Spencer Davis Group
(unidentified entities providing a musical soundtrack for chaos and controversy)
by Sam Leighty
I was in The U.K. for 3 weeks in 1999. I was all over Great Britain on its amazingly fast and efficient railroad system. I had half-way expected that England would be a little bit rundown. And "quaint" or something on that order. Which brings us to the city of Birmingham situated somewhere at a halfway point between the midlands and the foothills of the Welsh Mountains. The Wyre river flows close by Birmingham. Birmingham is located halfway up the motorways from London to Liverpool. So the conducter called out over the passenger car intercoms that we'd be pulling into Birmingham. I sat for a minute and I thought "I get to see Birmingham any minute now."
Creem magazine used to talk about Birmingham. Well, it was all on me before I knew it. There it all was in technicolor outside my window. Birmingham looks so much like Trenton or Pittsburgh that New Jersey and Pennsylvania could have a very solid case for scenario plagarism made against them. There it was. Industrial smokestacks. Chicago-ish looking expressways full of bikers and guys in souped-up cars. Not only that, Birmingham has an American styled downtown. All of the English cities are modern with many tall high rise buildings yet Birmingham has a skyline like Dallas or Houston. It all looks like... well... Birmingham. Ozzy Osbourne and all the guys in the original lineup of Black Sabbath come from here. The members of The Moody Blues, Jethro Tull and Fleetwood Mac are from here. Robert Plant and the late John Bonham were Birmingham boys. We all know London and Liverpool were leading the way in the 1962-1963 U.K. music scene yet there were plenty of interesting things going on in other English cities.
The Spencer Davis Group formed in 1963 in Birmingham. They had no stage act and no rock star persona as such. They did wear the obligatory British Invasion Band "matching suits" in early appearances. Basically, Spencer Davis Group combined blues and soul music influences. They created music which was similar to that of The Yardbirds, The Creation, The Pretty Things and The Graham Bond Organization. These groups created music that was a prototype of heavy rock and the album-oriented rock of the '70's. And to think that this kind of music is still popular.
To begin with, Spencer Davis was born and raised in Wales. He's said to have an IQ of 200 and speaks 5 languages. He learned to play guitar and a variety of other string band instruments in The British Skiffle craze circa 1955-1956. He was (and is) also a very good harmonica player. Davis was soon into rock and roll and R&B. And Spencer has always had an affinity for bluegrass and American country music. Spencer sang lead sometimes in the band's sixties incarnation and he took over most of the lead singing later on.
He settled in Birmingham in the early sixties as a college-level instructor. Eventually, he made the aquaintance of Pete York and Muff Winwood. It didn't take long for the three of them to start jamming together as York played drums and Winwood played bass. They got together in a friend's basement one night and managed to keep the music going for 10 songs or approximately half an hour. They went for a few pints later on and they were quite proud of themselves. Spencer sang lead and even though they didn't sound super great, it all came together, right on the beat and right on key. After a few minutes, they started thinking something was missing from their fledgling rock and roll group. So Muff suggested he had a brother who sang and played. He went a step further and stated that he would bring this brother, named Stevie, to the practice coming up. Muff said his brother Stevie was just what they needed.
Stevie Winwood was just 14 years old when he joined The Spencer Davis Group and he was not yet 18 when he left the group in June 1967 to form Traffic with some freinds from the midlands. Spencer Davis said in a 1993 interview, "Stevie didn't like it when the press emphasized his age. He just wanted to be thought of as one of the boys." From a musical standpoint (I don't like to subscribe to the "superstar" pantheon), Stevie Winwood sang in a Ray Charles kind of style. It wasn't a carbon copy, it was his own style distinctly and on a bit higher reach of the octaves. Winwood moaned and scatted over the choruses and fadeouts. He was an adept lead guitarist and he played piano and organ very smoothly. He also played harmonica and other instruments as well. But in the Spencer Davis, he was known primarily for playing Hammond Organ with a Leslie Speaker and lead guitar on an ES-335 (or at times, a Stratocaster) and for singing lead on most of the group's more well known songs. Spencer is likewise a very good singer and most of his singing is almost impossible to distinguish from Winwood's. Davis is a few notes lower on the scales and octaves and he very seldom did the improvisations over the fadeouts and choruses. Spencer sometimes also sings songs that everybody in rural areas recognizes from Country and Western AM radio- he gets kind of a Buck Owens or George Jones sound on these songs.
