For 30 years, Spencer Lancaster’s fingers have played an instrumental role in his life.
With a glance to the left and another to the right, 43-year-old Spencer Lancaster scopes out his surroundings. Then the dark, small-boned man—bedecked in black leather vest, blue Hawaiian shirt, khaki pants, and black square-toed shoes—affixes his promotional sign between the tops of the Investor’s Business Daily and the Los Angeles Times newspaper boxes outside the Gallery Place Metro station with black electrical tape. He kicks discarded cigarette butts out of view and positions an open Miracle Whip jar on the red-brick sidewalk. He’s almost ready for the neighborhood’s onslaught of rush-hour pedestrian traffic. Within seconds, he’s planning a tune for the women who work in the MCI Center’s ticket office, who are still at least two minutes away, while simultaneously offering to play for a little girl standing near the station entrance with her parents. “I like Toy Story,” she says.
Feet spread apart, Lancaster offers up a rendition of the Flintstones theme song instead. Tapping his feet and bending his knees, he blows into his clasped hands. He puts as much force into it as it takes to play a tuba, his cheeks puffing out with air. The high notes suck the wind out of him, and he bends near the ground. The melodious tenor of a pan flute, tinged with the higher pitch of a whistle, sounds amplified as the tune emanates from his closed palms. A few onlookers get closer to see what device he’s using, but when he opens his hands at the end of the song, there is nothing.
The little girl walks over and puts a dollar into his jar, then skips away. Meanwhile, people cross the street and descend the escalator. Lancaster lures them with what he calls “going-away” music—the theme from Mission: Impossible, “Hail to the Redskins,” Bach’s Minuet in G Major—and a few tip as they pass. Lancaster’s hope is that he can get them to stop, smile, and be moved enough to pay for the entertainment of his “hantastic hands,” but they often just walk right by.
“Sometimes you have a certain group of people who see that it’s something unusual, but they don’t want to stop themselves until they see somebody else. Then they jump on the bandwagon,” Lancaster says. “People walk by because of prejudice, racism, or pride.”
In those cases, Lancaster occasionally elevates his hands theatrically in the air, refers to himself in the third person, saying, “He’s awesome” or “Isn’t he amazing?”—and then proceeds to clap loudly. The force of his hands drawn together echoes far enough away to draw more attention. “For folks who act like their pride is in the way, I clap my hands as loud as I can to show them that that’s what they should’ve been doing,” Lancaster says. “It takes an intelligent person to recognize raw talent.”
His raw talent was something that the Guinness Book of World Records noticed back in 1991, when Lancaster was listed for being the only person able to play 100 songs with his bare hands.
After 12 years away from D.C., traveling to different states and trying to make it as a street performer, the District native returned to his hometown in February to help raise his granddaughter and pursue his music full time. He performs almost daily in various Metro stations, as well as at the Washington Monument, the White House, and Ford’s Theatre—if he hasn’t been hired for special engagements such as birthday parties, wedding anniversaries, or school and church functions.
“[Being a street performer] is fun, competitive, and sometimes, once in a blue moon, it’s frustrating,” Lancaster says. “You run across people who say stupid stuff—try to impress [their] friends and make fun.” He demonstrates the way some hold their hands up to their mouths mockingly, “as if to say, ‘Oh, I can do that.’” But even on occasions when he generously offers up some guidance, he says, none of the hecklers can produce more than a few weak sounds. Unlike his hands, theirs are not gifted.
Lancaster’s hands are shaped differently than most people’s. His nails span the entire width of his fingertips, which appear almost spadelike. Some doctors from California once told him that his hands reminded them of some type of disease. But Lancaster has other ideas. “Maybe these hands are cut out like this for this specific reason,” he says.
Maybe they were molded for days like the one when the 10-year-old Lancaster was playing cowboys and Indians in a forest in Charles County, Md. “I kinda got lost in the woods,” he remembers. “I was trying to blow my hands to get my playmates to find me. But it took a long time, so I decided to kill some time.” Clasping his hands together, he twiddled his index fingers and blew—and discovered his gift. “It was like something rushed down from God. I played louder and louder. Then I played nursery rhymes. And my friends heard the music and came.”
“The hantastic hands of Spencer Lancaster” is a phrase he came up with after he started playing his hands in earnest. “So many people tell me, ‘That is fantastic,’ so I took the F off and added an H,” he says.
Lancaster was born at D.C.’s Freedmen’s Hospital and grew up mostly in Fairfax Village in Southeast and Charles County. In 1977, at age 18, he was selected, along with two others out of a group of 40 auditioning entertainers, to perform “The Star-Spangled Banner” on The Sidewalk Follies, a television show spotlighting local street talent. He later took a music-theory course at the University of the District of Columbia, but he didn’t play his hands regularly. Few thought that his unique musical talent would get him very far.
“There were several people—even my own mother—who thought I couldn’t take this hand thing anywhere,” Lancaster says.
He made a living working security at Wells Fargo, usually playing his hands for fun at parties and in his family’s go-go group, Mother’s Show and Band. In 1989, he got married and moved to North Carolina to raise a family. In 1994, after a few well-received impromptu performances at bus stops, he decided to pursue playing his hands as a career. That same year, he left for Atlanta to make his dreams come true. He started out performing at the Underground Atlanta mall and Hartsfield International Airport, eventually traveling to New York, Chicago, Santa Monica, Calif., and other cities to demonstrate his talent.
