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The Spencer Davis Group

The starting point for one of England’s greatest talents, STEVE WINWOOD (on both organ and vocals), blue-eyed soul/R&B combo The SPENCER DAVIS GROUP had a blistering time in the mid-60s courtesy of three massive hits, `Keep On Running’, `Somebody Help Me’ and `Gimme Some Loving’; only the latter jewel failing just to reach UK No.1.
Formed in a local jazz club in Birmingham, England in August 1963, Welsh-born folk-blues guitarist Spencer Davis and local boy bass-player, Muff/Mervyn Winwood, decided to give the latter’s younger brother Steve Winwood (only 15 at the time) a try-out; both siblings had been performing on the night as The Muff-Woody Trad-Jazz Band. Subsequently completing the line-up with drummer, Pete York, the outfit played local venues as the Rhythm & Blues Quartet, and
it was soon apparent that the veterans – in the early 20s – were being overshadowed by the precocious and multi-talented Steve, who’d added harmonica, lead guitar to his normal vocal/keyboards repertoire.
After a year on the circuit, The SPENCER DAVIS GROUP moniker was chosen simply because the guitarist was prone to be the talkative one in interviews. They impressed producer and Island Records boss, Chris Blackwell, who licensed the quartet to Fontana, a major label who could do a lot more (at the time) than his reggae-infused independent.
During a lean spell between the summers of ’64 and ’65, four platters failed to break the Top 40, the first of these, a version of JOHN LEE HOOKER’s `Dimples’, didn’t even crack the Top 50. Penned by outsiders, `I Can’t Stand It’, the Brenda Holloway staple `Every Little Bit Hurts’ and `Strong Love’, were better served to a live audience, although the former two 45s featured on the group’s appropriately-titled THEIR FIRST LP (1965) {*6}; a Top 10 hit when re-promoted early the following year. The success of the set came on the back of The SPENCER DAVIS GROUP’s chart-topping `Keep On Running’, a song penned by Jamaican-born Island Records singer-songwriter, JACKIE EDWARDS. The debut album itself reflected slices of Stateside soul and R&B heritage, and apart from the odd Steve Winwood-authored B-side (`Sittin’ And Thinkin’’, `It Hurts Me So’, among others), the grooves explored nuggets from the likes of IKE & TINA TURNER, LITTLE WALTER and The COASTERS.
As their first LP was finally finding its peak audience, the rush-released oft-overlooked THE SECOND ALBUM (1966) {*6} joined its predecessor in the Top 10, and matched its predominantly soul covers appeal via tracks borrowed from the likes of RAY CHARLES, DON COVAY, IVORY JOE HUNTER, Bobby Parker, EDWARDS, et al.
Taking another EDWARDS dirge, `Somebody Help Me’, this formulaic approach proved fruitful as it soared to the top of the charts. Together with Steve’s soulful `When I Come Home’ (a platter that stalled at No.12) and his instrumental `On The Green Light’, their third album AUTUMN ’66 (1966) {*6} was again saturated by Motown/RAY CHARLES-esque re-takes. Considering that young Winwood was just 18 years-old, his maturing vocal power-chords could handle giants such as `When A Man Loves A Woman’, `Nobody Knows You When You’re Down And Out’, `Mean Woman Blues’ and `Dust My Blues’.
A prolific year for the band, the SDG ended the year on a high note, having scored on both sides of the Atlantic for the first time with their third slice of genius, `Gimme Some Loving’; denied pole position by The FOUR TOPS’ “Reach Out I’ll Be There”. GIMME SOME LOVIN’ (1967) {*7} was presented to Americans as their debut LP, an in-part compilation featuring their most recent UK smash hits, with the exception of yet another transatlantic Top 10 breaker, `I’m A Man’. This classic Winwood-penned dirge was seized by United Artists (the Group’s American label) for the rush-released, US-only I’M A MAN (1967) {*7} set, another to incorporate older tracks with more recent recordings.
Steve’s “Motown”-influenced vocal talent increasingly began to outlive the basic R&B backing the rest of the band were providing; Muff also bailed out, later to become a top producer. Breaking away from the SDG, he’d already undertook a more psychedelic approach with his new outfit, TRAFFIC, alongside Messrs JIM CAPALDI, DAVE MASON and Chris Wood. Despite the split, both acts (and others) divvied up exclusive tracks – Steve’s new combo on the lead title track – for a subsequent soundtrack set, HERE WE GO ‘ROUND THE MULBERRY BUSH (1968) {*6}. Given the film’s forgettable lightweight subject matter, the all-new SDG contribute several cues, `Taking Out Time’, `Every Little Thing’, `Looking Back’ and `Picture Of Her’, the best of the vocal bunch and featuring newbie frontman, Phil Sawyer, combining well with the screeching organ of freshman, Eddie Hardin; the latter excels on instrumentals `Virginals Dream’ and `Waltz For Caroline’.
The SPENCER DAVIS GROUP had soldiered on regardless, but it was clear the spark had been extinguished and the hits had all but dried up; the non-OST tracks `Time Seller’ and `Mr Second Class’ stalling at No.30 and 35 respectively, and their final chart appearances. Ray Fenwick was in place for the band’s overseas hit, `After Tea’, and during the recording of the band’s first proper album for some time, WITH THEIR NEW FACE ON (1968) {*6}. Both HARDIN & YORK would find their own face in a duo, while the revolving-door outfit brought in pre-ELTON JOHN Band stalwarts, Dee Murray (bass) and Nigel Olsson (drums) on a couple of forgettable and almost shelved LPs, HEAVIES (1969) {*3} and FUNKY (1971; recorded 1969) {*4}.
Retreating to the sunnier climes of California, SPENCER DAVIS released a couple of low-key LPs, the acoustic-led IT’S BEEN SO LONG (1971) {*4} – together with Pete Jameson – and the solo MOUSETRAP (1972) {*4}. Not particularly wanted at a time when glam and prog was musical kingpin, the need for The SPENCER DAVIS GROUP to re-form was ill-advised. Nevertheless, with a line-up that also consisted of Fenwick, Hardin, York and former guest bassist, Charlie McCracken, two contemporary soft-rock sets surfaced through GLUGGO (1973) {*4} and LIVING IN A BACK STREET (1974) {*4}.
Several years in the backwaters of the music scene, SPENCER DAVIS was back in full flight with comeback solo set, CROSSFIRE (1984) {*4}, a jazzier affair that highlighted his duet with DUSTY SPRINGFIELD on a version of Judy Clay & William Bell’s `Private Number’.
Although their was the odd and inconsequential solo/band release from foreign shores, The SPENCER DAVIS GROUP (like so many of their ilk) embarked on fresh tours in 2002. With a line-up that included Colin Hodgkinson, Hardin, York and guitarist Miller Anderson, the ensemble could revive golden oldies via LIVE IN MANCHESTER 2002 (2004) and LIVE AT BLUES GARAGE 2006 (2006); one could still catch various incarnations of the group touring the globe in 2010.
© MC Strong 1994-2008/GRD-LCS // rev-up MCS Nov2012

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