Interview: Spencer Davis

spencer_davis_small“Everything happened in 1966 for The Spencer Davis Group,” says someone who would know – Spencer Davis himself. And what a year it was for the band. They started off with a UK Number One song “Keep On Running”, which knocked The Beatles’ single “Day Tripper” / “We Can Work It Out” off the top spot. Another UK Number One song, “Somebody Help Me”, followed a few months later.

But the highlight of the year for the band was the release of the timeless classic “Gimme Some Lovin'”, co-written by Davis, Muff Winwood, and Muff’s kid brother Steve, the band’s lead singer who also played organ and a bit of guitar.

Now, 1966 wasn’t actually the only year that things happened for The Spencer Davis Group. Their song “I’m A Man” was released in early 1967 and hit the Top Ten; a couple years later it was memorably covered by Chicago. But Steve Winwood left the band in 1967 to form Traffic, and as Spencer Davis puts it, they “lost a huge amount of momentum”.

This interview was for a preview article for for the concert by The Spencer Davis Group as part of the Happy Together Tour at the Granada Theatre in Santa Barbara on 7/13/16. It was done by phone on 6/29/16. (Liz Barry photo)

Jeff Moehlis: What can people look forward to at the upcoming concert?

Spencer Davis: I should be first up. These kind of shows are what I call mobile jukeboxes. I’ll be doing “Keep On Running”, “Somebody Help Me”, “Gimme Some Lovin'”, and “I’m A Man”. I don’t think I’ll be doing any more than that. Don’t forget how many people you’ve got on the tour – six acts!

JM: I understand that you missed some of the first leg of the tour. Are you happy to be getting back onstage?

SD: I’m looking forward to it! I get away from the Missus and two dogs [JM laughs]. Actually, we were supposed to kick off in Biloxi, Mississippi on the 3rd of June, but I had a couple of issues. Do you remember the story of the the British commander pinned down by the enemy on the battlefield. The only thing they’ve got is a loud-hailer [bullhorn]. The PA system is broken and everything. So they pass the message along from one guy to the other – they say, “Pass the message along: Send reinforcements. We’re fighting with our backs to the wall.” So they pass the message along, and it gets to the last guy, at the end in the trench, and he says “Send three and fourpence, we’re taking some wax to a ball.”

And that’s essentially the story of the rumors that went around about me. There wasn’t much wrong with me – I just had a couple of tune-ups. When you get to my age… You know, I did put in for a brain transplant but unfortunately they said that they couldn’t find one small enough [JM laughs]. I had to have a couple of tune-ups, and I’m OK now. I’m ready to roll – I’m looking forward to it. I’m so looking forward to it.

I did one of these in 2014 in the U.K. when Gerry Marsden – from Gerry and the Pacemakers – wasn’t feeling too hot. They said, “Can you do some dates for us, for Gerry Marsden?” I said, “I don’t know any of his songs.” And they said, “No, no, no, no, no. We don’t want you to do his songs – we want you to do yours.” So I ended up doing the same kind of thing. That was over there, and this one’s here. I’m looking forward to it.

JM: When I was in college I did a year abroad at the University of Swansea.

SD: Oh, you went to my hometown! Those damn traitors voted for Brexit. Did you know that? I’m changing my nationality. I’m going to become Irish. I can’t believe that they shot themselves in the foot.

JM: What was it like for you growing up in Swansea?

SD: We had some very talented people living there. We had a guy by the name of John Ham, who was the older brother of Pete Ham, who was from The Iveys, who later became Badfinger. Poor Pete was screwed by the music business, and did himself in. So sad. But I went to school with John – he taught me how to play harmonica, a wonderful, wonderful player – at Dynevor School in Swansea.

I grew up during The Blitz. I was born in July of 1939, a full three months before the outbreak of the Second World War, which happened in September, I believe. My mother said that it was my fault. I watched that town being absolutely destroyed. People said, “Why would the German Luftwaffe be traveling so far over to that part of Britain?” But they also went to Liverpool, didn’t they? And Coventry. The bombed city center was my playground as a child.

JM: Wow.

