Updated April 2014Spencer Davis guitar, vocal
One of the most exciting and influential groups to come out of Birmingham in the early 1960s, the Spencer Davis Group is recognized for their classic and ground-breaking recordings as well as for launching Steve Winwood's music career.
Spencer Davis was born on July 17, 1941 in Swansea, South Wales. He moved to London as a teenager where he played in skiffle bands and became heavily influenced by imported American blues music. In 1960 he relocated to Birmingham and studied German at Birmingham University before working as a teacher at Whittington Oval Junior School in Yardley. In the evenings, he would play his 12 string guitar and sing traditional blues songs at various venues in the city and for a short time formed a duo with future Fleetwood Mac member Christine Perfect (see Chicken Shack).
Steve Winwood was born on May 12, 1948 at 127 Church Lane, Handsworth and lived with his family at a house on Atlantic Road in Old Oscott near Erdington. He learned to play piano at an early age and sang in the church choir along with older brother Muff (Mervyn) Winwood (born June 15, 1943). The brothers both learned to play guitar with the initial interest being jazz as was popular at that time. The boys' father played saxophone in a local dance band and would sometimes invite the brothers up on stage to perform some jazz or rock 'n' roll numbers.
In 1959 while still at school, the Winwood brothers had their own group called 'Johnny Star and The Planets' with Steve on guitar, Muff on the drums and his class mate Dave Palmer on the bass guitar. This line-up lasted for about four months. Dave Palmer then joined 'Johnny King and The Diamonds' and later 'Shades of Blue'.
Spencer Davis played solo guitar spots at the Golden Eagle pub on Hill Street in Birmingham - at that time a hangout for the city's rhythm and blues enthusiasts. There he met the Winwood brothers performing as the 'Muff-Woody Jazz Band' in early 1963. Steve Winwood was aged 15 at the time but he posessed a vocal style that was way beyond his years and was also talented as an instrumentalist and alternated between guitar and piano on stage. Finding common musical ground, Davis joined them and brought in accomplished jazz drummer Pete York (born August 15, 1942 in Nottingham), a Birmingham University student, and the group became known as 'The Rhythm and Blues Quartette'.
A regular visitor to the Golden Eagle R&B nights was future Slade star Noddy Holder whose reaction to the group is worth quoting; "Of all the bands I saw in those days, they were the ones who impressed me the most. They had this small public address system, one of the smallest I had seen and were very unassuming on stage, and then this spotty kid on the organ suddenly opened his mouth and screamed "I LOVE THE WAY SHE WALKS..." and launched into an old John Lee Hooker number. Gosh - my mouth fell open and I felt a chill down my spine! That was the night I discovered Rhythm and Blues for the first time".
A young London music promoter Chris Blackwell had just founded the Island Record Company while running a record import business specializing in ska and reggae music from the West Indies. His first signing was 15 year old Jamaican singer Millie Small and after having huge success with her hit single My Boy Lollipop, Blackwell decided to travel north of London in search of new talent. Upon arriving in Birmingham, he was advised to go and see the Rythm and Blues Quartette which he did and was immediately impressed.
The Quartette had first attracted the attention of the Decca Records label and went to London for a try-out recording session. Decca offered a contract but Blackwell promised them a better deal with the Phillips owned Fontana label as distributor so they signed with Fontana along with a publishing deal at Island Records. The partnership at Island Records was an informal one and was based on little more than a handshake but this indiscretion would come back to haunt them years later.
It was Muff Winwood who came up with the name 'Spencer Davis Group' on the pretext that the articulate Davis could do the interviews while the others could stay in bed. Their first single release by the group in April 1964 was a cover of the John Lee Hooker song 'Dimples' as it was considered one of the strongest numbers they performed in their set at the time. Unfortunately, the original John Lee Hooker version was released in Britain at about the same time and became a hit thus overshadowing the Spencer Davis Group's version. The record did sell well around the West Midlands where the band had a large following.
The Spencer Davis Group took on a heavy schedule of bookings across the country and possibly because of this exposure the next three single releases I Can't Stand It, Every Little Bit Hurts and Strong Love did manage to gain chart placings. It was Steve Winwood who handled the lead vocal on the group's singles with only a few songs such as She Put The Hurt On Me having Spencer Davis in the vocal spotlight. There was little doubt that Winwood was the focal point of the band.
Up to this time, the songs performed and recorded by the Spencer Davis Group were covers of existing blues and R&B standards but Chris Blackwell brought in Jamaican singer/songwriter Jackie Edwards to compose the next three singles for the group. The first was 'Keep On Running' which was transformed by the group into a rocking R&B number with the addition of a driving bass riff and a unique (for that time) electric fuzz guitar effect. The result it had on the record charts was spectacular with the song knocking The Beatles from the top spot and going to No. 1. The Spencer Davis Group's first LP was rushed to the shops and the band members now had to endure the side-effect of being pursued by screaming girls.