So, everybody in the band was amazed at how good Stevie sounded. Stevie probably played guitar that first night and of course his singing must have been impressive. Even though they didn't yet officially have a name, the new group played in the off-time slots at some union hall or bar where Muff and Stevie's dad worked. There was a piano and an organ in there which the guys would make use of and sometimes incorporate into their sets. They were getting quite a name for themselves. They finally recorded a single in 1964 which was a cover of John Lee Hooker's "Dimples" which featured Stevie singing lead. Someone at the record company office pointed out to them that they had no official group name and there wasn't time to stall around. Muff finally broke the silence and said to call them "Spencer Davis Group." So it was that UK offshore pirate radio was now playing the latest, grooviest hit by The Spencer Davis Group.
Spencer Davis Group had more hit records in England and Europe than in North America. On a worldwide basis, they are known primarily for two 45 rpm records which were very big hits in the early part of 1967. The records were "Gimme Some Lovin" and "I'm a Man" (a different tune from Muddy Waters' and Bo Diddley's song with a similar title). These records are rated highly because Stevie sang lead and played a Hammond organ with a Leslie speaker on both songs. "I'm A Man" was the object of some fairly good natured controversy. The Jimi Hendrix Experience was getting started at the close of 1966. Sometime in the spring of 1967, both Spencer Davis Group released "I'm a Man" as a single and Jimi Hendrix released "Purple Haze" as a single (this was a hit single in England and Europe a little while before it was issued as an album track in the USA). There was a gentle but amicable dispute between The Experience and the Davis Group as to which band was using the Em7 chord first and who's record came out first. Over time, this was all glossed over and forgotten (Stevie would appear on Hendrix's Electric Ladyland).
The Spencer Davis Group's lineup and basic instrumentation was established as Spencer Davis (lead vocals, rhythm guitar, harmonica), Stevie Winwood (lead vocals, lead guitar, organ), Muff Winwood (backing Vocal and bass guitar), Pete York (drums and percussion). The band began touring constantly in the UK and Europe. There were lip synched clips of the Spencer Davis Group which will do OK for a rainy afternoon's DVD and VHS watching. You can get many of these on YouTube. I'll later concentrate on a handful of rare but not utterly hard to find video clips of the band which are live. Sadly, the period in rock that goes from "Love Me Do" in 1962 on up to 1968 is not as rife with live audio tape, video tape and film of groups like Spencer Davis group as one might think, possibly because that kind of technology was in its infancy. There are a few items on Spencer Davis that are enough to make any fan of mid-sixties rock or later album and CD oriented rock do the limbo all the way under the house and back. Spencer Davis Group fans who don't already have these video items in their collection would certainly enjoy them I think. Remember though, The Spencers didn't have any stage act or rock star persona. True, they dressed quasi-psychedelic and they had the Brian Jones-ish hair and Mike Nesmith sideburns we all wished we could've had in the mid-sixties had our various schools, jobs, coaches, military units and our parents hadn't prevented that because they thought it was "unwholesome." I think that in those days people looked that way if they could afford to buy that stuff. Yet Spencer Davis and company had no rock star image. Sometimes the fanzine press tried to dredge up this business about Stevie Winwood being in his teens and it pissed him off. Spencer Davis Group was very well known in the mid-sixties UK and starting in 1967, they began to sell quite a few records in America. American Top 40 radio stations played the piss out of "Gimme Some Lovin" and "I'm a Man." I've always thought that while they weren't rock stars, they made a lot of music which was a exciting backdrop for those times.
The video clips I've mentioned are from Finnish and German television, videotaped in 1966 and 1967. They are live and in excellent black and white. The sound quality of the music is fairly good for all practical purposes- heavy blues-rock being miked and recorded with technology which is outmoded by now. And there is no "screaming." The screaming that went on at Beatles and Rolling Stones concerts (it started with Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley years before that) was a major hindrance at these gigs. That's also part of why there is almost no live tape or film of many mid-sixties rock and roll acts.
