The Spencer Davis Group

TrackAlbum / Single
I'm Blue (The Gong Gong Song)Their First LP
Keep On RunningFontana TF632
Somebody Help MeFontana TF 679
You Must Believe MeThe Second Album
Let Me Down EasyThe Second Album
When I Come HomeFontana TF 739
High Time BabyAutumn '66
Gimme Some Lovin'Fontana TF 762
I'm A ManFontana TF 785
Time SellerFontana TF 854

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Contributor: Peter Viney

It starts with Millie. Chris Blackwell’s major early discovery was Jamaican singer Millie Small. Jazz guitarist Ernest Ranglin had featured on two of the earliest Island LPs, and Blackwell teamed him up with Millie. They took a 1960 American R&B song by Barbie Gaye, My Boy Lollipop, did very little to the vocal arrangement, but added a ska beat and had a UK number one, and a major international hit. It sold six million worldwide.

In February 1964 Chris Blackwell was taking Millie on tour of the UK, and in Birmingham he saw local band the Rhythm and Blues Quartet. It was led by Spencer Davis on guitar, who was older. Muff Winwood played bass, his younger brother Stevie Winwood played organ, guitar and did lead vocals, Pete York played drums.

The name was swiftly changed to The Spencer Davis Group and they were given the job of backing Sue artists Inez and Charlie Foxx on a UK tour, and then Jimmy Witherspoon. Their first releases were taken from current Sue artists, John Lee Hooker (Dimples) and The Soul Sisters (I Can’t Stand It), then Brenda Holloway’s Every Little Bit Hurts, with Steve playing piano. I started my career as a rock snob by hearing the Spencer Davis Group version of Dimples and going straight out and buying the John Lee Hooker 45 instead. Blackwell preferred to license their releases via Fontana, rather than use his own label, Island, because he foresaw demand he wouldn’t be able to meet, as with Millie. However, he had a shot with Incense by The Anglos on his new short-lived Brit. label in 1965, it was later reissued on both Sue and Island. The Anglos were rumoured to feature Steve Winwood. Both Steve and Chris Blackwell deny it categorically. On the other hand, Muff Winwood says it was Steve Winwood and producer Jimmy Miller. American singer Joe Webster claims it was him. If I really thought it was Steve Winwood, it would be in the choice of ten.

The Spencer Davis Group was one of the bands that were musicians’ musicians, i.e. admired greatly by their peers (as were Georgie Fame & The Blue Flames and Zoot Money’s Big Roll Band). Their First LP came in mid 1965 and is a check list of R&B classics like My Babe, Dimples, Searchin’, I Can’t Stand It, Every Little Bit Hurts. It included all the singles. Spencer Davis sang Sittin’ And Thinkin’ instead of Steve. The standouts were Rufus Thomas’s Jump Back and Ike and Tina Turner’s hit It’s Gonna Work Out Fine, the latter particularly appropriate for Steve Winwood’s voice. I like them less now than I did at the time when I hadn’t heard the originals. But we were already getting the Jamaican influenced choppy guitar on It’s Gonna Work Out Fine.

It’s hard to choose one, but Ike Turner’s I’m Blue (The Gong Gong Song) features Millie singing behind Steve. After working with Inez and Charlie Foxx, and covering Ike and Tina Turner, the excursion was interesting.

Blackwell’s inspired pairing was with Island’s most faithful singer, Jackie Edwards, who wrote Keep On Running (UK #1), Somebody Help Me (UK #1) and When I Come Home (UK #12).

Keep On Running was released in November 1965 and topped the charts in January 1966. This was my disco era, where I went to Le Kilt in Bournemouth several times a week. The thing about Keep On Running (and Somebody Help Me) is that in an evening of great American soul, in its peak era, Spencer Davis got played just as much, and there was no audible jarring when their records came on. The Jackie Edwards original is fantastic, I love it, and its far more ska. Jackie played it directly to them on piano, but they decided to go for guitars. The three pieces of genius on the single are the fuzzbox guitar, the massive rumbling bass guitar (one of my favourite 60s bass parts) and obviously Steve Winwood had found his vocal style. So much so that the single floundered in the USA. Black stations didn’t play it because the band were white. White stations didn’t play it because Steve sounded black. It got to #76. The success of the single propelled the earlier LP into the UK Top Ten, even without the single on it.

They followed immediately with another Jackie Edwards’ song Somebody Help Me. The change was three voices in unison starting before Steve solo came in contrast, and they were still in the two guitars line up. The equally great bass line comes from Jackie Edwards’ version. The bass line on Keep On Running hadn’t. As the Jackie Edwards’ version was recorded in England and no credits given, I wondered if Muff Winwood played bass on both.

The Second Album was a major hit in Britain (#3) centred around Keep On Running. Georgia On My Mind is the one people pull out and it is an extremely fine rendition of the Ray Charles standard, but if push comes to shove, I prefer Richard Manuel singing it with The Band. Instead, I’m going to pull out the Curtis Mayfield song You Must Believe Me. And it is not as good as The Impressions’ version. I’m choosing it for the less soulful, cheerful poppy chutzpah of attacking such a song and getting away with it. Don Covay’s Please Do Something was a competitor.

Let Me Down Easy is a Little Milton song on The Second Album and the Toppermost needs a Steve Winwood in slower, bluesy soulful style and the fluent guitar solo is underlaid by swirling Hammond. He played both parts.

The third Jackie Edwards hit was When I Come Home, this time co-credited to Steve Winwood, and not quite such a big hit, maybe similarity was breeding audience discontent. Yet another rubbery bouncy bass line. Poor Jackie Edwards was perplexed at his own success as a songwriter, and was off at Island’s subsidiary label, Aladdin, recording quirky covers of C&W hits like He’ll Have To Go with brass section.

Autumn ’66 had both hits, Somebody Help Me and When I Come Home, but my additional chosen track is High Time Baby, written by all four in the band. The fuzz box is back, great drumming, great piano solo. It’s surprising they never issued it as a single, but I suspect that someone pointed out its similarity to Little Latin Lupe Lu, with which it shares a riff. But they weren’t averse to a bit of borrowing, as the next section shows.

The next hit, Gimme Some Lovin’ is a somewhat shameful chapter in their career; however magnificent the record might be, it is transparently inspired by the riff of Homer Banks’ record A Lot Of Love. It was UK #2 in November 1966 and their American breakthrough, reaching #7. The single is credited to Steve Winwood. The trouble is, it’s got to be in the Toppemost, because it’s even better than A Lot Of Love too. Stevie’s Hammond B3 is at the fore. Steve’s lyrics are better, his singing is hugely powerful and involving, the “Hey!” chorus is perfect.

I’m A Man is another roaring flat-out Steve Winwood composition and consolidated their position in the USA with another Top Ten hit. Later Chicago did a fine cover version on Chicago Transit Authority. But that was it. For many people that was the end of the story, because both Winwood brothers left. Steve Winwood was off to the cottage in the country to form Traffic (see Toppermost #45), while Muff Winwood moved behind the desk at Island Records to take charge of A&R and move into production, where he became one of the most influential figures of the next decade.

But it’s not quite. Spencer Davis and Pete York faced a massive task. You can lose lead singers, but there is only the one Steve Winwood. They recruited Eddie Hardin on organ with Phil Sawyer on guitar. They recorded two moderate hit singles, Time Seller and Mr Second Class (Eddie Hardin/Spencer Davis) in 1967, both on the album, With Their New Face On. Subsequent singles After Tea and Short Change flopped.

Time Seller is regarded as “high-psych” which means it has silly lyrics about chocolate wrapped in a silver cloud, and odd instruments lurching in, I guess. How many psych songs have ‘lemonade’ in the lyrics, and why? Time Seller attempts to sound like a cross between Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and Traffic, but messier. But they went to a lot of trouble with Time Seller and the end result is very close to ELO and truly the sound of 67.

Mr Second Class is in the same mood, but less elaborate. The B-side title, Sanity Inspector, tells you it was recorded in 1967. Singles continue into the 70s, and they tour on oldies circuits right up to today. But The Spencer Davis Group without Steve Winwood is truly Hamlet without the prince, and the hit singles also appear on Steve Winwood compilation albums.

There are four Spencer Davis Group singles which are among the greatest rock performances of all time. Two were written by Jackie Edwards: Keep On Running and the follow up Somebody Help Me. The others are Gimme Some Lovin’ and I’m A Man. I would class them as a singles band, in that the albums were largely covers. Inspired covers, but covers nevertheless.

The Spencer Davis Group official site

Steve Winwood official website

Pete York official website

The Spencer Davis Group – Their First LP (1965) [Full Album on YouTube]

The Spencer Davis Group – The Second Album [Full Album on YouTube]

The Spencer Davis Group biography (iTunes)

Peter Viney writes on popular music and the arts at his website.

TopperPost #426

5 Comments

  1. Rob Morgan
    Mar 25, 2015

    So glad to see Time Seller appear in this list. I remember hearing it on an oldies show on Radio One in 1981 and being amazed at how it twisted and turned. I was only 12 at the time, exploring my parents’ Beatles records and starting to establish my own taste in music. That song set down a marker in my mind for psychedelic music, and I would rank it alongside any Fabs or Floyd or Traffic as perfect British psych pop. And it still sounds good today. A fine list all together.

  2. Ilkka Jauramo
    Mar 27, 2015

    Even if it is never too late to start a rock snob career I still prefer the singer from Birmingham on ‘Dimples’ and ‘Georgia On My Mind’. Richard Manuel may be Americana but for me this was unmistakable Britannicana – if there is such a word. Well, now there is.

  3. Colin Duncan
    Mar 27, 2015

    Well written, knowledgeable article as usual. I learned quite a lot from the article. Couldn’t agree more – a singles band, with four of the greatest recordings of all time. Still play the greatest hits every so often. Thanks, Peter.

  4. Rob Millis
    Mar 29, 2015

    Peter! Really! Young British bands couldn’t afford B3s! It’ll be an L100 or M100 to the fore ;-).

  5. Peter Viney
    Mar 29, 2015

    No one knows more about Hammonds than Rob. Most 60s group Hammonds were L100s and having carried both, the L100 is easier. And L100s could be and were used with Leslie speakers. Steve was using a Hammond before they even made a record (sleeve notes to “Eight Gigs A Week” compilation) and that would surely have been the cheaper model. BUT there are references (including Wiki, which is not necessarily a good sign) to Steve blowing the proceeds of Keep On Running on the larger and more expensive B3, and to Gimmee Some Loving being a B3. They had just had two number ones and a third hit in a row. On the other hand, everyone has predictable text running and it could be as soon as you start typing Hammond it adds “B3”. And Steve was later famous for using a B3 so it could be “projected back.” Image search didn’t clarify it!

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