Obituary: Spencer Davis

News broke on Wednesday, 21st October, that the eponymous Welsh singer and guitarist, Spencer Davis had died aged 81.

Peter Donnelly, Editor

Spencer Davis -guitarist, singer and quite possibly the Godfather of British blue-eyed soul music – is synonymous with the 1960’s British R&B sound, credited with unearthing the supremely talented Steve Winwood at the age of 14.

Acclaimed for his work at the helm of his fourpiece band, The Spencer Davis Group, the music Spencer Davis released was characterised by its stomping rhythms, drumming patterns and compelling bass lines; particularly unique to the 1960’s. The emergence of what would become blue-eyed soul was can be credited to Spencer Davis as the man who helped bring black culture to a British audience.

Born in Swansea, Wales to a serviceman, prior to the outbreak of the Second World War, Spencer David Nelson Davies (Spencer Davis as he would be known) quickly became enraptured by the emergence of the ‘skiffle’ music acts, popularised in Britain by its chamption Lonnie Donnegan in the 1960’s. He moved to London aged 16 and worked as a junior Civil Service clerk in the General Post Office and HM Customs and Excise Departments.

Davis, who was known by his moniker ‘The Professor’ for his proficiency in German, French and Spanish, was an English literature teacher by day and guitarist by night in the small-scale folk club venues around London and later Birmingham. While a student at the University of Birmingham, his initial music networking would see him team up with Christine McVie (née Perfect) who would later find fame with Fleetwood Mac, touring the Birmingham pub circuit.

The age of Beatlemania was primed and rearing to be unleashed on the youth of Britain. It was a time when young men, spurred by the successes of the four Beatles working-class lads from Liverpool, would pick up a guitar and find the fame and recognition they craved; many of them would be bitterly disappointed. Spencer Davis would probably have smirked at the suggestion that within a mere 18 months, he and his band, The Spencer Davis Group, would eclipse those Liverpool pop idols from their peak chart position.

It was a fortuitous evening in 1963 at Birmingham’s Golden Eagle club where the genesis of what would become The Spencer Davis Group took its first momentous step. It was here that Spencer Davis encountered the multi-instrumentalist and singing 14-year-old schoolboy sensation, Steve Winwood.

In an interview in the 1970’s, Davis recalled his immediate thoughts upon seeing the 14-year-old, “He [Winwood] was sitting there, playing like Oscar Peterson and singing like Ray Charles…..He’s two for the price of one and I’m having him in the band, now.”

With that The Spencer Davis Group was born.

The Spencer Davis Group, Spencer Davis Group Live In Stockholm 1967. Left-Right Muff Winwood, Steve Winwood, Pete York & Spencer Davis.

The group’s first releases were a combination of covers and original material. They were particularly notable for covering American blues tracks such as John Lee Hooker’s ‘Dimples‘ in 1964 and the old-time folk tune ‘Midnight Special,’ which had sprung from the plantations of the American deep south. ‘Midnight Special‘ gained renown in the 1930’s when the quintessential bluesman Huddie ‘Lead Belly’ Ledbetter, who Davis cited as a musical inspiration, recorded the song.

Prosaic but pulsating: ‘Their First LP’ was released in 1965.

Remarkably the ‘My Boy Lolipop‘ lady, Millie Small (who also died this year), provided the tantrum-tinged response vocals on the track, ‘I’m Blue (Gong Gong Song). Rufus Thomas’ ‘Jump Back’ along with Ed Cobb and Brenda Holloway’s Motown hit ‘Every Little Bit Hurts‘ also featured. The contemporary influential thread of soul was never far from display. These powerful selections would combine to form ‘Their First LP.’

Perhaps it is 1965’s ‘Keep on Running‘, a cover of a reggae number by Jackie Edwards’, completely reimagined by the high-class musicianship of the group, replete with its pulsating percussion, top-heavy bass and electric guitar distortions, that they are best known. Produced by burgeoning A&R man at Island Records and the group’s manager, Chris Blackwell, the single was released in November 1965 on the Fontana Records imprint. It was this cut which would wipe the floor with The Beatles’ We Can Work It Out/Day Tripper single.

In many ways it was the mature, determined and gritty vocal dynamics of Steve Winwood which would see the group’s loyalties firmly pitted in the R&B and blue-eyed soul camp. Davis’ influences such as Big Bill Broonzy and Ray Charles undoubtedly functioned to play a defining role in this emerging style.

Gimme Some Lovin, an organic Davis/Winwood production; with Winwood’s crisp hammond organ-playing, high-tenor vocals and Davis’ heavy bass line, consisely complementing eachother, it was a surety that this track was destined for the dancefloor. Its carefree acoustics and goodtime feel dominated the tune from commencement to conclusion. On the single also was the ‘mod-jazz’ orientated ‘Blues in F’ jam which further allowed the musicianship of the group to work its magic, leaving the listener in awe.