There are three very nice Spencer Davis Group TV appearances I'd like to focus on. The first video (see above) has songs from a June 1966 Beat Beat Beat show with The Mindbenders and Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick and Tich. Beat Beat Beat was broadcast and taped from a variety of locations in and around Frankfurt and at The Stadhalle in Offenbach (Hamburg). Strangely, Beat Beat Beat was probably a local show in those particular regions of Germany. Later on, it was shown throughout Germany and Europe. Billingual American top 40 deejays Mal Sondock and Charlie Hickman hosted the show. I emphasize all this about Spencer Davis as a live group because I will go as far as to say that they were captured well on their studio recordings and they were equally unstoppable in concert and still are- Spencer continues the group with a variety of musicians right up to 2011, but more on that later. On Beat Beat Beat, Spencer talks to Mal Sondock and to the audience in very good German. The audience is pleased yet they seem to indicate their approval with an accepting silence. Beat Beat Beat audiences didn't hoot and holler much. So, Mal announces them and they go straight into "Somebody Help Me," which was a big hit for the group on offshore pirate radio. This was the top 40 AM radio of the British Isles and Western Europe. Stevie sings lead on this catchy R&B-ish song and it seems to sustain the attention of the normally aloof Beat Beat Beat audience. Too, there is a lot of cigarette smoking in that studio. The next song is a blues which had been recorded by Muddy Waters and Big Joe Williams called "Sittin' and Thinkin.'" Spencer sings lead and plays harp while Stevie plays peircing lead guitar on that ES-335 I mentioned before. Pete York and Muff Winwood play magnificently on this one and they definately show their jazz and blues inclinations on this song. So this is a live moment on TV with the group and it's the kind of stuff you just never see or hear on TV. Otherwise, they come back later in the show for "Baby Please Do Something" with fine vocals from Stevie Winwood, then they finish the show with another UK and Europe hit of theirs called "Keep On Running." This is a soul influenced piece and Stevie lets go with the shouting, scatting and moaning. This was on a record too and it's even better live in concert. Spencer seems to be trying to get an audience "clap and shout along" thing going with the song. Muff's bass seems to be rather loud (it sounds wonderful) for those "day at the beach" radios that were common when this show was taped and Pete York's bass drum is miked very prominently (this wasn't commonplace until the sixties were nearly over).
"Sittin and Thinkin" is on one of the band's UK issue Vinyl albums. The same song shows up as "On The Green Light" on the American Spencer Davis Group album titled I'm a Man"(and other hits) with the lead singing edited off of the track. The song is passed off as an "instrumental" and titled "On The Green Light" because of its stops and starts. Don't get me wrong, I'm a Man"(and other hits) is a fine set of recordings. Albums like those (along with Rolling Stones Now and Here Comes the Night) showed me a facet of The British Invasion scene which I wanted to study closer.
Another interesting TV appearance by the Spencer Davis Group was in May 1967 in Helsinki, Finland. It seems that a half hour rock music show with a progressive rock bend played host to Spencer and the guys who did a 7 song set and were sat down for an English styled tea break in which they were interviewed by the show's duo of MC's. I wonder if these two Finnish student types were as much as 20 years old. They did a good job of interviewing the band in passable English. Fortunately they kept it down to music and managed to ask questions and make comments that were knowledgable and not out of place or awkward. They didn't seem too nervous. They even cracked a joke or two without appearing excessive or embarassing. The interview takes place halfway through the show and it's really cool stuff if you like to read the music yak in old Hit Parader or Downbeat magazines. The two MC's and the camera crews make sure that each Spencer Davis guy gets 2 or 3 shots at being on camera and plenty of time to sound off. Fortunately, Muff, Stevie, Pete and Spencer are relaxed, easy to talk to with a good idea of what their role is supposed to be. The songs on the show include "Mean Women Blues," (see above) "Dust My Blues," "When I Come Home," "Till the End of Time," "Georgia On My Mind," "Gimme Some Lovin" and an encore of "I'm A Man" (see below). So the show consisted of a large portion of the set you might possibly hear on a Spencer Davis Group concert in the spring of 1967. Spencer sings lead on Elmore James' "Dust My Blues." Most of these songs were released as B-sides or album tracks in both the UK and the USA. As with Beat Beat Beat, the quality of the sound and picture isn't bad for that time. The band is in very good form and the songs are long with a lot of room for jams. Furthermore, they are using Marshall amps. Stevie never sounded so good. He plays some good lead guitar. On this set, you get a chance to hear him really work out on the Hammond Organ. Not unlike with Beat Beat Beat, the Finnish audience shows it likes you by staying in their seats and listening, then clapping politely after each song then falling into silence to allow you to continue playing.
