Spencer Davis was born on July 17, 1941 in Swansea, South Wales and later moved to London where he played in skiffle bands and became heavily influenced by imported American blues music. He moved to Birmingham in 1960 to study at Birmingham University where he later became a teacher. In the evenings, he would play his 12 string guitar and sing blues at various venues in the city and for a short time formed a duo with future Fleetwood Mac member Christine McVie. (at the time, she was known as Christine Perfect)
While playing solo guitar spots at the Golden Eagle pub on Hill Street in Birmingham, he met the Winwood brothers, Steve and Muff (Mervyn) while they were performing as the Muff-Woody Jazz Band in early 1963. Steve was just 15 at the time but he possessed a vocal style that was way beyond his years and was also talented as an instrumentalist and alternated on stage between guitar and piano. Finding common musical ground, Davis joined them and brought in drummer Pete York, a Birmingham University student, to form the "Rhythm and Blues Quartette."
A young London music promoter, Chris Blackwell had just founded the Island Record Company while running a record import business specializing in ska and reggae music from the West Indies. His first signing was 15 year old Jamaican singer Millie Small and after having huge success with her hit single "My Boy Lollipop", Blackwell decided to travel north of London in search of new talent. Upon arriving in Birmingham, he was advised to go and see the Rhythm and Blues Quartette which he did and was immediately impressed.
The Quartette had also attracted the attention of Decca Records, who offered them a contract, but Blackwell promised them a better deal with Island Records. The partnership was an informal one and was based on little more than a handshake. This indiscretion would come back to haunt them years later.
It was Muff Winwood who came up with the name Spencer Davis Group on the pretext that Davis could do the interviews while the others could stay in bed. Their first single release in April 1964 was a cover of the John Lee Hooker song "Dimples", as it was considered the strongest number that they performed in their set at the time. Unfortunately, the original John Lee Hooker version was released in Britain at about the same time and became a hit, thus overshadowing the Spencer Davis Group's rendition.
The group took on a heavy schedule of bookings across the country and because of this exposure, their next three single releases, "I Can't Stand It", "Every Little Bit Hurts" and "Strong Love" managed to make the upper end of the British charts. Up to this time, the songs performed and recorded by the group were covers of existing blues and R&B standards, but Chris Blackwell knew the group's success would lie in original material and brought in songwriter Jackie Edwards to compose the next three singles for the group. The first was "Keep On Running" which was transformed into a rocking R&B number with the addition of a driving bass riff and a unique electric fuzz guitar effect. The result was a British number one record in November of 1965. The band also cracked the Top 40 in the United States for the first time, topping out at number 33. The Spencer Davis Group's first LP was released shortly after.
A tour of Europe followed and the next single, "Somebody Help Me", also written by Edwards, although not as strong as the first, still gained another number one position. The final song by Edwards, "When I Come Home" managed to reach the number 12 spot. For the next single release, the group was pressured by Blackwell to come up with their own material. The result was "Gimme Some Lovin' " which became an instant hit, reaching number 2 on the British charts and number 6 in the USA.
Steve Winwood's growing confidence as performer and songwriter was leading to his dissatisfaction within the group and he began to associate more with other musicians, particularly Dave Mason and Jim Capaldi, who were members of a Midlands group called Deep Feeling. By early 1967, Steve Winwood had outgrown the Spencer Davis Group and made known his intention to leave after the bands' current tour commitments had been fulfilled.
"I'm A Man" was released in the spring of 1967 and raced up the British charts to number 9. It was the band's final single with Steve and Muff Winwood, who had also decided to leave and accept a job offer from Chris Blackwell to work at Island Records. By this time Steve Winwood had been rehearsing for a few months at the Elbow Room Club in Birmingham with Dave Mason, Jim Capaldi and Chris Wood and their new group, "Traffic" had been signed to Island Records by Blackwell.
During the summer of 1967, Spencer Davis put together a new Spencer Davis Group line-up, bringing in guitarist Phil Sawyer and organist Eddie Hardin. One of the rejected applicants to be auditioned was a young piano player named Reginald Dwight who would later launch a solo career, re-naming himself Elton John. The first Spencer Davis Group single to be released without Winwood in the line-up was "Time Seller" which reached number 30 in August, 1967.
With the departure of Steve Winwood, the magic seemed to have gone. In October of 1968, Eddie Hardin and Pete York left to form the duo Hardin and York. They were replaced by Nigel Olsson and Pete Murray, but after a final single and a cancelled album, The Spencer Davis disbanded the group.