SD: I remember seeing the flares coming down as a kid. I stood in the doorway and the air wardens screamed at my mother, “Close that door! Turn that light out!” Because they didn’t want the German Air Force to have a light on a target or anything like that. The top floor of the school where I went, Dynevor in the City Center, was bombed – it was uninhabitable for many years. They later rebuilt it and it became a college for further education.

JM: Do you make it back to Swansea nowadays?

SD: Oh yeah. I still have my mum’s little house in West Cross, which is over on the west side, by the ocean, because I’m definitely an ocean man. I get there when I can. Apparently it’s been raining a lot over there. Swansea, I believe, is the wettest city in Britain. Some people say it’s Manchester – I think it’s Swansea. Most of the people in Swansea have gills and fins. [JM laughs] You can tell they’re from Swansea.

JM: You mentioned one of the songs that you’re going to performing is “Keep On Running”. What’s the story behind that song?

SD: The band used to play basically blues covers. I was, and still am, a big blues aficionado – Lead Belly, Big Bill Broonzy, Willie Dixon, Muddy Waters, Buddy Guy – Buddy Guy’s a bit of a later guy – Jesse Fuller, and the names could go on forever and ever. So we were basically like a blues cover band.

The whole idea, more so from management and publishing people, is that the talent write their own songs so they can rip them off. That’s what they did. So “Keep On Running”, I was at home and Chris Blackwell who was our manager – just a manager, nothing else, just a manager – he played a demo on the piano by Jackie Edwards over the phone to me, and said, “What do you think of that?” Then I said, “We’re going to record it.” It was just Jackie and the piano.

So the four of us, me and the band – Muff Winwood, Steve Winwood, Pete York, and myself, and Jimmy Cliff screaming and shouting in the background – you can hear him… Steve put a fuzz guitar on there, and Muff put a pretty heavy bass, and the drums. We were on tour with The Stones, so actually got to Number One in January of 1966, I would say, replacing The Beatles’ “We Can Work It Out” and “Day Tripper”.

JM: Of course you guys wrote some of your own songs. My favorite of your recordings is “Gimme Some Lovin'”, which is almost 50 years old now.

SD: Exactly 50 years old.

JM: How did that song come together?

SD: Hmm, a little bit of a checkered story here, but we’ll do it. We were rehearsing in a studio in London called the Marquee Club. The Marquee was a famous venue for many bands – The Stones played there. There’s the famous incident when Keith Richards swung his guitar at the owner Harold Pendleton. Keith had quite a violent temper. We were in the back of The Marquee rehearsing, and Muff Winwood played a bassline which went [sings] “da-da-da-da-dum Da, da-da-da-da-dum Da”, and I thought that that bassline was absolutely the tops. I thought, “What a great bassline. But what are you going to do with it? Where are you going to go with it?” So I said, “Let’s add these in.” So I added in G-minor, A-minor, B-flat-minor, C-minor, [sings] “daa-daa daa-da”. Steve said, “Don’t play minors, play majors.” I said, “That’s it!”

Songwriting is where you bounce elements off one another. You know that. And the whole idea was to go in and write our own material. We could cover the blues until we were literally blue in the face, and not get anywhere except having a good reputation as a blues band, which is what we were, really. Oh, I did like country music as well, and still do. Then Pete York played a lovely drum rhythm along with it, so we had three parts there. Steve came up with an organ thing…

I was a big fan of Ravel’s Bolero, which had that sort of [sings] “dum da-da-da-dum da-da-da-dum”. It would be nice to put something on the top of that, like a little sort of color. Remember that Bolero goes, [sings] “daa-daa-daa da-da-daa”… In the words of the famous Tom Lehrer, “Plagiarize, plagiarize, let no one else’s work evade your eyes.” Once you apply that maxim, which a lot of bands did… You vary things, you hear things and you twist them around.

So I firmly believed 100 percent that this bassline that Muff played me, brought to The Spencer Davis Group, was his own composition. OK? And I added on my “daa-daa daa-da” which was definitely my composition. And whatever Steve came up with, that organ part, a variant on whatever you want to think, [sings] “daa da-da-da daa”. Almost sort of Eastern that phrase, when you think about it. But it works. So you have, like, an R&B thing with that going on.

