Spencer Starnes (December 2, 1952 – June 29, 2017) was a Seguin native who moved to Austin in the 1970s and became a renowned bass player and studio engineer. Born Cameron Spencer Starnes III, he came from a musical family. His father, a World War II veteran who survived the Bataan Death March, had played trumpet for swing-jazz bandleader Tommy Dorsey and ran a music store in Seguin. After stints as a student at Stephen F. Austin University, Texas State and the University of Texas, Starnes began playing music regularly in Austin in the early ‘70s.
Spencer began his career in Austin with Ray Benson’s western swing band, Asleep at the Wheel. He also toured with cosmic cowboy pioneer Michael Murphy and later was the bassist for the avant guarde jazz group known as 47 Times Its Own Weight. Tiring of the endless travel associated with touring with groups, Spencer eventually chose a life that involved more engineering work at the studio he started on property he and fellow Austin musician Mambo John Treanor bought in the hills west of town. “He was a great and imaginative bass player, both on upright and on electric,” Benson was to say. Benson recorded two albums at Spencer’s Bee Creek Recording Studio after Asleep at the Wheel had gone five years without a record. “We sort of made our comeback out of that little mobile home studio he had over at Bee Creek,” Benson fondly remembered. On the road at the hotel before a gig, while other band members were out and about, Spencer would be found practicing scales.
As an engineer or musician, Spencer was part of three recordings that received Grammy Awards: two involving Asleep at the Wheel projects and one involving Buddy Guy’s album, “Slippin’ In,” which was recorded in Austin. Over the decades, Spencer’s Bee Creek Recording Studio became a prominent regional facility with the artists who recorded there ranging from honky tonker Junior Brown, to pop singer Jennifer Warnes, to the local jazz band The Brew with Joe Morales. All the while, Spencer continued to build an extensive resume as a bassist on albums by Willie Nelson, Alejandro Escovedo, Don Walser, Suzy Bogguss, Kimmie Rhodes, Paul Glasse, and many others. “He had a level of sophistication in terms of his musical ability that was top-notch,” Benson said. “This town has always had the guys who were not only great jazz musicians, but were all-around guys. He did commercials, studio work, engineering, bass playing and arranging.”
Working with Austin Media Music alongside fellow Austin musicians such as John Mills and Danny Levin, Spencer also was involved in many commercial jingle recordings. Because they tapped local musicians for those sessions, the whole community would benefit from these projects, recounted Stephen Starnes, Spencer’s nephew who worked with his uncle at Bee Creek since the ‘90s.
For 15 years, Starnes was an anchor of musical activities on Sundays at Riverbend Church. “There’s barely a Sunday that we can remember when he was not at Riverbend playing bass,” the Riverbend Choir posted on its Facebook page.
Family members especially remember his love of animals and nature and his general stewardship of the planet. He operated his property in Spicewood mostly off the grid, using conservation resources such as solar panels and rain barrels. His daily routine included walking down to the lake and swimming with his dogs.
Spencer’s contributions to the jazz community and the Austin music scene were numerous and influential, indeed. His musicianship, stewardship of nature, and his humanity will long be remembered.
Spencer died unexpectedly at his home in Spicewood, TX of an apparent heart attack.
Click below to view Spencer's youtube performances: