‘You must be bloody kidding?! I knew from the get go’: Spencer Davis saw big things for Steve Winwood

We’re joined again by the namesake founder of the Spencer Davis Group, a too-long-undervalued member of 1960s rock royalty who should have been in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame ages ago.

Formed by Davis along with Steve Winwood and his brother Muff Winwood, the SDG is best known for its No. 7 1966 U.S. hit “Gimme Some Lovin,’” but had chart-topping successes in Britain with 1965′s “Keep on Runnin,’” and 1966′s “Somebody Help Me,” as well as the later No. 10 U.S. hit “I’m A Man” in 1967.

By ’67, however, Winwood was headed toward founding Traffic, though the two groups would collaborate on several occasions before Winwood’s eventual departure. Muff Winwood left to become an A&R executive with Island Records, started by Spencer Davis Group’s manager Chris Blackwell, then held similar positions at Columbia and Sony Records.

Davis continued on until 1968, before breaking up the SDG. He would then reform the band in 2006, and continues to record and tour today.

In Part 2 of our SER Sitdown with Davis, we discuss the beginning of his eponymous group, including its initial hits; the band’s difficulties with the controlling Blackwell; the immediate impact that producer Jimmy Miller had on the SDG sound — and how that early success ultimately led to Miller’s working with the Rolling Stones …

STEVE ELLIOTT: Regarding your first couple of hits, “Keep on Running” and “Somebody Help Me,” would you say they established the Spencer Davis Group right from the start? Did you feel you were already on the path to stardom?
SPENCER DAVIS: You know, before we had the hit with “Keep On Running,” we had a couple of near misses. We did a record called “Every Little Bit Hurts”; Miller Anderson does a great version of that, as well. We recorded that in Lansdowne Studio. We also did “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out”; that was one of those old blues standard tunes that I brought into the band. As Muff said, “Steve and Muff met the man with the right record collection at the right time.” That was Muff’s quip, because Muff was pretty smart. He could crack ‘em very quickly, and he did very well for himself as international A&R for Columbia and then Sony Records. We called ourselves the Rhythm and Blues Quartet, before we became the Spencer Davis Group. I mean, this was what we were into — what we thought was our version of rhythm and blues. But, as I say, we recorded “Every Little Bit Hurts” at the studio in Lansdowne and Blackwell came by, and when he came into the control box after we’d actually laid the track down he said: “I didn’t know he could sing like that.” We looked at him: “You must be bloody kidding?! I knew from the get go.” You know, that’s why I stuck him out front there. That’s one of the double-edged swords when you have someone on the team who’s really good. You know, what are you gonna do? Are you gonna keep him in the back or are you gonna stick him out front — and say, hey, get out there and do it? That was my approach to it. I think you could see that.

[SOMETHING ELSE! INTERVIEW: In the initial edition of his talk with Steve Elliott, Spencer Davis discusses the SDG's decision to go on after the departure of Steve Winwood for Traffic.]

STEVE ELLIOTT: How crucial a role was your producer, Jimmy Miller, on these classic SDG recordings?
SPENCER DAVIS: Incredible. The best thing that ever happened to the band. He took it out of the two guitars, bass and drums. Blackwell, Chris Blackwell who was our — let’s go for this: manager. He was our publisher. He was our record label. He was our “executive producer.” He was our agent. Now, in this day and age, anybody who has five positions and was controlling five sources of income would be labeled immediately: conflict of interest or a breach of fiduciary. It’s amazing what you learn after the horse has bolted. Locking the stable after the horse has bolted is absolutely no good. Crying after spilt milk is no good. But one of the qualities that Chris Blackwell had, he was obviously able to spot talent. He kind of reminds you of Simon Cowell. But Jimmy Miller’s importance was, he elevated the band — and he wasn’t one of those predictable producers that sat at the console, relying heavily on the engineering skills of the tape editor — which was the way a lot of records were made in those days.

STEVE ELLIOTT: What was your working relationship with Jimmy Miller? How did it work?
SPENCER DAVIS: Jimmy was a hands-on producer. He came down on the floor, you know, in the studio. In “Gimme Some Lovin,’” he added African drums on so you get, you know, that sort of rollin’ boom — that was Jimmy. He was tireless. In fact, after “Gimme Some Lovin’” and “I’m A Man,” Chris Blackwell actually managed him in the same sort of set-up as my own group. Whatever avenue, whatever flow of income, Chris Blackwell stood up at every tollgate with regard to that. Very, very clever man. He was very good at exploiting other people’s talent and, you know, hey, a lot of people think he’s as the English tend to say, the bee’s knees in terms of the record industry. But, you can be sure that whatever came out on Island Records later, a company that he founded, even the late Chris Wood and a few other people would say he made that on the back of us — and Millie Small’s ‘My Boy Lollipop.’ Remember, she had one of the first records to go No. 1 with a ska, with a Jamaican beat — a Jamaican influence. And, the guy who wrote “Keep On Runnin,’” Jackie Edwards, was also Jamaican. Oh, a wonderful guy. He’s gone now, but he also did “Somebody Help Me” ‘cause, when Blackwell played the “Keep On Runnin’” over the phone to me, it was just Jackie on the piano. Very, very bare bones. The same thing, when they did a demo of “Somebody Help Me.” Somewhere, I may even have that demo sitting in one of my record collections, the original of “Somebody Help Me.” But, all of these people were around, the Jamaicans, they were around all around Blackwell.