A couple of days later the lyrics showed up. So the elements were all there. We went into the studio – this would’ve been in 1966. Everything happened in 1966 for The Spencer Davis Group. If you remember, we had one year of amazing success, and then like a meteor burned out when Steve decided he was going to leave. It was a very foolish move, by the way, when you think of how we could’ve capitalized on that in America. We had a bunch of dates offered to us. But Steve didn’t even come to see me and say, “I’m leaving the band.” Chris Blackwell, the manager, said, “Steve is leaving the band.” And I thought, “What an ignominious, ill-mannered way to hand in your notice.” I was brought up so if I wanted to leave somebody, I would hand in my resignation personally. But, at any rate, that’s a sore point, and forever will be, because the band lost a huge amount of momentum, as you can imagine.

So Jimmy Miller produced it – that’s an American guy. That heavy downbeat that you hear, “da-da-da-da-dum DA” – there’s an African drum added onto that. So it was just the four of us. When the original record came out it was just the four of us, no background vocals. Nothing like the American version that you hear. Later, Jimmy Miller went into the studio and added on those background vocals with some of the guys from Traffic. [sings] “Gimme, gimme some lovin'”, which has become a very classic part… It makes the record sound very live.

Also, what’s strange is that when the single came out, there was just one name on it – Steve Winwood’s name. I went to Chris Blackwell and I said, “Hold on a second. Muff came up with the bassline, I came up with the ascending chords. Steve came up with that organ part. So there’s three people here that wrote that.” Chris says, “Oh, I thought Steve wrote it.” Unfortunately, Blackwell thought Steve did everything. Well, I’m telling you the truth. He didn’t do everything. I put the bloody band together. It was my idea.

JM: Well, it’s your name, right?

SD: Yeah, well they came up with a feeble excuse – they gave it the name Spencer Davis Group because I’d been selected to do all the interviews. Which I do, it’s true. And if I can put something straight by doing an interview, I will. People want to know how those songs came about, and I’m telling you who they came about.

As far as I was concerned, that was a one hundred percent original riff. As far as Muff convinced me, that was an original bass riff that he came up with. He said he composed it, so OK. But you may be reading some things later on about it. That’s a hint. We’ll leave it there for the moment.

JM: So as far as you know, that was original.

SD: As far as Spencer Davis is concerned, I believed that this was an original bassline from Muff Winwood. I swear that. I’ll swear that on the Bible.

JM: I love in the Blues Brothers movie where they’re at the Country and Western bar, and they kick off with that song, and everybody throws bottles at them.

SD: [laughs] Isn’t it great? I met Belushi and Ackroyd. I’ve got a picture of me with them. I went to see them at the Universal Amphitheatre, and they said, “Where’s that guy? The ‘Gimme Some Lovin’ guy?” So I got my picture taken with them.

JM: Cool!

SD: Yeah, very cool. I can’t believe that Belushi got into drugs and did himself in. He was such a talented guy. Terrible!

JM: Did you ever have an experience like that, where the audience was throwing bottles at the band?

SD: Yes! We were playing on a farm in Norway, way out in the sticks. This would’ve been in, like, ’66. The band just hit Europe like a tornado. I mean, all over Germany, all over France, all over Britain. Never to America. I never came to America with the original band. The replacement for Steve Winwood came, Eddie Hardin, who unfortunately passed away last July. He was just as good of a keyboard player, as you’ve probably heard from some of the material that I continued with after Steve had left. We were playing at this farm somewhere in Norway, and a beer bottle went sailing past my head, and then went past Steve. I looked at Steve and said, “I’m getting off.” So I got offstage. The last thing in the world I wanted to end up with was a gashed head from a beer bottle thrown by some drunken Norwegian fan.

JM: What were your early impressions of Steve Winwood? He was just a teenager.

SD: Phenomenal. Incredible. I walked into this bar in North Birmingham, when I was on the hunt to put a band together, because I’d been offered a residence at The Golden Eagle in the center of Birmingham… You always used to network. “I’m looking for a band. Got any ideas?” “Yeah, go and see the Muff Woody Jazz Band in this pub in Erdington, North Birmingham.”