When Winwood departed the band to form the psycadellic flavoured band Traffic, he duly reworked ‘Gimme Some Lovin’‘ – Winwood clearly owed as much to the track as the track owed to him. Fellow bluesbrother, John Mayall, and his Bluesbreaker band, would also notably make the track their own in the years that followed.

In 1966, the group released their third studio album, ‘Autumn ’66.’ The track ‘Somebody Help Me,’ would score them their second UK singles number one in April 1966. It was also later recorded by The Everly Brothers the following year. Actor and singer Michael Starke covered a version of the track for the title-theme of the ITV Heartbeat spin-off medical drama, The Royal, set in the 1960’s period.

Similarly, ‘I’m A Man,’ became an instant classic – featuring an emphatic weaving of R&B, rock and jazz, elevated by the fuzzy guitar hook. The appearance of the hammod organ was becoming something of a recurring pattern for the group. This R&B style of organ playing, would also be practiced by English keyboardist Brian Auger, from the 1960’s to the present day.

In 1969, on English singer Joe Cocker’s first album, Steve Winwood took up organ duties on the R&B inclined, “Do I Still Figure in Your Life.” This alliance of similarly-inclined and inspired R&B musicians was key to the success of the emergence of the blue-eyed soul scene, in both the UK and the US.

British ‘beat bands’ bands, particularly male quartets, were making their mark on the musical landscape the length and breadth of Britain in the 1960’s. Manfred Mann, The Hollies, The Searchers, Wayne Fontana & The Mindbenders (Manchester singer Wayne Fontana died in August of this year), Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick & Tich and Gerry and The Pacemakers are just some of the groups worthy of note.

The Merseybeat sound – emanating from Liverpool bands inspired by The Beatles’ fame – also excelled in popularity during this time.

The adherents of the blues-rock and psychedllic genres were also beginning to emerge by the mid-1960’s. English bands such as Cream, The Yardbirds (both led by Eric Clapton) and Procol Harum were influenced by such outfits from across the Atlantic such as Canned Heat and Blood, Sweat & Tears.

Blue-eyed soul, a subgenre term used, by US music journalists, for white acts who blended R&B and soul styles taken from the black American music tradition, had steadily been gaining momentum in the States. Bands such as The Righteous Brothers, Walker Brothers, The Box Tops, fronted by Dan Penn and Spooner Oldham, The Young Rascals with their slowburning cut ‘Groovin”, Tony Joe White and in the 1970’s Bobby Caldwell and Boz Scaggs put the genre firmly on the map for popular consumption.

For the Spencer Davis Group such scenes emanating from the US offered opportunities for comparison and convergence of musical styles. The US and UK blue-eyed soul and rock movements did not exist in isolation.

This worked both ways however, especially for The Spencer Davis Group. The aforementioned ‘Gimmie Some Lovin‘ received cover treatment from US act such as Ike and Tina Turner and Charlie McCoy.

Critics suggested that the glowing success of the band waned following the departure of the two Winwood brothers. Prior to the original line-up splitting, they had been touring Europe with The Who and The Rolling Stones, attracting thousands of fans. The group’s final album release came in 1974 with ‘Living in a Back Street,’ which continued that familiar R&B style.

Later Life

Spencer Davis gravitated westwards in the early 1970’s and moved to California; he would migrate between the States and Britain for the remainder of his life. He was appointed an artist development scout and later an executive on his old friend Chris Blackwell’s label, Island Records, in the 1970’s. During his tenure at Island he strengthened the emerging talent sensations of none other than Bob Marley and the Wailers, fellow blue-eyed soul sensation, the late Robert Palmer, as well as the solo career of Steve Winwood.

The mod-jazz movement – invigorated by the eruption of the 1960’s Mod ‘youthquake’ which had dominated the music scene complete with its own fashion statements and Vespa scooters – in Britain during the late 1980’s and 1990’s, championed by acts on the Acid Jazz label such as the James Taylor Quartet, Snowboy and Corduroy identified with their 60’s predecessors such as Spencer Davis.

Davis’ wholly underrated yet glaringly obvious, presiding influence on UK blue-eyed soul and R&B cannot be denied. What comes to mind is his influence on the current British soul bands which continue to fly the flag for the movement.

The Gateshead band, Smoove and Turrell, are prime movers in the contemporary UK soul scene. Only last year they covered the Spencer Davis Group number, ‘I’m A Man‘ for a compilation album, ‘Solid Brass: Ten Years of Northern Funk.’ The vocal tendencies of lead singer, John Turrell owe much to Steve Winwood’s delivery on the original 1967 release.

