Farewell, Spencer Davis

The man who helmed the group of the same name and nurtured a young Steve Winwood, succumbs at Age 81

Remembering Spencer Davis (Art: Ron Hart)

Unlike many of his peers during the confluence of the British Invasion and England’s blues revival, Spencer Davis wasn’t the type who tended to steal the spotlight.

Granted, it was his name on the marquee while at the helm of the Spencer Davis Group, but he also felt free to cede his starring role to a young Steve Winwood. As a result, the band managed to secure a decided measure of ‘60s stardom, allowing them to create an indelible impression all at the same time. 

Davis, who died Monday in Los Angeles at age 81 following a week-long bout with pneumonia, was, at first, a foremost proponent of basic blues, but he was wise enough to know that it took an effective blend of pop, R&B and trad to find commercial credence with all three. Mining initial influences fueled by skiffle, jazz and blues, he took his cue from Big Bill Bronzy, Huddie Ledbetter, Buddy Holly, Alexis Korner and Long John Baldry, and then served an apprenticeship in a variety of bands that included future Rolling Stones bassist Bill Wyman and Christine Perfect, whose future endeavors would include Chicken Shack and Fleetwood Mac. 


VIDEO: Spencer Davis Group “Gimme Some Lovin'”

Davis would eventually take that experience and expertise to the band that would bear his branding, the Spencer Davis Group. Recruiting a 15-year old Steve Winwood on vocals, keyboards and guitar, along with Winwood’s older brother Muff on bass and drummer Pete York, Davis and company scored several successful chart-toppers, including such hits as “Keep On Running,” “Somebody Help Me” and “I’m a Man” — the latter tune later covered by the initial incarnation of Chicago. The combination of Davis’ direction, the younger Winwood’s earnest and soulful vocals, and the solid thrust of the York, Muff and Winwood rhythm section made them one of Britain’s most dynamic and driving combos, spawning a modest reign of popularity in both their native U.K. and across the ocean in the U.S.A.

Winwood left the band in April, 1967 and headed to the country where he founded the folk-flavored psychedelic band Traffic. “Steve never sounded so good as he did with us,” he told a journalist from The Guitar magazine several years later. Nevertheless, the Spencer Davis Group managed to hang on for another two years before calling it quits in 1969. They reconvened in the early ‘70s with a new line-up and a somewhat more sophisticated sound.  Though moderately successful, Davis finally pulled the plug in late ’74.


VIDEO: Spencer Davis Group “I’m A Man”

Still, the fact that he managed to soldier on after the loss of Winwood may have provided some unintentional encouragement to other bands forced to find a way forward after finding themselves in the same situation. It’s not hard to imagine that Genesis, Journey, Yes, Fleetwood Mac, and Van Halen might have gained some power of perseverance after losing their own famous frontmen, and then reinvent themselves in the aftermath.

Following the Spencer Davis Group final demise, Davis opted for a lower profile, recording the album It’s Been So Long with guitarist Peter Jameson before eventually releasing Mousetrap, an album of his own.

Spencer Davis Mousetrap, United Artists 1972

The reincarnated versions of the Spencer Davis Group continued to tour and release new albums throughout the mid ‘70s, but Davis found his greatest success as an A&R man for Island Records, where he helped nurture the likes of Bob Marley, Robert Palmer and, appropriately enough, his now successful protege, the solo Steve Winwood. 

Like many elder musical statesmen, Davis couldn’t resist the temptation to reclaim his former glories and in his later years he found himself on the oldies circuit fronting a new version of the Spencer Davis Group. Indeed, to paraphrase the title of one of his hits, he seemed determined to keep on running as long as he could. Or, as another song seemed to sum things up, he was a man, one worthy of remembrance.

After learning of his passing, Winwood posted this tribute: “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, and he owned the first 12 string guitar I ever saw, he was taken with the music of Huddie ‘Lead Belly’ Ledbetter, and Big Bill Broonzy. I’d already got a big brother who influenced me greatly, and Spencer became like a big brother to me at the time.

“He was definitely a man with a vision, and one of the pioneers of the British invasion of America in the sixties. I never went to the U.S. with Spencer, but he later embraced America and America embraced him. 

“I feel that he was influential in setting me on the road to becoming a professional musician, and I thank him for that.

“Thank you Spencer.”


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Lee Zimmerman

Lee Zimmerman is a writer and columnist based in beautiful Maryville Tennessee. Over the past 20 years, his work has appeared in dozens of leading music publications. He is also the author of Americana Music: Voice, Visionaries, and Pioneers of an Honest Sound, which will be published by Texas A&M University Press early next year.

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