The boss of the Spencer Davis Group led a full and intriguing musical life both before and after the band’s period of maximum chart impact in the mid-1960s. Alan Clayson relates his story. Photos by Mike Prior
Rhythm and blues came to Birmingham on a foggy October Monday in 1963 when the Golden Eagle, a pub beneath the shadow of the town hall, hosted the inaugural meeting of the Rhythm Unlimited club. Reviewing the evening, Midland Beat commented ‘the most authentic touches were provided by Spencer Davis, whose singing and twelve-string guitar and harmonica brought roars of appreciation from the fans’.
‘Authentic’ he may have been, but there was no trace of the ghetto or chain gang in the background of Spencer David Nelson Davis, born in Swansea at the outbreak of the Second World War. An early memory was of Luftwaffe bombs pounding the city. On leaving grammar school, Spencer moved to London to become a Customs and Excise clerk for 18 soul-destroying months. ‘We always wrote in red ink,’ he chuckles.‘It was like writing in my own blood. I always admired one man who worked away all morning. Then he went out for lunch and never came back.’ Boosted by a back-dated pay award, Davis found the courage to re-enrol at his old school as a sixth former and then begin a degree in German at Birmingham University in 1960.
He may have seemed rather bookish to some, but Spencer had performed music in public for many years, both in eisteddfod choirs and boy scout gang shows. Two of his uncles played instruments – one mandolin, and one banjo – and this inspired him to spend five hard-earned pounds on a guitar of non-specific make with a butterfly etched on its front.
His mastery of this instrument – and a serviceable baritone voice – enabled him to front a band called the Saints, who busked at various London tube stations and appeared at Soho’s 2i’s coffee bar and lesser shrines of British rock. They’d even recorded a privately pressed single of Buddy Holly’s Oh Boy! and the skiffle standard Midnight Special.
Spencer’s scholarly nature led him to spend time researching beneath skiffle’s veneer and uncovering its blues and hillbilly nitty-gritty. Visits to specialist record shops in London and Birmingham polarized his tastes in traditional Americana, and to replace the ‘butterfly’ guitar, he bought a 12-string just like Leadbelly’s. This novelty made quite an impression on the Midlands’ music fans. ‘Spence was a kind of monument in Birmingham,’ avid listener Steve Winwood observed. ‘He was the guy everyone went to see because he had a 12-string guitar.’.
A born organiser, Davis had become a power on the university’s entertainments committee – so much so that he booked himself for college bar functions, sometimes as part of a duo with Stourbridge blues chanteuse Christine Perfect, later of Fleetwood Mac. Otherwise, he was a member of drummer Pete York’s Excelsior Jazz Band, who traded principally in the mainstream flair of Basie and Ellington. However, Spencer’s four-song intermission became the highlight of the set. This was typified by Midnight Special, The House of the Rising Sun, Careless Love and, most spectacularly, I Got My Mojo Working.
Davis’ honours course meant a spell studying in Berlin, where he developed a liking for pilsner beer and honed his way with boozy audiences in Teutonic beatnik hangouts by covering the unpolished dustbowl ramblings of Woody Guthrie. With a rucksack on his back and clutching his guitar, Spencer would take off in summer for France, earning centimes as a street singer.
It was a time of agreeable wanderlust, but he also kept his eye on his studies; a few years later, in 1966, he would even deliver a lecture on popular culture and entertainment at Birmingham’s Centre for Contemporary Studies. ‘To me, Spencer was and still is the typical university student,’ mused Steve Winwood that same year. ‘He still uses long words all the time that nobody understands.’
Finding himself at a vocational crossroads in 1963, Davis vacillated between music and teaching, favouring the latter for a while after wife Pauline presented him with a daughter at their Sutton Coldfield home on Christmas Eve. ‘I never expected him to be a pop star,’ pondered Pauline, ‘but I always knew he’d be a success in one way or another.’
Before long, the warm receptions for Spencer’s Excelsior solo spot were noted, and he was offered a Golden Eagle residency – but there was a drawback for the solo performer. ‘I had to take over from the Renegades, an out-and-out rock band with dyed hair who played their guitars behind their backs,’ he explains. ‘I felt I needed a rock band to compete.’
Luckily enough the Birmingham musical scene was like a crowded game of musical chairs, and Davis always managed to procure musicians to back him every week. Among them was one Steve Winwood, then just a schoolboy. ‘I had some of my happiest moments there,’ Winwood later enthused. ‘Everything was informal. We never used to learn any numbers as such. Spencer would just say “We’d like to play something or other,” then we’d vamp like mad while he sang his own words.’