On Wednesday, 21st October, John Turrell told The Gown,

“I’m gutted to hear that Spencer Davis passed. For me he and Steve Winwood is one of the greatest singers of his generation. As a band [The Spencer Davis Group] they had the right mix of soul & blues/rock. They were a massive influence on how we first approached music mix everything until you find your sound. For me also Steve Winwood is one of the greatest singers of his generation.”

Nostalgia: Donning 60’s garp, cravattes and all, UK soul band Smoove and Turrell owe much to Spencer Davis and his contemporaries. Smoove & Turrell Official

Without fear of contradicition Spencer Davis and his stewarding of the Spencer Davis Group, coupled with his collective of prodigiously-skilled musicians provided the musical birthright to the current movers in the UK blue-eyed soul scene. Other UK groups such as Lack of Afro, Monophonics, The Stone Foundation and The Getup owe much to the movement’s nascent beginnings, forged by Spencer Davis and his contemporaries: Tom Jones, Joe Cocker, Dusty Springfield, Van Morrison and later in the 1970’s with Scottish funksters the Average White Band, Hall and Oates and the ‘Modfather’ himself Mr. Paul Weller.

On hearing of his passing musician and broadcaster Diana Kushan wrote on TwitterSpencer Davis is responsible for inovating soul music to white culture or blue eyed soul. Spencer Davis. R.I.P.”

Rock music journalist and critic, William Ian Williams of Santa Cruz California also provided an apt tribute:

Spencer Davis will always be remembered for his work as a leader of rock and soul bands out of Britain and later Los Angeles. Professor Davis will be remembered as a musical alchemist who brought together an enormous number of talented people through his visionary matchmaking. His open mind and good nature kept [him] in touch with his love of music.

The last word will be left to the young man who was discovered, by the late musician, as a 14-year-old playing in a smoky Birmingham music club in 1963, Steve Winwood. The two-time Grammy Award recipient paid tribute to the man who became like “a big brother” to him.

Spencer was an early pioneer of the British folk scene, which, in his case embraced folk blues, and eventually what was then called Rhythm and Blues. He influenced my tastes in music, he owned the first 12-string guitar I ever saw.

Spencer Davis died of pneumonia on October 19, 2020, aged 81.

Editorial Note

For anyone interested in exploring explore the world of British blue-eyed soul, an excellent compilation release is ‘British Blue Eyed Soul 1964-1969‘ compiled on the Psych Psychi Circle label by its former head and musician, Nick Saloman. The British soul scene, as a whole, has produced some of the best artists, which have moved in to the worldwide genre, over the past 30 years. Carleen Anderson, Omar, Caron Wheeler (of Soul II Soul fame), Lisa Stansfield and Adele are just a few. The soul scene in the UK has always been rich and gained popularity, particularly amongst the working-class communities in the North of England, with the emergence of the 7″ Northern Soul dancehall scene in the 1970’s. Frankie Wilson’s ‘Do I Love You (Indeed I Do)’ is as good a launching pad as any for those interested in exploring that scene further. The popular enthusiasm for the US soul music singles in Britain during the 1970’s was excellently documented in the 2014 ‘Northern Soul’ film, which is well worth a watch!

The UK soul movement is constanly evolving with innovative musicians adapting the traditional sound to chime with contemporary hip-hop and electronic music forms – acts such as Tom Misch, Oscar Jerome and Lianne La Havas and their recent releases are notable for this integration.

2020 has been a particularly sobering year for music, in that we have lost many great movers on the scene. Helen Reddy, Ian McDowell, Ralph Parkinson, Bunny Lee, Johnny Nash and Ibiza DJ José Padilla are just a selection of the music names we have lost in October.

Accomplished US session bass player Jimmy Williams died on 21st October. His credits on bass are nothing short of momentous. His long term association with the legendary Philadelphia International Label would see him showcase, to the world, his incredible and infectiously groove-heavy playing blending with the lush instrumentation qualities of ‘Philly soul.’ Williams played memorable bass line hooks on the disco dancefloor 1979 classic, ‘Ain’t No Stoppin’ Us Now by McFadden and Whitehead. He worked with other Philadelphia International artists including the late Jackie Moore, Jean Carn, Teddy Pendergrass, The O’ Jays, The Jones Girls and Lou Rawls.

An interesting link comes with Williams’ association with Chris Blackwell’s Island Record label, with whom Spencer Davis worked. Island released Grace Jones’ ‘Save’ as part of her disco excursions collaboration with, brianchild of the 12” long player. producer Tom Moulton. On that Grace Jones album it was Jimmy Williams who provided his typically tight bass delivery.

Published by The Gown Queen's University Belfast

The Gown has provided respected, quality and independent student journalism from Queen's University, Belfast since its 1955 foundation, by Dr. Richard Herman. Having had an illustrious line of journalists and writers for almost 70 years, that proud history is extremely important to us. The Gown is consistent in its quest to seek and develop the talents of aspiring student writers.

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