[SOMETHING ELSE! REWIND: Spencer Davis' 2006 comeback album 'So Far' might just be his most varied yet, highlighted by the terrific "Golden Eagle," about those who most influenced him.]

STEVE ELLIOTT: Before you knew it, Miller was working with the Rolling Stones, too.
SPENCER DAVIS: After “Gimme Some Lovin’” and “I’m A Man,” the Stones weren’t gonna let this slide. They tapped Jimmy Miller to be their producer. And if you remember, the first Jimmy Miller production for the Stones was “Jumpin’ Jack Flash.” But Chris Blackwell had Jimmy signed as an artist/producer. So, Jimmy was sort of signed to or tied to Blackwell. Eventually Jimmy moved to being completely independent, but he lost the rights to the lyrics to Chris Blackwell to Island Music — which is sort of how things worked in those days. You know, if you jumped ship, you didn’t take your goods with you; they stayed in the camp, ostensibly, who gave you your start — which I think is grossly unfair. I mean, if the money’s tangible, but the rights are intangible, you know, you can’t take those away from anyone. But, a lot of that went on. The thing is, it didn’t just go on in the 1960s. I mean, the Stones suffered from that too with Allen Klein. In fact, I actually met Allen Klein once when he was managing the Beatles and the Stones together, you know, at the same time. Quite a remarkable feat. But Jimmy Miller was of paramount importance to the SDG to the Rolling Stones to Blind Faith, and he ended up working with a guy called Joey Speck who was a good friend of Randy Meisner’s, but that’s another chapter.

STEVE ELLIOTT: The thing with “I’m A Man” that always sticks in my mind was not only the record’s overall sound, but its individual parts — like Muff’s bass, which is like devastating there at the beginning.
SPENCER DAVIS: That’s right.

STEVE ELLIOTT: And then right away, comes your guitar to lock everything in — and then, you’ve got Pete’s drums which are constant and solid, and then you’ve got Steve’s vocal and organ just covering the whole thing on top of that. It’s just an amazing performance from everybody. Then, you’ve got the guys from Traffic putting in background vocals and percussion on it. It’s just an amazing record.
SPENCER DAVIS: Again, the lynchpin of that, really, I say would be Jimmy Miller — who wanted that refrain over and over again. And, if you notice, there’s a bit of Martha and the Vandellas’ “Dancing In The Streets” in there, sort of, you know, with the ooohs. I think we made some good things together.

STEVE ELLIOTT: Were the last songs that the original SDG recorded “Waltz For Lumumba” and “Back Into My Life Again”?
SPENCER DAVIS: “Waltz For Lumumba” was, basically, a jam which happened at the same time we recorded “I’m A Man.” Remember, the group was in transition; it was morphing from the SDG. You know, Steve was moving across this plain, if you like, into Traffic. So really, “Waltz For Lumumba,” although it’s credited to the SDG is really like a really big Traffic jam. That was what Traffic was sorta known for.

[SOMETHING ELSE! REWIND: 2008's 'Nine Lives' found former Spencer Davis Group frontman Steve Winwood joining forces again with Eric Clapton, with whom he'd formed the post-SDG group Blind Faith.]

STEVE ELLIOTT: I think it was really ahead of its time. Was that recorded in late ’66 or early ’67?
SPENCER DAVIS: It would be early ’67. “Back Into My Life Again” was the last song. There’s a lot of Jimmy Miller on that. You can hear him ’cause, he’d come in and sing as well. But some sessions you need to get a hold of are the What’s Shakin’ album on Elektra Records, when Pete York played drums, Steve played guitar and sang, Paul Jones may have played harmonica. Jack Bruce (on bass) might’ve been on that; (Eric) Clapton (on guitar) might’ve been on that. That was sort of nascent Blind Faith, when Clapton was on that sort of “What’s Shakin’” thing. Later on, when they got Ginger Baker and Rick Gretch in on that, it became, you know, Blind Faith. I’m surprised Jack Bruce wasn’t included in on that. It would’ve been Cream essentially with Steve.

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Steve Elliott

Steve Elliott has written for Shindig, Twist and Shake, Garage & Beat and Ugly Things. A big fan of all things rock and roll - especially the British Invasion, garage rock, psychedelic, new wave, folk rock, surf and power pop - he was a consultant on Sundazed Music's reissue of 'The Best of Butch Engle & The Styx: No Matter What You Say' in 2000, and has also provided liner notes for Italy's Misty Lane Records. Contact Something Else! at reviews@somethingelsereviews.com.
  • John

    Cool Review, Thanks for posting…Rebel J