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Spencer Davis – 10/2020

Spencer Davis was born Spencer David Nelson Davies on 17 July 1939 in Swansea. He later changed his name to Davis because he disliked being called “Daveys”. A musical child, he took up the harmonica and accordion and although he passed seven O-levels at Dynevor School, Swansea, he left at 16 and moved to London where he landed a job with HM Customs and Excise. He did not take to it. “We always wrote in red ink,” he remembered, “it was like writing in my own blood. I thought I was writing my life away.” After 18 months he returned to school to study for A-levels, became head boy and in 1960 enrolled at Birmingham University.

By then he was an enthusiastic amateur musician, keen on skiffle, jazz and blues, and an accomplished guitarist, influenced by the rhythm and blues he heard on the radio and on records imported from America. As a student he often performed on stage in the evenings, playing in folk clubs in and around Birmingham. In music circles, Davis was later known as “Professor”.

His early musical influences were skiffle, jazz and blues. Musical artists who influenced Davis include Big Bill Broonzy, Huddy Ledbetter, Buddy Holly, Davey Graham, John Martyn, Alexis Korner and Long John Baldry. By the time he was 16, Davis was hooked on the guitar and the American rhythm and blues music making its way across the Atlantic. With few opportunities to hear R&B in South Wales, Davis attended as many local gigs as practically possible.

When Davis moved to Birmingham as a student, he often performed on stage after his teaching day. While in Birmingham, he formed a musical and personal relationship with Christine Perfect, later Christine McVie of Fleetwood Mac fame, who later found global fame in Fleetwood Mac.

In 1963, Davis went to the Golden Eagle in Birmingham to see the Muff Wood Jazz band, a traditional jazz band featuring Muff Winwood and his younger brother, Steve Winwood. Davis persuaded them to join him and drummer Pete York as the Rhythm and Blues Quartet. Davis performed on guitar, vocals and harmonica, Steve Winwood on guitar, organ and vocals, Muff Winwood on bass and Pete York on drums. Reportedly, they adopted the name The Spencer Davis Group because Davis was the only band member who agreed to press interviews, allowing the other band members to sleep longer. Davis was the front man on guitar, vocals and harmonica, Steve Winwood on guitar, organ and vocals, Muff Winwood on bass with Pete York on drums.

At first they only played local venues, notably the Golden Eagle pub near Birmingham town hall, but with a year they had been spotted by the Old Harrovian pop mogul Chris Blackwell and offered a regular spot at the Marquee Club in Soho. The group’s live reputation attracted the attention of Island Records founder Chris Blackwell who signed the group to its first contract and became their manager. 

Their first clutch of singles hardly sold outside Birmingham. Their debut, a cover of John Lee Hooker’s Dimples, was followed by their first chart entry with ‘I Can’t Stand It’ at No 47. Then came Every Little Bit Hurts (all 1964) followed by Strong Love (1965) which clambered to No 45.

Their breakthrough came when one of Blackwell’s Jamaican artists, Jackie Edwards, played them a ska song he had written called Keep on Running. Steve Winwood reworked it on the piano and his elder brother Muff added a driving guitar riff using a fuzzbox. The result gave the group their first UK No 1 hit.

For two weeks in January 1966 Keep On Running, knocked the Beatles off the top spot in the charts with their double-A side release Day Tripper and We Can Work It Out.

Their follow-up in April, Somebody Help Me, repeated this winning formula, dislodged the Walker Brothers’ The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Any More and remained at No 1 for a fortnight. But their third single release, When I Come Home (written like the first two by Jackie Edwards) wilted at No 12. The keening vocals on these hits belonged not to Davis, the band’s frontman, but to its youngest member, the 17 year old keyboardist Steve Winwood. 

Black American radio stations were the first to give it airplay because the group sounded black. When they realised the artists were white, they dropped it from their playlists but by then the song had taken off. When it went to No 1 in the UK at the beginning of 1966, the Beatles sent them a message of congratulations.

After their two chart-topping hits, both written by Jackie Edwards, the Spencer Davis Group began to write their own material, and their self-penned Gimme Some Lovin’ made it into the Top 10 in November 1966; in 1980 it was again a hit for Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi’s band the Blues Brothers.

Gimme Some Lovin’ was followed by I’m A Man, big in Europe and successfully revived by Chicago Transit Authority (Terry Katz) in 1970. The group also recorded several acclaimed albums, and performed on the soundtrack of the 1967 film Here We Go Round The Mulberry Bush.

But then in April of 1967 young wunderkind Steve Winwood left the band to form Supergroup Traffic with Chris Wood, Jim Capaldi and  Dave Mason. The Spencer Davis Group continued after Winwood left and recorded two more albums before splitting in 1969. Another version of the group with Davis and York appeared in 1973 and disbanded in late 1974. Various incarnations of the band toured in later years under Davis’ direction.

After that group broke up, Davis moved to California and recorded an acoustic album with Peter Jameson, It’s Been So Long, for Mediarts in mid-1971. He followed it with a solo album, Mousetrap, for United Artists, produced by and featuring steel pedal guitarist Sneaky Pete Kleinow. Neither album sold well. Soon after, he moved back to the UK, formed a new Spencer Davis Group and signed with Vertigo Records. In addition, Davis was an executive at Island Records in the mid-1970s. As a promoter for Island Records, Davis worked with Bob Marley, Robert Palmer and Eddie and the Hot Rods as well as promoting the solo career of former Spencer Davis Group member Steve Winwood.

In 1993, Davis formed the supergroup the Class Rock All-Stars. He left the group in 1995 to form World Classic Rockers with former Eagles bassist Randy Meisner, singer Bobby Kimball and guitarist Denny Laine.

Davis retained an affinity for Germany, having studied the language and played in clubs in Berlin early in his career. He watched both the wall’s building in the early 60s and almost 30 years later, with his son, the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.

Davis was an honorary member and supporter of the Wales nationalist party, Plaid Cymru. From the mid-1970s on, Davis lived in Avalon on Catalina Island, a small island in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of southern California. In 2012 he won $250,000 in a lottery draw and during the summer of that year, the Catalina Island Museum hosted an exhibition called “Gimme Some Lovin’: The Spencer Davis Group”, to celebrate Davis’ musical career. To complement the museum show, the museum also hosted a symposium on “The British Invasion”, where Davis was joined on a panel by, among others, Micky Dolenz of the Monkees and a July Fourth concert featuring Davis singing his hits with a backing band named ‘The Catalina All Stars’.

Even though Davis was a long-time supporter of Plaid Cymru, the Welsh nationalist party, he was mostly living his life on Catalina, a small island in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of southern California. 

Davis was married to Pauline Oliver in the 1960s. They had two daughters: Sarah, Lisa, and a son, Gareth. The couple got divorced in the late 1970s.

Spencer Davis died from pneumonia in Los Angeles on 19 October, 2020 at the age of 81. His is survived by his partner June and 3 children.

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