I walked through the door, and they knew why I was there. Because I couldn’t handle playing the whole evening at The Golden Eagle by myself. I mean, I was playing a 12-string guitar, playing Lead Belly songs, Big Bill Broonzy songs, Elmore James songs, with a harmonica around my neck tied with a bent coat hanger. “I Got My Mojo Working”, which was kind of the national anthem of the Rhythm & Blues movement at that point in time in Britain. The promoter said, “Can you do it on your own?” I said, “No, but I’ll put a band together.” The band that was on was called The Renegades, a five-piece band, and the guitar player played the guitar behind his back. He was very good. I felt awful about putting five people out of a gig.

But anyway, I went up to this pub in North Birmingham, and I saw a kid sitting at the piano who played piano like Oscar Peterson and sang like Ray Charles, and I said, “You’re my man. Would you like to line up a gig?” I already had a drummer – I had Pete York. He said to me in his Birmingham accent, he was 16 I think, “I don’t have a driving license, I can’t drive.” His brother, Muff, who never wanted to miss an opportunity, said, “I live in the same house as him – I’ll bring him. I’ll switch from guitar to bass.” And so the two brothers were in the band with me and Pete York.

We went to The Golden Eagle and started playing there on a Monday night, and people like Noddy Holder and Robert Plant… There were lines around the block every Monday night to get in to see what we called the RBQ, the Rhythm and Blues Quartet. Later, thank God, it changed to The Spencer Davis Group. Although Muff Winwood and Pete York gave themselves credit for calling it The Spencer Davis Group, I’m saying to myself, “Well, why would they do that?” I mean, I did it. I put the band together. I just told you, right? I went on a hunt and put the band together. So they said, “Spencer likes to do the interviews”, which is true. I’m a garrulous Welshman, and I’m proud of the fact.

JM: I read somewhere that after Steve left, Elton John auditioned – before he was Elton John.

SD: He did. His name was Reggie Dwight.

JM: But it didn’t work out?

SD: I had Eddie Hardin with me and Pete York, so there was the three of us. And Eddie Hardin didn’t seem to like him. I don’t know whether he felt threatened because Reggie played the piano. But I said, “You’ll be sorry. This guy’s a great songwriter.” I was right.

JM: In the early days you toured with bands like The Rolling Stones and The Who. Any stories from those tours that you’re willing to share?

SD: Would you like to hear about when we were on tour with The Who in the Southampton Gaumont in the south of England? I went back to the backstage area, to the bathroom area, obviously to take care of my toiletry. I’m sitting down, minding my own business. The next minute, flaming newspapers are thrust under the gap, under the door. My private parts were almost barbecued. [JM laughs] I knew immediately who that was, and so do you.

JM: I’m guessing Keith Moon?

SD: Absolutely! I got my two roadies and we grabbed him, filled a bath up with freezing cold water, picked him up, threw him in it, and held him in there. When The Who was announced, there was no Keith Moon. We were holding him down in a bath of ice-cold water. Eventually I let him go – “Let him go now.” He squelched his way to behind his drumkit, and started playing. There were droplets of water going everywhere, and you and I both know that Keith Moon was having the most wonderful time of his life.

There’s many stories.

JM: Any stories about The Rolling Stones that you’re willing to share?

SD: Oh, yeah. We had “Keep On Running” out, and that was starting to pick up interest. We sold close to a million of “Keep On Running” at ten shillings a pop. That’d be the gross, now. That would be 500,000 pounds, then maybe seven or eight hundred thousand dollars. We’re getting close to a million dollars, right? Didn’t see anything from that at all, because Blackwell pocketed it all. That’s another story – that’s in the book, too.

We were not a pop group, per se. “Georgia [on My Mind]” was one of our highlights, and Steve did a phenomenal version. I mean, what a talent! An incredible talent. Great guitar player, a great keyboard player, a great singer. I mean, I had discovered a hell of a talent. I always with amusement read stories by Blackwell, and he says how he discovered Steve Winwood. I always like to point out that Chris Blackwell discovered Steve Winwood in The Spencer Davis Group.

JM: People have claimed that Chris Blackwell tried to take credit for a lot of things.

SD: Not only did he take a lot credit, he took a lot of fucking money as well!

