Life at 33⅓: The white boy with the black voice

Spencer Davis Group: Their First LP (Fontana).

Spencer Davis Group: Their First LP (Fontana)

It took a while before Spencer Davis Group (file under S) turned into pop stars.  They were discovered as they say, in 1964 by Chris Blackwell, the man behind Island Records and a passionate admirer of Jamaican music.  However, there was nothing Jamaican about this quartet.  No blue beat.  No ska.  They played the usual brew of British beat and rhythm and blues.  Pretty average they were.

What saved them from mediocrity was the slender 16-year-old who sang and played the guitar and keyboards, Steve Winwood.  His voice was tense, hoarse and blue with a fiery edge to it, making him sound like a blues shouter from Chicago and not a white twink from Birmingham.  When the group hit the big time in the U.S. the radio stations thought they were black.

Blackwell apparently knew what he was doing, but the band still had a long way to go.  When this album came out, they already had four singles behind them.  None of them hits.  The last three had just about scraped the bottom of the Top 50.  Winwood shone on “Every Little Bit Hurts”, but that was hardly convincing enough to warn anybody about the greater things to come.

The album contains the A and B-sides of the first three singles.  The 12 tracks are probably representative of what they did “live” at the time.  Mainly cover versions of American rhythm & blues tunes – made famous or semi-famous by the likes of John Lee Hooker, The Coasters, Rufus Thomas and Ike & Tina Turner.

Winwood’s piano stays in the background for this album.  What drives the recordings are the guitars (and some harmonica playing).  It is a safe, slightly boring album that still shows that the band had good tastes in music.  However, if there was something the world did not need it was yet another version of “Searchin’”.  And the only reason for the inclusion of the nonsense song “I’m Blue (Gong Gong Song)” probably is to expose the whine of Blackwell’s major discovery, Millie Small (whose career was running out of gas).

Around the bend another of Blackwell’s Jamaican artists was waiting: Jackie Edwards.  He had just written a song, “Keep On Running”, now would that be of interest to the boys from Birmingham?  Indeed it would.

Suddenly The Spencer Davis Group became the hottest act in town, knocking The Beatles’ “We Can Work It Out”/”Day Tripper” off the top spot.  That song was of course not included on their first LP, but rather on their second.

So what you get, as I said earlier, is a taste of how this band sounded before they were.  It is entertaining, it does have its moments, Steve Winwood even shows glimpses of coming greatness, but it doesn’t have the raw punch needed to make it stand out from similar albums from the same period.  It sold a lot though, charting in January 1966, six months after it was originally released.

Trivia: They originally called themselves The Rhythm And Blues Quartette.  It was not Spencer Davis himself who initiated the name change, it was bass player Muff Winwood.

“Spencer was the only one who enjoyed doing interviews, so I pointed out that if we called it the Spencer Davis Group, the rest of us could stay in bed and let him do them,” said Muff.

Now for you record collectors out there this is an important fact as it confirms that Spencer Davis Group is a band name.  File under S – and not D.

Released July 1965
(Produced by Chris Blackwell)
Side 1:
“My Babe” (Bob Hatfield/Bill Medley)
“Dimples” (John Lee Hooker/James Bracken)
“Searchin’” (Jerry Leiber/Mike Stoller)
“Every Little Bit Hurts” (Ed Cobb)
“I’m Blue (Going Going Song)” (Ike Turner)
“Sittin’ And Thinkin’” (Spencer Davis/Pete York/Muff Winwood/Steve Winwood)

Side 2:
“I Can’t Stand It” (Steve McAllister)
“Here Right Now” (Steve Winwood)
“Jump Back” (Rufus Thomas)
“It’s Gonna Work Out Fine” (Jim Lee/Joe Seneca)
“Midnight Train” (Gary Lynn Hicks/Alvin Roy)
“It Hurts Me So” (Steve Winwood)

Spencer Davis (guitar, vocals & harmonica)
Steve Winwood (vocals, piano, guitar & harmonica)
Muff Winwood (bass & vocals)
Peter York (drums)

First published in Pattaya Mail on September 19, 2013