Spencer Davis may always be best known for the 1965-67 period when his group, featuring brothers Steve and Muff Winwood and Pete York, recorded a string of UK and international hits. But the Welsh guitarist and keyboard player, born in Swansea on July 17, 1939, entertained people live on stage for about 60 years.
The original quartet came together under the guise of the Muff-Woody Jazz Band, with Pete York, “Muff” Winwood and his mid-teenaged brother Steve, and then the Rhythm & Blues Quartet. “They were playing in a pub in North Birmingham,” Davis told Mojo magazine of the Winwood brothers in 1996. “Steve was playing the piano like Oscar Peterson and singing like Ray Charles. He was brilliant – exactly what I needed.”
In 1964, now under the SDG name, the quartet caught the eye of Chris Blackwell, by now running the fledgling Island Records, and momentum began to build alongside the group’s live reputation. After some lower-charting singles, the group’s time-honored hits included the consecutive British chart-toppers “Keep On Running” and “Somebody Help Me” and the rock staples “Gimme Some Lovin’” and “I’m A Man.” But they represented just one chapter in Davis’ distinguished career.
‘We thirsted for American music’
Spencer always wore his love of American blues and R&B proudly on his sleeve. It was a devotion instilled as a teenager growing up in south Wales, when he was wooed by trailblazers such as Lead Belly and Big Bill Broonzy. “We hungered for, thirsted for American music,” he said later. “It was like discovering gold in your kitchen closet.”
The group carried on, after Steve Winwood’s departure, until 1969, and reunited for a short time in the 1970s. Davis interspersed that with solo recordings and other work, and in more recent years toured with the latter-day SDG as well as with the Rock and Roll Army, featuring such fellow notables as Mitch Ryder, Felix Cavaliere and Rick Derringer. 2006 also brought the new album and DVD, So Far.
Davis died on October 19, 2020, at the age of 81. Winwood said in a statement of their early years together: “I’d already got a big brother who influenced me greatly, and Spencer became like a big brother to me at the time. He was definitely a man with a vision, and one of the pioneers of the British invasion of America in the sixties.”