Finding the turnover of personnel prohibitive in his campaign for more bookings, Davis proposed that he and Steve formed a more fixed set-up to be named the Spencer Davis Rhythm And Blues Quartet. With drummer Pete York on board plus Winwood’s elder brother Muff on bass, the new entity first cast its net at a students’ dance in April 1963. The full calendar of engagements that followed compensated for the landlocked West Midlands’ lack of the regional identity that had fired the Merseybeat craze. Of the Second City’s chart contenders, only the Rockin’ Berries, the Fortunes, the Moody Blues and what emerged as the Spencer Davis Group enjoyed lasting prosperity – but nearly all they had in common was that they were from the same part of the country.
Of all these acts, the one that opened Black Country star-in-waiting Noddy Holder’s eyes widest – and he was far from alone in this – was the Spencer Davis ensemble, as illustrated by his response to a show in 1964. ‘They were very unassuming – and then this kid on the organ suddenly screamed, “I love the way she walks…” and launched into that old John Lee Hooker number, Dimples. Gosh, my mouth fell open and I felt a chill down my spine. That was the night I discovered rhythm and blues for the first time.’
Spencer Davis has no doubts about the early talent of his young vocalist. ‘Steve never sounded so good as he did with us,’ he says. Yet that voice of lived-in passion and his instinctive command of any fretboard or keyboard instrument were perfectly framed by the road-drilled accompaniment from Spencer, Muff, and Pete, all ministering to thrilling overall effect.
Though they adopted the less unwieldy name of the Spencer Davis Group, the obvious talent of 15-year-old Steve – not to mention his teen appeal – was the wellspring of Spencer’s gradual withdrawal from the main spotlight, though he continued to be rated as a competent, even distinctive singer and guitarist after the group went pro in spring 1964. Soon afterwards, they came under the managerial aegis of Chris Blackwell, an Anglo-Jamaican who negotiated a lease deal with Fontana, then parent company to his Island record label.
Recognised by Blackwell as the X-factor, young Steve was, with one exception, to be to the fore on all Spencer Davis Group A-sides – though Spencer was to sing the main track on 1965’s She Put The Hurt On Me EP. He was granted two lead vocals per album too – but, as the smashes piled up after 1966’s Somebody Help Me followed Keep On Running to #1, it became customary for billing to be extended with the phrase ‘featuring Steve Winwood’.
Finally, after Gimme Some Lovin’ – penned by Davis and the Winwoods – and, next, I’m A Man climbed high up the US Hot 100 in ’67, there could have been no worse time for the boy wonder to quit to form Traffic. Then a second blow fell with the exit of Muff. But Spencer Davis and Pete York adopted another wunderkind, Eddie Hardin, whose worth lay in his youth, his keyboard dexterity and his strangled tenor. Other new recruits were to come and go, but the second Spencer Davis Group scored immediately with Time Seller, driven by cellos and double-basses. Hot on its heels, a Top Of The Pops plug pushed the Traffic-like Mr Second Class – also self-penned – into the Top 40.
Market pragmatism, however, obliged Davis to moderate any prog-rock aspirations to ‘much more entertainment… like the old Group’, according to a press release. By then, Pete and Eddie had left and Davis had rallied again ‘with a rock’n’roll band… well, almost’. Yet, as the 1970s loomed, the general fading of the Winwood glory days was to prompt 1970’s cryptic announcement in Melody Maker: ‘Spencer Davis Has Left The Spencer Davis Group’.
Resuming his solo career, Spencer released a single in German of Aquarius from the Hair musical before uprooting to California. As Traffic jetted overhead, Spencer would be boarding a train with guitar and luggage
His partner for a while was bottleneck player Peter Jameson (who would be equally at ease playing for Dory Previn as John Lennon), but Davis chose to join guitarists Alun Davies and Jon Mark on an LP by blues legend Mississippi Fred McDowell.
A subsequent project by Mark and Spencer foundered, but a venture into the folk clubs by Davis with Davies was more fruitful. However, a grander link-up with ex-Byrd ‘Sneaky’ Pete Kleinow (who’d produced Spencer’s US-only Mousetrap album in 1972) and an Australasian rhythm section dispersed when the first of many reformations of the Spencer Davis Group made two albums before sundering.
After putting his languages degree to use as a technical translator in the mid-’70s, Davis accepted a post on Island’s West Coast staff. He speculated later in other areas of entertainment, landing a lucrative 1983 video contract with old colleague Christine Perfect’s Fleetwood Mac, and became a familiar and approachable figure at California’s NAMM show both as well-received onstage entertainer of the promenading entrepreneurs and when rubbing a thoughtful chin himself over the goods on display.
In 1988, Spencer Davis returned to Britain for a first reunion tour with old musical friends. If not musically ambitious, there has always been a friendly, downhome ambience about these proceedings as the veterans swap banter about the old days between numbers. Since the turn of the century Spencer has been most conspicuously involved with Animals & Friends; health issues have curtailed his participation in their current national tour, but he’s been busy working with Latin rockers El Chicano and is playing guitar on songs on their new album which was released in April this year.