Anyway, in the middle of “Georgia”, which was a show-stopper for The Spencer Davis Group, literally a show-stopper, the piano was on stage left. So Steve is looking out at the audience, and I’m onstage next to him and I see this shadowy figure creeping around from behind the curtain on the stage. We had just had some fish and chips brought into the dressing room. Mick Jagger was carefully laying cold, greasy chips – French fries – onto the upper keys of the piano. When the time came for Steve to play his piano solo, his hand landed in the middle of all these greasy French fries. [JM laughs]

JM: One more question about Keith Moon. You’re listed as a guest artist on his solo album, Two Sides of the Moon. What was that experience like?

SD: [laughs] Complete and utter madness! The late, great Mal Evans was a producer. I mean, it was one of the worst albums anybody ever made [both laugh]. For some unknown reason Keith adored me. I don’t know why. I had a terrible drug problem – I couldn’t afford them! [JM laughs]

Keith invited me back to the house to listen to the playback. He rented Steve McQueen’s house, somewhere out in Calabasas or something. I was actually playing at the Whiskey [A Go-Go] with some friends of mine, and a publicist friend of mine said, “Your pal is down there.” I said, “What pal?” It was Keith Moon. Keith said, “We’re going back to the house”, Steve McQueen’s house, to listen to a playback of some of the music.

God, that was mayhem. Most sensible people would bring out a bottle of brandy. This guy brings out an urn of brandy, and proceeds to put one half in a glass for me, the other half for him. I couldn’t handle that. He had two lobsters in a cauldron. He had them boiling over a fireplace, a barbecue outside. There were no real tools to eat them, so he gave everybody pliers. So you had a half gallon of brandy, a pair of pliers, and some lobster claws. That was my evening meal.

So, anyway, he’d rented a Revox to play the tapes back. And somehow – I don’t know how he did it, but he must’ve gotten lighter fluid on the thing – the tape recorder went up in smoke. The Los Angeles Fire Department came out and had to put the fire out. I just went home and gave up.

JM: I understand that around that time you had become involved with artist development at Island Records. What artists were you working with?

SD: The young band Eddie and the Hot Rods. I went out on a couple of shows with Robert Palmer. One of the bands I went out with, which I thought was a wonderful band, was a band called Third World. But my favorite band was Toots & the Maytals. The thing is, The Who had requested that Toots & the Maytals open for them on their tour. So I got to go out on tour with Toots & the Maytals. Toots was wonderful. He was like Otis Redding – he had that great, great gravelly Otis Redding kind of voice.

On another occasion we opened for The Who – nothing to do with A&R or artist development. It was in Ottawa. We were supposed to open for The Who, but the show got canceled because Keith took many pills – what pills I don’t know. If there was a pill Keith would take it. That was Keith. He took so many pills, sometimes he used to rattle like a maraca. Anyway, the show was canceled so we go to the Holiday Inn in Ottawa. Two o’clock in the morning the phone rings, and there’s a voice. It wakes me up. [thick accent] “Hello Spence.” Oh no, guess who? It’s Keith. He says, “I’m in the same hotel as you now.” They were in the George V in Ottawa, and Keith had flushed some cherry bombs down into the toilet system it the King George V and blown up a bathroom down below. They were thrown out by the hotel personnel. Pete Townshend wanted to kill him. It just blew up a bathroom. I never did anything like that. I’d leave it all to Keith.

JM: I read that you worked with Bob Marley.

SD: Yes, basically accompanying him on some of the shows that he did. One of them was in Santa Barbara! I remember that. I took my son with me. I remember Bob Marley loved kids. When I introduced my son he was so thrilled to meet him.

Bob Marley was invited to open for The Stones in Anaheim. I was accompanying him down to Anaheim Stadium, I believe it was. Anyway, I went to the hotel, and Bob staggers out of the hotel. I’ve got a limo, and we’ve also got a plane ready to take him down to his show in San Diego, you know, Bob Marley and the Wailers. He looks to the left, and looks to the right – the bus is to the right – and he’s got a joint in his face as big as a trombone, and walks into the bus. Well, that’s it. I thought, I’m not going to waste a limo. So I took the limo, went down to Anaheim, went backstage and banged on Mick Jagger’s door and said, “Look, Bob just didn’t want to come.” And Mick’s response was, “Who the fuck cares? We’ve got Peter Tosh anyway.” Some of the most ridiculous things happen in this business.

