A Tribute to Joseph Spencer (1937-2001)

The Musical Offering was a struggling, obscure classical record store-café when Joseph and Jean Spencer arrived on the scene in 1987. Responding to an ad in the newspaper, they signed on to run the business, Joseph finally quitting his job selling industrial roofing and applying his full attention to the store. Under his management, it flourished and became a magnet for music lovers and musicians.

This was only one chapter in Joseph’s colorful life. He was born and raised in Cleveland, Ohio and studied industrial design at the Cleveland Institute of Art. Although he was not exactly surrounded by classical music as a child (his mother played the piano a little), he decided sometime in his 30s that music was his real passion. He earned a degree in music at UCLA and made a living tuning and maintaining pianos. His clients included Vladimir Horowitz and the Rolling Stones.

In the 1970s Joseph established one of America’s first early music radio programs on KPFK-FM in Los Angeles. From that time until the late 1990s his show ran consistently on one station or another. It was also during the 1970s that he was instrumental in establishing the Southern California Early Music Society. However, with the proliferation of synthesizers in the film and recording industries, his piano business began to fade and a change was necessary.

Joseph and Jean were married in 1977. They moved to Berkeley in 1985, and Joseph’s radio show, “Chapel, Court, and Countryside” came with him, landing first on KPFA, Berkeley’s independent community radio station and later on KDFC, a commercial classical station. It ended up briefly on KMZT, a weak AM station and by 2000 had disappeared entirely, the victim of changing formats and the demise of independent radio.

Wildboar Records (the name was derived from Joseph’s own middle name, Wilbur) was founded by Joseph in the early 1980s. Even before the era of the CD he had conceived the idea of an audiophile record label devoted to early music. The first three releases were LPs. There followed some two dozen more titles on CD, the last under his aegis released in 2001. Most of these titles are devoted to the harpsichord, Joseph’s abiding passion and field of acknowledged expertise. Among the artists represented on Wildboar recordings are David Cates, Arthur Haas, Edward Parmentier, and Byron Schenkmann. These recordings were often given enthusiastic critical acclaim for their performances and sound quality in such publications as the American Record Guide, Fanfare, and Goldberg Magazine.

Joseph was deeply involved with the San Francisco Early Music Society, serving as its president from 1995-1997. Berkeley’s Early Music Festival and Exhibition was largely his brainchild. The biennial festival, a production of the University of California and SFEMS, began in 1990 and hosted the world’s finest performers including Jordi Savall, the Kuijken brothers, Paul O’dette, Hopkinson Smith, and Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra to name just a few. It was the scene of some notable events, such as the incendiary American premier of Il Giardino Armonico in 1996, and the 1998 production of Jean-Philippe Rameau’s opera, “Platee.”

In 2001 Joseph was diagnosed with a rare, incurable blood disease. He decided to forego faintly promising radical treatments and elected instead spend his last months with Jean and friends. He died at home on the evening of November 22, 2001.