The next outing in this trilogy is a German TV show called Beat Aus London which originated in Berlin. Spencer Davis Group appeared on the show performing 2 songs live in June of 1967 along with The Shadows, Sandie Shaw, Pamela Davis Dancers and the Kenny Woodman Orchestra. The clips of the band from this show are a little strange, and in an adolescent kind of way, these are exciting TV appearances. I guess that customs are very different all over the world and all over Europe. Each of the TV clips I've listed all have their own peculiarities of the people living in those locales. Beat Aus London was done in Berlin and by the look of it, the audience is a large dancefloor full of young girls of 15 or 16, all dancing with each other. Spencer and the boys perform a brash and super loud "I'm A Man." They're using Marshall amps and there are cool camera angles on Pete's bass drum foot pedal and his bass drum head which informs you it's "Spencer Davis Group." Stevie sings lead wildly and plays the Hammond organ. Spencer and Muff Winwood play loud guitar and bass and they team up as 2 guys on one microphone for soaring Motown styled oohs and ahs. This is great stuff. The studio cameras pan back and forth between the group and the dancing crowd. You know, this was a blockbuster hit in early 1967, along with "Gimme Some Lovin." They played one more song with Stevie Winwood on Fender Stratocaster this time out while Spencer played rhythm guitar and sang lead on this one. It was the country tune "I Washed My Hands in Muddy Water". So as far as I know, this song had been a country hit in the early sixties and Johnny Rivers had covered it again in 1966. Spencer sang it very Appalachian or possibly Gulf Coast. Stevie and Muff did harmonies that sounded almost like an old hillbilly string band 78 RPM. They went through the verses short and sweet. Stevie's combination C&W and R&B licks on this song have to be heard to be beleived.
YouTube also has a mountain of other Spencer Davis items.These are the ones I recommend most from the Stevie Winwood years, which are interesting clips. The lip synched clips are alright but some of them are a little bit silly and they show the band in a light that they surely would've liked to have more control over if time had been taken. Stay with me now and we will get into Spencer's post Stevie Winwood years right up to the present.
It seems that when "Gimme Some Lovin" and "I'm a Man" became stratospherically gigantic hit records in the spring of 1967, certain touchy problems started up in keeping the "Stevie Winwood lineup" of the Spencer Davis Group together. Relations between the four band members were harmonious and they could've kept working together for years. At first, the four of them were elated to have records charting on top 40 AM radio in the USA and they were looking forward to gigging in America and having a look at the country, seeing the sights, etc. But the guys were getting nervous about getting stuck in a situation where they did package tours and oldies shows, doing their two mammoth gigantic hits exactly like the record night after night. That silly bullshit about Stevie Winwood being in his teens was cropping up all the time, too. Winwood didn't enjoy this. Things eventually reached a point where everybody talked out their doubts and reservations about things and Stevie Winwood decided that he would leave the group after they completed a tour that started in early spring and lasted until June. He was in the process of forming Traffic with some friends from the midlands. This would free both himself and the others from an unpleasant music business fate and the split would enable all four members to continue to make music on their own terms. The final parting occurred in June 1967. Stevie Winwood said it was an amicable parting and was like leaving on that last day at your old school.
Spencer Davis Group was contracted to do the music for a movie soundtrack while Stevie Winwood was still officially part of the lineup. It wasn't until a couple of months after Stevie left the group that work began on the recording. Stevie's name was on the contract. So in a rare moment of camraderie It was decided that the song selection on the soundtrack album would be equally divided between the brand new Spencer Davis Group (w/Eddie Hardin on Guitar) and Stevie Winwood's new group from the midlands called Traffic with Dave Mason, Chris Wood and Jim Capaldi. This was decided together by the two groups and there wasn't any arguing or petty shit about this. Londoner Andy Ellison had one song in this movie soundtrack- Ellison had been a member of the legendary John's Children along with Marc Bolan back in 1966. The movie for the soundtrack music was called Here We Go 'Round The Mulberry Bush and it premiered in 1968. I was taken to see this movie by mistake when I was 11 or 12. See, that was the cold war era and "Mulberry Bush" was a skin flick, shall we say. The movie is about a young mod type about 17 years old and some of his exploits. There is a great deal of T&A and general nudity but they don't "show everything." Here We Go 'Round the Mulberry Bush depicts post WWII suburban modern London in its own low-key way. I was in London for a week in 1999 and that's the impression I get when I see this movie. The soundtrack was released in 1968 . The music goes down best in conjunction with this very entertaining movie. Mulberry Bush is on cable TV once in awhile and it can't be hard to find in DVD or VHS. I would almost classify it as a "rock and roll movie" but none of the artists who did the soundtrack music appear in the film anywhere. Once again, Spencer Davis Group makes an entry as unidentified providers of soundtrack music for chaos and controversy
