Sad news regarding the passing of Spencer Davis (Davies) on October 19, 2020 whose 1960s pop group was one of Birmingham's best and provided inspiration for so many other local musicians.
"The Spencer Davis Group" is pictured here on the Smallbrook Queensway by Midland Beat photographer Jim Simpson. Left to right; Steve Winwood, Muff Winwood, Pete York, and Spencer Davis.
While born and raised in Swansea, South Wales, Spencer Davis was an "honorary Brummie" who greatly contributed to the developing local music scene during the early 1960s beat group era by introducing "Rhythm and Blues" to the local audiences. He also provided a nurturing and relatively safe environment for a young Steve Winwood to grow and develop an immense musical talent during his time in the band - and what a time that was!
Spencer Davis went to Birmingham University where he studied languages and later taught at Whittington Oval Junior School in Yardley while singing and playing blues on his 12 string guitar at night in local pubs and clubs. He sometimes performed as a duo with future Fleetwood Mac member Christine Perfect (McVie) who lived in Bearwood.
Spencer then met 14 year old Stevie Winwood and his older brother Mervyn "Muff" who were performing at the time as the "Muff-Woody Jazz Band". Along with his friend Pete York who was an aspiring jazz drummer, Spencer Davis convinced the Winwood brothers to join them. Spencer said; "Discovering Steve singing in a pub in north Birmingham was a revelation. As he was too young to transport himself, I said; I'll pick him up for gigs. But his brother said; I'll switch from guitar to bass, bring him to rehearsals, and play as well ! That's how we formed."
The famous Spencer Davis Group line-up was now Spencer Davis (vocal, guitar, harmonica), Steve Winwood (vocal, lead guitar, piano), Muff Winwood (vocal, bass guitar), and Pete York (drums). They were initially known as "The Rhythm and Blues Quartette".
Long before the easy convenience of today's social media, it was "word-of-mouth" that caused lines to form around the block at the Golden Eagle pub on Hill Street in Birmingham where the Spencer Davis Group secured a residency in 1963. Many punters had to be turned away, such was the demand to get in. Spencer Davis recalled; "I found teaching by day and playing by night too much. Once or twice I almost fell asleep while taking class. So I spoke to the others and we decided to gamble by turning full-time professional."
In February 1964, they performed at Birmingham Town Hall in support of American blues star Sonny Boy Williamson along with The Yardbirds and Long John Baldry (a young Robert Plant was in the audience). Island Records founder Chris Blackwell signed them to a contract with their records issued on the Fontana label but it was a busy first year touring up and down the country while their singles gained a foothold in the charts.
The first 45 by The Spencer Davis Group was a cover of the John Lee Hooker song 'Dimples' that sold well in the West Midlands but largely ignored elsewhere. Chris Blackwell had Jackie Edwards write A-sides for the group to record with the energetic 'Keep On Running' going to Number One nationally at the end of 1965, incredibly knocking The Beatles from the top spot in the charts. This was followed by 'Somebody Help Me', another chart-topper the following year.
Steve remembers Spencer as like an "older brother" in those early days, in fact the already married Spencer Davis was seven years older! Not that it mattered much as the scholarly and articulate Davis volunteered to do all the interviews with reporters and thus allow the others to spend more time in bed as the story goes. His fluent language skills in French and German also endeared the Spencer Davis Group to fans on the continent where they performed on many TV shows.
Despite this, it was always young Stevie Winwood who attracted the most attention on stage - especially from the girls! He became the main focus of the group and went on to write 'Gimme Some Lovin' and 'I'm A Man' - both big hits for the Spencer Davis Group. Pete York said; "I think it was hard for Spencer to come to terms with Steve's great talent. Competition would have been pointless. Spencer used to feature on two or three numbers in the show which he performed well, but the fans, especially the girls, just loved Steve."
Some fans were not too surprised when Steve Winwood left the Spencer Davis Group to form Traffic in 1967. The group carried on with new members to replace Steve and Muff who also left to work for Chris Blackwell, but despite the release of new singles and an underrated album, the hits dried up. However, the Spencer Davis Group provided the theme tune for the popular children's ITV show "Magpie" under the name "The Murgatroyd Band".
The Spencer Davis Group split in 1969 and Pete York formed the acclaimed duo "Hardin and York" with keyboardist Eddie Hardin. Spencer Davis moved to America where he did session work in California and played coffee houses with Birmingham folk musician Peter Jameson with whom he also recorded an album. A few years later, he returned to the UK to form a new line up of the Spencer Davis Group. They toured and recorded a couple of albums during the 1970s.
When interviewed at the time Spencer said; "The main requests at the shows are for 'Keep On Running', 'Gimme Some Lovin', and all the old hits. We enjoy playing them and people have always asked us to do them. When Pete and Eddie were together they were always asked to do the old Spencer Davis numbers and it was the same for Pete Jameson and myself. We just couldn't leave them out."
Spencer Davis returned to America where he has since lived for decades on the West Coast, recorded solo albums, and occasionally toured with various new line-ups of the Spencer Davis Group in both the USA and Europe. In more recent years, he toured North America as part of the "Classic Rock All Stars" band. In fact, Spencer never stopped performing until a few years ago when his health declined and eventually confined him to a wheelchair.
In 2016, I was fortunate to interview drummer Pete York who expressed interest in re-uniting the original line-up of the Spencer Davis Group for a concert at Birmingham Town Hall. I contacted the Birmingham Mail and received support from reporter Mike Lockley who wrote a two-page feature on the group that was published in the Sunday Mercury.
I have received more than 200 e-mails from fans around the world in support of the Spencer Davis Group reunion - many from those who remembered seeing the group perform in Birmingham all those years ago. Sadly, the reunion can't happen now although it was wonderful to discover there are so many who have fond memories of the band (click HERE to read the Pete York interview).
Pete York said; "Now that he's gone I wish he could have had more recognition for what we all did together. At the time we had our hits we were on top of everything but when the star fades the world soon forgets. There should have been some kind of celebrity celebration while he was alive but now it's too late. They keep talking about a Star on the Broad Street Walk of Fame. He would have loved that."
Jim Simpson was an early supporter of the Spencer Davis Group and was the first to photograph them as reporter for the local "Midland Beat" newspaper. A jazz fan and trumpet player, Jim also played in the hit group Locomotive and went on to discover and manage Black Sabbath who were promoted by Jim's "Big Bear" agency of local bands. Jim Simpson recently spoke with Pete York who paid tribute to Spencer Davis and this interview can be seen on YouTube by clicking on the video link below.
Years ago, when Spencer Davis was interviewed for Midland Beat he said; "We would never have made it without our fans in Birmingham. They have been behind us right from the start and the way they have always turned out to hear us has been a constant spur."
My condolences go out to the family and many friends and fans of Spencer Davis. His contributions to popular music should not be forgotten.
Copyright © John R Woodhouse
Bulls Head Bob has written features on The Spencer Davis group over the years and his musicians-eye-view of the group is well worth reading and can be seen by clicking HERE. See also more about The Spencer Davis Group by clicking HERE