I saw Bob at the Roxy in L.A. That was even better than the Santa Barbara show. What I found fascinating, you know in the song “Lively Up Yourself”… The guitarist was Al Anderson. A lovely guitar player.

JM: What advice would you give to an aspiring musician?

SD: Don’t sign anything. There’s a great book out called “This Business of Music” [by M. William Krasilovsky and Sidney Shemel]. It’s worth reading.

One of the chapters in the book that I’m writing is about the music industry. It’s essentially swimming with sharks. That’s what it’s like. A kid who believes, “I’ve got this great song, I’d like to get it played” – if you’re not careful, they’ll rip you off. And that’s exactly what happened to The Spencer Davis Group, including Steve Winwood. He was no exception. It’s a nightmare business. Total nightmare business.

JM: But you’ve been doing it for over 50 years now.

SD: Well, I’ve done alright.

JM: But I hear what you’re saying. People get burned.

SD: Oh, I felt so bad when, like I told you earlier, Pete Ham, who’s a younger generation than me, wrote all those wonderful, wonderful Badfinger songs. He was managed by a guy called Stan Polley. He was one of the managers, anyway. Warner Brothers gave them a quarter of a million dollars publishing advance. Stan Polley decided that these are rock and roll musicians, and they wouldn’t know what to do with that kind of money. So he was going to ration them out twenty pounds a week, or something like that.

Poor Pete goes to the bank manager in Muswell Hill, in London. The bank manager calls him aside and says, “Mr. Ham, I’m afraid to tell you there’s no money in the account.” Pete goes home – he’s got a young significant other and a baby [on the way], and he hangs himself. That song, “Without You”, Harry Nilsson put to Number One. So did Mariah Carey [later]. It meant that there was enough money for everybody. But there are so many greedy, greedy pigs in this industry. The thing is, they look like human beings. You can’t distinguish them from real people.

And that’s my advice to kids. Don’t sign anything. It’s yours. You created it. It’s your work. They’ll rip you off.

Allan Klein is a perfect example of that, with The Stones and The Beatles. I was in New York – it would’ve been the ’60’s. I’m in an elevator going up a skyscraper in New York, and there’s this guy looking at me. “Oh, you look familiar.” He wasn’t looking at me that way. And I said, “I’m in a band.” He said, “What band is that?” I said, “I’m in The Spencer Davis Group.” He goes, “Oh, I’m a manager. I manage bands.” I said, “What bands do you manage?” “The Beatles and The Rolling Stones.” It was Allan Klein. When we put out a great book through Genesis Publishing, one of the finest publishing houses in the world, Alan Klein owned some of the rights to those pictures. We had to send an attorney to jail to get permission for the use of the pictures [laughs] in the coffee table book.

JM: What’s in the works? Can you tell us a bit more about the book you’re working on?

SD: Well, I figured if you’re telling the truth you can’t get sued for slander and you can’t get sued for libel, so I’d write it all down. If you have the paperwork to back it up, you have it, don’t you? Instead of saying what happened, you put a fly sheet in showing a deal that went down, with your name on it and no cashed receipts to you.

JM: When will the book come out?

SD: I’m working with my friend in Canada. I’m also working… Did you ever read the Nicky Hopkins book?

JM: No, I didn’t.

SD: It’s unbelievable. It’s written by a guy called Julian Dawson. Besides being a writer, he’s also a great guitar player. He does some of the same circuits, some of the gigs I do when I’m in Germany. I took some time off, just a couple of deep breaths. Sometimes, you can run yourself right into the ground. People say, “You look awful.” “If you say I look awful, I’d better take a holiday.” That’s what I did.

JM: Are you going to include some Keith Moon stories?

SD: If I didn’t, it would be a crime to Keith [JM laughs]. I adored him, but I kept him at arms length because I never knew what stunts he was going to pull. He died a terrible death. He died in the same place that Mama Cass did, didn’t he? In the same house.

I met Jimi Hendrix on the steps of the Saville Theatre. I shook hands with him. A very gentle, soft person. I was in awe of Jimi Hendrix.

JM: Another one that died well before his time.

SD: Unbelievable!


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