Now, the father of three boasts that he’s opened for Maya Angelou, Bobbi Humphrey, Freda Payne, and Archie Bell & the Drells. He’s also played guitar for Shirley Caesar and Shirley Ables & the Joy Singers. Last October, he won Entertaindom.com’s Fifteen Seconds of Fame contest, which earned him a digital camera and an ad in People magazine. But his biggest accomplishment, he says, was playing for the 1996 Paralympics in Atlanta.
Looking back, he says, “I did make a name for myself”—even if it wasn’t always easy.
“What that nigga have in his hands?” The question started as a whisper about 25 seconds into his performance—then got louder, Lancaster remembers. It was 1991, and after the urgings of friends who knew some judges at Harlem’s famed Apollo Theatre, an excited Lancaster had traveled by car from North Carolina to New York. There, he took the stage somewhere near the middle of It’s Showtime at the Apollo. “My heart beat really hard. Then I heard the wooo wooo,” he recalls. “I got booed, and the Sandman met me halfway.”
Sitting at the corner table in front of the United House of Prayer in Mount Vernon Square, where he’s a member of the congregation, the habitually chipper Lancaster pushes away from his usual lunch of baked chicken, greens, mashed potatoes with gravy, and iced tea. “That kinda destroyed me. It affected my mind for many years,” Lancaster says gloomily. “I was getting laughed at in grocery stores, schools, trains, the bus. It got to the point where I was speeding just to hurry up and get out of the grocery store,” he continues. “My friends made fun of me.”
Lancaster drifts off, then remembers some good times. “They loved me in California. They’d say, ‘This guy has the most incredible act by human hands.’ I was like a celebrity. They thought that I was a star. Their kids were so blown away, the parents had no choice but to tip.”
But even California had its ill-fated moments. Performing on the Santa Monica Pier, Lancaster was held hostage by a gunman: “I noticed a man sitting on the beach, gazing into the Pacific Ocean. I kept wondering why the man kept staring at me from 20 feet away. I thought he was enjoying the music.” But Lancaster could tell something was wrong. “He looked like a vicious killer to me, like he had the devil in him. After a while he started flashing his gun to me. I knew that I was his target.”
It lasted two hours, with people walking back and forth seeming not to notice and Lancaster desperately trying to play his hands normally until the police realized what was happening. “He knew I knew, and I didn’t want to run or walk away real fast,” he says. After the incident, the city paid for Lancaster to go to three days of counseling.
After the sessions, he used his hands to continue the healing process. “It’s like a medicine that cures all manner of hatred, jealousy, and animosity,” he says. “Music is what people love. If I can captivate the audience, it’s an inspiration, because they are a part of my therapy.”
“Fellas, you’re getting your butts kicked—do something!” Lancaster urges the eight men he’s persuaded to join his Metro-station version of the musical game show Name That Tune. It’s a sun-filled post-rush-hour evening, and the six women gathered in a group at his other side are in the lead, 3 to 1. As the first notes creep out of Lancaster’s cupped hands, 33-year-old Sheila Young of Fort Washington, Md., raises her hand. Lancaster points.
“Hurry up,” he tells her as she stalls.
“Taxi?” she asks.
“Nope,” he responds, pointing to a guy on the other side.
“M*A*S*H,” the guy says, earning a point.
“Concentration, concentration!” Lancaster says, before starting up the theme from The Twilight Zone.
Young, jumping up and down, tries for the answer again.
In just a few minutes, after the theme from Days of Our Lives has stumped everybody, the guys have gained the lead, 5 to 3, and the game is over. “Girls, you started off so sweet,” Lancaster says as they make trips to the tip jar.
One game participant, 21-year-old Francesca Schinella of Hyattsville, Md., is so impressed that she tips Lancaster several times and then goes to buy him some spring water. “I think that he’s not your average street performer, and he definitely has a gift from God,” she says. “I was thoroughly entertained. He definitely put a smile on my face—in fact, it hurts from smiling.”
Lancaster’s take on Name That Tune is a lavish production. It begins with his saying, in a booming announcer’s voice, “You’re now being entertained by the hantastic hands of Spencer Lancaster.” Then he does a full pirouette. The rules are enforced with strict discipline: complete quiet, raise your hand, don’t shout out the answer, and the first team to get five points wins.
Tipping is customary, but Lancaster likes to think of the game as a public service. “It’s educational. It enhances listening skills, and it makes you realize that a mind is a terrible thing to waste,” he says.
He dreams of developing his game as a television series. “I can just see kids asking, ‘Mommy, can we watch the hand guy?’ as they reach for the family popcorn,” he says.
But until then, he has some other gigs lined up. He currently performs every Wednesday night during open-mike night at the MCI Center’s F Street Bar & Grill. He’s also planning to play the national anthem for a Mystics game and hopes to performs for the Redskins, too.
In addition, Lancaster is working on releasing his new theme song, “The Hantastic Voyage,” in July. The single, co-arranged and produced by musician John Lewis, sounds like contemporary, gospel-flavored jazz, improvised over a backing of bass, organ, and drum machine.
All in all, Lancaster is satisfied with his own hantastic voyage. “I may appear to be a genius to some people who don’t know it’s a gift from God, but I like to consider myself a living legend who has the most incredible act ever done by human hands,” he says. “Who wouldn’t enjoy what I do, unless they have problems?” CP