it sound like the most gorgeous jazz ballad one could hear. So that’s my musical training in a nutshell.

Bob Pawlo: How did you make the jump from music school to your first gigs?

Mike Spengler: It was a domino effect. When I returned from Syracuse, I got a gig playing in a rock-and-roll bar band. Through a connection in that band, I got a gig playing with Southside Johnny, and one of his management team members had previously worked with Kiss.  Of course, at that time, Gene Simmons and Diana Ross were the hot social item. Thanks to all of these random connections, Diana Ross herself attended one of our shows, came into the horn section’s dressing room and said, “I like this horn section. Do you guys do outside work?” And we were all sort of like, “Ahhh, let’s think about that, YES!” So that basically led to my six years with her.

Photo: Motown Records (eBayfrontback) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Bob Pawlo: This seems like the right time to ask you about Diana Ross’ famous concerts in Central Park on July 21 and July 22, 1983.

Mike Spengler: Those were an amazing two days. Most of that first day, we were just watching this immense crowd slowly gather throughout the afternoon. People were climbing scaffolding; they were climbing trees. They were all over the place. The official estimate was 450,000 people. And we kept hearing reports that there were oncoming thunderstorms. But Diana decided to go ahead anyway. When the concert started, the winds started kicking up. At the first sign of lightning, the guitarists, bass player and keyboard player unplugged and turned off all their stuff. They were taking no chances. The last tune before the show was called off was “Reach Out and Touch Somebody’s Hand,” in which Diana was basically accompanied by drums, horns and acoustic piano. At that point, the rain started coming down so heavy that I couldn’t see the conductor Joe Guercio, who was standing maybe 20 feet in front of us. I remember using one of my hands to hold the music down on my stand to keep it from blowing away. My other hand is playing horn, and since it had been 90 degrees all day, the rain is now washing the dried sweat out of my hair and into my eyes. The thought that ran through my mind was “I’m either going to remember this as a real royal pain in the butt or as something I can tell my grandkids about, and I’m not quite sure which yet.” I joke with people today that there are parts of my horn still haven’t dried out from that first night. It ended with Diana announcing that they were going to have to stop the show. Eventually the decision was made that we would do a makeup concert the next day, and I remember walking from the stage to a bus through about two feet of water. But the next day was beautiful. Now the entire band is psyched. The night before was like a live soundcheck in front of 450,000 people. So now we know what the deal is, and we are ready to turn this mother out. The weather’s good. The crowd’s back. We are eager and excited and more than ready to go. However, five minutes into the first tune, we hear a buzz coming out of our monitors, and it did not go away. I saw the sound guys just standing there with their arms crossed. I remember thinking, “Come on, guys, at least LOOK concerned!” My guess is that water had leaked somewhere into the thousands of miles of cables and shorted something out. That buzz just never went away for the whole show. It made it difficult and kind of disheartening. You know, I hate to say it, but about a half hour in, my attitude became “O.K., can we get this done and go home?”

Diana Ross’ free outdoor concerts in NYC on July 21 and July 22, 1983 brought almost a half million people to Central Park. Local 802 member Mike Spengler, who played in the show, remembers audience members climbing scaffolding in order to get a good seat, as seen in the historical photo above.

Bob Pawlo: Wow, I’m not sure that story has ever been told before! As long as we’re talking about superstars, how did you end up working for Bruce Springsteen?

Mike Spengler: Well, Diana Ross married Arne Naess in 1985 and had a baby in 1987. So she ended up canceling the rest of the year. But in December, the guys from my old horn section days with Southside Johnny called me and said, “It looks like Bruce is going to use a horn section for his upcoming ‘Tunnel of Love’ tour. Are you in?” And I said, “Ahhh, let me think about that, YES!” So we rehearsed, first just as horns with “Miami Steve” Van Zandt for a couple of weeks, and then at a National Guard armory building in Red Bank, New Jersey for another three or four weeks with Bruce and the full E Street band. Miami Steve came up with ideas for the horns. Some of us did also, so it was really a collective decision what the horns were going to do. We memorized all our parts. Bruce knew what tunes he wanted horns in, and there were some tunes that he kept the horns out of, which gave us nice little breaks. Remember, Bruce’s concerts can last four hours! I didn’t think of his shows as first half, intermission, second half. I thought of it as first third, intermission, second third, a five-minute break, and then an additional 45 minutes of encores. The thing about Bruce is he brings so much energy and commitment that even though my personality as a player and person tends to be maybe a tad more introverted, I reached what for me was absolute total wild abandon. Because he inspired it. He drew that out of you. He gave so much of himself that you wanted to give as much of yourself as possible, both sonically and visually.

Bob Pawlo: Tell us about how the Europeans responded to Bruce.

Bob Pawlo: The European tour was different, because those were outdoor stadiums, so now you’re talking an average of 75,000 to 100,000 people in the audience. And that got nuts, because the Europeans were so enthusiastic. What sticks out in my mind about Milan was that over at the side of the stage, there was a medical area to take care of people who either passed out from heat exhaustion or from being part of the crowd pressed up against each other at the front of the stage

Bob Pawlo: So, here you are. You’re touring Europe. You’re having a blast. You’re playing at the top of the popular music world, and you get to a town called Berlin. What happens there?

