Once heard never forgotten. The teenage voice of Stevie Winwood was one that could not be denied. It was also a sound very rarely off the radio in those golden pop years of the 1960s, as the lead vocal of The Spencer Davis Group.
Welsh guitarist Spencer Davis, who was originally from Swansea, moved to London, aged 16. He played in a few skiffle bands, and was heavily influenced by American Blues. In the early 60s, he was working as a teacher in Birmingham by day and playing small pub gigs at night.
Steve Winwood was born in Handsworth, Birmingham in 1948 and had learned piano at an early age. He also sang in the local choir. Steve and brother Muff – Mervyn to his mum – had been performing in jazz bands alongside their sax playing father from early age and also had their own band called ‘Johnny Star and The Planets’ whilst at school.
Brother Muff and Steve then worked locally as the Muff Woody Jazz band. The vocal style of Windwood minor and the sound he made was way beyond his tender years however, and they became a very popular draw locally.
Davis said in 2015 ‘somebody said, go and see the Muff Wood Jazz Band.’ Sitting down at the piano was this young guy who played piano like Oscar Peterson and sang like Ray Charles. I said, ‘You, I want you in the band!’ He said, ‘I don’t have a driver’s license.’ I said, ‘don’t worry about that.’
They all teamed up in 1963 as the ‘Rhythm and Blues Quartette’ with Spencer on guitar, Steve on keys, Muff on bass, and all backed up by Pete York on drums, who was a stalwart of the Birmingham jazz scene. At the time of this formation, Steve Winwood was still only 14.
Chris Blackwell of Island Records, who was in town on a talent-spotting trip, picked up on them a few years later. He had been advised to check out Spencer and the brothers, and after doing so, immediately signed them up.
Muff suggested the new name of the Spencer Davis Group, thus putting the onus on Spencer to be the front man and handle all the press for the group. They first released a cover of the John Lee Hooker song ‘Dimples’ in 1964 and then they hit the top spot in the UK charts, at the tail end of 1965 with ‘Keep On Running’ written by Jackie Edwards.
Hitting the road hard, they toured relentlessly and all the while continued to release a great run of singles, right through 1966 and into 1967, creating a jazz and soul sound on tunes such as ‘Strong Love’ ‘Every Little Bit Hurts’ ‘Somebody Help Me’ (written by Jackie Edwards again) ‘When I Come Home’ ‘Gimme Some Lovin’’ and the outstanding ‘I’m a Man’ which was written by Stevie and Brooklyn born Jimmy Miller, who was by now in the producers chair.
By the time of that release, it was really job done for the band, with US chart success achieved and all three of their early albums going top ten in the UK, Steve was ready to move on and brother Muff decided to go as well. They left together on 1st of April 1967.
Steve moved on to form Traffic in 1967 – also managed by Chris Blackwell – and in doing so, got away from the ‘pop’ arena and into a heavier musical scene. In the classic line up with him, were Jim Capaldi, Dave Mason and Chis Wood. Muff moved seamlessly into the music business itself, working as an A&R at Island Records.
A ‘new’ line up of the Spencer Davis group continued on with Phil Sawyer and Eddie Hardin joining up. They played on the soundtrack of the film ‘Here We Go Round The Mulberry Bush’ as well as appearing in the film. Traffic also appeared on the soundtrack.
The single ‘Time Seller’ was released in the summer of 1967 and a heavier psychedelic sound emerged from the new line up, but sadly, the hits dried up and despite more line up changes, it all came to an end in July 1969. As ever though, demand for a reunion was listened to and eventually Spencer took various versions of the group on countless tours over the intervening years. He died in California in late 2020 aged 81.
Muff worked at Island until 1978 and then joined CBS – later Sony – becoming a very respected A&R man. His most eye catching signings included the likes of Sade, Prefab Sprout, the Psychedelic Furs and Terence Trent D’Arby.
Steve Winwood of course, is still performing and is now a legendary music figure.
The Mumper of SE5
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