The Mighty Elnora: Against All Odds This Birmingham Blues Woman & Folk Artist Carries On
inTheir Needson December 27, 2018
To the townsfolk of Adamsville, Alabama, Elnora Spencer’s birth was merely a cruel consequence of human nature. Two months premature, she was born to an 11-year-old rape victim and unlikely to survive. At a meager but mighty 3 lbs 4 ounces Elnora was affectionately nicknamed Rabbit, but in hindsight, she should have been called Phoenix. That’s because it wouldn’t be long before Elnora surprised everyone, especially the Doctor who birthed her by rising out of the ashes to become the sight and sound of Alabama blues during the ’60s and well beyond. Unfortunately, Elnora’s notoriety did not come in the form of commercial success although her presence transcends far beyond monetary value.
Elnora Spencer and her young mother were raised by the midwife/angel who was at the birth. Struggling with frailty and the gift of sight throughout her childhood did not stop her spirit from forging an unforeseen path. Those who knew her listened as she started singing words whispered in her dreams and melodies she heard on the wind. Elnora was 4 years old when her fragile existence manifested into a gospel presence. This type of physical and spiritual evolution does not just happen on its own, especially to one doomed by medical opinion and circumstance. With the belief of her community and the support of her family, she became a spiritual messenger in churches, at funerals, and in schools. By song and story, Elnora became the undeniable and unconditional voice of and for a culture tortured by inequality and fear. A culture that immersed itself in spirituality to survive much like Elnora had done against all the odds.
Alabama in 1967 was not a place of promise or opportunity for anyone of color, least of all a black child. But sure enough, the owner of the local club in Adamsville believed in Elnora so much that he encouraged Roscoe Robinson, the famed gospel artist of The Fairfield Four, The Highway QCs and the Blind Boys of Alabama to hire Elnora to sing backup vocals on his recording of a f“Bridge Over Troubled Water”. Elnora was only 12 years old.
This recording opportunity inspired Elnora to forge through years of suffocating racial conflict to formally study voice and music at a Junior College paid for by working 12 hour shifts, 6 days a week in the kitchen at Bonanza, a country buffet. During these years of hard work and self-discovery, she transitioned beyond her gospel roots to become a siren of the Blues. Booking her own gigs brought much needed income and moderately more notoriety through regional accolades and awards. It never occurred to Elnora that she could monetize her musical gift enough to stop cooking. Even as she helped build the commercially successful careers of B.B. King, Bobby Blue Bland, Little Milton, Percy Sledge, Shirley Brown, Tyrone Davis, Bobby Womack, and The Drifters she struggled with her health and basic needs.. Elnora’s music was always meant to be shared. Making money doing it was an unexpected bonus that became an added material lifeline.
Still, life demands that we keep up. And when Elnora’s health and financial circumstances prevented her from doing so Music Maker Relief Foundation was able to help her get a car, pay some overdue bills and book performances. In the midst of all this, she immersed herself in painting as another outlet for her depth of feeling. If she couldn’t share her music, she would share her soulful rhythm and passion for truth by putting it in plain view. So it will come as no surprise that Elnora has established herself as a prominent folk artist. Her insightful message continues to draw people into a world perhaps too painful at first to see. Her art is awash of angels and hope that soothes our collective conscience.
Music Maker is proud to help true blues artists like Elnora Spencer survive financially and in many cases physically. In this culture, success and the financial security it brings is an oxymoron given the ashes into which many are born. By the grace of God and generous donations to the Music Maker Relief Foundation’s partner artists that so fully embody the Blues are able to continue their journey. It’s hard to grasp that a donation of any size is preserving living history but commercialism has a knack for siphoning the soul out the truth while leaving the ones who create it down and out. The health of our hearts and minds rely on the opportunity to find honesty in history so that we can meet our future with integrity. And if helping Elnora Spencer keeps that opportunity alive then that is an effort worth making.
Music Maker has partnered with hundreds of artists like Elnora. Please consider making a tax-deductible contribution to Music Maker Relief Foundation today. Your support ensures that true American artists like Elnora Spencer can survive and share their gifts with the world.
**special thanks to Sarah Angell & Annie Bryan for editing this piece