Mike Spengler: Remember there were two Berlins in that day. I had been to West Berlin during three days off on a Diana Ross tour in 1985. I spent one of those days walking next to the wall from the Reichstag to Checkpoint Charlie. And it was incredible just to see the wall that close up. I remember thinking to myself, “A plague on all our houses for this wall!” I didn’t cross over to the east on that visit, but I got a flavor of what it was about. Now, three years later, I’m actually about to perform in East Berlin with Bruce Springsteen. The band and the crew stayed at this huge hotel that was described to us as East Berlin’s showcase hotel for Eastern Bloc tourists. I took a walk around that afternoon, and one thing that sticks out was a Pan Am flight that was taking off from West Berlin and was slowly climbing over the Marx-Engels Platz, everybody around me just stopped and stared at it. Maybe it was the fact that Westerners were free to come and go as they pleased. Later I went into a big department store. I browsed the consumer electronics items and they all looked…well…prehistoric. After my sightseeing, I arrived at the venue early in the afternoon to do our sound check. It was a really big, wide open area, and I figured there are going to be a hell of a lot of people here. I saw somebody wave an American flag and I hoped that person didn’t get into trouble. I kept looking at the flag; there was something a little off about it. So I actually counted the stars. And there were 48 stars. And I thought, “Did somebody have that flag stashed away from 1958?” Then there was a funny encounter I had with an older East German official. I told him that I had an East Berlin Symphony recording of the Saint-Saens organ symphony, and I thought it was quite good. He looked at me, and said, “Well, the Dresden Staatskapelle is our best orchestra. They’re asked to do Carnegie Hall all the time.” Then he kind of stuck his chest out and said, “There are 150,000 people out here. Have you ever played for a crowd that large before?” And I said, “Well, sir, actually I have.” He asked me, “Where was that?” I said, “Central Park. Diana Ross. 450,000 people.” And it was like he literally deflated in front of my eyes. He began sputtering: “H-h-how you get that many people in one place?” I simply replied: “Well, sir, Central Park is pretty big.” I almost felt bad for bursting his balloon. He just walked away.

Photo: Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-1988-0719-38 / Uhlemann, Thomas / CC-BY-SA 3.0

Bob Pawlo: How did the crowd react when the show began?

Mike Spengler: Well, the crowd was like Bruce crowds anywhere. You know, they’re one step removed from throwing their underwear. Once you’re involved with doing a Bruce Springsteen concert, you’re throwing yourself into it. You’re doing the job. You’re not oblivious of the crowd, but you’re not really focused on it. You’re focused on doing what you’re doing as well as keeping one eye on Bruce, because he can turn on a dime and decide to go off in a different direction, and you need to be able to react fast enough to keep up with him. I remember that Bruce performed the Bob Dylan song “Chimes of Freedom,” which was a gutsy choice, given the title and the nature of the lyrics and where we were. And then Bruce gave a speech that became famous, which you can find on the Internet. He said, in German, “It’s nice to be in East Berlin. I want to tell you that I’m not here for or against any government. I have come to play rock-and-roll for the East Berliners, in the hope that one day all barriers will be torn down.” After the concert, we were invited to a reception at the Communist Youth League headquarters. The next day, when we went to West Berlin we saw that the East German media was braying that Bruce did this concert in support of the Nicaraguan Sandinista front, and I got a kick out of the way Bruce’s management responded, which was simply to say Bruce would no more endorse the Sandinistas than he would Budweiser beer.

Bob Pawlo: How did you feel when the wall came down less than 16 months later?

Mike Spengler: I was at the house of my girlfriend at the time. Every TV channel was showing all these people climbing all over the wall, whacking away at it with hammers and anything they could get their hands on, and I couldn’t sit still and watch it. I was just pacing back and forth, and she asked me, “Why are you worked up about this?” I said, “You don’t understand. I saw that wall. In 1985, I saw that wall up close and personal. And last year, I played in that city, and now the wall’s coming down, and I wish I were there with those people.” In retrospect, I do believe that the Springsteen concert contributed to an overall change of attitude that was taking place in East Germany that led to the fall of the wall.

Bob Pawlo: Before we let you go, do you want to mention any other special musical memory?

Mike Spengler: This December is the 20th anniversary of playing in the house band at the White House for the 1998 “A Very Special Christmas” concert honoring the Special Olympics. There were some amazing artists at that show, including Jon Bon Jovi, Tracy Chapman doing a duet with Eric Clapton, and others. The Clintons were seated at a front table. This was the day after a round of bombing of Iraq took place, and the day of the impeachment vote in the House. Bill and Hillary looked subdued at the start, but after a few songs they loosened up and began enjoying themselves. I recall thinking that if all we did was help them forget all the weight on their shoulders for an hour, then we’ve done a good thing.

Bob Pawlo: What do you look forward to in your career at this point?

Mike Spengler: I love to play both jazz and classical gigs, and my goal is to continue to learn how to play the trumpet – and teach the trumpet, too! I love teaching at the Montclair Music Studio. I love working with Diane Moser’s Composers’ Big Band as well as a younger group called Big Beat. I was thrilled to be a part of Wallace Roney’s “To Miles, From Wayne” project. It reminded me how music itself can be history.

Bob Pawlo: What advice would you have for young musicians – especially trumpet players – beginning their careers now?

Mike Spengler: Be as flexible as possible, because you never know what will come up. Be committed to your instrument and what you do. Diana Ross’ drummer Mel Brown used to say,  “Play as though your next gig is in the audience.” And he was right. Mine was with that first bar band I worked with.

Bob Pawlo: What do you want to say in closing to your fellow Local 802 members?

Mike Spengler: I helped the union in contract negotiations through the 1990s for both the Jewish club date agreement and the standard club date contract. I also wrote a handbook for Local 802 called “Your Pension.” Musicians need to be supportive of each other. We need to recognize that the union is us – all of us – no matter what field we work in. Anybody complaining about shortcomings within the union should realize that those shortcomings are on all of us. We need to remain supportive of each other and united in the idea that when we put all of this work into our instruments and into our professionalism, we are entitled to at least not being robbed of what we are due. And that is where the union comes in, and we all need to be strong.

(Mike Spengler died on Dec. 31, 2021 at the age of 69. Tributes can be found on Mike’s Facebook page and in this obituary.)