Muff Winwood continued to work for Island Records until 1978, when he accepted a job as senior executive at Sony Records and as such, had a major role in the launching of some of the biggest British music stars of the 80's and 90's.
After Traffic's final break-up, Steve Winwood, burned out by years of being on the rock-star treadmill, and ailing with peritonitis, took time off to re-evaluate his career and surfaced only briefly in the following years.
Spencer Davis eventually moved to The United States and made an unsuccessful Spencer Davis Group re-union in 1973. Demonstrating an understanding of the way the music business worked, he took a job as a consultant for a California video company, with Linda Ronstadt as one of his projects. By the mid-’70s Spencer went to work for Chris Blackwell at Island Records and, as a record company executive, worked to further the profiles of people like Robert Palmer and Bob Marley.
In the early 80's, Davis was head of A&R for a small Hollywood-based independent label and the itch to play in a band again was coming back. That’s when he made his next album, "Crossfire", with guests like Dusty Springfield, Flo and Eddie, and Booker T. Jones. He also did production projects with a Spokane group called USK and Canada’s Downchild Blues Band.
In 1984, Davis was back on the road with his own band in America. Then came European and Middle Eastern tours with Pete York, plus other British rock legends, Brian Auger and Chris Farlowe. It was during this time he recorded pioneering CD albums for German and Swiss release. By 1987 he was performing well over 100 shows a year, making guest appearances with the Grateful Dead, Gary US Bonds, Levon Helm, Springsteen's E Street Band, Peter Noone, Downchild, and Alvin Lee.
Although Steve Winwood had issued three solo albums in the early 80s, it was his fourth, "Back in the High Life" (released in July 1986) that put him back on top of the record charts. Winwood's recording totally on his own was exchanged for recording with the extraordinary talents of Nile Rogers, James Taylor, Joe Walsh, as well as Chaka Khan's vocals. The album won a Grammy Award, not just for Best Vocal Performance but also for the coveted Record of the Year award. He followed this success with "Roll With It" in July 1988 and "Refugees of the Heart" in October 1990.
In the early 90’s, audiences watched Spencer Davis pick up the pace at club and concert tours. His stature as a rock and roll ‘legend’ also opened doors to a wide variety of benefits, telethons and special TV and radio appearances. Days on the road increased, as did the fans, while Spencer criss-crossed the U.S. and Canada with forays into Europe. Some included opening acts for Hall & Oates and the Marshall Tucker Band. His guest appearances on TV and radio talk shows mounted throughout most of 1990 when Spencer became involved promoting the definitive collection of Michael Cooper’s photos in the book "Blinds and Shutters", with Spencer being one of many contributors. He also managed to tour with his own group through Australia, the U.S., Canada and Japan.
In 1993, Davis united with three other famed musicians, Mike Pinera of Iron Butterfly, Peter Rivera of Rare Earth and Jerry Corbetta of Sugarloaf, to form one super group, The Classic Rock All-Stars. The group released a CD together, simply titled, "The Classic Rock All-Stars" and they toured the world. Davis left the Classic Rock All-Stars in the summer of 1995, and continued touring in Europe and the U.S. the rest of the year into 1996 and 1997.
Steve Winwood and Jim Capaldi resumed their partnership as Traffic to release a new album, "Far From Home" in 1994, with an accompanying world tour which included a performance at the 25th anniversary Woodstock Festival and joined Jerry Garcia and the Grateful Dead on their final stadium tour of the U.S.A. In 1997, Winwood released "Junction 7" and continued to make live appearances. In 2003, he issued another new album, called "About Time", and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a member of Traffic in 2004. In 2005, Winwood contributed to Ashley Cleveland's album "Men and Angels Say".
Spencer Davis re-formed the band bearing his name in 2006, although only he and Eddie Hardin remained from the 1960s line-up. In July 2007, Steve Winwood performed with Eric Clapton at his Crossroads Guitar Festival. The two teamed up again for three sold-out nights at Madison Square Garden in New York City in February, 2008, which produced a CD and DVD. Winwood released a new studio album called "Nine Lives" on April 29th, 2008, which debuted at #12 on the Billboard 200 album chart, his highest ever. For Summer, 2009, he was back on tour with Clapton. The Spring of 2012 had him on the road with dates scheduled for the East Coast of America.
The Spencer Davis Group was still touring the USA and Europe in 2010, 2011 and 2012.
For more, be sure to read Gary James' Interview with Spencer Davis