Success is inevitably followed by criticism. Some of the Spencer Davis Group's early supporters accused the band of spending more effort getting hit records than they did on playing a good blues performance but from the loads of new fans who bought their records there were certainly no complaints.
Upon touring Europe, the group found themselves popular - particularly in Germany where Spencers' fluent use of the language endeared them to the audiences. The follow-up single 'Somebody Help Me', also composed by Jackie Edwards, was not as strong as the previous but still gained another No. 1 position and another Jackie Edwards/Steve Winwood composition released as the group's next A-side, 'When I Come Home', managed to reach the No. 12 spot. During 1966 the group supplied the music to and also appeared in the film The Ghost Goes Gear.
For the next single release the group was pressured by Chris Blackwell to come up with their own material, the result of which was probably largely inspired by Steve Winwood's efforts on his Hammond organ. 'Gimme Some Lovin' became an instant classic - reaching No. 2 in the British charts and also gaining much attention in the USA. To this day it remains a staple of many party compilations and is probably the most instantly recognizable song by the group (note: the record was re-mixed to include extra piano and vocal backing before getting released in the USA).
Steve Winwood's growing confidence as performer and songwriter was leading to his dissatisfaction within the group and he began to associate more with other musicians, particularly Dave Mason and Jim Capaldi who was in a Midlands group called Deep Feeling and Chris Wood from the Birmingham band Locomotive. By early 1967, it was clear to most that Steve Winwood had outgrown the Spencer Davis Group and encouraged by Chris Blackwell, he made known his intention to leave after the groups' current tour commitments had been fulfilled.
An excellent Spencer Davis Group single, 'I'm A Man' (chart position No. 9), composed by Steve Winwood and producer Jimmy Miller, was issued in early 1967. It was the final single with Steve and Muff Winwood who had also decided to leave and accept a job offer from Chris Blackwell to work at the Island Records office. By this time Steve Winwood had been rehearsing for a few months at the Elbow Room Club in Birmingham with Dave Mason, Jim Capaldi and Chris Wood and their new group named 'Traffic' had been signed to Island Records by Chris Blackwell (see Traffic for more about Steve Winwood).
During the summer of 1967, Spencer Davis put together a new Spencer Davis Group line-up, auditioning and settling for guitarist Phil Sawyer and organist Eddie Hardin. One of the rejected applicants to be auditioned was a young piano player named Reginald Dwight who would later launch a solo career after re-naming himself Elton John.
The new Spencer Davis Group line-up contributed songs for the film Here We Go Round The Mulberry Bush with Steve Winwood's Traffic also contributing songs including the title track. The first Spencer Davis Group single to be released without Winwood in the line-up was 'Time Seller' which reached No. 30 in August 1967 and was quite innovative for the time in having a heavy cello backing.
Phil Sawyer left the band at the end of the year and was replaced by Ray Fenwick who joined in time to appear on the next single 'Mr Second Class'. A new Spencer Davis Group album titled With Their New Face On was also released in early 1968 and although it was a strong collection of songs it was overshadowed by the publicity surrounding Traffic's debut album.
With the departure of Steve Winwood the magic seemed to have gone. In October of 1968 Eddie Hardin and Pete York left to form the critically-acclaimed duo Hardin and York. They were replaced by Nigel Olsson and Pete Murray but after a final single and a cancelled album Spencer Davis disbanded the group.
Davis initially re-located to Germany and later moved to the USA but the Spencer Davis Group's last stab at fame came about unusually when the theme song for ITV's hit childrens TV show Magpie turned out to have been recorded by the late 60s line-up of the Spencer Davis Group under a pseudonym 'The Murgatroyd Band'.
Muff Winwood who left the group at the same time as Steve, took a job offer from Chris Blackwell to work for Island Records as sales and promotion agent. He worked for Island until 1978 when he accepted a job as senior executive at Sony Records, a position he still holds today. He has played a major role in the launching of some of the biggest British music stars of the 1980s and 90s.
Pete York continues to perform in Europe which involves occasional touring and recording with his long-time friend Eddie Hardin as well as appearances with many famous names in music from the 1960s and 1970s. Pete remains a highly respected drummer and has his own great website maintained by Gerhart Schindler at: www.peteyork.net
Spencer Davis returned to music in the 70s and 80s which included a short-lived Spencer Davis Group reunion in 1973. He lives today on the American west coast and still performs and tours occasionally. The 1980s also saw the re-union of the original Spencer Davis Group line-up in a courtroom setting with the former members suing the Island Records company for un-paid royalties (none of them had been paid for recordings made prior to 1968). A settlement was eventually reached after a costly legal battle.
Copyright © John R Woodhouse
The Spencer Davis Group 1960s Record Releases (highest UK chart position in brackets)
Some official Spencer Davis Group related websites are listed below:
Pete York: www.peteyork.net
Spencer Davis: www.spencer-davis-group.com
Steve Winwood: www.stevewinwood.com