So, Stevie finally left Spencer Davis Group in June 1967. Of course, we all know he continued to be successful with Traffic, Blind Faith and as a solo artist. I won't overstate the obvious. Eddie Hardin was brought into the group when Winwood left. Eddie was a killer guitarist who played in kind of a Robin Trower and Jimi Hendrix style. He also played keyboards and sang on a few songs although Spencer's role as a lead singer had been expanded a lot. Muff Winwood and Pete York were still in the band. The new Spencer Davis Group toured America later in 1967 playing extended versions of "I'm A Man," "Gimme Some Lovin," "Dust My Blues," "Keep On Runnin," "Mean Woman Blues" to very enthusiastic audiences who bought the group's hit singles and the I'm A Man (and other hits) album. I will add that Eddie Hardin was a good songwriter and the "Don't Want You No More/It's Not My Cross to Bare" intro lick is a Davis-Hardin composition (this has become a signature riff of The Allman Brothers Band). After a few months went by, the new band recorded their portions of the Here We Go Round The Mulberry Bush soundtrack. They also started work on the With Their New Face On album. The Mulberry Bush and New Face On albums both came out in 1968 and are recognizably the work of Spencer Davis Group, who were always an improvising blues-rock band with a flair for the spontaneous. But the songs on these albums are more extensive- psychedelic might be a good word to describe it.
Over the years, Spencer Davis Group has been a breeding ground for a large number of musicians. About 40 or 50 guys have come and gone from The Spencer Davis Group lineup since they first coalesced in early sixties Birmingham. Spencer maintains two bands- one in America and another in The UK and Europe. Eddie Hardin is still with Spencer and he plays keyboards nowadays. I've always said I don't subscribe to the superstar pantheon, but I'll mention that Dee Murray and Nigel Olson from Elton John's band started out with Spencer and keyboard player Phil Sawyer is a Spencer Davis alumni.
Record collectors will be interested to know that Spencer Davis Group had 8 or 9 UK albums come out between 1964 and 1967 on Fontana. Of course, there were repeats on many of the tracks. You people who grew up in the mid-sixties will remember how Capitol or London would get ahold of 20 Beatles or 20 Rolling Stones tracks and look for ways to recycle and reissue them. It's unimportant. All of us took these repackagings as seriously as new books being added to the Bible so no one was the worse for wear. We took our $3 in savings and bought those albums and dug the shit out of them.
Altogether Spencer has done at least 30 albums and CD's over the years. He also had about a dozen hit singles in the UK. Many of these made number one and they all charted highly. He did an acoustic album of his beloved hillbilly string band music in 2006. In addition, he still fronts his two electric bands and both of them are very impressive. They play all of the old Spencer Davis Group hits, all of the album tracks and lots of new songs, many of them written by the new guys. Muff Winwood left the group years ago- he became a much sought-after record producer (including Dire Straits' records in the eighties). Pete York was with Spencer Davis on and off for many years. He's played drums for several excellent obscure groups. Among other things, Stevie became a solo hit maker and more recently was a featured guitarist at Eric Clapton's Crossroads festival in Chicago, not to mention touring with the guitarist as a co-headliner.
Spencer has been a party to a lot of great music. When I've seen him being interviewed on TV, or how about the time he played himself alongside Mark Lindsay, John Sebastian, Ritchie Havens, Ray Manzarek and Peter"Herman"Noone in an episode of Married with Children, Spencer comes across as a real nice guy who doesn't mind shooting the breeze or signing an autograph if there's time. Spencer is a good old Don Grady from the Birmingham sururbs and he doesn't mind being Spencer Davis for kids of all ages. At the age of 70, Spencer Davis is one of rock's elder statesmen. Davis and his current musicians are making better music than many of the iconic and superstar acts of today. Spencer plays all of his old hits but downplays the nostalgia and oldies aspect. His band's sets consist mainly of improvised blues-rock as good as it gets. The Spencer Davis Group is alive and well and they can hold their own on any concert bill with any band in the business either as an opener or a headliner. Their sets last for hours and they are real loud. As it is, Spencer is not content to sit back and play the part of Clayton Moore at shopping center openings. Check out The Spencer Davis Group when they're in town. And bring your earplugs.
For anyone curious to dig even deeper, there is a Spencer Davis Group website.
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