In 1941, a traveling salesman changed John Spell's life. The man, from Stars of Tomorrow Studio, was out recruiting new students. A week from his sixth birthday, Spell was awestruck with the guitar, thumb pick, and metal bar before him in his Charleston living room. His first lesson was free, and right then and there, Spell learned his first guitar tune, "Nearer My God to Thee." The frets were numbered to 17. "I hadn't gotten into numbers yet, but it was fairly simple," he says. "And I thought, 'Wow, I did that.'" Luckily his father agreed to let him take lessons, and a prodigy was born.
Spell stopped trying to read music and instead relied on his ears. "We had a battle, me and the notes, and I won. I quit," he says. "I'm not a music reader but I have the gift of something in my head, where when I hear a song it sticks with me and I'm able to somehow or another put that into music."
Spell learned quickly and before long was, as a kid, playing square dances at a USO facility on Meeting Street every Tuesday night before getting on the radio with the Blue Ridge Mountaineers on Wednesdays at a Walterboro radio station called WALD — not for money, but for the "thrill of being on the radio." He also played square dances at "schoolhouses" on weekends when he was only 10 or 11 years old. Read: At age 10 the boy wonder was playing with the adults, on their level. Later, Spell, still a kid, performed on WFAK radio every Saturday, where a DJ named Uncle Ugly ran the show.
By 13 or 14, Spell was spending weekends traveling to Holly Hill and St. George to perform in the bigger leagues, with the band making $50 a night — good pocket money in the '50s. Tired from balancing work and middle school, Spell remembers often falling asleep on the fiddle player's wife's shoulder on the way back to Charleston. During this time, he also began playing with the Dixie Playboys at Coconut Grove on Meeting Street. He was a hired hand, the go-to steel guitar guy. The band had their own label. "That was like a trip to Nashville to me," he says. "I'd never recorded anything that would be played on the jukebox."
In 1952, Spell and others from the Playboys left to form the Silver River Boys, performing regularly at Spruill Avenue's Bayou Club, which was once a skating rink. It was a big-deal venue, with a 1,000-person capacity. The Boys were so successful that Spell quit school. "I was a dropout, because the money was there," he says. Around about this time the County Hall grew in popularity due to the Grand Ole Opry shows that would come through there. The County Hall was at 1000 King St. — the building was erected in 1902 as a cotton mill, later becoming the County Hall, a venue that hosted everyone from Hank Williams and James Brown to Elvis Presley and Bob Dylan. (By 1985, it closed, and in 1988 it reopened as King Street Palace. The building and its art deco facade are still there, but it's now The Palace Apartments.) When Grand Ole Opry acts finished at the County Hall, they'd stop by the Bayou Club to jam with the Silver River Boys, with the band getting to regularly work with rising stars like Faron Young.
Still a teen, Spell and his band went on to become the first form of entertainment to perform on Channel 5 — TV a brand new medium — in 1955. The musicians gained new fans on late-night talk show The Piping Book Corner, performing also in three timeslots throughout the day. "The exposure to TV made things explode," Spell says. "It really opened doors to play less hours per night, to play what we enjoyed."
But being a newly married man, tying the knot at 16, Spell was already thinking of the future and whether or not music could totally sustain him, so he got a job with benefits: He went to work for the home delivery department of Coburg Dairy. He says, "I became a milkman, a very successful milkman."
But that didn't mean the end of music for Spell — far from it. He reckons he hasn't missed a single weekend playing music. Let that sink in: He started playing in the '40s. He. Hasn't. Missed. A. Weekend. Since. That's just one reason why mayor John Tecklenburg introduced John Spell Day last year on June 21.
"It's been a good life," Spell says, "and it's not over yet."
In the mid-'80s he met Roger Bellow, a transplant from Chicago who was introduced to the hillbilly tradition up north and began playing music as young as 14. Bellow attended the Old Town School of Folk Music in 1959 and as well as University of Tennessee, where he was further immersed in the traditions of country music. A 2017 inductee of the Lowcountry Music Hall of Fame and '95 recipient of the SC Folk Heritage Award for Early Country Music, Bellow moved to Charleston in 1985 and soon met Duke Roberts and John Spell, and Earl Johnson, who opened Town & Country Music with him in 1990. Johnson left but Bellow still runs the shop, teaching a handful of students to play guitar there every week and occasionally jamming with friends.
As for his own music, Bellow, Roberts, Spell, and Bob Sacks went on to start the country Western swing troupe the Drifting Troubadours back in the 1980s, and they're still going strong today, with current members Sacks on mandolin, Spell on Hawaiian steel guitar, Riley Hart on bass, and Bellow on guitar. The Troubadours play songs by stars from yesteryear, from Hank Williams to Carl Smith to Lefty Frizzell. But Bellow says it's the inclusion of Spell that makes the band pop.
"He makes it authentic," Bellow says. "He makes it real."
The Drifting Troubadours perform one Sunday a month at Prohibition (547 King St.). Bellow hosts radio show Vintage Country on 97.5 WYLA, the Charleston Public Library Station, Sundays at 9 p.m.