Spencer Davis – Musician, band-leader
Spencer Davis, who has died aged 81, was a guitarist and band-leader who was one of a generation of young white British artists to popularise black American Blues, Soul and Rhythm and Blues. As de facto leader of The Spencer Davis Group, Davis was a key figure in the 1960s beat boom that gave then little known songs a more Anglicised interpretation.
With vocalist and keyboardist Steve Winwood, the latter’s bass player brother Muff Winwood and drummer Pete York, The Spencer Davis Group scored their first UK number 1 in the first weeks of 1966 with Keep on Running. The single kept the Beatles off the top spot, and was followed a couple of months later with their second chart-topper, Somebody Help Me.
Both songs were written by Jamaican crooner Jackie Edwards. A third Edwards composition, When I Come Home, reached number 12. Several self-penned hits followed, including Gimme Some Lovin’ (1966) and I’m a Man (1967), before Winwood left the band to form Traffic. With new vocalist Eddie Hardin, The Spencer Davis Group continued until 1969. By this time, the rush of the ‘60s had morphed into something more seemingly progressive, with Davis becoming an elder statesman of a particular brand of classic rock.
Spencer David Nelson Davies was born in Swansea, Wales. Inspired by a mandolin playing uncle, he played harmonica and accordion from an early age. He left Dyenover School in Swansea at sixteen with seven O-levels, and moved to London, where he worked with HM Customs and Excise. After eighteen months he returned to school to study for A-levels, became head boy, and in 1960 studied German at Birmingham University.
While he briefly worked as teacher, he was steeped in the new sounds of skiffle, jazz and blues, and played in The Saints with Bill Perks, aka future Rolling Stones bassist Bill Wyman. He also performed with Christine Perfect, later Fleetwood Mac’s Christine McVie.
In 1963, Davis talked the Winwoods, then playing as The Muff Woody Band, into joining him and York as the Rhythm and Blues Quartet. The name was changed to The Spencer Davis Group when they signed to Chris Blackwell’s Island label. This was on the grounds that, as Davis was the only band member who enjoyed doing press interviews, if the group was named after him, the rest of them could stay in bed.
Dropping the E from his surname to avoid mispronunciation in America, The Spencer Davis Group released several singles before hitting the big time with Keep on Running.
With a welter of pop groups appearing in films, they were hired for The Ghost Goes Gear (1966), a comedy that also starred Nicholas Parsons as the band’s posh but penniless manager, who holes them up in a haunted house.
Following Winwood’s departure, The Spencer Davis Group also appeared on the soundtrack for Clive Donner’s swinging sex comedy, Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush (1968). The band played live in a youth club snog-fest scene described by one character as ‘a church rave’. Winwood’s new band, Traffic, provided the film’s theme song. Davis also made a cameo as a bus passenger in the Beatles’ trippy TV travelogue, Magical Mystery Tour.
In 1968, with Hardin on vocals, The Spencer Davis Group moonlighted as The Murgatroyd Band to record the groovy sounding theme song for teatime children’s TV show, Magpie, a hipper response to the BBC’s Blue Peter.
The Spencer Davis Group ended its first lifespan in 1969 after Hardin and York departed. Moving to America, Davis released couple of solo albums, It’s Been So Long, with Peter Jameson (1971). and Mousetrap (1972). Davis also faced a rude awakening of how little he had earned, despite selling millions of records. He was saved from bankruptcy by royalties from the Allman Brothers’ multi-million selling cover of Don’t Want You No More, penned with Hardin.
Davis later confronted Blackwell over the bad deals he’d signed, and ended up being hired by Island as an A&R executive. He worked with Bob Marley, Robert Palmer and Eddie and the Hot Rods, and signed reggae band, Third World.
The Spencer Davis Group reformed in 1973, with Davis and the post Winwoods line-up releasing Gluggo (1973) and Living in a Back Street (1974).
In 1984, he released Crossfire (1984), which featured contributions from Dusty Springfield and Booker T. Jones. Live, he guested with the likes of the Grateful Dead, Bruce Springsteen’s E-Street band and Alvin Lee. Over the years he joined various Classic Rock styled supergroups, but would always return to The Spencer Davis Group in one form or another, touring extensively under the group name, with different line-ups in Europe and America.
In 2006 he released the So Far album, and in 2017, with York back in the fold, The Spencer Davis Group embarked on the Gimme Some Lovin’ tour. Half a century after it was a hit, the song sounded as urgent as ever.
While he remained a long-time supporter of Welsh nationalist party, Plaid Cymru, Davis spent his final years in Catalina, a small island off the coast of southern California. It was here this long-term musical survivor found his true musical roots.
The Herald, November 12th 2020